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An excess of weather

Chapter Text

October 3, 2911

"Halladan!"

Halladan raised his hand in greeting at the call, waiting to speak until the other Ranger was near enough for conversation. "Guilin. Good to see you."

Guilin smiled in response, then asked, "Where are you bound for?"

"Fornost, to report to my captain, then most likely the Bree-land or Sarn Ford."

Halladan hoped it would be Bree, but Sarn would do. Though none were as good as the Prancing Pony, there were inns in Tharbad too, and there were usually a few of the men from the Sarn and Southern Greenway companies there to keep an eye on traders and other travellers passing through the town. Halladan had never seen any reason why such duties could not be accompanied by a pint or two of ale.

"Lucky. Home for a week and then I'm headed for the Hoardale," his friend muttered darkly.

"You spent the last three winters loafing around Bree, and luck has little to do with it. It's your own fault for catching the Captain's attention in that troll-hunt last spring, and not turning down a transfer to the Grey Company."

Guilin merely grinned at the correction. "Even so, where would you rather be?"

"Between these choices? I'll take my chance in the west," Halladan replied.

Given a choice, he would rather be in Caras Dirnen, especially now that Bereth had said that they should marry sooner rather than later. Alas, duty came first, and he would not be back in the Angle until spring at the earliest. Though Bereth was not happy about that, she knew that it could not be otherwise. She would speak to her mother again over the winter, and then as soon as Halladan was back from his patrol, hopefully he could ask for her hand and they would finally have their troth-plight announced.

Halladan was drawn from his thoughts by a knowing laugh from Guilin. "You're obviously miles away, and I think I can guess where that is."

"Never mind," Halladan stopped him. Guilin knew of his 'understanding' with Bereth, but Halladan was not in the mood for his friend's banter. "If you're not set on travelling on tonight, we should look for shelter. I doubt it'll stay dry."

Guilin cast a quick look at the sky before he replied. "Rain before midnight. There's an abandoned farm about three miles from here."

As they led their horses towards their intended shelter, it was clear Guilin refused to be distracted from his topic. "It's time you settled down," he casually observed after about a mile.

"It's only partly up to me," Halladan replied. Guilin knew as well as he did that if it had not been for Fíriel's hesitation about her daughter marrying a Ranger, they would have been married already.

"I know. It's still true."

Halladan said nothing, and Guilin wisely kept his silence too. Once they reached the farm, Halladan quickly took care of the horses, while Guilin went off to check the area.

"No sign of enemies. We can risk a fire without drawing attention to ourselves," Guilin reported when he came back. Halladan had already collected wood, and they were soon settled in what remained of the farm's main stable.

"I'll take first watch," Halladan offered after they had eaten.

Guilin might not have seen any enemies, but others would know of this farm too, and he would rather not be surprised by Orcs looking for what little plunder might still be found. Halladan wondered what would be a good place to watch from. Perhaps the stable roof, if it was still sound enough to hold his weight? He would have a good view, and if he stayed low, he would be hidden from hostile eyes.

Halladan settled down for his watch. It was still dry, but one look at the clouds confirmed there would be rain overnight. Then he looked again.

"Guilin!" he called. "Come quick!"

"What? Is there danger?" his friend asked from indoors.

"No, but come." Halladan jumped down quickly from the roof and pointed at the darkening sky. "See? Geese. They're flying south already."

"Grey geese too, by their call," Guilin added. "Too early for them, I'd think."

"Could be a bad winter coming, if they're migrating already," Halladan said.

"I'd rather have frost than mud," Guilin responded with a shrug as he went back inside.

Chapter Text

October 6 – 15, 2911

Perhaps Guilin was right, Halladan thought as he huddled over a tiny flame to protect it from the rain and wind, perhaps frost would be better than mud. He cursed at the water trickling down through his hair and nearly extinguishing the fire. It had taken him long enough to coax this flame from the sodden wood he had gathered. It would be annoying to have to start over again. Without dry wood at hand, he had little hope of keeping the fire burning all night, but he would try to keep it going long enough at least for a hot meal. He could just about stand the rain, as long as he had something to warm him.

Of course, by morning, the fire was out, but at least the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and Halladan had the fire going again quickly. By the time he left, his gear was mostly damp rather than soaked. It would still not be a pleasant journey, and Halladan cast a regretful look at the westward Road as he led his horse down from Weathertop towards the northern path. Bree and the Pony would have to keep until he came back south again.

*~*

After six days in the Weather Hills and along the Greenway, Halladan was glad to see the familiar outline of Fornost's ruins in the distance.

"Halladan," the gatehouse sentry greeted him. "How was the road?"

"As pleasant as ever," Halladan replied, adding, "If you like mud, that is. Quiet, though."

"Not surprising. Even Orcs have the sense to stay out of the rain."

"Rain's still better than an Orc den."

The sentry grimaced. "Isn't that the truth... Go on in. You'll be back on the road soon enough."

Inside, Halladan first headed for the stables to take care of his horse. He wondered what the sentry meant by his comment about going out again. By his reckoning there were still several days before they were due to go out. He was nearly done when another Ranger peeked into the stall.

"You're late. Have you reported in yet?"

"Good day to you too, Ingold," Halladan replied. "No. I only just got here. And what is the rush? Bereg's not usually that..."

"Captain's not here, and we're not going out with him," Ingold cut him short.

"Oh? Why not? Not injured, is he?"

Ingold nodded sourly.

"Badly?"

"Broken leg."

"So who is replacing him, and do you know yet where are we going?" Judging by Ingold's mood, he would not be surprised if they were indeed leaving the next morning.

Another man joined them, but as Halladan had just bent down to check his horse's hooves, he only saw a pair of legs appear next to Ingold. The voice was unmistakeable, though. "Sarn Ford, and I'll be taking this patrol myself, if that meets with your approval, Ranger."

"Of course, Captain."

Halladan hid a grin by turning to attend to a knot in his horse's mane as Ingold pulled Arador aside to speak to him. He understood now why the other man was out of sorts. Normally, Bereg's second would have taken their patrol, moving Ingold up to the lieutenant's position, but if Arador was taking them out, Galador would be his second, just as he was for Bereg. Or would the Captain take a man of his own choice along? Halladan shrugged internally. It mattered little to him, he was satisfied to be an ordinary Ranger – maybe one day a lieutenancy, but he had no desire to command a company. Ingold was ambitious though and was likely torn between seeing this as a missed chance and an opportunity to impress their Captain.

Ingold had apparently had his say and muttered something about having to check his pack. Arador cast a bemused glance after him, then turned his attention back to Halladan.

"When are we leaving, if I may ask, sir?" Halladan said.

"Day after tomorrow," Arador replied. "I only arrived yesterday myself."

"How was your summer patrol?"

"Not too bad, though I'm glad to be back south again. But enough of Rangering. What news is there of home?"

"Not much. Your lady wife and Bereth send their love. The Chieftain is as well as can be expected, and wishes you a quiet patrol for the winter." Halladan did not add that Argonui had told him in private that he and Bereth should not wait too long to get married, as he would like to see at least one great-grandchild before he died.

"And my sister?" Arador asked.

"I am sure she will send you a letter with a message-rider. I did not speak to her while I was in Caras Dirnen," Halladan replied, reluctant to say too much.

Arador sighed. "Lad, Fíriel will come around soon enough. She is hardly a demon."

"I know." Maybe not a demon, but... Halladan thought it better to say nothing more. He was not about to argue with the Captain about his sister's merits.

"Well," Arador said, giving him a sharp look, "I'll let you get on with your work then. Remember, sunrise day after tomorrow."

"Yes, sir."

*~*

It was still at least half an hour until sunrise, with the last pale stars fading into the brightening sky, and Halladan was surprised to find he was not the first of their party in the courtyard. Ingold and Galador were already there, as was one of the recruits they would take along.

"Halladan, this is Hador," Galador introduced them.

"First time out?"

"No, I did Annúminas this summer. I'm really looking forward to this patrol, sir. Do you think we will get to fight Orcs? I really want to get my star."

Both Ingold and Galador snorted in amusement. Halladan managed not to smile at Hador's over-enthusiasm. He would get over that soon enough once their patrol encountered the first real trouble. It was good though that one of the recruits had some experience already, even if Annúminas was an easy posting. From what Halladan had heard, the other was fresh from the training camp, and had never even been outside the Angle.

Before long Arador arrived, the other recruit in tow. They left Fornost before the sun was over the horizon. After the quick start, Halladan expected Arador to keep a faster pace than Bereg would have done, but their progress the rest of the morning was leisurely. Ingold and Galador rode with Arador. Both recruits seemed too overwhelmed by being on patrol with the Captain to provide much conversation, so Halladan had to make do with the company of his own thoughts.

Those thoughts almost inevitably took him back east towards Caras Dirnen and Bereth. It would be at least four months before he saw her again, and even with the Chieftain favouring their match, he could only wait and hope that Bereth would win past her mother's resistance. Worst of it was that if he thought about it, Halladan felt he could even understand Fíriel's position. What did he have to offer Bereth other than months of absence, and a life of constant worry? He shook his head and sighed. Suddenly he missed Guilin. Without his friend there to stop him from moping and feeling sorry for himself, it was all too easy to let such gloomy moods overwhelm him.

Most trees had already turned to their autumn colours and some had even lost their leaves. Halladan recalled the geese he had seen flying south so early, and he wondered when they would see the season's first snow. By noon it was beginning to cloud over, and by the end of the afternoon, his question was answered, as thick, wet flakes started to fall from a leaden sky. The snow soon fell thick enough that it did not melt upon hitting the ground, and Arador quickly led them off the Greenway.

"Why are we leaving the road?" Hador asked.

"Look behind. What do you see?" Arador said, ignoring Galador's impatient gestures to move to deeper cover as he halted to answer the young man's question.

"Snow?"

"And a trail," Saeros interrupted. "But if we leave a trail, can't we be followed?"

"Yes, that's right," Arador said. "So why did we leave the road, if it's no safer than staying on it? Hador?"

Hador looked at the trail, then back at the Captain, but said nothing. When it was clear he was not going to answer, Arador turned to Saeros, nodding at him to speak. The younger of the recruits first hesitated, then answered, "It's still snowing and even if we do leave tracks, they will be covered again quickly."

"Well done," the Captain said. "Also, it's late enough in the day that we may as well stop now, rather than ride on and risk our trail being followed."

*~*

In the morning the snow had melted, and it was raining again as they set off.

"Does it ever not rain?" Saeros asked plaintively after they had been under way for an hour.

Halladan shrugged. It was hardly Saeros' fault, but he was becoming irritated with everybody's complaints about the weather. True, the autumn had been miserably wet, and all the signs suggested it might be a cold winter, but talk changed nothing.

"Get used to it, lad," Ingold replied gruffly. "A Ranger's life is naught but mud and rain."

"Except in high summer, then it's dust," Arador obliged by providing the traditional rejoinder to the traditional complaint. "Besides, it snowed yesterday. Snow's not rain."

All, including the recruits, groaned at their Captain's comment, and though they were still wet and cold, the mood lightened perceptibly. Even Halladan felt better for the jest. Talking about the weather might not bring change, but it was preferable to thinking of Bereth constantly.

Arador further improved moods when they stopped around noon to rest the horses. "If we continue to make good time today, we will reach Bree tonight and we can stay at the Pony."

Chapter Text

October 15 – 16, 2911

"You know the rules. No tinkers, beggars, Rangers or any other vagrants after sunset. Now, begone!"

"Aww, Rowlie, come on, the Sun is barely down and we're drenched. Can't you just...?"

The door of the gate lodge slammed shut, but not before Halladan could hear the gatekeeper's mutter of 'Ranger scum.'

Halladan turned away and walked back down the road, trying not to let his disappointment show in his posture. He shook his head at the other Rangers' inquiring looks. "No luck. Rowlie Oakes has the gate."

"We should try the West-gate," Ingold said. "If Bert Hedgeward is on duty there, he may let us in. He's usually more friendly than Rowlie."

"It's hard to be less friendly than Rowlie," Halladan replied, "But we can try the West-gate."

At the West-gate it was Arador who went up to the gate. The other Rangers were standing too far away for Halladan to hear what was said, but it was not long before their captain returned

"No luck here either. It's a shame about the Pony, but we'll not get in tonight."

"Sir, who does he think he is to deny you entry?" Hador asked, gesturing indignantly towards the gate.

"It is his right to not let us in."

"I don't think that is so, sir."

"Why not?"

"If it weren't for the Rangers protecting th..."

"If it weren't for the Rangers protecting them in secret...," Galador cut in.

Arador cast a stern glance at his second for the interruption, then returned to Hador. "Let it go. He had every right, and you'll get used to it."

He'd better, Halladan thought, or he'll spend most of his patrols in the Ettenmoors, away from people.

Hador did not say anything else, but as they rode off, rather than pull up the hood of his cloak against the rain, he kept glaring back over his shoulder towards the village.

"Halt!" Arador called out after about half an hour. "There is a clearing close by where we can rest unseen from the road." Halladan dismounted immediately, as did Ingold and Saeros.

Hador remained on horseback. "Must we stop so near the village?" he asked.

"It's safe enough," Arador said, "But we can set a double watch."

"That's not what I meant, sir," Hador said, now dismounting after all. "It's just that... after we were turned away like that, I don't want to stop so near Bree. I would rather ride on."

Ingold nodded in agreement. Galador looked impatient, and Saeros merely looked cold and uncomfortable. Halladan saw Hador's point, but that kind of misguided pride was something no Rangers could afford. Besides, it was still raining hard, and at least they would have some shelter if they stopped here.

"Maybe we can go on for an hour or so?" Ingold suggested.

"That'll put us right on the edge of the Barrow-downs," Galador said. "I'd rather stay here."

"And I'd rather go on," Ingold said, "Even if it does take us into the Downs. They're not that dire..."

"No," Halladan said. "Going on in this weather is bad enough, but to consider sleeping in the Barrow-downs is madness."

"I want to stay here too." Saeros shivered as he huddled even deeper into his cloak.

"You're just afraid a Barrow-wight will get you," Hador said.

"And what if I am?" Saeros retorted. "If you don't have the sense to..."

"Any rest you'd take in the Barrow-downs would likely be your last," Galador added glumly.

Ingold laughed. "How would you know?"

"That's enough," Arador said. "I have been in the Barrow-downs at night. Have you?"

Ingold's admission that he had not was drowned out by Hador and Saeros asking almost in chorus, "Will you tell us about it, Captain?"

"After we finish setting up our camp," Arador agreed.

"I'll take first watch," Ingold muttered as soon as they reached the clearing.

Halladan grimaced. Ingold's offer left him the second watch, but at least he would be able to listen to Arador's tale. Ghost stories should properly be heard around a warm hearth with a pint of ale in hand, but even if it did not quite make up for missing a night at the Pony, this should still be well worth listening to.

*~*

"It was a dark and stormy night," Arador began as soon as they had gathered around their small campfire. "Worse than this, much worse, with wind so hard the rain in your face felt like whips of ice. We were down near Andrath, on the southern edge of the Downs. I had my star for less than a year, so naturally, I was the one our patrol's captain chose to collect firewood."

Hador and Saeros shivered, whether in sympathy over being set the most disliked chores, or at the description of the weather, Halladan did not know. As the Captain continued, he quickly returned his full attention to the story.

"It was dark enough that I could barely see where I was going, and all the wood I found was too damp. So, between being miserably cold and feeling sorry for myself, I went further from the camp than I perhaps should have. I don't know how long it had been before I noticed, but suddenly I realised the wind had slacked and the rain had stopped."

"The sky was cloudless, yet I could see neither Moon nor stars. When I looked around, I noticed the ground glowing with a pale blue light. I was standing at the foot of a treeless hill, and there was a path winding to the top. The light was strongest along the path, and being young and impulsive, I followed it."

"The top of the hill was flat, and at its edge, a single standing stone stood, twice the height of a man, with runes carved into it. Though I could read the letters, I didn't recognise the language. When I tried to touch the stone, it sparked, like amber when you rub it up with a woollen cloth. I went on past the stone, and immediately the air turned chill, and there were wisps of icy fog snaking along the ground."

"I looked back, but I could no longer see the standing stone. I was certain there was someone behind me, yet whenever I turned around, I saw no one. The fog was thickening, and before long I could barely see my hand in front of my eyes. What light there was, had turned a pale, sickly green. Despite the strangeness, I tried to convince myself that one of the other Rangers must have followed me and was having some fun at my expense. Of course, I knew of the reputation of the Barrow-downs, but I didn't want it to be true, for if it was, I had allowed myself to be led into a trap, like the green recruit I had been not all that long before."

" 'Who is there?' I called out. I might as well give in now. It would be a long time anyway before I lived this down if my fellow Rangers were having me on. 'Show yourself!' "

"There was no answer, except a draft of air and an even stronger sense that someone was behind me, watching, waiting. I turned and moved to draw my sword, but I got no further than closing my hand around the hilt. Outlined only as a darker shape against the grey fog stood a manlike figure. I could make out no features, except his glowing eyes. Oh, curse it... That is not a Ranger. I didn't know whether to swear or to laugh at myself, but my laughter, and my breath, froze in my throat as the wight stepped closer, and a wave of deepest cold swept over me."

"What did you do then, Captain?" Halladan asked as Arador paused.

"Do?" Arador's responding laugh sounded more than a bit strained, as if he found the memory embarrassing even after so many years. "Very little. I didn't run, but I didn't put up much of a fight either."

"Then how did you escape, sir?" Hador spoke up.

"Just a moment. I was coming to that," Arador responded, and took a swig from his waterskin. "Certainly not through my own cleverness or strength," he added ruefully, his expression suggesting that he would have preferred something stronger than water.

"My hand fell back from my sword as he reached out for me. I tried to back away. I must have blacked out briefly, for the next I knew I was on my hands and knees. The wight reached down towards me, and though I tried to move, I was frozen in place."

"Suddenly, the wight turned away and I could move again. Not ten yards away a man stood, youngish, light-haired like the Men of Rohan, armed only with a long dagger of unfamiliar design in his belt. He no more than glanced at me before he advanced on the Barrow-wight. The wight quickly stepped back and started to fade away into the dark and the fog. Soon there was no trace of his presence left. Even the piercing cold had gone."

"I waited what the stranger would do. He stood silent, unmoving, as if listening, or trying to sense something, but as soon as I moved, he turned to face me. I spoke to thank him for my delivery from the wight, and he let me have my say, then pointed towards the path. Though he said not a word, the urgency in his gesture was clear."

"The standing stone was visible again, I could feel some faint spatters of rain, and the green glow was fading. Soon it would be completely dark. Before I followed the path past the stone, I turned my head to thank the stranger one last time. I no longer could see him, and suddenly afraid as I had not been even when faced with the wight, I ran. All I could think was that I had to get down, away from there..."

"It was now fully dark and as soon as I reached the bottom of the hill, the full strength of the weather hit me again. I still ran, and kept on running until, inevitably, I tripped. Luckily, I fell in a puddle, and the only injury I did myself was to my pride."

Arador paused to take another swig of water. "Besides covering me in mud, the fall also brought me to my senses again. As I lay there, the Moon briefly came through the clouds and I realised I was very near the Rangers' camp. I should go back, even if I had no firewood. I was already late, and I was drenched, covered in mud. It would likely be months, if not years, before I would hear the last of it."

So that was where the jokes about sending the Captain for firewood came from, Halladan thought. He did not quite have the heart to remind Arador that these jokes were still told, even after so long.

"What did you say when you returned, sir?" Hador asked.

"As I didn't think there was any immediate danger, I only said that I had lost my way in the dark and that I thought I might have seen a wight. Anything more than that would have seemed like a fancy excuse for my failing at such a simple task. I'm fairly certain my captain didn't believe that was all there was to my tale, but he didn't ask further at the time, and he was killed in an Orc raid not long after."

"And afterwards?" Galador asked. "Did you ever find out more?"

Arador gazed long into the low flames of their fire, before he looked up and answered. "Yes, I did. For a long time, I put it out of my mind, but years later, I happened to be travelling from Tharbad to Bree, and as I wasn't in a hurry, I took time to investigate."

"Though I had only been there in the dark, I easily found the path I had taken. Yet when I followed it, I did not find the place I remembered. There was a hill, but it was much lower, and though there was a path up it, it faded out in a mess of bramble bushes about halfway up. As it was still early in the day, and I had time on hand, I cut through the brambles, and beyond, I found traces of an old landslide. The hill had been higher once. I started to dig down into the earth, curious what I might find."

"Soon I struck the edge of a large slab of cracked and damaged rock. I tried to uncover it fully, but it was too large to do so by myself. Perhaps it was the standing stone I had seen, but if it was, there were only faded and broken lines left of the carvings I had seen so clearly."

"With at least that much revealed, I was ready to continue on my way when on an impulse I started digging again about a yard to the side. At first, I found nothing, but then I noticed a narrow strip of ground with reddish stains, like flecks of rusty iron. I dug further at the far end, and soon my fingers brushed a clump of sandy earth. I took it out, and as I carefully cleared the sand away, I realised that it held a metal object. Once I cleared away the last of the sand, I found myself holding the hilt of a dagger."

"I gasped as I looked at it. I recognised it. This was the hilt of the dagger the stranger who chased off the Barrow-wight had carried. It was simply-made, though with some care, and the style of the workmanship was indeed unfamiliar. The reddish marks in the earth must have been all that was left of the blade."

"While I wasn't in a hurry, there wasn't time to visit Rivendell to look for answers either. I carefully wrapped up the ancient bit of metal and put it in my pack. And there it stayed for several months, until I happened to visit Rivendell to consult with Master Elrond on some other matter."

"After I told him how and where I found the hilt, he studied it for a long time. Finally, he looked at me again. 'As you must have seen already, this hilt is not of either Dúnedain or Elvish make. The pattern of the wire around it looks Dwarvish, but the hilt itself was not made by Dwarves.' "

" 'Then, who...?' I asked. From Elrond's look I knew there was a lesson forthcoming. 'The lands around Bree and the Barrow-downs are among the oldest lands inhabited by Men in the West. Long years before the Dúnedain of Cardolan laid their dead to rest there, there were already barrows in Tyrn Gorthad, made by the forefathers of the Edain.' I had already known that the stranger had been a ghost too, but I had not thought further back than Cardolan or Arnor."

"Then that dagger was older than Master Elrond!" Saeros blurted out.

"Yes," Arador nodded. "And the hill that I climbed in the dark collapsed early in the Second Age."

"Where is the hilt now?" Halladan asked.

"In Rivendell, with other relics of the First Age," Arador said.

"Sir, there is one thing I don't understand," Saeros said. "Why did the ghost help you? Aren't all ghosts evil because they linger here when they should have...?"

Arador sighed. "I did wonder about that," he said, "But there are many reasons for a spirit to linger. Some may believe they have unfinished business among the living, or they might be bound by a spell, and many reasons other than their own malevolence."

There were no further questions, and soon after Arador had finished his tale, the Rangers slept.

*~*

The next morning, as they rode past the first of the barrows, the sun peeked through the clouds. With disappearing hills and ancient ghosts on his mind, the landscape seemed less than solid, and despite the brightness of the day, Halladan could not help a shudder.

"Captain," he asked, wondering suddenly. "Is the ghost that helped you still there?"

"No," Arador said. "I went back with the sons of Elrond, and they said he was gone. It was likely that my taking the dagger broke whatever enchantment kept him there. I hope he found rest. He didn't have to help me, and I surely would have perished without his help."


- - -
"It is said that the mounds of Tyrn Gorthad, as the Barrowdowns were called of old, are very ancient, and that many were built in the days of the old world of the First Age by the forefathers of the Edain, before they crossed the Blue Mountains into Beleriand, of which Lindon is all that now remains."

RotK, Appendix A, I, iii, Eriador, Arnor, and the Heirs of Isildur

Chapter Text

November 17– 18, 2911

Halladan gratefully took the steaming mug of tea Saeros handed him as he entered the Rangers' camp. The pewter mug was almost painfully hot to hold, but after a day watching the Ford, he welcomed the warmth. For a few minutes he just stood at the edge of the camp, letting his hands warm up. It was still snowing lightly, thick, slow flakes, drifting down like feathers.

His watch had been uneventful, as who would want to travel in this weather? Merchants were either done for the year or waited to see if the weather might improve again, and ruffians would rather move their attention to outlying farms and hamlets, not lie in wait for the few travellers that there might be. Finishing his rapidly cooling tea, Halladan shrugged. In this weather, he did not look forward to the journey to Tharbad, but at least there would be a warm inn and decent ale at the end of it.

He looked around as he walked over to the Captain's tent to give his report, such as it was. It was quiet, unusually so, he thought. Even Saeros, who was normally eager to hear all news, had gone back to where he had been sitting cleaning a mail shirt. As soon as Halladan looked in to announce himself, the Captain stood up from the small writing desk he had been sitting at.

"How was your watch?" Arador asked as he stepped outside. "Anything out of the ordinary?"

"Quiet. Nothing noteworthy, except that the river is starting to freeze," Halladan replied.

"Ice on Baranduin? That is unusual," Arador said. "Better hope the weather improves over the next few days. You'll be taking the next patrol out to the Shire."

"Sir? But I th..." Halladan got no further before Arador interrupted him.

"...thought you were going to Tharbad. That was my intention, but this morning Ingold cut himself in the leg while hewing wood, so he cannot take the Shire-patrol out. Daeron will take your place for Tharbad."

"Is he badly hurt?" It was not like Ingold to be clumsy at such tasks, but the accident did explain the subdued mood in the camp. It also was singular bad luck, especially after their captain's injury that had led to Arador himself taking Bereg's company out.

"He'll be out of action for at least several weeks," Arador confirmed with a frustrated shake of his head.

"Weeks?" Halladan asked, resolving to go see Ingold as soon as he could. That must have been a spectacular mishap.

The Captain was about to speak again when the camp's sentry sounded an alarm for approaching strangers. Before either Halladan or the Captain had done more than turn towards the signal, it was followed by the whistle that indicated that those approaching were friendly. It was another few minutes before two riders came into view.

That was a surprise. Elves! Or rather Half-elves, for Halladan recognised Elrond's sons. He wondered what they were doing this far west, when they usually rode with the eastern patrols. Did they bring ill news, either from the Rangers in the east or from Caras Dirnen?

Clearly, Arador had similar thoughts, for though he was visibly glad to see them, his expression was still guarded, wary of what news they might bring. As soon as one of the two waved a cheerful greeting from across the camp, he relaxed, though, and Halladan too was put at ease.

The one who had waved – Elladan, Halladan thought – addressed Arador as soon as he had dismounted. "We heard you were spending the winter here, so we thought we might as well come by for a visit."

"Elladan!" Arador confirmed Halladan's guess as he embraced both of Elrond's sons in greeting. "And it is always a pleasure to see you two, even if you did not bring better weather."

Elrond's sons glanced up at the grey sky in unison, all mirth suddenly gone. "That is part of why we were looking for you," Elladan said. "Our father fears that this winter may be as harsh as the Long Winter."

Arador nodded, but added, "Little good will that warning do us. It has been snowing for close to a month already."

"True," Elrohir answered. "And if his warning were only for the weather, that would be a good point. Alas, neither trolls nor wargs heed frost and snow, and if the Orcs are starved down from the mountains in great numbers, we will be hard put to it to hold them back."

"Of course," Arador said. "And I had already given some thought to that myself."

Elrohir went on, assuming a lighter tone again, "We do not merely come to bring dire warnings, though. We came by Caras Dirnen and your father sends his greetings, and well-wishes for you and your company for the winter's patrol." Elrohir stepped back to rummage in his saddlebag. He took out an oilskin-wrapped bundle and handed it to Arador. "Also, here are letters for you and the men."

Arador took the bundle and unwrapped it. As he went through the small stack of folded papers, he kept some apart, then handed the rest to Halladan. "Go give these to the men, and after that you are off duty for the rest of today. Come and see me in the morning, and make sure your patrol is ready to depart at noon. You will be taking Vëantur, Orleg and Hador."

"Yes, sir," Halladan acknowledged the order. Even with the rest of the day off duty, there was much he needed to do before he could take his rest. Best to deliver the letters first, there were only five after all. He started as he saw that one was addressed to him, and the handwriting Bereth's. The sooner he delivered the other letters, the sooner he could read it. Most of the Rangers who were in the camp had gathered round to hear any news there might be from their guests, and Halladan quickly disposed of the letters.

His duty done, Halladan went to his tent, empty with Finglas out on patrol and Ingold in the healer's hut, and sat down on his pallet. He would go and look in on Ingold later, but first he would read Bereth's letter. As he unfolded it, he could not help feeling a stab of disappointment that it was no more than a few lines.

Dearest Heart,

I wish there was time to write more, but I must hurry or the sons of Elrond will not be able to take this note with them. Already one is on horseback outside, impatiently turning circles... but I digress. Alas, I can only say now that I miss you. I hope your patrol will go well, and that we may have another chance to send letters before we see each other again in the spring.

Love, Bereth

Nothing about whether she had spoken to her mother... but given the barely legible scrawl of the last line, she had really been rushed to write even this much. Halladan sighed. Naught to be done until the spring anyway, except hope that Fíriel would relent and grant her permission for the betrothal.

Halladan read the note again, then folded it and put it in his pack. First, see Ingold, then he should go and talk with Húrin this afternoon, and see what provisions there were for them. The Captain would brief him in the morning on his patrol's route, and they would leave at noon.

Ingold seemed in good spirits when Halladan walked into the healer's hut, and Carnistir agreed they could talk for some time.

"I won't ask how you managed to do this," Halladan started.

"I'm not quite sure myself," Ingold admitted with a grimace as he gestured at his wounded leg. "I was getting on with the work, and before I knew it, I was on the ground, bleeding all over the snow. Ruined my boot as well."

Halladan could not help laughing – how like Ingold to complain of a ruined boot after nearly crippling himself.

"Yes, very funny..." Ingold muttered. "But another thing, who is taking out my patrol? Have you heard yet?"

"I am," Halladan said, trying not to sound apologetic.

"Oh," Ingold said, then stopped. "Well, I suppose it may as well be you," he finally added. "Try to bring the men back as good as you're taking them out. I'll be waiting for you when you get back."

"Of course," Halladan replied. He noted that Ingold was starting to look weary, when Carnistir came up to them.

Ingold held up his hand to stop Carnistir. "I think you are about to be sent away," Ingold told Halladan with a weak grin. Carnistir nodded but said nothing as Halladan stood up.

As Halladan was nearly at the door, Ingold called out softly. "Halladan! Good luck with my patrol!"

That evening around the campfire, talk turned to the upcoming patrols. Halladan let others do the talking. He was honoured that the Captain had asked him to take over Ingold's patrol, rather than one of the more experienced men, but he still could not bring himself to be too pleased about it. Not all were as reluctant, though.

"I don't mind," said Daeron, who now would go to Tharbad in Halladan's stead, "I have some coin to spare, and there's more than a few barmaids in Tharbad that sell more than just beer, if you know what I mean."

"You better keep your plans quiet," Malach said, "You're going with Galador, and he holds with that sort of thing even less than... "

"Galador doesn't see everything. I'm sure I can sneak away for an hour or so," Daeron interrupted him to reply. "Or I'm less of a Ranger than Saeros and Hador," he nodded his head at the two recruits. Ignoring their indignant looks at the comparison, he turned to Halladan. "But what about you? Not too disappointed about missing out on Tharbad?"

"Not at all," Halladan replied, "But I thought you were married?"

"Widowed these two years," Daeron answered, then at the hiss of disapproval from several of his fellows, "And I never cheated on my wife while she was alive, so no need for that from any of you. Elvish ideals are all very well, but they don't keep you warm at night, do they?"

"It's still wrong," Halladan replied, wishing he did not sound quite so prim.

"I'm with Daeron," Vëantur said. "I know how I'll be spending my coin when it's my turn to go to Tharbad. Some of you may be married to your right hand, but I'm not going all winter without some warmth in my bed if I don't have to."

"Stop baiting Halladan, you two," Orleg spoke up. "Do you not know he's as good as betrothed to the Chieftain's granddaughter?"

Daeron snorted incredulously as he looked at Halladan. "The Chieftain's granddaughter? You aim high."

"Perhaps he does, but from what I heard the target is not unwilling to listen to his suit," Imlach, Malach's brother, joined in as well.

"Without a doubt the Chieftain will be pleased to have her married," Herion said. "Before she ends up like her mother, and..."

"I suggest you stop there," Halladan cut in sharply.

"Or what?" Herion laughed. "It's the truth, is it not? Don't tell me you haven't..."

"Hush, you fool," Malach cut in. "With the lady's uncle our captain you would do well to keep quiet."

"Indeed," the Captain's voice suddenly came from beyond the circle of the campfire. "Herion, I seem to recall that your firstborn saw the light of life about four months after your wedding. Had you failed to come back from patrol, your betrothed would have been in the same situation as my sister."

There was nothing anyone could say to that, other than a rapid apology from Herion, and all took the guards' shift change soon after as a sign to call it a night.

The next morning, when Halladan went to the Captain's tent, he found not only Arador there, but the two Half-elves as well.

"Come in and close that flap. It is too cold to stand around in doorways." Arador impatiently waved him in as he hesitated. "Sit down. We will not be long."

Halladan gingerly moved past several stacked crates. Most tents were shared between two or three men, but Arador had a tent to himself. However, as it was in use much of the time as the company's headquarters and seemed to attract almost every bit of gear that could not be put elsewhere, it was more cramped than Halladan's own tent, especially with three men already inside.

"Will you join the Grey Company after you return from the Havens?" Arador asked Elladan as soon as Halladan was seated.

Elrond's son shook his head. "Not unless Arathorn brings them further south than the Hoardale. Our effort will be best spent keeping the High Pass safe."

"Do you think our strength near the Misty Mountains will be enough?" Arador asked.

"For the northern passes, yes," the other peredhel replied, "But Glorfindel will most likely take a company to patrol closer to Mount Gram and Carn Dûm. If you have any men to spare, they would be a welcome addition."

"I will see what can be done," Arador said.

Mention of the Grey Company brought to mind Guilin, and Halladan wondered how his friend was faring in the Hoardale. He had only ever done one patrol there himself and had found the area already bleak enough in summer. Undoubtedly, Guilin was in for a cruel winter. But what would they face here in the west? The weather would be harsh everywhere.

"We will join you again later before we leave," Elrohir said to Arador as the peredhil stood up. "We must return home immediately from the Grey Havens, so it is likely we will not see you until the spring."

Arador also rose and followed them outside. Halladan could not make out what they said, but the Captain quickly returned inside, and turned to Halladan. "I had hoped the brethren could accompany your patrol for at least some of the way, but they are unwilling to lose time by travelling at walking speed. When you leave, go west first, staying about ten miles south of the road until you near the Shire, then follow the border north as far as Baranduin. I doubt you will have much opportunity to hunt along the way, so depending on the weather and your supplies, cut across country to come back here, or if you can, follow the river towards Sarn Ford."

Halladan nodded. He knew the route, and it was not an especially dangerous patrol. Likely their only hazard would be to remain unseen by any hobbits.

"Also make sure there are no ruffians taking up residence at any of the abandoned farms along your route," Arador added. "As for your men, Vëantur and Orleg are experienced Rangers, and can be relied on. Keep a tight rein on Hador. He needs to learn that he does not know everything yet."

That assessment Halladan could only agree with. He would rather have had Saeros along. He was the younger and less experienced of the two recruits, but the lad was quick-witted and eager to learn. Hador might have a patrol's more experience, he was also too certain of himself and prone to sullenness if corrected.

Chapter Text

November 23 - 30, 2911

Halladan's hand fell to his sword at a flash of movement between the bare trees in the distance. He held himself still, tense, until he saw that it was only Vëantur coming back from the cluster of hobbit holes a mile down the road.

"The hobbits have left, but they haven't been gone for very long," Vëantur reported once he came within earshot. "There's no new snow in their tracks."

"Where were they going?" Halladan asked. It had last snowed three days before.

"West, towards the Shire. I don't think they'll be back before the spring," Vëantur replied. "There wasn't much left that I could see. They took their animals with them, and from the depth of their footsteps they carried heavy loads."

"Anything else noteworthy?" Halladan asked. The hamlet was isolated, and it was good news that its inhabitants had headed for more populated areas.

Vëantur shook his head. "Not that I saw."

"We will take another look before we leave," Halladan said. Even if the hobbits returned for anything they had left behind, they would not be back so soon.

In the morning, the Rangers went to take a closer look at the abandoned holes.

"Don't disturb anything," Halladan said as Vëantur and Hador went ahead.

"I won't leave a trace," Vëantur responded as he crouched down to step inside one of the holes. Hador headed for the outbuildings, while Halladan and Orleg kept a wary eye out. If they were seen, the Rangers would have a hard time convincing anyone that they were not ruffians.

"Captain, there is some food left," Vëantur called out from inside the largest of the holes, and then, with some difficulty, backed out of the hole.

"Food?" he asked, pushing the image of how tall, lanky Vëantur had managed to move about inside from his mind. "Anything the hobbits might come back for?"

"I doubt it," Vëantur replied. "A half-empty bag of flour and a few dried apples."

"Not enough to tempt ruffians either, but it may keep the mice alive." Halladan shrugged, then turned to Hador who just came back from looking in the sheds. "Anything in there?"

Hador shook his head. "No sir, the sheds are as good as empty. All I saw was some farm tools."

"Then we'd best follow the example of the hobbits and be on our way."

*~*

Halladan quickly led his men northeast, hoping to make better time than they had the previous days. For the first time in at least a week he saw blue sky among the clouds, but it was still bitterly cold. At least luck had been with them in that while the weather was cold, it was mostly dry, and when it did snow, the snow was light, dry and powdery. It had been cold enough that they had to sleep huddled together to stay warm at night, but if the weather turned damp, it would be much worse out here without shelter.

And for all that it was cold, Halladan had to admit that the stark black and white landscape was as beautiful as it was deadly. By noon, they were walking in bright sunshine, with not a cloud to be seen. The sun lifted everyone's spirits, with Orleg and Hador even occasionally humming what Halladan had to assume were walking songs.

"Stop that, will you," Vëantur finally called when they started again after a break. "I've heard Orcs sing better."

"You're a fine one to comment, when your own singing sounds like a Warg in heat," Orleg replied with a grin, though he and Hador did stop humming.

Despite the better weather, they were still slower than Halladan wanted. It would take several more days, perhaps even a week, to reach the point where the Baranduin met the border of the Shire, a distance that should have taken three days under normal circumstances. They would have just about enough food with them, but it would be better if they added to their supply by hunting or foraging.

"That is odd. I thought we had more dried meat," Orleg observed the next morning from where he sat preparing breakfast.

"Are you certain?" Halladan asked.

"I think so," Orleg answered, adding with a shrug, "But we can always hunt if we are running low."

"Have you seen any tracks then?" Vëantur asked, snorting as Orleg answered negatively.

"I'll look at supplies later," Halladan cut their argument short. "Orleg, call Hador back from the sentry post when you're done burning our food."

After they had eaten, Halladan joined Orleg to inspect their supplies while Vëantur and Hador saw to breaking camp. Not that there is much point in hiding where we slept when we leave a trail in the snow that a blind troll could follow.

"Now about the food, how much do we have?"

"We should have enough to get to the river, and back the long way." Orleg looked thoughtful. "But I think with the snow and cold we've been eating more than I expected. I may have miscalculated."

"What will that mean?" Halladan asked.

"I don't know," Orleg admitted. "We still have about a week's worth of food, but anything beyond that depends on whether we can hunt. And alas, Vëantur was right. We've hardly seen any tracks so far, and any animal we do catch is likely to be lean eating."

"If that is our fare, we will make do," Halladan replied. "Keep an eye on the food and let me know if there are any problems."

"I will," Orleg assured him.

The weather stayed dry and sunny for the next few days, but except for a squirrel that Vëantur brought down with a lucky throw from his sling, there were no signs of wildlife. They had some more luck when Hador managed to find their catch's winter cache. Welcome though both squirrel and nuts were, they made barely a mouthful, and Halladan had already half made up his mind to cut the patrol short once they reached Baranduin.

"We should reach the river tonight or early tomorrow," Orleg said the next morning. "Have you decided yet what to do?"

"How are our supplies?" Halladan asked in return. Had he seen any sign of larger game, he would be willing to risk the longer route, but it was unlikely they would do better than they had so far. Foraging might be enough to keep them from starving but was too slow.

"Tight. If we take the shorter path, we should make it in about a week. Following the river, I doubt we'll be back in less than two weeks, but we may have enough if we go to short rations."

"Then we should return by the shorter route," Halladan decided. Unless there was a pressing need to follow the river, short rations were too great a risk. Any delay would further reduce them, and full rations were already barely sufficient in this cold.

Though Hador looked disappointed he said nothing, while Vëantur and Orleg nodded in agreement. Halladan hid a sigh of relief at that. So far, leading his first patrol was easier than he had feared, but this decision about their path was the hardest yet. He was well aware that – apart from the weather – it had been an easy patrol. He quickly put the thought aside. They were still far from their camp, and who knew what would happen in the next week?

They were no more than two hours from Baranduin by the time they stopped, but the sky was already starting to darken. Halladan decided he would go to the river for a look the next morning before they started the journey back.

"The weather is about to change," Orleg said. "Look at those clouds."

*~*

The morning started grey and foggy, with a pale, watery sun struggling to break through.

"There's your weather change, Orleg," Vëantur said.

Orleg gave him a sour look. "It'll change again, and not for the better."

The patrol was soon under way, heading for the river in a silence that was only marginally less sombre than their surroundings. The fog eventually lifted, but the wind that was starting to blow was no improvement, and Halladan pulled his cloak tighter about him.

"Halladan!" Orleg, who had gone ahead, called out. "You must see this." He sounded surprised rather than alarmed, and as Halladan stood next to him to look at the river, he could see why.

"I've never seen Baranduin completely frozen," Vëantur said when he and Hador joined them.

"It was starting to freeze already around Sarn Ford as well," Halladan said, "But you're right, this is… Hey! Be careful!" he called out to Hador, who had gone out on to the ice.

"Don't worry, it's thick enough," Hador called back from close to the middle of the river. He took another step forward but jumped back abruptly at a crack that was so loud the others could hear it.

"Thick enough? Maybe your head is," Orleg told off Hador as soon as he returned to the riverbank. "In this weather, if you'd fallen in, you'd have been dead from the cold before we could pull you out."

Halladan had only half his attention on his men. Something in the shadows under the trees on the other side of the river had caught his attention. "Quiet," he snapped as one of the shadows moved slightly and resolved into a clear shape. Wolf! No, two of them… He reached for his bow, then exhaled sharply in disappointment as one of the wolves raised its head and the two animals bounded off.

"Were those wolves, sir?" Hador asked. "I've never seen a white one."

"Yes, those were white wolves, and if they're coming this far south, the weather in the north must be really bad," Halladan replied.

Chapter Text

November 30–December 4, 2911

"We stay here today to forage," Halladan said. On an impulse he added, "Gather extra firewood as well. Tomorrow we'll start the journey back to Sarn Ford." Had there been more of them, he would have sent a party to follow the wolves and try to find out what the situation was in Buckland. As it was, any doubts he might have had before were gone. They must return to Sarn Ford. To split the patrol in twos was too risky, and the Captain had to know about the wolves and the river freezing over.

Later in the morning, Halladan and Vëantur slowly made their way towards the river. Digging where the snow was loose, they had some luck in collecting sorrel and dandelion leaves, and Halladan found a few rose hips that the birds had missed, but their pickings were lean, and they moved only slowly.

"There may be some old bulrushes by the river," Halladan said, and laughed at Vëantur's grimace. "It's food," he added, "Even if it isn't very nice, and it's still better than tree bark."

By the end of the afternoon, towards dusk, the wind had turned to the northwest, the clouds were thick and grey, and slow, thick flakes were starting to fall. Suddenly Vëantur, who had been slightly ahead, stopped and raised his hand. Tracks, he gestured, and Halladan looked at the ground.

Going deep into the snow were deer tracks. The light was still good, and the wind was in their favour. Halladan and Vëantur exchanged a glance and nodded simultaneously.

This is no weather for archery, Halladan thought as he reluctantly changed his bulky fur-lined mittens for thin archer's gloves and took his bow to hand. Even so, they set off in pursuit of the deer, Halladan with his bow and Vëantur with the short spear he favoured.

Suddenly, Halladan heard wolves howling, and not as far away as he would have preferred. Normally wolves should not risk attacking two Men, but these were far outside their usual territory, and probably hungry enough that Halladan did not want to take the chance.

Vëantur spoke. "Close to the river, I think."

But which side? Halladan wondered. Break off the pursuit, he gestured to Vëantur, who nodded in reluctant agreement. It was getting darker, they had no torches, and even if they avoided the wolves, the deer was now on its guard.

Not long after, as they started on their way back to the camp, Halladan saw a ghostly white shape move among the trees, no more than twenty yards away. Both Rangers stopped abruptly. As Vëantur clutched his spear tighter, Halladan flexed his fingers a few times in the hope of warming them and quickly raised his bow. He would only have one shot. It was still snowing, the light was fading fast, and the wolf's white fur made it even harder to see against the snowy terrain.

As soon as he released his arrow, Halladan knew it would do no more than wound the animal, but Vëantur, spear in hand, rushed forward almost immediately to finish it off. Halladan followed at a slightly slower pace, keeping an eye out in case there were more wolves nearby.

"I'd have preferred venison, but wolf will do," Vëantur said as soon as Halladan came up, and handed him back his arrow. "If you start a fire for some light, I'll dress our catch," he added.

Halladan had soon coaxed a flame from his tinderbox. Once the fire was burning well, Vëantur set to work while Halladan remained vigilant, If there was one wolf on this side of the river, there might be more. Though Vëantur worked quickly, in the cold evening it seemed to take forever until he declared he was done. Halladan quickly put on his mittens, not bothering to take off the archer's gloves first.

As they headed back to the camp, Vëantur carried their catch and Halladan had a makeshift torch in his hand.

"What took you so long?" Orleg started at their return, but as soon as he saw the wolf Vëantur carried he grinned widely. "I see… and I trust you didn't lead the rest of this fellow's pack to our camp?"

"Unlikely," Vëantur replied with an equally wide grin, as he let the carcass fall to the ground. "I'll just finish skinning and butchering him and then you can make us some wolf stew."

*~*

That night, as Halladan took his turn standing guard, the snow still coming down steadily, he was straining to hear any sound that might betray where the wolves were. Behind him, the other three men slept huddled together near the fire. Halladan pulled his cloak closer about him, and softly stamped his feet on the frozen ground, trying to stay warm. The night was cold and clear and silent. Too silent, as all nights were in this weather. Normally, there would be all the small noises of the forest – the wind rustling through tree branches, small animals scurrying about, the hooting of a hunting owl, a fox or a wild cat on the prowl. Now, most animals had the sense to hole up and stay warm.

Halladan was glad when his shift ended, and he slept as soon as he hit the ground. His sleep was filled with howling wolf packs prowling around their camp, the glow of their eyes the only thing that could be seen in the light of the campfire. Neither Orleg nor Vëantur heard anything untoward on their respective shifts, and Halladan quickly put the dream behind him as he woke up to over a foot of fresh snow under a leaden sky.

"There will be more snow," Orleg said.

"Then we'd best get underway quickly," Halladan replied. "It's forty miles to Sarn Ford, and I want to be there in a week."

Orleg scowled, but started on making breakfast, while Hador only shivered and huddled deeper into his cloak. Vëantur was busy cleaning the wolf skin. While they ate, it started to snow again, and Halladan realised the wind was now coming from the north-east. It was also strengthening, and before long they could barely see ten yards outside their camp.

"Orleg!" Halladan called. "How long do you think this will last?"

The other Ranger looked at the sky for some time, and when he spoke, his expression was grim. "If it doesn't stop within the next half hour or so, it could be days."

"Then we'll wait and if it doesn't stop soon, we'll prepare for staying here," Halladan said. Orleg's weather sense was reliable enough that he did not expect they would be leaving that day. With the wolf meat and the previous day's foraging, they were not in so much of a hurry that they should attempt to go on in a blizzard.

The snow did not lessen in the next half hour, or the next several hours, and the Rangers spent the morning building what shelter they might using piles of snow, rocks, tree branches and the like.

"But it isn't so bad that we can't go on," Hador said, looking puzzled.

"Just wait," Vëantur said. "If Orleg says it'll get worse, you'll do well to heed him."

Hador cast a doubtful look at the sky but went back to work without further question.

"It's not much, but it'll have to do," Halladan finally said as they stood back looking at the construction that he hoped would protect them from the worst of the storm.

"We'd best get inside," Vëantur said, and both Orleg and Halladan nodded in agreement.

"Whose turn at guard is it?" Hador asked when they were all huddled together inside the …hut, Halladan supposed they should call it – at least it had walls and some sort of roof, and most importantly a fire pit that was shielded from the wind.

"Why, are you volunteering?" Halladan asked. "Nothing will move in this storm. And Vëantur," he went on, addressing the older Ranger, "You're not going to work on that skin in here, are you?"

"You expect me to do it outside?" Vëantur retorted. "Besides, half of it is yours."

"Let him," Orleg said. "Even if there's no way to properly cure it before we get back to Sarn. At least one of us will have something useful to do while we wait out the storm."

Vëantur only smiled as Halladan sighed and gave in. Soon he was happily engaged cleaning the wolf skin even more thoroughly than he had done before.

It was a stroke of luck that they had used the previous day to forage, Halladan thought. Firewood they would have had anyway, but the wolf's meat and the other food might end up as the difference between life and death.

The day passed slowly, the snow continuing to fall, and the wind still strengthening. The Rangers were quiet, each lost in his own thoughts. Occasionally, one of them would go outside to relieve himself and bring back wood for the fire. Halladan spent his time calculating again and again how much food they would need for the various routes they could take, although he was certain he dozed off a few times as well. Eventually it grew dark and Halladan fell into a shivering, fitful sleep, only to be woken up several times by a sudden gust of wind and even a thunderclap or two. At some point it grew light again, though neither snow nor wind lessened, Outside, it was impossible to see much more than an arm's length ahead. The snow was deep enough that Halladan worried how they would walk in it. They could perhaps make snowshoes, but that would slow them down. Halladan sighed.

The sound drew a questioning look from Orleg, and Halladan replied, "I was trying to plan our route back to Sarn Ford."

"And getting nowhere by the sound of it," Orleg said with a wry smile. "Don't overdo the worrying – we'll make it or we won't, and that's all you can be certain of."

"I suppose you're right," Halladan muttered. He tried to force his thoughts along more pleasant lines, but even the thought of Bereth only made him wonder how bad the weather was in Caras Dirnen.

"Will it ever stop?" Hador suddenly asked. "Do you hear the wind howling?"

"Be glad it's just the wind," Orleg said. "Those wolves are still out there."

"Thank you for reminding us," Vëantur said. "I'm certain I'd have forgotten otherwise."

*~*

Halladan woke abruptly in the middle of the night. It felt even colder than it had before, but that was not why he had woken up. It was silent.

See, the wind does stop, he thought and went back to sleep.

*~*

"At least three feet of new snow," Halladan said the next morning. Now for it, he knew. They might not have enough food, and they might not make it back, but to wait would not improve their situation.

"Well?" Orleg said to him softly, then added, after a quick look to see where the other two were. "I'm still worried about our food. Even with the wolf meat, we still do not have enough to make it back. We're eating double just to keep warm."

Halladan sighed. "Nor can we wait here."

Orleg met his gaze. "I know, but I thought you should know before we set out what the situation is."

"I appreciate the warning," Halladan replied, then, noticing Hador's worried look at their whispered exchange, he spoke so the other two could also hear, "We break up the camp after breakfast, and make snowshoes."

*~*

The going was as bad as Halladan feared, but awkward as the improvised snowshoes were, at least the Rangers could move without wading through the snow.

Perhaps it was that he noticed it more after the storm, but the snow-muted silence of the forest stood out even more for Halladan. Only the soft sounds that even a patrol of Rangers makes broke the silence – a muttered curse as one of them sank into the snow deeper than expected, the creak of a leather strap or the rustle of a pack being adjusted.

"At least the clouds are thin enough that we can see the sun," Vëantur said that afternoon. "It's the only way we know we're heading in the right direction."

"It doesn't tell us how slow we are," Orleg softly said to Halladan. "We have food for four days at most at full rations and more, just to stay warm."

"We go to half rations," Halladan announced that night. Orleg and Vëantur nodded in acceptance, but Hador spoke in protest.

"Half rations? I'm hungry already. We'll..."

"Starve?" Orleg interrupted him. "We can survive half-rations for a few days, even in this cold. It won't be pleasant, but it's better than having nothing at the end."

"But..." Hador started again.

"Enough," Halladan said. "We're a week from Sarn Ford. Half rations give us a chance."

*~*

Two days later, Halladan and Vëantur set up their camp for the night, while Orleg and Hador went to forage. Perhaps they’ll find one of the streams running towards Baranduin, and we’ll have a better idea of where we are.

Halladan shivered as he pulled his cloak around him. Vëantur noticed and reached over to put some more wood on the fire. Both men inched closer and leant forward as if to catch every last bit of warmth.

“We need more wood.” Vëantur stood up abruptly. “I’ll go and gather some.”

Halladan only nodded as the other left – there was enough wood nearby to last them the night, but he understood Vëantur’s urge to do something. He would have offered to come along, but someone should remain in their camp until the other two returned.

What is taking them so long? It was going dark now, and he was starting to become concerned. But to blindly go after Orleg and Hador in the dark would be useless, and if he...

Halladan's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone crashing through the undergrowth, and he jumped up as Hador came stumbling into the clearing where they had made their camp.

"Come quick! Orleg has fallen, and he isn't moving!"

"Stop! " Halladan shouted when Hador was about to run back off again in the direction he had come from. "Hador, what happened, and how is Orleg wounded?"

Hador's wide-eyed look of sheer panic slowly gave way to a slightly calmer expression, and after a few deep breaths he was able to answer.

"We found the river. Where the terrain turns rough. There's a ridge running along the bank. It's about man high…"

"What happened?"

"I don't know exactly," Hador became distressed again. "There was a noise and I turned to see what it was. I was looking out for wolves, so I didn't see what happened. Orleg must have slipped on an icy patch or something like that. But he fell and I think he hit his head on a rock."

Within a few minutes Halladan, carrying some of the healers' supplies from his pack, was following Hador. It was not as dark as it would have been without the snow, but they still had to be careful of dangerous footing and overhead branches half-seen by the light of the single torch Hador carried.

Halladan tried not to let his thoughts run away with him. Hopefully, Orleg had only been dazed, and Hador had overreacted – if not, he would deal with what he would find. Either way, he should have a word with Hador later on about panicking and running off.

Hador abruptly slowed down. "We're nearly there," he said, though he sounded not entirely sure. "If we… wait, yes. Through there… Careful, we’re close to the edge now."

Halladan moved forward slowly, but the ridge did not look nearly as treacherous as Hador had said. It would be easy to stumble in the dark though, so he was still careful when he followed Hador down to the riverbank.

Orleg was no more than a dark shape on the ground as they approached, and Halladan impatiently gestured at Hador to hold the torch and give him some light as he knelt beside the stricken man. Halladan would not call himself a proper healer, but he could clean and stitch wounds and set broken bones – not that Orleg had much of a choice in the matter. Orleg lay face down, his head turned slightly to the side. In the flickering torchlight, Halladan could not make out whether he was breathing, so he reached to check for a heartbeat at the other's neck.

Nothing. Slowly, carefully, he turned Orleg over.

Hador gasped in shock as he saw the left side of Orleg's head, and his torch dipped close to Halladan's face.

"Steady," Halladan snapped. "Put the torch in the ground if you can't stand the sight of blood. I want to see what I'm doing, not burn off my skin!"

"He still lives?" Hador asked. "I mean, is he alive?"

Halladan shook his head. "No."

"Then why do you need the light?"

"To clean him up a bit, because even if we can't give him a proper grave in this frozen ground, that's the least I can do," Halladan said. "Now get out of my light."

The boy will need to toughen up if he wants to be a Ranger… By the light of the torch, Halladan took a closer look at the wound. Orleg had certainly been unlucky, landing right on the sharp edge of a rock. A stupid fall… He looked up, trying to work out how Orleg had fallen – but outside the small circle of torchlight it was too dark to make out much detail. There was something though about Hador’s description… Halladan would have a look in the morning and see if he could work out what had happened. And what about that noise? Wolves?

More pressing was that with wolves around, they could not leave a body in the open. Perhaps they should try to build a cairn. His mind made up, he called out to Hador who had built a small fire and now was sitting next to it, shivering.

"Hador, can you find our camp again?" At the young man's nod, Halladan added, "Good. Go back, and if Vëantur has returned, tell him we're moving the camp here."

"Yes, sir, but why?" Hador asked.

"Because we will build a cairn for Orleg in the morning, and we cannot leave him lying here unguarded with the wolves out there, lad."

With Hador off to fetch Vëantur, the silent darkness felt ever more oppressive, and Halladan edged closer to the fire. Before long, Hador was back, with Vëantur and their packs.  

Vëantur offered to take the night's first guard duty from him, and Halladan gladly accepted the offer. Weary as he was, he lay awake for a long time, unable to calm his running thoughts. Orleg's words – "We'll make it or we won't" – had taken on a prophetic overtone, along with the shocked realisation that they had enough food now to reach the end of the patrol on full rations.

Chapter Text

December 9, 2911 – January 12, 2912

Five days after they had built the cairn for Orleg, it was with mingled relief and trepidation that Halladan led his patrol into the camp at Sarn Ford.

Despite another day of heavy snow, and Halladan being certain he heard wolves howling in the distance a few times, the rest of their journey had been uneventful. Losing a man on patrol, even if it was to accident rather than to enemies was, alas, not uncommon, but Halladan was also anxious about how the rest of the company had fared in the harsh weather.

The first thing Halladan noticed as he entered the camp were the shelters, lean-tos and windbreaks of all available materials that had sprung up everywhere. He wondered how Ingold was doing, but he should go see the Captain first.

“Good to have you back.” Arador said as he nodded at Halladan to sit down for his report, only interrupting to ask a question once or twice. He looked troubled as Halladan mentioned the wolves and Baranduin being frozen all the way across. Halladan did not speak of his hunch that Orleg's death might not be what it seemed. He did not have enough proof to say that it had not been an accident, and certainly not enough to accuse anyone. The path was steep, but not iced over completely. Still, anyone can make a wrong step in bad light – As Halladan finished, Arador grimly shook his head. “This winter may yet be the death of all of us.”  

“Sir?” Halladan said.

“The Tharbad patrol should have been back, but there has been no sign of them yet,” Arador said. “Young Barahir drowned when he went through the ice to the south of the ford, and Ingold died last week.”

“Ingold?” Halladan asked. “He was doing well when we …”

“Yes, he was,” Arador said, “But the wound turned bad, and he died after Carnistir had to amputate his leg.”

“Oh.” Halladan looked down, lost for anything to say.

Arador put a hand on his shoulder. “Take some time for yourself. Things will get worse before they get better.”

*~*

As much as he needed rest and time to think, Halladan first went to give Orleg’s star to Finglas, whose wife was a cousin of Orleg and the dead man’s closest kin.

“Thank you,” Finglas said when Halladan handed him the star. He sighed. “So many years as a Ranger, and then to die in a stupid fall. It doesn’t seem right.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Halladan could only agree, and curse it, he was still not certain that it had been an accident.

As he walked back to his tent, Halladan realised he could easily sleep for a day. The patrol had been exhausting, and the shock of Ingold and Orleg’s deaths was catching up with him.

Well, the Captain said I could have some time for myself, but he probably didn’t think I’d spend it asleep, he thought as he sat down on his cot to take off his boots.

When he woke up, Halladan still felt weary, but at least he was warm. Even if he had been asleep almost before lying down, he had still pulled his blanket over him. It was light outside, about the same time of day as it had been when he fell asleep, so it was likely that he had slept for a day – if it had been longer, someone would have woken him up to eat and drink something, even if they might have let him go back to sleep after. He yawned and shook his head. As appealing as going back to sleep was, he should get up – first get a bite to eat and find out how the others had fared in the time his patrol had been away.

Handir, who was stirring the contents of a large kettle over the fire, greeted Halladan as he came up.

“The stew isn’t ready yet, Ragnir says,” Handir added. “Have some soup instead. Only half rations, I’m sorry.”

Halladan quickly ladled the soup into his bowl. “Smells good. Half rations?”

“Yes, and getting worse if you ask me,” Handir said. “We slaughtered one of the horses that didn’t go with the Tharbad patrol when it slipped and broke a leg, but we’re getting to the last of that meat now.” He grimaced and Halladan gave him a questioning look. “Horsemeat gives me a bellyache. Oh, and the Captain said to come to see him once you’re awake.”

*~*

Several others were already gathered in front of Arador’s tent. As Halladan joined them, Arador spoke, “As we talked about before, I won’t send anyone out to look for the Tharbad patrol, but I do want to keep a closer eye on the Shire, especially with those wolves around.” He nodded at Halladan in acknowledgement at the last part.

“But, sir…” Imlach started to say, but Arador interrupted him with a shake of his head.

Malach is in the Tharbad patrol, Halladan thought, and his heart went out to Imlach.

“How would we find them in the snow between here and Tharbad?” Arador asked

Imlach started to reply, but Arador’s raised hand stopped him.

“I am as anxious to have them back as you are,” Arador said, “but we can only hope they stayed in Tharbad or are holed up somewhere where they can survive the winter.”

“Captain, what is the food situation?” Finglas spoke next.

“Bad,” Arador replied. “But we stay at half rations for now. Unless the weather improves before then, we will slaughter the remaining horses in the new year.” No one spoke to object.

Even worse than Handir said, then, Halladan thought.

“I will take a patrol west into the Shire,” Arador said. “Two weeks. Mallor, Handir, Girion, Hador and Edrahil will go with me. Another patrol will go out towards Buckland: Thelion, Berendur, Findil, Algund, Valion and Asgon. Halladan, you will be in charge of the camp, and before we go out, I want you and Vëantur to tell me and Thelion all that you know of those wolves.” 

“Yes, Captain,” Halladan replied.

As the others stood up to leave, Arador gestured at him to wait. The Captain went to speak with Imlach for some time before he returned to Halladan.

“You did well leading your first patrol,” Arador said. “With Galador away, I need a second in camp.”

“Sir?” Halladan asked. This was no permanent promotion, but even so… Done well? Would Orleg agree?

“I meant it when I said you did well,” Arador repeated.

“Thank you, sir.” I suppose so, then – but still…

“Now, about those wolves…” Arador said.

*~*

It would snow again, Halladan thought as he looked out to a swirling white wall. He was relieved not to be out on patrol in yet another snowstorm, but others were not so lucky.

Finglas, who had become his unofficial second, suddenly loomed before him, and Halladan stepped back to let the other into his tent.

“All the foragers and hunters are back in the camp,” Finglas said.

“That is something, at least, in this weather,” Halladan replied.

“Not that what they have brought back will be enough to even replace their rations for the time they spent away, even with the deer Valion brought down,” Finglas said sourly.

“Fresh meat will cheer up the men, though,” Halladan said. Arador had instructed him that the remaining horses were to be slaughtered only as a very last resort. They had hay enough to feed them, and the meat might yet mean the difference between life and death.

Later in the day, Halladan was relieved to see that Finglas’ assessment of what the foragers had brought back was too pessimistic – as well as a deer, there were several good-sized fish, caught by Calandil and Randir, and edible leaves and roots. It was not much among fifteen men, but at half rations anything extra would be welcome.

*~*

“Are you sure?” Halladan asked.

Ragnir shook his head. “No, but it’s still odd.” He shrugged. “I may have miscounted, but I was certain there was more of the horsemeat left. I did give slightly more than half rations to the Captain’s patrol in case they are delayed, though.”

“That may be it,” Halladan said, “But keep an eye out even so.”

Later, he remembered that Orleg, too, had noticed an apparent shortfall in their supplies while they were on patrol. As he thought about it, he felt almost sick at the implications. What to do? For now, just keep my eyes open. All I know is that I am not the thief, and that it has to be one of two men, and he may also be a murderer. With Hador on the Captain’s patrol, if there were any thefts now... Either way, the next week, when Arador was back, he would share his suspicions with the Captain.

With Hador away, Halladan kept a close eye on Vëantur, even trading shifts with one of the others so he could watch him while they assisted the cook. Yule passed without celebrations and without further thefts, and Halladan dared to relax again. Perhaps Ragnir had been wrong.

*~*

His report finished, Halladan took a deep breath. Best to dive straight in now…

“I think someone is stealing food.”

Arador looked at him sharply. “Why do you think so?”

Halladan shared Ragnir’s observation that there was a shortfall in his tally of their supplies.

Arador nodded. “Perhaps, but since you have seen no further thefts, Ragnir may have miscounted.”

“I would like to think so too, sir, but this isn’t the first time there’s a shortfall,” and he told the Captain of Orleg’s similar observation. He did not yet mention his suspicions about Orleg’s death.

“I see,” the Captain responded, looking grim. “Still, even that only suggests what you suspect. However, forewarned is forearmed.” His gaze now was almost more than Halladan could face, but somehow, he met it. “For now, do not speak further of your suspicions.”

*~*

One afternoon, several weeks later, the sentry signalled Rangers approaching, and the men gathered to await their arrival.

Only four, Halladan noted. He could not yet make out who were missing, huddled in their cloaks as the men were.

“Thelion, how did the patrol go?” Arador asked as soon as the group came up to him.

“After a week, before we crossed the river, Findil and Asgon fell sick after eating mushrooms, and they died within a day.” Thelion shook his head and went on. “We entered Buckland. Some of the Brandybucks will welcome Rangers at least enough for gossip, and so we heard much of how the Shire has fared. There have been attacks by white wolves in Buckland and even across the water, in the Shire itself. The hobbits say they drove them off, and even killed some. All in all, the hobbits are surviving as best they can, even if there is much hardship.”

“Any news of Bree or of other patrols?” Arador asked.

“Bree has closed its gates to all outsiders, and the hobbits had not heard anything about other Rangers. Oh, one more thing,” Thelion added. “We found something when we came back that I don’t know what to make of. A mile or so from here, we found a stash of frozen meat and a small stack of firewood, also signs of a fire having been built a while ago. There were no footprints nearby, so whoever put it there hasn’t been back for some time. There were wolf tracks in the snow close byand that’s how we found the place.”

The thief is bold, but careless, Halladan thought, as he noted the Captain’s gaze flicking from him to Vëantur and Hador. He gritted his teeth. If I could but work out which of them it is.

*~*

Halladan kept a close eye on Vëantur and Hador, but neither did anything suspicious, and they were both watching each other as well as him. He also constantly felt the Captain’s eye on him. With everybody watching everybody, the mood in the camp quickly turned unpleasant.

Some days later, Halladan had the midnight watch. With suspicion running so high, the Captain had ordered all watches doubled – and that was a relief, as it meant that there would be no false accusations coming from anyone having the chance to sneak off. With Finglas lodged gloomily on a low branch of the next tree along, this was as alone as he was going to be, and he was glad of the chance to consider the thefts.

Halladan still was no closer to finding out whether Hador or Vëantur was the thief. His first thought at hearing of the stash Thelion found had been Hador, but speaking to Arador over a mere hunch would only suggest that he was trying to clear himself. There was still nothing that cleared Vëantur either.

As he stared glumly into the trees – the moon casting a faint light on the snow – he thought he saw a movement.

There… or are the shadows playing tricks on me? He wished he could turn to warn Finglas, but any movement would betray his presence.

Slowly, a lump in the snow under the trees resolved into a wolf… just one, or the whole pack? 

As slowly as the wolf in the cover of the trees raised its head and sniffed the air, Halladan reached for his horn to sound the alarm. From the side, he heard Finglas moving, and the wolf was gone.

“What is it?” Finglas hissed at him.

“A wolf,” Halladan replied.

“You were going to raise the alarm for just one wolf?” Finglas asked, sounding incredulous.

“It’s not just one!” Halladan cried out as another wolf emerged from the shadows. He grabbed an overhead branch in his own tree as he stood up and blew the horn. “Get up higher!” He pulled himself up higher as well and cursed as he lost his grip on the horn and it dropped into the snow almost on top of a sleek white shape that ran by.

Despite the mishap, the camp had been roused and Halladan hoped he had given them enough warning.

The sounds of battle from that direction made him wish that he could join in, but he should not abandon his post unless there was no other way. For all he knew, this was only the first wave of a larger attack. These wolves weren’t Wargs, but even ordinary wolves might work with Orcs if led by a Warg, and someone should give warning of further enemies coming in that case.

“Finglas, no!”

The other had already jumped down and had his back to Halladan when a pale grey shadow launched itself at him.

Halladan cursed and jumped down too. He stumbled briefly upon landing but drew his sword as soon as he stood. The wolf was still intent on its struggle with Finglas, but it let go of the other man as soon as it became aware of Halladan.

His eyes on his opponent and his sword raised to block an attack, Halladan could not spare any attention to see how Finglas was doing. If the wolf jumped, he would be ready, but he wished desperately for a torch. The wolf might be somewhat wary of a sword, but not enough to run. With a torch, he could drive it off, but now he would have to attack or draw the wolf to attack.

Circling to the right to move the wolf away from Finglas, Halladan feigned weariness, letting his sword gradually sink lower. The wolf was on him so swiftly that he was almost too slow to bring the point of his blade up again. He staggered and nearly fell as the snarling weight of the wolf impaled itself on the sword. The wolf was dead, though, and he still breathed. That was what mattered.

Halladan tugged at his sword to retrieve it. At first, he feared it was stuck, but with a good pull it came away, and he wiped it clean with a handful of snow. He quickly turned to where Finglas lay. The other was huddled in on himself, dark patches of blood next to him in the snow. Even in the near-dark it was obvious that he was badly wounded.

Halladan knelt next to Finglas to examine his wounds. The wolf had not gotten at his throat, but his shoulder and arm had been badly mauled, and he could no more than moan in pain as Halladan attempted to rouse him.

Luckily, it was not very long before Halladan heard – and saw – Rangers with torches approaching.

“Hail the sentry!” they called out.

“Imlach! Edrahil! Here!” Halladan called in response.

“Halladan! How did you fare?” Imlach asked.

“Finglas is wounded. I am unhurt,” Halladan replied. “How is the camp?”

“Two men dead, many wounded. Captain said for all the sentries to fall back to the camp,” Imlach replied. “I can carry Finglas that far,” he added.

Improvising a litter would take longer than the walk to the camp, and Halladan knew it was no idle boast from Imlach, who was easily the strongest of the Rangers.

Finglas’s only reaction as Imlach lifted him was a low moan of pain. Halladan caught a worried glance from Edrahil as they lit and guarded Imlach’s way.

*~*

The sun was well past noon by the time Halladan staggered into his tent, weary to the bone, yet still too wound up to sleep. He merely lay on his bed, eyes closed. Three men dead, and two who will die before long... Hardly anyone had escaped the attack unscathed, and the horses had bolted. We’ll rue that yet, Halladan thought as he at last drifted off into uneasy sleep.

*~*

“Wake up and come along. The Captain is about to speak.”

It took some time before the urgent voice calling him managed to wake him up, and as Halladan came to where the others had gathered, he attempted to stifle a yawn, but only half-managed it.

“Care to join us at last, Ranger?” the Captain said, sounding impatient.

Halladan thought it better not to reply, so he merely nodded, and stood next to Mallor. A quick look yielded fifteen of them gathered. With little hope for the Tharbad patrol and the two wounded from the wolf attack, they had lost over half already, and Halladan doubted these were the last they would lose.

Arador looked around, meeting the eyes of each of them. Halladan knew it was not just his imagination that the Captain’s gaze fell longest on him, Vëantur and Hador.

“All of you fought well last night,” Arador said, “and we lost three men. However,” his voice turned grim, “I have not called you together to honour them, but to speak both a warning and an appeal. You have all heard that food has been disappearing, and you have heard of the stash of meat that Thelion found in the woods. Yesterday, Ragnir came to tell me that some of the stored food had been messed with and a sack of grain had been torn open. Luckily, the ground in the storage shed is frozen, so that he could sweep up and retrieve most of what had been spilled. He also counted the dried apples on the shelves, and found they were short of his previous tally.” He paused, looking sad as much as angry, but his expression quickly hardened as he went on. “We are all hungry, and starvation may yet kill us all. One thing that will kill us faster than hunger or cold is betrayal and distrust among ourselves. I say to the thief, whoever you are: step forward now, or come to see me later, and if there are no further thefts before you come forward, your punishment will be dismissal from the Rangers and exile from the lands of the Dúnedain. If you do not come forward of your own will, you will be judged by your deeds.”

No one came forward, and with a small sigh, Arador started to turn away.

“Captain! A question, if I may?” It was Thelion who spoke. At a sharp nod from Arador, he went on. “We lost men today because that stash of meat out there drew those wolves here, and you would let the thief walk free?”

“If he comes forward, yes.”

*~*

Arador might be inclined to mercy, but Halladan noticed he also set men to guard their food and each other even closer than before.

Over the next few days, the thefts receded from Halladan’s mind – first both Finglas and Herion died from the wounds they had sustained in the wolf attack, then the three men who had gone after their horses returned without success.

The night that the men who had chased the horses returned, Arador announced that they would go to even shorter rations. Between hunger and biting cold Halladan found it impossible to fall asleep, so when he heard a commotion in the camp he was outside his tent in only the time needed to grab his cloak. If anyone asks me what I long for most it is to have warm feet again. Even with my boots on, they’re constantly cold.

Others were emerging from tents too, and they all headed for the storage shed. Halladan got there in time to see the door opening. From it came Mallor, struggling to drag out a second man, who was not immediately recognisable as he had his hood drawn low over his face.

Halladan almost jumped as he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked and saw Arador beside him, giving him a nod of both relief and reassurance. Before he could respond, the Captain had stepped forward.

“Mallor, who have we here?” the Captain asked as Imlach stepped in to help Mallor restrain his struggling captive.

With Imlach’s help, Mallor was able to pull back the Ranger’s hood. “Our thief, Captain.”

“Hador.” The young man squirmed and would not meet Arador’s eyes. “Randir, Thelion, go search his tent and his pack. Mallor, search him.”

Mallor was quickly done. “Nothing, sir. I caught him before he could take anything.”

“You lie!” Hador turned to look at him as far the firm grip with which Imlach held him would allow. “I came here to see if I could catch the thief, and I found him inside the storage shed.”

“So you did,” Arador said. “He was there on my orders. But surely, if it was only curiosity and a desire to be a hero that brought you to the shed, you will also have an explanation for the missing supplies that I heard about from both Halladan and Ragnir?”

“No sir,” Hador replied. He seemed to have found some of his courage again, though he would still not meet the Captain’s eyes. “Perhaps you should ask them, or him…?” He looked at Halladan, as if he only now remembered that Ragnir had died when the wolves attacked. “He was there as well!”

“Even though he was not found inside the storage shed, where no one had any business to be?” Arador said softly, turning to look at Halladan, who met his gaze without hesitation.

Though had he not offered me reassurance before, I would have found it much harder, Halladan thought. Even so, he felt his heart beat rapidly at the test.

“Now, Hador. Look me in the eye and tell me that you are not the thief,” Arador said

Before Hador could reply, Thelion and Randir returned. Thelion held up Hador’s pack and reached inside. “He has strips of dried meat hidden under his blankets – the same kind that were in the stash, and we found these in his pack,” and he held up a silver fork, clearly made for a hobbit’s hand, and a small package, tightly wrapped in oilpaper and tied with sturdy twine. “A packet of Shire tea.”

Halladan wondered where Hador might have gotten them from, but then he remembered the hobbit holes they had scouted at the start of their patrol.

“I see,” Arador said. “Then, Hador, son of Hirgon, you stand accused of stealing from those we are sworn to protect, and from your comrades. Furthermore, in your thefts from this company, you spoilt more than you took, and in your lack of care in hiding your stolen food, you drew wolves to our camp, causing the deaths of your fellow Rangers and wilfully endangering all the rest of this company. The penalty for these, taken together, is death. How do you plead?”

Hador sagged in Imlach’s grip and he would have fallen had the other not held him up. “But sir, I was so hungry…”

At that, the men who were watching and who had been quiet so far, almost in shock at the turn of events, began to mutter angrily.

Arador raised his hand to silence them. “Vëantur, Halladan,” he said, “Was Orleg’s death an accident?”

“No.” Halladan and Vëantur spoke at the same time.

“You can’t prove it!” Hador shouted as he tried to break loose from Imlach’s grip.

Arador sighed. “No, I can’t, but I already have enough to hang you, young fool.” He spoke softly enough that Halladan doubted any except him heard it. His next words were spoken out loud again. “Hador, you are a traitor to your oath, and a thief, and you hereby stand condemned to death.”

Chapter Text

March 25 – April 24, 2912

Halladan stared despondently along the road to Sarn Ford. He would only be on sentry duty for two hours, but that was enough to miss the fires back in the camp. It was no longer so cold, though that was little comfort as it was still freezing, and the wind chilled him to the bone. Even his newly-lined-with-wolf-fur hood did little to keep him warm.

He repressed a shiver and shook his head. In the autumn he had been happy to be going west for this winter's patrol, now he nearly envied Guilin out in the Coldfells. At least there the Rangers would have had more to do than slowly starve and freeze to death. Even if they had been of some use stopping the wolves invading the Shire, now they could no longer give much help to the hobbits. After the latest snowfall Arador had suspended patrols. The meat from the wolves they had killed in the attack on the camp was long gone, they were on even shorter rations than before, and no one had energy to do much more than huddle near a fire – at least they could find sufficient firewood. Spring and summer will come again, but how many will live to see them? Halladan no longer felt as hungry as before, but that meant little. I need to cut another hole in my belt, it's loose again.

I should write a letter to Bereth, he thought. Not that it has much of a chance of being delivered.

He tried to recall Bereth in his mind, but she fled from his sight running into the flurries of snow that drifted through his thoughts and slowly erased all of Caras Dirnen in soft shapeless piles of white. Home… I wish I was there… He shook his head resolutely.

Not even Elladan and Elrohir had passed by their camp again, and the nearest Rangers, apart from the missing Tharbad patrol – delayed, not missing –, were near Bree. It was still a while before his relief would arrive, and Halladan flexed his fingers inside his mittens and cast another look along the road towards the Ford.

At first the road was empty, but then three riders came into view. Halladan quickly took off his mittens, and picked up and half-drew his bow, waiting until they came closer. Rangers? Can it be…? Yes! The Tharbad patrol! But only three… Halladan whistled sharply to signal to the camp that there were friends approaching.

The three, also alerted by the signal, stopped.

"Hail the sentry!" one of them called out. Recognising Daeron's voice, Halladan stepped out from his post.

"Greetings," he called out in return, and waited for the others to come near.

"Halladan, good to see you again!" Daeron lowered his hood as he greeted him, the other two following his lead. Pelendil and Saeros. Halladan was relieved that Saeros had made it this far – at least one of our recruits has. He wondered again if they could have caught Hador sooner, stopped him – if he should have realised sooner, if he should have acted on Orleg's suspicions? Could I have… No, not now.

"Galador and Malach stayed behind in Tharbad," Daeron said. "Galador fell sick and Malach stayed to look after him. They'll return as soon as Galador is up to travelling. Anyway, how has the winter been here?"

"Bad," Halladan replied, "But I'll let you go on to the camp to hear all."

*~*

In the evening the men gathered around the fire to hear what the three returning Rangers had to tell.

Pelendil started to speak. "If you all remember, it was already cold when we left for Tharbad, and once there, there was snow well before the end of the year." He laughed. "When we talked to them, both innkeepers and merchants were keen to point out how unusual having any snow was, let alone so early in the winter. Little did any of us know. The weather didn't really turn until just before Yule, with more snow and temperatures dropping enough that even Mitheithel was starting to freeze." Daeron nodded in agreement, and Saeros sat staring into the distance as Pelendil paused to gather his thoughts. "You mentioned Bree closed its gates to outsiders? Tharbad didn't, not that there was anyone travelling once the weather started to bite. Rations weren't generous, but there was enough grain in storage that the town made it through the worst without true hardship. The merchants who sold it weren't pleased though when they realised they might have held out for a higher price."

"I think there would have been a riot if they hadn't opened up the warehouses and people had starved," Saeros said, then blushed when everybody looked at him.

"Likely enough," Daeron replied. "And I'm sure the mayor pointed that out to them when they came to complain."

"Where would they have sold it normally?" Thelion asked.

Daeron shrugged, but Arador answered. "Dunland, perhaps Rohan."

"Speaking of Dunland," Daeron added, "there was a rumour of Dunlendings looking to settle further west from where they are now."

"I did take note of it in your report," Arador said sharply. "And now that we have a few horses again, word can be sent to Caras Dirnen. Not that the Dunlendings will move before the summer, but it gives us time to prepare. Fengel of Rohan might even take care of any incursions before then, but…" He shook his head. "We've been cut off too long. Girion, Algund, can you go to Caras Dirnen the day after tomorrow?"

"Yes, sir," the two Rangers replied.

"Good," Arador said. "Now, Fornost. Who will go there?" He looked around searchingly.

I'd rather go to Caras Dirnen, but if no one speaks up, I'll go, Halladan thought.

"I'll do it," Calandil said. Halladan noted that his was not the only sigh of relief.

"So…" Arador turned again to Pelendil and Daeron.

"So." Pelendil edged closer to the campfire. "Apart from the weather, we had an uneventful trip." There were a few laughs from around the fire at that. "As I said, no one was travelling, so there was barely any news from the south, or anywhere else, to be heard, and nothing happened in the town itself. Of course, by the time we were due to return here, we weren't going anywhere either, with a snowstorm that lasted for close to a week. As the storm came from the south, it warmed up slightly despite the snow, but afterwards the cold returned and the roads turned to ice, so we were unwilling to risk the horses, and decided to wait." He turned to Daeron, who sighed and continued the tale.

"With no travellers to bring it with them, I don't know what caused it," Daeron said, "but while we waited for the roads to improve there was an outbreak of fever, and Malach and Saeros were among the first to fall sick. It took a week for them to recover, and in the meantime Galador had come down with it too. He seemed to get better at first, but then he took a turn for the worse again. By then the road had thawed out enough that we could go. We were unwilling to leave while Galador was still sick, but he ordered us to go. Malach offered to stay behind and look after him, since he reckoned he might not catch the same fever twice." He nodded at Imlach. "He was fine when we left, and I'm sure that he and Galador will follow as soon as Galador is up to travelling. It's taken us two weeks to even get here, so who knows, they may even be on their way already."

*~*

The next day, Halladan stared at the blank sheet of paper before him. Now I have my chance to have a letter delivered, and I don't know what to say. What would I write? "We are still in the grip of winter. We've lost men to hunger and accident, and after a wolf attack in which several men died, the mood in the camp has been muted further by your uncle having to hang one of our recruits for theft and murder." No, true as it all is, the winter will have been as harsh in Caras Dirnen as it is here, and if the goblins have been driven down from the Misty Mountains by the cold, the danger will be worst in the east. I can't just write something that will only cause her worry when I don't even know what has happened in Caras Dirnen. But even if they are safe, has Bereth persuaded Lady Fíriel yet to grant her permission for our betrothal? He sighed. I must write something… even if only to not have thawed out the ink for nothing.

With another sigh, he set pen to paper. Dearest…

*~*

Perhaps two weeks until Girion and Algund reach Caras Dirnen. Calandil should be back within three weeks, and I think the Captain wants to head back to Fornost once he does return. So when Bereth writes back, I may be in Fornost, or I may even see her before I get her reply. Halladan sighed and picked up another branch to add to the pile of firewood he had already gathered. Our problems are far from over, but even so, the Tharbad patrol's return has been good for everybody, he considered on his way back to the camp. I'd still like something else to eat than tree bark and bulrush flour… Even if we took a deer now, it'd be so lean that there'd be little more than soup from it. I'd be glad of it still, or even nettle soup... Nettles and other edible weeds should reappear soon, if the weather remained good, and then they would have some fresh greens again. And even if we haven't quite regained hope, I finally dare believe that this winter will come to an end. As to who will be left to see the summer…?

It had been almost a week now since the three men had come back from Tharbad, and the mood in the camp had improved even further with the messengers for Fornost and Caras Dirnen setting out. Halladan's letter hadn't been the only one Girion and Algund had with them. The weather had also turned warmer, and though it was still mostly frosty at night, during the day the ice and snow were starting to melt.

*~*

The next day Arador called Halladan to his tent, along with Vëantur, Berendur and Carnistir.

"We should be past the very worst, at least for the weather," the Captain said, "but it'll still be weeks before we return to Fornost. So I've called you together to see how we'll get through that. Our biggest problem is food, but now the ground is starting to thaw out, there'll also be meltwater everywhere. The river ice is going to start to break up and we may have ice dams forming."

Carnistir nodded. "You're right, but with the thaw, as soon as the ground is soft enough for digging, we also must see to burying the men we lost. And to be blunt, it should be soonest, before the bodies themselves thaw out much."

Arador frowned. "An unpleasant task, but necessary nonetheless. Can you see that it is done?"

"Of course," the healer said. "I'll take care of it."

"Thank you," Arador said. "Take what men you need. Now, I'd like to send another patrol to Buckland to keep an eye on Baranduin, and gain what news they may, and perhaps one west into Southfarthing as well, though there is little we can do in either place. As it is for us, the hobbits' greatest problem is probably food."

"A Buckland patrol would be at least three weeks again," Berendur said, "but better than sitting here waiting for the snow to melt. How many are you thinking of sending?"

"Three or four," Arador said. "And I take it that you're willing to be one of them?"

Berendur nodded. "Yes, sir."

"I'll give thought on who is to go with you," Arador replied. "I'll send out foraging parties first. Halladan, will you lead one?"

*~*

"I'll go and check the snares," Halladan said to Randir on their second day out from the Sarn Ford camp. "You and Thelion break up camp and go ahead if I'm not back when you're done; I'll catch up."

The first three snares were empty, which was what Halladan had expected. The fourth, though…

A rabbit, no, a hare… and still alive. He walked over to snap the animal's neck, noting as he did how lean it was. We'll not have a lot of meat from this, but it's better than nothing. The next two snares were empty again, but even so Halladan was pleased when he came back to the camp.

The other two Rangers were still there. Randir was spreading the ashes from their fire, and Thelion was making a half-hearted attempt to disguise where they had slept in the snow.

"Thelion, let it be," Halladan called. "The day's thaw will take care of it, along with our trail."

"I don't like leaving traces," Thelion said. "It's not right."

Halladan laughed. "I doubt there's anyone tracking us, but go ahead as long as you don't take too long. I need to clean my catch anyway."

By the time Halladan had gutted and skinned the hare, and buried the entrails before Thelion could offer any comment on it, the others were ready to go as well, and they headed towards the river along an old game trail. This is as far south as we've been before to harvest the bulrushes, so there should be some left for us to find.

"I wonder what'll happen once the river ice starts melting?" Thelion, who was walking in front, turned his head to ask.

"Beyond here, not too much I'd think," Randir replied. "Although I've heard that in the Long Winter, in the year the Chieftain was born, ice shelves built up along the Brandywine along the bend south of Buckland so high that it was past Midsummer before they were gone.”

"Imagine that…" Thelion said.

"I'd rather not," replied Randir. "We have more than enough snow and ice without imagining more."

"You brought it up," Thelion pointed out.

"Let's leave it at that," Halladan interrupted the two men in front of him before Randir could go on. "Let's get our foraging done. If there's a weak spot in the ice, we can even try fishing, and we won't worry about ice dams until we have to."

Randir looked back with a quick grin, and nearly walked into Thelion, who had stopped abruptly.

Thelion was looking up, one hand extended palm up. "Snow," he said.

A thick, wet flake fell slowly on Halladan's face as he too looked up.

Randir muttered under his breath and burrowed into his cloak. "What now?" he asked. "Do we go on?"

"For now, yes," Halladan said, "but if it goes on too long, we seek shelter. We're only an hour or two from the river." They might get no more than these few flakes, and Arador had given the foraging parties four days, so that the patrols might still go out before they returned to Fornost. I don't envy the Captain the reordering of the summer's patrol schedules, Halladan thought. We won't be the only patrol that's lost so many and is going to be late to return. We can only hope our enemies have suffered as much from the winter as we have…

The men slogged on in silence as the snow continued to come down. At first Halladan dared hope that it would stop again soon, but when the day turned ever more grey and a harsh wind arose from the southwest it was clear luck was not with them. As soon as they passed a low rocky outcrop that would offer some shelter, he called for the other two to stop.

"Gather some wood that's dry enough to burn, and we'll stop here." Halladan picked up what branches he could gather quickly and headed for the protection of the rock wall.

Before long the three men were huddled together beside a small fire.

"The wind is picking up," Randir said as he carefully added another branch to the fire. "And if this is shelter, then I'm an Elf."

"Do you see anywhere better?" Thelion asked. "It's better than nothing."

"Try to keep the fire going," Halladan said as the wind picked up further, and he edged back towards the rock as far as he could. The wall did hang over enough to protect their fire from the weather. Alas, Randir was right that it offered little shelter beyond that.

By evening it was still snowing hard. Even if it stops now, we're stuck here until morning, Halladan thought. At least the fire's still going. He shivered. His cloak still held back the worst of the snow, but it was getting damp.

"Thelion, make a start on roasting that hare," Halladan said as he stood up. "I'll gather some more wood. We'll need it if the storm lasts much longer."

"You think it will?" Randir asked.

"No telling," Thelion said, "but let's hope not."

*~*

The snow did not let up by the next morning, nor by evening. So much for hope.

Each of the three Rangers stood up occasionally to try to find more wood. Halladan was not sure the fire was doing much good, but it was better than freezing in the dark. Despite the slightly warmer days, it was still cold enough that the soggy snow that had been falling all day froze at night. Halladan was uncomfortably aware of his wet cloak starting to freeze if he sat away from the fire. At least the wind drove the snow away from their shelter. Had the snow been piling up against this wall, we'd likely be frozen to death by now. Not the ending I had in mind, even in this winter. On the other hand, the alternative seems to be starving slowly. He shrugged.

Eventually the snow slowed and stopped. It was also getting light, Halladan noticed as he looked up at the sky. The other two stirred at his movement, Thelion putting another branch on the fire, while Randir took the tripod and kettle from his pack. He set up the tripod and put a few hands of snow in the kettle.

"Do we go on?" Thelion asked as they waited for the melting water to boil.

"We should be heading back. We were supposed to take four days," Halladan said, "but it's not far to the river, and if we go back now, we will have eaten more than we bring back. We should at least collect some bulrushes, and what else we can find. We'll see about fishing."

Thelion nodded, but Randir looked sceptical. "Shouldn't we go back even so? What if it snows again?"

"If it snows again, we'll either be glad of the extra food, or we won't make it back and it won't matter," Halladan said.

"I suppose you're right," Randir replied after a pause that was just long enough to make it clear that he did not agree.

*~*

Halladan took a careful step on to the milky, slippery ice of Baranduin. The layer of half-frozen slush that covered the ice was deep enough for his boot to sink into. He heard no alarming sounds from the ice when he put his weight on his front foot, so he slowly moved his other foot and took another step. Still nothing. He was about two yards from solid ground now. A crunch, and he jerked back as his foot broke through a thin layer of ice.

"Be careful!" Randir called out. "There's a large crack closer to the middle of the river."

"I've seen it, but this is just an air bubble under the surface," Halladan called back. "It's nothing." The ice under the bubble had been protected from the melting and refreezing of the top layer, and it was dark and clear except for small cracks and air bubbles deeper down. He studied it briefly and turned back towards the land. "Even with the water on top, the ice is still close to a foot thick around here. We're not going to get through without an axe, so no fishing. Let's go see what else we can find."

*~*

By mid-afternoon they had collected all they could carry and were heading upriver again.

"I suppose it's better than tree bark," Thelion said with a grimace as he looked at their haul of bulrush roots.

"Not by much," Halladan said wryly, "but it's certainly better than starving. Let's go. I want to be back in camp before tomorrow evening."

*~*

"You're the first of the foraging parties to come back," Saeros, who was the sentry nearest the Ford, told them. "Go on home. The Captain will be glad to see you."

"Home?" Halladan asked. "You've been out here too long. The cold's affecting you."

Saeros blushed and ducked his head. "You know what I mean, sir."

"Yes, I do," Halladan replied, not hiding his grin. 

*~*

Two of the other foraging parties were back by the next morning, but by evening the last group was still not back.

"If they're not here tomorrow, I'm going out to search for them," Arador said as the Rangers sat down around the fire. "We cannot afford to lose our healer."

"Wonder what delayed them," Pelendil said.

"Snow, ruffians, wolves, injury," Handir said gloomily in reply.

"We've all been delayed by snow," Thelion said with a shrug. "And we've not seen any sign of ruffians all winter, nor wolves lately. So snow or injury it likely is."

*~*

The last group failed to return by morning, so Arador called on Halladan and Edrahil to join him to look for the missing men. The first day they followed the main road west towards the Shire. There was over a foot of fresh snow, but along the road the going was not too hard.

"There's no telling how far they got before they ran into trouble," Edrahil said after a few hours.

"I know," Arador said, "but I won't give up without at least trying to find them, and there's a little cave where they might have sheltered. We can be there by tomorrow morning."

The following morning Arador at last led them away from the road, and after several hours of struggling through the half-melted snow, he signalled a halt. "The shelter is nearby, but it's difficult to find even in the best circumstances," he said and gave a sharp whistle. "If they're anywhere in the vicinity, they'll hear that."

"So now we wait?" Halladan asked.

"Unless you want to go trampling blindly through the snow," Arador replied sharply, "yes."

Before long, they heard an answering whistle, and Arador smiled and nodded.

"South," he said. About a mile away, they were greeted by Daeron.

"Are you well?" Arador asked.

"Vëantur and I are, but Carnistir is wounded," Daeron said.

"What happened?" Halladan asked.

Daeron looked almost embarrassed. "We had a run-in with a bunch of hobbits," he said.

"Hobbits?" Edrahil asked, trying to hide a smirk.

"Hobbits," Daeron replied.

"What happened?" Arador asked.

"Carnistir and Vëantur were following deer tracks and they almost walked into some hobbits who were also following the tracks. The small folk thought they were ruffians, threatened them with a bow, and pelted them with rocks. Carnistir was hit in the head and thinks he has a concussion. He's starting to feel better, but…"

"Take us to them," Arador interrupted him.

*~*

After about ten minutes Daeron stopped and whistled to signal that they were friends.

The Captain will want to know more about the hobbits later, Halladan thought as he followed Daeron along a narrow path past a chalky rock wall that Halladan knew led to a low, fairly shallow cave. It's no good for more than emergency shelter, and cave's a big name for it, but it's useful.

Once they got to the cave entrance, Daeron gestured to warn them to duck going in. Halladan's eyes were soon used to the gloom inside, and he and Edrahil sat down near the front while Arador crawled in further to where Carnistir was lying.

"I'm well, really," the healer insisted to Vëantur who was crouched next to him.

"Of course you are," Vëantur replied. "Are you still seeing double?"

"A bit," Carnistir admitted.

"You are set on proving that healers make the worst patients then?" Arador interjected, smiling, "and as you should know very well, you are yet far from well. How long has it been since you were injured?"

"Three days?" Carnistir replied. "I'm not… quite sure, could be four."

"Four," Vëantur said. "We've been here for three."

"Thank you," Arador replied and turned his head. "Halladan, will you take the watch?" he added.

It's a good thing the Captain is close to a fully-trained healer, Halladan thought as he headed outside. I can clean and stitch a sword cut well enough, or set a bone at need, but care of head wounds is beyond me.

*~*

"So you were already on your way back when you ran into those hobbits?" Arador asked.

"Yes," Vëantur replied. "We'd not collected more than a few roots and dried up berries yet though, and I wanted to take as much tree bark as we could on our way back to the camp, so we'd not return wholly empty-handed."

"And you were definitely outside the Shire?" Arador said.

"By at least twenty miles," Vëantur said. "We weren't expecting to run into hobbits so far from their homes. But the little folk can move very quietly if they put their minds to it."

"True enough," Edrahil said, and added with a grin, "I just hope that after all their trouble they at least got the deer."

"I hope so too," Vëantur said. "At least someone gets to eat."

*~*

Another day lost, Halladan thought the next morning, immediately ashamed at his frustration. It's not as if Carnistir set out to be wounded. But he seems better than yesterday, and once Vëantur and Edrahil get back to the camp, the others will know not to worry.

"We're leaving around noon," Arador said. "It'll take us two days or more to get to the camp, and I'd like to take it easy, certainly the first day."

When they got underway that afternoon, they went slowly and Arador made sure they stopped frequently to allow Carnistir to rest. Even so, the healer was clearly feeling the effort and Halladan wondered if they'd end up having to improvise a litter to get him back to the camp. He also noted that, despite his insistence on taking it easy, Arador was impatient. He hides it well enough, or tries to, but if it was up to him alone, we'd be in more of a rush. I understand it too. It'll be late to send out patrols while waiting for Calandil to get back from Fornost. And who knows what news he may bring?

*~*

"Go on to Fornost after you reach Buckland and find out how things are, both there and in the eastern part of the Shire proper," Arador said to the men who were about to set off.

Berendur nodded. "We'll see you all there in a few weeks."

I'd have been glad to go with them, Halladan thought as Berendur, Mallor and Pelendil left. There is little we can do here and were it not for Calandil, we might as well go back now. Arador wants to go back, certainly.

*~*

"To be honest, I don't care that much when Calandil is due to return," Carnistir said, looking at the others who had gathered in Arador's tent. "He knows we'll be heading for Fornost and later Caras Dirnen anyway."

To Halladan's surprise, Arador nodded in agreement. "I'd like to see him back and hear what he has to tell. We've been without news from the world outside too long. Yet I do not want to wait either. We'll leave for Fornost in four days."

The discussion then turned to practicalities, but when Halladan left, his thoughts turned quickly to the prospect of – finally – seeing the end of both this patrol and the winter. And… Bereth. Even if she has got no further with Lady Fíriel, just to see her again… to know that she made it through…

Chapter Text

May 24 - 29, 2912

“Don’t bother with a fire,” Arador said, and Halladan gave him a questioning look. Arador gestured at the soggy landscape around them. “Even you can’t do anything with this. I might as well ask you to burn water. Anyway, we’ll be there tomorrow. We can do without a fire one more night.”

Halladan looked at the other Rangers sitting huddled in their cloaks and nodded reluctantly. The damp got in the bones almost more than the winter’s cold had, especially with the fog they had been walking in all day. Today, we can, but none of us can take too much more. He did not say it. The Captain knew it as well as Halladan, and there was no point in remarking on what could not be changed.

Without a fire, there was little reason to stay awake long after eating their cold rations, and Halladan soon was leaning back against a tree, his cloak wrapped around him – not the most comfortable way to sleep, but at least it was sort of dry. Almost a month’s walking to get here … Of course, had Galador been slower to reach the camp, or we quicker to set out, we would have been in Fornost for two weeks already, not sitting twenty miles up the road from Tharbad.

Before, when the three men of the Tharbad patrol had come back to Sarn, Halladan had dared to think about the end of their patrol, dared to believe they might really make it home. To see Bereth again… Yet with no news from Caras Dirnen all winter, who knew what had happened there? Then all hope for a quick return home had been lost as, on the very day that they would have set off for Fornost, Galador rode into the camp. “Tharbad’s gone. Washed away by floods!”

Most of them had left that afternoon, with only Galador, Handir and Imlach remaining at Sarn, and they would leave for Fornost as soon as Galador was rested enough to travel on.

Galador had warned that the road was bad, and that had been an understatement. Even had we still had our horses they would have been of little use. The road was muddy everywhere and the mud-logged potholes and meltwater pools had been knee-deep or worse in places. Several times, what Halladan remembered as rivulets had caused them hours of detours just to advance a mile along the road.

~*~

The wind had turned overnight, and it carried a deeply unpleasant, dank smell. 

“We’re still miles from the river, but can you smell it?” Pelendil observed.

“It’s hard to miss,” Arador replied drily. “Take heart for the end of the journey, though. We should be there in three hours or so.”

“I wonder what we’ll find when we get there,” Girion said. “And what good our help will be after a month.”

We’ll know soon enough. Halladan stayed silent.

At last they reached the point where the causeway started to rise from the plain – or rather the road continued on its own level, while the land fell away towards the river.

Halladan had been to Tharbad before and knew the approach and the view of the town well. Or so I thought… The causeway did still run along the plain, although it too had been damaged, but the land around it was as waterlogged as the road behind them. The few higher areas nearer the town were full of tents and other makeshift constructions.

“There’s the wall at least, and the bridge gatehouse,” Algund said as he stepped up beside Halladan, pointing out the structures.

“Only half the gatehouse, and we shouldn’t be able to see it from here,” Arador said. “The Riverview Inn should be in the way.”

They continued walking and tried to make out as much as they could of the damage to the town, until a few hundred yards from the tents they were approached by two wary-looking townsmen armed with spears.

“Rangers! What brings you here?” one of them asked, brandishing his spear with more determination than skill.

Arador stepped forward. “We had news of the flood and came to offer what aid we may.”

The first townsman nodded and softly conferred with his fellow.

“Then you are welcome,” he said at last, adding with a humourless laugh, “Even if you come with bad intentions, there is nothing left for anyone to steal. Anyway, find yourselves a place to set up camp” – he gestured at the tented area behind them – “and someone will take you to the mayor later today, so he can see what there is for you to do, even if it’s only clearing ruins.”

Arador thanked him, and the Rangers walked on.

“Friendly fellow, isn’t he?” Vëantur muttered once they were out of hearing range.

“Wouldn’t you be touchy after you’ve had your town wiped out by a flood?” Randir asked. “Besides, I’ve heard much worse in Bree.”

We all have, Halladan thought. And speaking of worse, how bad is the damage to the town?

~*~

The tents and shelters in the encampment had been built of what materials had been at hand. To call them ramshackle would be a compliment. Halladan couldn’t imagine that these constructions offered much protection against rain or cold. But are these all the survivors or merely the ones that could not be accommodated inside the walls? If the first, then… He shook his head. There couldn’t be even a thousand people out here, and Tharbad had had at least five thousand.

Halladan and the others followed as the captain led them deeper into the encampment and out to the edge near the plain, ending up at an open area that would suit them.

“This should do for our camp,” Arador said.

“If you can call it a camp,” Berendur complained. “We don’t have even a single tent.”

“I didn’t notice you offering to carry poles or canvas when we set off,” Randir snapped. “Or didn’t you notice we don’t have a packhorse either?”

“Enough of that,” Arador cut in before Berendur could reply. “If you two want to be useful, go and look for firewood and drinkable water.” As the two walked off, Arador cast a look at the others. “Girion, Saeros, Halladan, come along. We’re going to take a look at what is left of the town and find out what we can do. Everyone else, set a guard and go help with water and firewood.”

Halladan and the other two followed Arador to the gate. There were not many people around in the camp, and the ones they saw were mostly women and young children. The musty smell of the river had become stronger the closer they were, but other smells were mixed in with it – Halladan had been relieved to see the camp was kept clean, but the smell of the cesspits was still noticeable. Once they were past the gate, the sickly stench of decay became dominant.

Closest to the gate, some buildings were still standing, but none undamaged, and while debris and mud had been cleared enough that the main street was traversable on foot, many side streets were still blocked where houses had collapsed or debris had piled up.

After a while the Rangers came to an open space that Halladan thought had been the market square. The houses towards the river had collapsed, and the square was full of heaps of debris. In the centre, near a water pump, a few women were standing talking. One of them came over as soon as they noticed the Rangers.

“Greetings, strangers,” she called out. “Can I be of help to you?”

“Good day to you, Mistress” Arador replied. “We’ve come to see if there’s anything we can help Tharbad with, and we’re looking for the mayor.”

“There’s still enough to be done,” she said, looking them over. “You’re Rangers, aren’t you?”

“Yes, we are,” Arador said.

“Heard from my sister near Bree a few years back that some of you lot had helped out at her farm. Did a good job, too,” she said. “You’ll find the mayor somewhere near the river, probably near the old bridge.”

Arador thanked her and the Rangers walked on towards the river. The smell became stronger all the while and Halladan knew he was close to gagging on it if he paid it too much attention. This is nothing, he thought. We’re barely here an hour, and these people have endured it since the water struck.

As the woman had said, they found several men clearing debris from streets near the water, and again Arador stepped forward to address them.

“We’re looking for the mayor,” he called out.

“That would be me,” a tired-looking middle-aged man replied. “And you are?”

“We’re Rangers, and we heard about the flood. Thought you could use some extra hands,” Arador said.

The mayor gave them a close look before he replied to Arador. “These are all your men?”

“No, we are ten in all. The others are in the encampment outside the walls,” Arador replied.

The mayor nodded. “I see. We could use extra hands, but we cannot pay mercenary’s wages, and it should be clear to you that the town cannot offer you any reward beyond a daily share in what food we have.”

“We seek no reward,” Arador said.

“That is good to hear, and we have had little trouble from your kind over the years,” the mayor replied, “though there are those who would tell different tales as well.”

“I cannot stop them from saying what they will. Will you have us?” Arador asked.

“Aye, so I will,” the mayor said. “Truth be told, we can do with all help that comes along. If you come to the market square tomorrow at the first hour, you’ll be fed and be given tasks for the day. Welcome to Tharbad.”

~*~

Their need is great, Halladan thought as he stirred the soup in the cauldron their neighbours in the camp had lent them, along with a gift of a handful of carefully hoarded parsnips to go with their own supplies, in exchange for their share in the end result and some firewood. He had seen how thin most of the survivors were. They might have made it through the worst of the winter without too many hardships, but the storehouses that held what grain was left had been flooded and most of the grain spoiled or washed away. Tharbad has always been more welcoming than the Breeland. There, they’d probably drive us from the gate if we offered our help even now. He shook his head. But how else would we have it, when we ourselves strive to make the Breelanders think of us as layabouts and ruffians, mercenaries at best… Here too, of course, but with all the trade passing through Tharbad, mercenaries and guards for hire are less unwelcome. Even so, Rangers had not always received a friendly greeting in the town, especially in times of trouble when both east and west – meaning Rangers and Dunlendings – were looked at with suspicion.

~*~

In the morning, Halladan and the other Rangers went to the town square to find out what their work for the day would be. Some townswomen were handing out bowls of thin soup with a bit of meat and some herbs, and a piece of bread to go with it – as much as he appreciated a hot breakfast, Halladan wondered whether he wanted to know what the meat was, particularly after he had seen some of the town’s children going out to hunt for rats the previous night. Then he shrugged. A few months ago we would have considered a nice juicy rat a feast. It’s certainly better than starving.

Once they were done eating, the tasks for the day were handed out. Halladan ended up in a group with Saeros and two townsmen. They would be going south with a cart to look for bodies along the river.

“I’m Ranulf,” the first townsman said as they left the town behind, “and this is Baranor.”

“Halladan and Saeros,” Halladan completed the introductions.

Halladan wondered whether they would ride in the cart or walk, but the scrawny mule hitched to the cart looked as if it might collapse at any time even without more weight added to its load. Walking it is, then.

Ranulf led them to a road heading south several miles from the river.

“Why aren’t we following the river?” Saeros asked after a while.

“You’ll see, lad,” Baranor muttered, but Ranulf was more willing to explain.

“It’ll take us two days or so to walk back along the river,” Ranulf said. “It’s bad enough having them in the cart on the way back. The ones we find aren’t going to complain about being out here for a day or so longer.”

“I suppose so,” Saeros said, looking slightly green at the thought.

The rest of the day they walked mostly in silence, until at last Ranulf led them to a clearing where they set up camp for the night. The two townsmen did not think it would be necessary to set a guard, but when Halladan offered to take the second watch, Ranulf said he would take the first and Baranor the third.

The next morning, they turned towards the river and within an hour they had reached it. The banks of the river were strewn with uprooted trees and other plants. It still looked as if there was enough of a path to let their cart pass, at least for the first stretch of the road back to Tharbad. A faint stench of river mud and decay hung in the air. Several times they had to assist the mule and push the cart through heavy mud. At one point, the path itself had been washed away, and they had to scramble over higher ground with three of them ready to help push the cart and the fourth guiding the mule.

It was about an hour after noon that Ranulf, who had been keeping an eye on the riverbank, said, “Body in the water.”

Saeros, who was leading the mule, slowed to a halt as Halladan and Baranor walked over to the riverbank next to Ranulf, who had waded out into the shallows without hesitation. There was indeed the pale outline of a head visible under the water, with the shadowy outline of a body suggested.

“Hand me the pike pole,” Ranulf said to Baranor.

“Lad, bring that cart over here,” Baranor yelled at Saeros, who quickly complied, though he looked more than a bit hesitant.

Baranor scrambled back up to the path to take the pike pole from the cart, then jumped down again and handed the pole to Ranulf.

Ranulf lowered the pole into the water and was soon engaged in slowly pulling the body closer. “He’s stuck,” he muttered. “I hope I don’t have to go in furth… Ah, yes, there he is.” He took one more step forward and grabbed the man’s clothes with his hand before starting to move back towards the land.

“Hey, lad,” Ranulf called to Saeros, gesturing with the pike pole, “Take this off my hands, will you.”

Saeros took the pole from Ranulf, who then addressed the other two men. “Give me a hand to lift him out. I’ll take his legs.”

Halladan reached down to take hold of the dead man’s left shoulder, Baranor doing the same on the right.

The man’s face as it came out of the water was pallid and puffy, skin sloughing off, nose and lips missing, and behind Halladan Saeros started to retch. A glance revealed that Baranor looked equally distressed, but he, like Halladan, managed to hang on to the contents of his stomach.

“That’s how the river gives them back, if she does. Fish gotta eat too,” Ranulf said.

As soon as the body was loaded on the cart they went on. They retrieved two more bodies from the river in the course of the afternoon, both in a similar state as the first one.

When they stopped that evening, not even Ranulf was eager to eat, and they sat around their small fire in silence for some time.

Halladan thought Saeros still looked as if he could be sick again at any moment. He’s only a recruit, and he won’t have seen bodies in such condition before. To be honest, I nearly joined him the second time around. And for us it’s not even our own people. Any of them will have been men Ranulf and Baranor knew.

Finally, Saeros broke the silence. “Does it get easier?” he asked.

“Does what?” Baranor replied.

“The bodies,” Saeros said. “Finding them and taking them from the river, taking them back home?”

“This is our fifth trip, and no, not really,” Baranor said, looking thoughtful. “But it has to be done. We are fishermen – or were. Our boat and our nets are gone, and the river won’t be the same – and even if we can’t find everyone who was lost, those we find now won’t be turning up in some fisherman’s nets in ten or twenty years. And their kin may still recognise even these and they won’t be buried without a name.”

Saeros nodded, the movement just about visible in the last light of day.

Later, as he lay down and pulled his cloak around him, Halladan considered whether there would be anyone fishing from Tharbad in ten or twenty years. So many have been lost, and those who survive have lost their livelihoods. What is left of the bridge is under water, and the ferryboats are destroyed. No surprise if the survivors abandon the town, but where will they go? Rohan, Bree, Dunland? There are even some who have kin among us. And then, like too much of the North, Halladan knew Tharbad would become no more than a ghost haunting its own bones. But what then of the river crossing, or what was left of it? Once the Dunlendings recover from this winter, they may well try to come west again. He turned over to his back, staring up into the night sky – no stars tonight, but clouds with just enough light behind them to betray the moon’s position. The Rangers would then have to guard the crossing of the river. I’ll have to speak to the Captain and see what he thinks.

~*~

They returned to the town around dusk the next day, after helping to unload the cart near the grave pits away from the town and waiting while Baranor and Ranulf brought the news of what they had found to the mayor.

By the time Halladan and Saeros went to join their fellows in the encampment outside the town it was already fully dark, but the Rangers were still sitting around the last embers of their fire.

“Edrahil,” Halladan spoke softly to the man on sentry duty.

“Greetings,” Edrahil replied. “How was your trip?”

“Bad enough,” Halladan said, “but at least we had some result.” He yawned. It has been a long three days, and I am tired…

“I see,” Edrahil said. “Go on and talk to the others before you keel over.”

There was a brief flurry of welcomes when Halladan and Saeros joined the others. Saeros was more than willing to talk, so Halladan just sat quietly, trying not to doze off yet. He’s a good lad, he thought, and he’ll go far.

After a while Arador moved over beside Halladan.

“A hard trip?” he asked softly.

“Yes,” Halladan said with a sigh, trying not to yawn again. I still need to talk to the Captain about the river crossing and the future of the town… He yawned.

“Give me your briefing in the morning,” Arador said.

~*~

The next afternoon, Halladan went out to look for firewood together with Carnistir and Randir. They’d just finished tying their bundles together to head back when Halladan thought he heard something. Horses?

“Quiet,” he said to the other two, and turned his head to listen. Yes, horses on the road…

Carnistir nodded. “Riders. They’re still some distance away.”

“And if we head back now, we can see who they are before they reach Tharbad,” Halladan said. “Let’s go.”

Once the three Rangers reached the place Halladan had in mind, they did not have to wait long.

“Rangers,” Randir said as soon as the riders came into view on the road. “Messengers?”

“Come on,” Halladan said, “Let’s find out what news they bring.”

By the time the three arrived back in the camp, the two Rangers had found the others and were sitting down. Thelion and Edrahil were looking after their horses.

“The Captain should be back soon,” Berendur said to the two just as Halladan and the others came up. “See, there he is, with Saeros.” 

Both messengers stood up.

“Lord…” the younger of the two started to address Arador as soon as he reached them, but the other – a man named Erendur whom Halladan knew slightly – nudged him to silence.

“Captain,” Erendur said instead, and Halladan knew what news the messengers brought. And, judging from his sudden pallor, so did Arador.

“Captain,” Erendur, lowering his voice, repeated. “I bear ill news from Caras Dirnen. After the frost, a fever struck the Angle, and both your father and lady Meril are among the dead. The Council asks that you return as soon as possible.”

Arador drew a sharp breath. “I see. How fare the Angle and the eastern patrols?”

“There has been no direct word from the eastern patrols since February’s heavy snow, but Rivendell’s patrols have sent word to your son. The Angle… Wolves were a constant worry. One Orc incursion made it south of the Road, and they were defeated less than ten miles from Caras Dirnen. Barely any household has come through the winter unscathed. We thought the worst was behind us when it became warmer, though food was still scarce, but then the fever struck.”

“My sister?” Arador asked.

“She took charge of the Council, which had only three surviving members, and she and the mayor see to it that what food there is, is shared fairly. Both she and her daughter were well when I left Caras Dirnen a month ago, though lady Bereth had been among the first to fall sick. She had recovered when we left.”

Halladan turned away to hide his relief. The Captai… no, the Chieftain, though…

“What about the Orcs?” Arador asked next.

“The winter started quietly, and we hoped that they’d all holed up for the season. But after the turn of the year the Orcs came down from the mountains and raided for whatever they could find. And trolls are not bothered by the cold. As if that wasn’t enough, wolves and bears that normally don’t bother people that much were coming near villages and farms in search of food, driven from the wild by hunger. Some wolf packs were led by Wargs,” Erendur said. “Maybe it would have been a hard winter for patrols anyway, but the weather made everything worse. Even Rivendell had Orcs and Wargs come close. We haven’t heard from all villages and farms outside the Angle, so I fear there may be losses we do not yet know about.”

“Thank you.” Arador turned and swiftly walked away, his posture making it clear he wanted to be alone. He stopped about fifteen yards away and stood still for some time. When he turned around again, he gestured for Halladan and the others to come over and follow him. He led them some distance outside the encampment before he stopped again.

“Laegon, I’d rather not ask this, but we have no horses left and if I am to get back to Caras Dirnen quickly…”

“My lo…” Laegon started.

“Captain,” Arador corrected him sharply. “We’re outside the Angle.”

“My apologies, sir,” Laegon said. “I did not think… but of course.”

“I doubt you wanted to travel alone, captain,” Erendur said, “My horse is yours to use too.”

“Thank you,” Arador said. He cast a long look at what remained of Tharbad, then turned to Halladan and Carnistir and added, “I want to leave tomorrow morning, but there is still much to be done here. Carnistir, with Galador not here, I’m putting you in charge of our camp.”

“Sir,” Carnistir said. “Wouldn’t it be better to have Halladan in charge? He’s been doing well enough as your second for some time now.”

“I’d agree with you,” Arador said, glancing at Halladan, “were it not that he’ll be going to Caras Dirnen with me.” He added to Halladan, “Be ready to leave at dawn.”

Halladan only nodded his agreement.  There was little he could say.

“That’s settled, then,” Arador said. “Erendur, Laegon, I’m sorry for stranding you here.”

“It’s more important that you get back to Caras Dirnen, Captain,” Laegon said. “At least we may be of use here.” He paused. “Sir, could you have a message sent to my betrothed in Ringlanthir though? Just to let her know I’ll be away a bit longer.”

~*~

That evening, as the Rangers sat around their small fire, the sky was cloudless, and the air was quick to cool once the sun set.

It is already almost dark, and no one has said a word yet, Halladan thought. Towards the river, clouds of mosquitos danced in the still air, with the odd swallow or bat swooping down now and again. Halladan shook his head to himself. There should be crickets, and frogs among the reeds in the wetlands. It is too quiet. I was right before. Tharbad will not overcome this.

“Maybe you should go through Hollin,” Edrahil said abruptly, “if the road is as bad as Erendur and Laegon said.”

Halladan glanced at Arador, who was sitting back from the others, his face hidden by the darkness, and said nothing.

Daeron eventually spoke. “That would be just as bad with the Orcs down from the mountains.”

Arador stood up abruptly. “I’m going to sleep. Halladan, remember to be ready at dawn.”

“A dawn start?” Daeron said as soon as the Captain had gone. “Halladan, I don’t envy you at all, even if you’re going home early.”

Normally, I’d be happy to go home, but now… and I think the Captain would rather have ridden off right away. Halladan shrugged and followed Arador’s lead soon after. No one wants to talk about the other news Erendur and Laegon brought. None here have known another Chieftain than Argonui – and this has to be as strange for the Captain as it is for all of us. And that’s even without grieving the loss of wife and father at a single stroke. Yet most of us will have suffered similar losses. We just don’t know it yet.

Chapter Text

July 15 , 2912, Caras Dirnen

“Well, well, if it isn’t our newest captain,” Guilin said as he joined Halladan.

“I’m sure you’ll have your chance soon enough,” Halladan replied.

“But a lot sooner if the Chieftain had another niece to marry,” Guilin said, his tone amused.

“Is that why you think Arador made me a captain?”

Guilin smiled.

“Have you any idea how bad it has been in the west?” Halladan started. “The Captain had to hang a recruit for stealing food, we lost over half the company to cold and hunger and wolves, and then Tharbad...”

Tharbad. He still saw it, smelled it, when he closed his eyes. The stench of the river. The mud. Bodies that had been in water for weeks. The survivors clinging to the remains of the town, half-starved, haunted by disease.

“I am sorry,” his friend said, his expression now serious, placing a hand on his shoulder. “That, I should not… We are both fraught, and weary of all this. I do know you earned it.”

Halladan sighed. “Maybe so.” Had this been a normal winter, he might have ended up with a lieutenancy, and that would have been more than enough for a long time. But he had the rank now, and he would have to bear the responsibility.

“You’ll do well enough,” Guilin said. “Besides, you’re hardly the only new captain after this winter. Any word yet on where you’ll be going?”

“Probably Sarn Ford again. Bereg’s leg never healed properly, so he’s retiring, and Galador will take one of the other companies out of Fornost. You?”

“No news yet,” Guilin said, “but I heard Arathorn will still lead the Grey Company, and Arador is not giving up going out with the Rangers either.”

“I’m not sure it’s wise having both of them out in the Wild.” Halladan shook his head. “Not that we won’t need every Ranger we still have out there. Anyway, I just hope the worst is behind us. After the late frost and soggy ground, if we lose this year’s harvest…”

“Let’s not think about that. But speaking of captains…”

Fíriel and Ivorwen were standing talking some distance away, with Ivorwen’s little daughter Gilraen next to her mother, when Arathorn came over to them at a gesture from Fíriel, and reached out to pat the child’s head.

Gilraen stepped back. She did not hide behind her mother as Halladan had expected, but said something to Arathorn, who seemed taken aback but then crouched down to speak to her. Fíriel laughed, but Ivorwen did not.