A Tolkien fanfiction, told in my usual long-winded style. I had left it unfinished for nearly a year, but a conversation with Mirimaran (and a reminder of Robert E. Howard's lifespan) inspired me to complete it tonight. Hot off the presses, let me know what you think.
14th of Hithui, 2911 of the Third Age
Randirion shuffled from leg to leg. The night air bit through his woolen breeks, as though he were standing trouserless out in the dooryard. His nose had long since gone numb. Though he pulled his cloak tighter about him, it scarcely helped, not when fireside warmth glistened out from the cracks around the door, a mere step away, casting yellow gashes across the snow.
He felt a shiver wrack its way across his body, and clamped his teeth together to keep them from chattering. Shivering is good, he heard Master Faelon's voice say, somewhere in the back of his mind. Shivering means that your body is still fighting for warmth. It's when the shivering stops that you want to worry.
He smiled, despite himself, but the smile soon slipped. Old Faelon. The young Ranger couldn't believe it had been three years already.
The door opened abruptly, and two men stepped out, silhouetted in firelight: one, tall and broad of shoulder, the other shorter, with a coarse black beard. Randirion bowed from the waist, and said, "My lord Arador."
"Randirion," said the taller man, nodding, as the other closed the door behind them. "You wanted to speak with me?"
"It's about my station, my lord. I would like to request reassignment."
"Ah," said Arador, exchanging glances with his companion, as though this was something he had been expecting.
"I thought perhaps I could be attached to Angagar's patrol. She's short a hand, and I know all of her—"
"Randirion, how old are you?"
Randirion hesitated, caught off guard. "I have seen thirty-seven summers, my lord."
"Thirty-seven," said Arador slowly. "Some Rangers are still serving their apprenticeship at thirty-seven."
"Um. Yes, that is what I have heard. My lord."
"And yet, Randirion son of Ransul, at your young age, you have been placed as the lead of a two-blade patrol. This is an honor almost unprecedented." Arador's brows drew together like gathering storm clouds. "Is that not so?"
"Yes, my lord, and I am grateful—"
"If you are grateful, why do you question my judgment?"
Randirion opened his mouth, and then closed it again. The only sound was the sweep of the wind across the loose snow-powder.
"If you insist," said Arador, "I will bring this matter before my father for arbitration. Is that your will?"
Randirion found his voice. "No," he said, swallowed, and said louder, "Forgive me, my lord. Please do not trouble Lord Argonui with my foolishness, my lord."
"Very well. Good night." Arador turned and opened the door, re-entering the hall.
Arador's black-bearded companion made as though to follow, but hesitated at the threshold. "Problems with your patrol?"
“You have no idea.” Remembering who he was talking to, Randirion added, "I… I just don't think I am ready to lead others. Especially not…" Especially not her, he wanted to say, but he hated how that would sound.
"Don't look at it that way," the bearded man said. "You're not taking on an apprentice, after all, you're only heading a patrol."
Randirion said nothing. It almost amounts to the same thing, he thought bitterly.
The other waited for a moment, then sighed. "Look," he said, "why don't you take a loop westward. Monitor the Road between Bree and the Shire for a few weeks. Hole up in Buckland, or share some fat Shire-folk's Yule feast. Take it easy. I don't want to see you two back here until the new year."
The young Ranger stared. "Dirhael, what are you doing?"
"I'm giving you a chance to buckle your armor," the bearded man said sharply. "Your patrol is your armor out there, little brother." When Randirion did not reply, Dirhael added, "You've lost comrades. You know what we face. You know what we do."
Unbidden memory: the snarling faces of orcs. Master Faelon's face, ashen grey and unblinking. Idhron's scream, broken off in the sound of crunching bone. The faint smell of rot drifting on the chill night breeze.
"Yes," said Randirion softly, shaking his mind free of memory, but Dirhael had already gone inside, closing the door behind him.
Taurdal was a small village, and did not have a "street" as such, only a cleared lane with cabins on either side, the Chieftain’s Hall centermost, and the heavy stockade encircling all. Randirion ghosted between the buildings, moving from shadow to shadow out of pure habit. His eyes saw nothing but the dark looming bulks of buildings, and his ears heard nothing but the wind, but he knew better than to think that Taurdal lay unguarded, even at this hour.
He stopped at one of the last outbuildings and stepped inside, stomping his feet to knock snow from his boots. It was little more than a small cabin, wood-floored, with a central fire-pit burning low. There was no furniture, but most of the floorspace near the fire was taken by Rangers: some writing, some sewing, some already sleeping in woolen blankets. Two three-blade teams and one two-blade team, all waiting for their next assignments, enjoying food and warmth and company while they lasted.
And there, sitting nearest the door, running a small whetstone down the edge of her belt-axe, was the rest of his patrol.
"Close the door behind you, please," she said. "You're letting in the cold."
Randirion clenched his jaw and slammed the door harder than was necessary.
For a very young apprentice, springtime had meant travel: weeks of walking muddy trails, clearing fallen limbs, establishing checkpoints, practicing tracking, learning to conceal one's path even on the wettest ground. Summer represented stealth, the time when apprentices focused on learning concealment, surveillance, how to set up and avoid ambushes. The autumn signaled a redoubling of weapons training: drills, sparring, and freeplay. But winter was a time to craft new gear, sitting near the fire working with bone needles while the elders and loremasters of Taurdal sang songs of the Elder Days.
"And so the ship came to Forochel at last," Faelon had said, spreading his arms dramatically. "Through storm and wave it came to the rescue of Arvedui Last-King, far up in the frozen northlands."
Young Randirion had tried to keep his mind on the haversack he was stitching, but of course the story consumed all his attention.
"The Lossoth, the Snow-men of Forochel, brought the King and all his company out to the ship on their sliding carts. But they did not like Cirdan's ship, for they had never before seen such a thing. And the leader of the Snow-men said to Arvedui, 'Do not mount on this monster!'"
The needle had slipped and jabbed Randirion's finger. He winced and brought it to his mouth, but he had not stopped listening.
Faelon's voice had rumbled on. "'Wait here until spring,' the Snow-man said, 'for now the Witch-King's power is strong. In the summer his strength wanes, but now his cold breath is deadly, and his arm is long…."
The wind scythed through the gap of Randirion's cloak, drawing a gasp, and pulling his numbed mind back to the present.
Four days had taken the two Rangers out of the Angle and to the Last Bridge, where they struck the Great Road; another seven days found Weathertop already dwindling behind. The Midgewater Marsh stretched away north of the road, a frozen snow-covered plain. The Road was a foot deep in crusted snow, undisturbed by print of foot or hoof. They had not seen orc nor elf, dwarf nor man, since leaving Taurdal.
Randirion stopped, leaned on his spear, and looked back over his shoulder. Aereth was only four paces behind, muffled up in her gray cloak, arrow-fletchings rising over her shoulder like the crest of some strange bird. She stopped and rested the end of her bow on the ground. "Are we stopping already?" she asked, her voice muffled by her scarf.
"No," he said. "Unless you're tired."
She said nothing to that, but started walking past him. He didn't want to walk behind her, so he fell in step. Their snowshoes crunched in unison.
"We might make the Forsaken Inn not long before sundown," Aereth said.
Normally Randirion would have jumped at the implicit suggestion. He was starting to crave hot food, and a night not spent sleeping in a snowbank, Ranger though he was. But somehow, the fact that Aereth wanted to stop at the Inn made him determined not to. "We'll push on past," he said. "We can make a few more miles."
After a pause, he heard Aereth singing softly under her breath, "When winter first begins to bite, and stones crack in the frosty night, when pools are black and trees are bare, 'tis evil in the Wild to fare."
"It's a loreverse. I learned it from some hobbits, when Master Hirvegil and I were in Staddle."
"If you listen to hobbits, of course you're going to be stopping at every inn."
She darted an annoyed glance at him, but said nothing.
The sun was hanging low before them, shining in their eyes and painting the snow in pale gold, when a low shape ahead caught Randirion's eye—a rambling structure roofed in snow. He pulled his hood lower over his eyes, trying to block out both the blinding sun and the sight of the inn. A warm hearth, said a rebellious voice at the back of his mind. Hot bread. Savory stew. Foaming ale.
Shut up, he told that voice.
"Wait," said Aereth behind him. "Stop."
"We're not stopping," he said.
"No, stop, really stop. Something's not right."
Randirion froze. "What…"
"I don't see any smoke. Why would their fire be out?"
Randirion's eyes narrowed. She was right—there was no sign of smoke, only the cold snow-covered inn.
"Off the road," he hissed, and darted northward into the thickets. He heard the rustle of Aereth following.
They pushed deep into the trees, then dropped to the ground. Randirion pushed back his hood, his breath steaming in the air. "We wait until dark, and circle around from the north," he whispered. "Come from an unexpected direction. Don't assume it's safe until we know for sure."
"We shouldn't wait," she said. She pushed back her hood and tugged down her scarf. "If there's a trail, we'll need light to see it by, and if it isn't safe, I'll need light to shoot by."
"But stealth would—"
Irritation showed in her grey eyes. "If you would rather that I accidentally shoot you in the back, then by all means, let's wait for dark."
Randirion tried to think of another protest, but before he could, Aereth had her bow strung.
They slipped between the trees like woodland wraiths, making as little noise as possible. The sun had gone, and the sky held only blue twilight, when they at last saw the inn again, from behind this time, dark between the bare trees. All was silent—no sound of voices, nor livestock, nor anything but the lonely wind.
At the edge of the inn's backyard, Aereth nocked an arrow. "Get up into one of those trees," Randirion told her softly. "Cover me from there, and I'll go forward."
"A tree," she whispered, "is rarely a stable platform for archery."
"Will you just get up there?"
She ignored him, but continued to stalk forward towards the inn, her eyes raking the shadowy structure.
He followed after, silently cursing Dirhael. My patrol is my armor. Aye, plate armor—a clanking heavy mass that prevents speed and stealth.
They crept around the side of the inn until they found a door—a little scullery door, really, leading out of the kitchens. It was hanging ajar, yawning on a black emptiness inside. Randirion drew up against the wall alongside it, trying not to be seen. His knuckles whitened on spear-haft. Right, he thought. Looks empty, but it could be a trap. Probably best to—
Click. Click. Click. Aereth had taken an arrow from her quiver, an arrow with a knobby black mass caked behind its head: she was striking flint and firesteel together over it. Within moments the pitch-arrow had blazed into flame, and holding it before her like a torch, she stepped through the doorway, brushing past Randirion.
"Aule's bleeding blisters!" said Randirion, hurrying after her, spear at the ready.
"There's nothing here," Aereth said. She moved further inward, her snowshoes clumping awkwardly on the floor. "Nothing alive, anyway. Look."
He could see the flame of her torch, see her face limned in firelight, her lips pressed tightly together. He could see the kitchens of the Forsaken Inn dimly sketched in the darkness: great cavernous hearths and iron pots all ashen-cold, bundled herbs hanging from the ceiling-beams like the boughs of strange trees. Everything was in disarray. Mugs and bowls lay scattered across the floor. And here and there, on the walls or on the floor, a stain had splashed, crusting over, black in the pitch-torch glimmer.
Both Rangers knew the sight of blood, even blood several days old.
Aereth found a broken lamp that, though its glass chimney had shattered, still contained some oil. She lit its wick with her pitch-arrow.
Together they passed into the common room. The front door was open: was, in fact, lying full on the floor before the open doorway, its hinges burst. The tables were covered in the detritus of dinner, as though a full feast had been interrupted. One had been turned on its side, as though it had been used as a barricade. The benches were all upset, some dishes were shattered. Dried blood was everywhere, but—
"No bodies," Randirion breathed.
Aereth moved about, peering at the marks on the floor, and as she moved the lamp, all around her the shadows shifted. "Were they taken prisoner?"
"There can't have been many taken, with that much blood spilt." Randirion was poking his spear at what he had assumed was the remains of someone's dinner, when his stomach lurched. "And there's this," he said tightly.
She brought the lamp close. "It looks like…"
"Bone," he said. “Gnawed bone.” He looked over his shoulder at the open door. "They came in through the doors, strong enough to break right through. They killed all they saw. Some were eaten, right here, even their bones cracked open for marrow. The others…" Randirion crouched at a spot near the door, where eight shallow grooves were scored in the wooden floor. He placed his hand on the floor experimentally. The four fingers of his hand lined up with the marks. Fingernails, he thought, and looked up, following their line to the door. Some were dragged away alive. He could not repress a shudder.
They left the inn as it was, broken and deserted. By now the night had fallen fully, and cold stars glittered far overhead. The Rangers set their faces toward the constellation Remmirath, and struck out west, still following the snow-buried Road.
Just before morning they made camp. Through unspoken agreement, they did not risk lighting a fire or sleeping on the ground. They huddled up off the ground, in the branches of a spreading oak tree, exposed to the wind, trying to stay warm.
"Not orcs," Aereth said softly, almost too soft to be heard over the creaking of branches and the whistling of the wind. "Orcs would have taken them all captive, or killed them outright and left the corpses. Trolls, perhaps?"
"No troll would have fit through that door," Randirion muttered. He had pulled his hood down as far over his face as it would go. His breath steamed in the darkness before him. "They were beasts, I think. There was a silver platter on the table, and a dwarf-made axe behind the bar. Neither one had been taken. What came was interested only in meat."
"Not Wargs. If Wargs had come west out of Rhovianion, we would have known."
"There are a dozen patrols on this side of the Mountains."
"Yes, but Wargs have slipped past the patrols before. I once fought two Warg-riders in the Chetwood, not far from here."
"Two Wargs alone could not have done what we saw in that inn."
Randirion did not answer. He was tired of arguing, and he was tired of numb fingers and cold toes, and he was growing tired of the knots and knobs that jutted into his back when he leaned against the oak's trunk.
They passed the rest of the night in silence.
By late-afternoon they reached Bree. They split up to avoid suspicion, Randirion entering the village through the southern gate while Aereth circled around the hedge to the western entrance. At nightfall they made rendezvous in the common room of the Prancing Pony.
In a darkened corner they found a hooded figure already ensconced, the six-rayed brooch on its cloak dully catching the candle-light. As they settled into seats on either side, the figure pushed back its hood. It was Lithien.
“I’m glad you’re here to help me with this mess,” the senior Ranger said, her sun-seamed face creased into its habitual frown. “Two farms on the outskirts of Staddle up and emptied overnight, nothing left but blood and rags and cracked bone. Coombe lost three.”
“And… Archet?” Randirion asked, a hint of anxiousness in his voice. His estranged sister lived in Archet, now the wife of Hob Pickthorn.
“I h’ain’t heard much from Archet, not as of this morning. They should be all right. No-one goes outside the hedges by night, now, and few by day. The Gate-guards of all four villages have taken to carrying cudgels.”
“What’s out there?” asked Aereth.
She started to answer, but broke off as old Mattuck Butterbur came stomping over with three foaming tankards. He thumped them down on the table, squinting at the three Rangers suspiciously, but his suspicion sagged and faded as he looked back to the nearly-empty common room. “Bad times for travel,” he ventured awkwardly. “You might want to think ‘bout lingering for a while.”
Lithien threw back her white head and cackled: the sound was startling and loud in that quiet room. “Until business is better, you mean, old blunderer? Bring us three bowls of your stew, and let’s have no more of your sweettalking.” She waited until he was halfway back to the kitchen, muttering to himself, before she answered Aereth. “I haven’t seen aught, myself, but big paw-prints in the snow. Bears, that says to me, or wolves. But it’s not beasts that Bree-folk are talking of. If you ask any of the Bree-folk, Big or Little, they would tell you it’s ghosts.”
“Ghosts?” repeated Randirion.
“Aye. ‘Twas a little girl what started it, saying she was stalked home by pale shadows. The folk here have latched onto the idea.”
“If the Dead are come,” said Aereth, “I think we can do little.”
Randirion said nothing, his eyes far away.
Lithien took a long draught of ale, and did not speak until she had wiped the foam from her lips. “We are too few, here. We need more than three.” She thought for a moment and then said, “There are two patrols at Sarn Ford, but that is far. I know of one a day or two up the Greenway: they will be the closest.”
“I will find them,” said Randirion.
“You do not know where to look,” said the older Ranger. “I will go. The two of you will look to the west.” She bit her lip, and added, “The Bree-landers have their fences, and that is well. But the periannath know nothing of fear. Their river is their shield, and there are three ways across: the ford, the ferry, and the bridge.” She took another drink. “Sarn Ford is guarded. And the ferry lies behind the High Hay, protected. It is the Brandywine Bridge you must look to. That is where I will meet you.”
“Ma’am?” Randirion asked, confused.
“Ghosts or beasts or whatever they are, do not let them get as far as the Shire. Hold that bridge against all that would do the halflings harm, until I return with help.”
“Ah,” he said. “Right.”
She stood, gathering her cloak about her. “I’ll not wait. The sooner I’m gone, the sooner I’ll be back. Rest and eat, but I want you on the road before the sun rises.” She fixed Randirion with an irritable glare. “No heroics. Hold the bridge, and wait. In seven days I will come and relieve you.” She pulled up her hood, wreathing her face in shadow. “Luck to you.”
“Good night, Master Lithien,” said Aereth, as the senior Ranger slipped across the common room.
Butterbur, carrying three steaming bowls on a tray, paused to watch Lithien leave the room. Then he continued to the table, set the tray down, and grumbled, “I suppose one of you will be payin’, then.”
Randirion and Aereth looked at each other.
The gatekeeper let them out at the western gate. He peered warily at them, but muttered “Careful out there!” under his breath. They stepped out onto the Road, and with a groan the heavy gate locked behind them. The sky was still star-strewn, though the east was gray. The air was biting cold, and stung in Randirion’s nostrils when he drew breath. All was still. All was silent. Even the wind had hushed.
The two Rangers walked side-by-side on the westering Road, but they had not been walking for more than ten minutes before Randirion froze, peering ahead. He didn’t even need to say anything: Aereth had an arrow on the string almost before he had stopped moving.
“What is it?” she whispered, almost too low to hear.
“I thought I saw something move,” he said in the same tones. “There, ahead.”
She stared out through the predawn-dimness, but shook her head. Randirion shifted his grip on the spear’s haft, and then started moving forward again.
“What did you think you saw?” Aereth asked behind him.
He didn’t answer. He wasn’t certain. Maybe all he had seen was the white snow-powder gusting across the road.
Not far ahead, the Great East Road crossed another trail, what Bree-folk called the Greenway, the overgrown path leading from southern parts all the way up to Deadman’s Dike. A dark shape huddled at the junction like a forgotten bedroll. As they drew closer, Aereth suddenly gave a strangled cry and ran forward. Randirion did not understand, until he saw the six-pointed brooch on the bundle. In truth, there was little else left to identify her by.
“Master Lithien,” he breathed.
“She never made it a mile from the gates,” said Aereth, looking back at him, tears streaking her face. “And look.”
All around the bloody bones were large pawprints, blurred and indistinct.
They stopped long enough to gather the body and build a cairn over it, since the ground was too frozen to dig. As they washed their hands in the snow, Aereth looked at Randirion and said, “We should find the patrol near Fornost.”
“No,” he said. “We follow orders. We get to the bridge and we hold it.”
“If we do that, there’ll be no relief, no reinforcements—not for weeks.”
Randirion shook his head. He didn’t like it, either, but he didn’t see what choice they had. “There’s not enough time,” he said. “Whatever this is, it’s too close to the Shire, and nothing’s guarding that bridge.”
“We could split up…” Aereth ventured, but her voice trailed off. Even to her, it didn’t seem like a good idea, not when a Ranger as wily and battle-tested as Lithien had been caught unawares. She sighed. “West it is, then.”
The Road stretched away westward from the Greenway, tree-lined now between Bree and Buckland. Randirion led the way along it, hurrying at Ranger Pace—alternating between a hundred steps at a lope and a hundred steps at a walk, tirelessly eating up the miles. The Bree-Hill faded to gray behind them.
They travelled all that day without incident, not stopping until hours past sundown. They slept in turns, fitfully, the other keeping watch. It was not until about noon on their second day from Bree—though that was hard to tell, the sky having clouded over and threatening more snow—when the howling began.
At first it was distant, behind and to the north-east, so faint that the Rangers had been hearing it for several minutes before they consciously noticed it. They exchanged worried looks, but Randirion said, “Let’s press on.”
Then a howl answered from the south-east, closer, louder. It soared up and held a long, high, quavering note for several heartbeats before dying away. Despite himself, Randirion turned his head to look southward, though all he saw was the low roll of the Barrow-Downs like the waves of some vast white ocean.
“So it’s Wargs, then,” said Aereth softly.
“Mmmm,” said Randirion. He had heard Wargs howl, years before, but this was not like a Warg’s howl—full of battle and fury, like the sounding of a war-horn. Instead there was sadness in that cry, a wistfulness, and a hunger—eager hunger, a longing for satiation. Randirion could almost believe that it was the sound a ghost made.
“If they’ve scented our trail, perhaps we should go back,” Aereth ventured.
Randirion thought for a moment. “No,” he said at last. “They’ll be between us and Bree before long. And we may be closer to Buckland than we are to Bree.”
They ran on in silence, their snowshoes crunching rhythmically. For a time no more howls broke the winter stillness, and they saw nothing but their own breath steaming in the air.
It was perhaps an hour later, when Aereth stopped short, saying, “There’s something following us.”
Randirion stopped and turned to look. It was hard to see: the Road stretched white-on-white beneath its long row of trees. For a long moment he couldn’t see anything. Then there was a faint flicker of movement, and for a moment the bottom of one distant tree-trunk vanished. A white shape, nearly invisible against the snow, trotting along the Road in their footsteps, several hundred feet away.
A creaking sound: Aereth bent her bow. “It’s too far,” said Randirion.
“I can make it.” She nocked an arrow and drew the fletching to her cheek. A long inhale, half an exhale, breath held, and… With a soft twang, the arrow leapt from the bow.
The white shape danced aside suddenly, and stopped. When it stopped moving it became much harder to see, vanishing if one stared too hard or too long.
Whipping another arrow from her quiver, Aereth drew and fired again. Again the white thing scurried to the side, and waited. She reached for her quiver again, but Randirion held out his hand. “Save your arrows.”
They both stared out at the thing. They could not see its eyes, but they could feel it staring back.
“It’s a wolf,” said Aereth, marveling. “A white wolf. Remember those rumors last winter?”
Randirion said nothing.
“Should we go after it?”
He noticed suddenly that she was asking him for orders. He had no idea what orders to give. He missed Faelon more than ever, and how the old Ranger had always known what to do.
He looked out at the strange white wolf, and suddenly had the unnerving feeling that it was taunting them, hoping to lure them, hoping to tease them into wasting their arrows and their energy on pursuing it.
“No,” he said. “We push on, and wait for the right time.”
They resumed their westward march, though now with frequent glances over their shoulders. Behind them, the wolf resumed its pursuit, keeping just out of bowshot, keeping just within sight. Above, fresh snowflakes began sliding down the winter wind.
“There are two now,” said Aereth. “Still keeping far back.”
Randirion smiled. “That won’t be a problem.” He pointed ahead.
A dark blur stood out against the falling snow. As they drew closer, they saw that it was large copse of tangled trees, some last bastion of the distant Old Forest or the Chetwood, huddled here along the road.
When you’re being pursued, Master Faelon had always said, make a great circle until you come to your own tracks, and lie in ambush. Now, Randirion thought, they had the cover to do so.
They paced past the trees—skeletal and leafless, now, branches silvered with snow—until they were nearly past the copse. It was snowing harder, now, and when he glanced back, Randirion couldn’t see their pursuers. “This way!” he hissed, and darted off the Road into the trees, Aereth hard on his heels. The trees closed in behind them, screening them from the Road. Randirion, running in almost a crouch, began to turn to the left, back towards the east.
A snowdrift ahead burst open in a flurry of powder, giving birth to a shaggy white shape—so close! Before Randirion could blink, it leapt at him.
The Ranger had no time to stop, no time to dodge. He managed to throw his left arm across his face, and instinctively his chin tucked down. Then a great weight hit him in the face and the chest—he was spun around, something hit his head, and a great black roaring rent the world…
It was the wind, roaring like the ocean waves, kicking up snow and scattering it. A winter gale was blowing across the North Downs.
Randirion held up his lantern. It was a pitiful thing, really—a single candle’s light, flickering even in its protective cage of tin and horn, barely illuminating the ground at his feet. The Ranger stood alone on a barren hill in the North Downs and held his little lantern high, peering into the wine-dark night.
Something stood there.
There, on the faintest edge of candlelight, the glimmer fell on a shoulder, a hooded head, a silver brooch, and a cloak snapping in the wind like a banner. A Ranger, and not just any Ranger. The eyes were in shadow, but Randirion knew that hooked nose, those high cheekbones.
“Master… Faelon?” he said aloud, the wind whipping his words away.
The old Ranger was saying something. That is, his lips were moving as though he spoke, but all Randirion heard was the roaring gusts of the wind. Snow was kicked up in his face.
Something wasn’t right, he thought, even as he strained to hear his master’s words. Something didn’t make sense. And then he remembered that Faelon was dead.
He thought he could hear something now, above the wind’s assault: a voice speaking, though it didn’t sound like Faelon’s. Get up, it said. Get up. Get up.
“Get up! Get up, blast you!”
Randirion’s eyes snapped open. He was lying on his back. His head pounded—felt like a cracked egg. His ears were singing, and everything seemed blurry. He blinked, and the world began to focus.
Someone was standing over him, wildly swinging.
It was Aereth. She had planted herself over him, one foot to either side of his chest. Blood splashed brightly on the axe in her right hand, blood dripped from the dagger in her left, and blood darkly stained her cloak at the shoulder. Her hood had slipped back, and her dark hair spilled out about her face. Dazedly, Randirion thought she looked terrible and beautiful and fierce, all at once.
A snarling, a great white thing lunged into his field of view, but Aereth brought her axe down on its neck in a spray of blood, shouting, “Get up! I know your head is harder than that tree! Get up—or we die!”
It finally occurred to Randirion that she was speaking to him. He fumbled for his spear, found it lying within reach, and began to clamber to his feet.
The world swam, but he could see them now: a circle of white wolves, shaggier than timber wolves, with snow-white fur. They were bigger, too, standing nearly chest-high at the shoulder. Their eyes burned yellow, their tongues—when they licked their chops—were a startling red, and their teeth—when bared—were a pinkish yellowish ivory.
They circled in around the two Rangers. One rushed at him, but Aereth was there, stabbing at it, chasing it back. Yet while she did so, another wolf leapt for her hamstring. Randirion jabbed his spear at it, turning its charge aside, forcing it to face him instead.
The wolves clustered closer. They did not howl, they did not snarl—they kept an eerie silence, except for the snap of their teeth and the pant of their breath and their quick, eager footsteps.
The next few minutes were a scene of nightmare. The two Rangers stood back-to-back; the circle of white wolves closed in on them all at once. Randirion found himself using his spear more like a quarterstaff, thrusting and swinging with the butt-end as well as with the point, even kicking out with his snowshoes—all to keep those snapping jaws back. Once he plunged his spear into the chest of a wolf, only to have another wolf’s teeth sink into his calf: he kicked it away but lost his spear. He drew his long-seax and fought with it instead, hacking and swinging like a madman, conscious thought banished, sheer adrenaline and instinct carrying him forward.
Then came the moment when the last wolf broke and ran, loping away between the trees. Randirion sagged to his knees, panting, his head throbbing like an orc drum, his leg burning; Aereth lunged for her bow with an oath and sent an arrow winging after the wolf, but neither could see if it hit or missed.
They stared at each other then, blood dripping, breath gasping. Six white corpses lay at their feet.
“They were… waiting for us,” said Aereth, catching her breath. “The two following… drove us right… into it. They… ambushed us.”
Randirion didn’t reply. He was too busy breathing.
In the distance, the howling began anew.
They hadn’t spoken in hours. Night had long since fallen, but they walked on, pushing for Buckland, trying to ignore their injuries. The Road passed by beneath their feet, nearly unseen in the darkness.
Randirion had cut himself a crutch from a sapling, but was having trouble coordinating the crutch with his snowshoes. The fact that he was carrying both packs did not make things easier, but Aereth’s torn back and shoulder could not take the strain of the packstraps. He leaned heavily on Aereth’s uninjured shoulder for balance: he could feel her wince with every step, but she said nothing, not even to complain.
Every few hours, the howling would begin again, somewhere behind them, following them like a painful memory. Their steps would quicken the slightest bit when this happened, but beyond that, they made no remark.
Sometime after midnight the snow stopped, and a scudding wind began to break up the cloud cover. As it did so, they saw a dark shape looming ahead against the stars. It was the Brandywine Bridge, arcing over the wide river like a giant’s bow: the entrance to the Shire. On the far shore, the lights of the Bridge Inn gleamed encouragingly. To their left they saw the great hedge curving away from the water, with the Hay Gate barring the way to Buckland.
As they reached the bridge, Randirion sagged down and sat right on the first few snow-dusted paving stones, dropping both their packs. Aereth sat beside him, breathing hard. They said nothing for many minutes, feeling the burn of miles in their legs.
At last, Aereth asked, “What now?”
“We hold the bridge,” said Randirion, “at all costs.”
Painstakingly, they dragged fallen logs and deadwood from the outskirts of the Old Forest. Halfway up the bridge’s span they piled a barricade, waist-high, crossing the bridge from rail to rail, with a small gap in the center. In front of the gap they lit a small watch-fire, with another at the foot of the bridge. Aereth strung her bow and set several arrows within reach. And then they sat down to wait.
The great wheel of stars spun overhead. An hour passed. Randirion fed the watchfires. Aereth stood, rubbing at her injured shoulder, and handed Randirion her bow, saying, “I’ll be back.” She set off across the bridge toward the Inn.
Randirion peered eastward into the darkness. Somewhere in the distance the white wolves began to howl again, closer than they were before. The night was bitter, bitter cold—the temperature had been dropping steadily since darkness fell. Randirion could remember colder winters up in the Angle, near the Misty Mountains, but down here in the Shire winters were usually milder than this. Now that he was no longer pushing himself to walk, he began to shiver. He crept close to the watchfire, knowing that he was lighting himself up as a target, but not caring.
They’re wolves, he thought sleepily. They don’t have bows.
The snow behind him crunched with bootsteps, and Aereth dropped down beside him, carrying two steaming tankards. “The innkeeper was a little startled to see a Big Person so far from Bree, and so late at night,” she said, “but he was kind enough to mull some wine nonetheless. Only half-pints, I’m afraid.” Randirion took his gratefully, sipping the welcome warmth, while she shook out her other prize: a white linen sheet. “Let’s see that leg,” she said, as she began to tear it into strips.
Randirion kept his eyes out beyond the bridge, the tankard still in his hand, while she eased up the leg of his torn breeks and examined the old bandages beneath. “This will sting,” he heard her say.
“Thank you,” he said suddenly.
“For what? Hurting you?”
“Saving me. Back there, when I was knocked over.”
She said nothing for a minute. Dried blood had caked on the inside of the old bandage: she was carefully cleaning it off. “And what else,” she said at last, “did you expect me to do?”
Randirion hesitated, casting about for the right words. “Look, I know we haven’t gotten along very well over the last few weeks—”
“Ahhhhh. So what you’re saying is, you half-expected me to scurry up a tree and leave you to the wolves, and you’re relieved that I didn’t do so.”
“No, I—that’s not what I—OW!” That last was as Aereth splashed his calf from a small bottle of brandy.
“You don’t trust me,” she said in a low, terse voice, as she began to re-wrap his leg with clean linen strips.
“That’s not true,” he said, hearing the defensive edge creep into his voice.
“It is true. Ever since we’ve been assigned together, you’ve told me how to do my job. Clearly you don’t trust me.”
Away in the darkness, a single voice raised up in that ghastly, lonely howl. A chorus of other voices rose to join it—perhaps a mile away, no more.
“I’m… learning to trust you,” Randirion said at last.
The fire popped and crackled. “It’s a start,” Aereth said softly, almost sadly. “I guess I can live with that.”
She finished tying the bandage around his leg and pulled the leg of his trousers down. Randirion looked down. “Oh,” he said, “You’ve tied that all wrong.”
Her eyes darted to his, sharp as arrowheads, until she saw he was holding back a grin. She sighed and shoved the rest of the linen strips into his hands as she shook her head. “Cute. Now bandage me, funny-man.”
They repositioned themselves so that Aereth could keep an eye on the dark beyond the watch-fire. She loosened the laces of her tunic and her under-tunic, holding the fabric against her chest while she slipped her bare arm free. Randirion began to attack the old bandages--strips torn from the hem of his cloak that he had tied there after the attack. “What about you, then?”
“What about me?”
“Well, you don’t seem to trust me much either.” He released the last knot and began to unwind the blood-stained wool, passing it under her arm and over her shoulder. “Every decision I make, every suggestion I give, you contradict me.”
“Sometimes you’re wrong. Sometimes I have a better idea. Is that so hard for you to believe?”
He chuckled. “No, actually. I’m wrong a lot.” He peeled away the last layer and sucked in air through his teeth, seeing anew the rows of jagged gashes--black in the firelight. Ducking, he retrieved the little brandy-bottle and moistened a bit of linen. “But you can tell me I’m wrong without sounding like you’re speaking to a tom-fool.” He reached out to wipe away the crusted blood, but hesitated, meeting Aereth’s eyes. “You ready?”
She nodded quickly, not speaking, for her teeth were clenched together.
He cleaned the bite-wound quickly, but as gently as he could, feeling her tense and shiver under his fingers. Then he began to wrap her arm and shoulder with the new bandage. He kept wrapping until all he could see was her unbroken skin, golden in the fire-light, prickly with goose-flesh from the cold. He could feel her studying him: he thought about reminding her to keep watch, but said nothing.
“You’re not a tom-fool, Rand,” she said quietly as he was tying the final knot. Their eyes met again. Hers were pale and glittering in the dim firelight.
Randirion opened his mouth to speak, realized that he had forgotten what he meant to say, and looked away awkwardly.
“Listen to us,” said Aereth, with a laugh that sounded slightly forced. Holding the neckline of her tunic tightly, she slid her arm back into its sleeve, and began to tighten up the laces. “Some patrol we turned out to be. It’s taking a plague of wolves to get us to start trusting each other. And we need to start trusting each other.”
Randirion nodded. “Out here, one’s patrol is one’s armor.”
She looked at him sideways and laughed. “Dirhael gave you that lecture too, huh?”
Her laughter was cut off by the faint patter of footsteps in the snow. The east was greying with dawn, so that the rolling horizon of the Barrow-Downs and the first trees of the Old Forest stood stark and black against the sky, but below all was still dark, except for the faint flurry of movement on the far side of the lower watchfire.
The Rangers reacted instantly: Aereth setting arrow to string, Randirion catching up his spear. Both clambered behind the barricade. “It’s beginning,” Aereth said in a soft sing-song.
Beyond in the darkness, like flickering candle-flames, five sets of eyes fed and fattened on the fire-light, casting it back yellow-red.
The wolves came together, at a rush, eerily silent.
One’s first step into the light was also its last step in the circles of this world—Aereth’s arrow struck it between the eyes, sending it sprawling on the flagstones.
The second was caught low in the upper ribs—below the heart, piercing the big muscles of the chest. Aereth hissed in annoyance. The wolf limped on a few more steps, but was quickly outpaced by its packmates.
The third and fourth, passing the second watchfire, ran for the gap in the barricade, thinking to take advantage of this glaring weakness in the bridge defenses. From beyond the gap, Randirion’s spear slammed into the third wolf’s throat, rearing it up, pressing it back, as its snarl choked off in a gurgle. Its body blocked the gap, forcing the fourth wolf to turn aside.
A scramble, a clamber, and the fifth wolf climbed to the top of the barricade. It hesitated there for a moment, ready to drop down upon Randirion. Aereth, however, had begun falling back, and the wolf was perfectly silhouetted against the fires. A twang, a thwack, and the wolf-shape dropped from view.
By now the fourth wolf worked its way over its dying comrade and past the barricade. Randirion was there, blocking its path, holding his spear cross-ways across his body. The wolf leapt for his throat, but Randirion jammed the spear-haft into the wolf’s jaws, forcing its teeth to bite down on wood. In a motion almost too swift to follow, he released the spear with one hand and drew his longseax, slashing downward. The wolf kept pressing forward, snapping at the Ranger’s wounded leg, but after the second stroke it crumpled at his feet.
Both Rangers limped back to the barricade, but there was no need: all they saw was the wounded wolf galloping back into the pre-dawn twilight.
For a long moment they heard only the hiss and pop of the two fires. Then, away in the grey dimness, a single, low, wavering howl. Another joined in, a third. Ten—no, maybe twenty. Randirion lost count. It seemed as though a hundred chill voices sang in the grey morning.
The sky was lighter now, thinning the daybreak pall. Color leeched back into the world, the red of blood and the grey of stone. The Brandywine River reflected back the pearl-grey sky in an unbroken sheen, as smooth and unbroken as a sheet of—
“Ice,” Aereth breathed. She exchanged grim glances with Randirion.
For the first time in a hundred years, perhaps even since the Long Winter, the Brandywine had frozen. And even as they watched, dim and fleeting in the pale morning light, they saw flickers of motion moving across the glassy surface. Pale wolf-shapes, silent as ghosts, passing across the frozen river. North of the Bridge they poured into Eastfarthing. South of the Bridge they passed into Buckland. Scores of silent white wolves crossed the river. The Rangers had no way to stop them.
Randirion sagged where he stood, leaning on his spear-haft. They had failed.
They could hear other noises now, as the wolves loped past. Far in the distance, they could hear the crashing of doors, the alarmed shouts of hobbit-men. Somewhere to the north they heard a pony scream. And then, shattering the early morning stillness, came the brassy shout of a hunting-horn, sounding the alarm. AWAKE! AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE! AWAKE!
As if in mockery, the wolves took up a rival chorus, drowning the horn-call with their frozen voices.
Randirion felt a hand on his shoulder. Aereth was staring at him. There was fear in her face, and exhaustion too, but her eyes were hard like flint. She gave him a slow nod.
And like that, his despair fell away, like a rucksack dropped at his feet. Yes, they had failed to hold the enemy, and yes, they were far outnumbered—but they were Rangers of the North, and they would do what must be done. Someone had to.
“Right,” he said, returning the nod. “We have a lot of work to do. Let’s move.”
They broke into a run. Their cloaks twisted out behind them. And like grey ghosts, like the avenging spirits of Numenorian kings, the Rangers crossed into the Shire, pursuing their enemy.