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Unto the ending of the world: 12. Ranger
The ride north from Edoras left Halbarad with too much time to think, and none of his thoughts pleasant. He should be using this time to think on how he could strengthen the defence of the North, or how best to handle the Council of the Angle. Instead, he kept returning to his argument with Éowyn of Rohan; not merely her abandonment of duty – that was plain enough, but how she had risked the very existence of her House. At the council, he had spoken in anger, but who had that anger been directed at? How could you be so reckless with your people? Halbarad wanted to shy away from the thought, but there was no denying that he was angry at Aragorn, angry for having gambled with the line of the Kings, for getting himself killed, for leaving him bereft and hopeless, for failing...
But what else could he have done? Would you have had him stay in the Angle, perhaps keep him penned up in Caras Dirnen, to keep him safe? Or married to a woman he did not love, just to perform his duty and beget an heir? No, that would not have been right either. Halbarad knew he could not have borne seeing Aragorn thus restricted and reduced. Arwen... Elrond should not have set his conditions. Aragorn might still have fallen, but at least there would have been another heir to Isildur's line.
And if he was fair, Halbarad could only admit that previous Chieftains had also taken their time about marriage and heirs. While none had waited – had been made to wait – quite this long, it was not the custom of the Dúnedain to wed young. Aragorn had taken many risks and faced many dangers in his life, but hardly ever had he been reckless or impatient, at least not in his actions; bold, yes, but not reckless. If Aragorn had been reckless, it was in working towards his goals so single-mindedly, knowing full well the price of failure. Oh curse it, Aragorn! Even if you had left an heir, what difference? You would still be dead. Halbarad pulled up the hood of his cloak to hide sudden tears, glad for the steadily falling rain.
They crossed the Fords of Isen and left Rohan on the second day after leaving Edoras. Over the next few days, as they passed through Dunland, the constant rain gave way to showers, but it was still cold and windy. Though there were old tracks that suggested at least one large group had passed this way, the road was empty. Halbarad was wary for trouble even so; he doubted many Dunlendings would risk attacking a sizable armed company such as theirs on the open road, but he could not ignore the possibility.
The Grey Company made good time despite the weather, the men's spirits lifting somewhat as they left the south behind. Though all were still deeply grieved by the loss of Aragorn, they also longed to return home, and Halbarad had seen more than one Ranger look north wistfully. Making sure yet again that the oilskin-wrapped package that contained the scrolls with Aragorn's will and the letter for Arwen that Elladan had given him was secure in his pack, next to the palantír, Halbarad was uncertain how he felt about returning home. He missed Dineth, and he would be glad to see her, but the closer to the Angle he came, the more apprehensive he felt about what lay ahead, and the less clear his course of action appeared.
On their fifth day from the Fords of Isen, they came to Tharbad. Halbarad hoped they would reach the ford in time to cross in daylight. The crossing was always hazardous, and if the weather further north had been anywhere near as bad as it had been in Rohan, Gwathló would be even more treacherous than it normally was.
Halbarad had always found the ruins of Tharbad a dreary, miserable place, and they looked no better to him this time. Eriador had many ruins of keeps and towns, but most had not been lived in for a thousand years or more. Tharbad had still been a living city almost within his own lifetime. He looked critically at what was left of the city and the causeway leading to it.
Should the Steward of Gondor decide he did need what resources the North could offer, how much work would it take to restore the ruins enough to transport goods south? Rebuilding the bridge would make it too easy for the Enemy's troops to cross the river; clearing the remaining stones from the water would make it impossible to ford the river, and they could then use barges to ferry goods. Halbarad nodded in satisfaction. It was not much, but it was a start at least.
The Grey Company approached the ford slowly, giving the Rangers guarding it time to recognise them. As his horse stepped into the river, Halbarad thought he spotted a sentry moving among the ruins of the bridge's gatehouse on the other side.
Ignoring the icy water that seeped into his boots, Halbarad kept driving his now reluctant horse forward. At least the animal kept going, even if he felt its hooves slip on the treacherous footing of the ruined bridge more than once. Others had more trouble to get the Gondorian horses into the water, but all succeeded in the end. As he passed the broken support arch that marked the halfway point, Halbarad saw that a number of Rangers were waiting to meet them on the other shore. As the first of the Grey Company reached dry land again, the Tharbad Rangers quickly led horses and men to shelter.
Halbarad dismounted to greet the captain of the Tharbad company, his brother-in-law, Daeron. As they clasped hands he noticed the barely healed scar running up the other's arm. Noting his glance, Daeron looked slightly sheepish as he explained, "I did not duck fast enough. It has been busy since you last came by. But what of your mission, did you find Aragorn?"
"We did," Halbarad replied.
Before he could continue, Daeron spoke again. "And what is the news from the South? We have heard only vague rumours of the war."
Halbarad paused to steady his voice before he spoke. "Aragorn is dead. As we tried to break the siege of Minas Tirith, he took a mortal wound against one of the Nazgûl."
"Aragorn, dead? No..." Daeron stared at him in shocked disbelief, as did the other Tharbad Rangers within earshot. "Against a Nazgûl?" He had paled, trembling.
Of course, Halbarad thought, Daeron had been one of the few to survive the Ringwraiths' attack on Sarn Ford the previous autumn. Daeron remained silent for some time, and though he looked at Halbarad, it was clear his thoughts were elsewhere. Then he shook his head, banishing whatever it was that haunted him. "You are Captain now?"
"Yes," Halbarad said.
Daeron nodded. "You had better come inside. We can talk later." Halbarad followed him to the ruined inn that served as the Tharbad company's quarters.
"It has been busy here, you said," Halbarad prompted Daeron.
"Yes," Daeron replied, as Halbarad sat down on a bench near the fire in what had been the inn's common room. "Mostly Dunlendings and some of those half-Orcs with them. We stopped all, except one group. It is just as well we are back at full strength here and no longer have most of our men around the Shire, or we would have stopped none."
"How many got through? When?"
"Two hundred, ten days ago. They lost forty in the crossing. We lost three men, several wounded. I set some men to follow them and sent a warning to Fornost and Sarn Ford, but the man I sent to Fornost is not yet back."
"Those ruffians that set up near Bree over the winter are still causing trouble. They tried to move into the Shire as well, but have been kept out so far, partly by the hobbits' own efforts. Other than that, Orcs in the mountains, and attempting to strengthen their foothold in the Ettenmoors. Some came as far south as the Road. Rivendell and the eastern patrols are taking care of that. The mountain passes were still closed due to snow, from the last I heard. No large battles, but we have been kept busy everywhere."
It was too much to hope that the Dunlendings would not join with the band already troubling the Bree-land, but they would have to be dealt with wherever they had gone. Daeron's messenger to Fornost should return soon and then they would know.
"Twelve for Bree and Fornost, and eight that I know of in the eastern patrols. There have been deaths among the Bree-landers as well, but I do not know how many."
It was not yet as bad as Halbarad had feared, but still worse than he had hoped, though he was alarmed at Orcs from the Ettenmoors getting so near the Angle. And the hobbits taking to arms... That at least was good news.
"How is the Greenway?" Halbarad asked.
"Quiet, at least as far up as the Barrow-downs. Muddy."
If their luck on the road held, they should be home in no more than ten days or so, even if the weather remained bad. Halbarad noticed Halmir waiting nearby, and motioned for his son to join them. Daeron greeted Halmir and the two spoke briefly before Daeron walked off to attend to other tasks.
"How long until we get home?" Halmir asked as he sat down.
"Are you that eager to return?" Halbarad asked in return, and continued teasingly, attempting levity. "Lossiel does have some patience, even if you have not, but I reckon it should be no more than two weeks."
Halbarad smiled as Halmir blushed at the mention of his intended. He suspected that here sat one Ranger who would not delay marriage by much longer, even if he was still young for it. He suddenly had a feeling – not a foresight, he had been spared those since the Paths of the Dead – that it might not be all that long before he held his first grandchild. He repressed a flash of anxiety at that thought; even knowing that the War would not spare the North, he could not deny Halmir what joy was still to be found in life.
Later that night, Halbarad went outside to stretch his legs, and consider the actions before him. Not only would the Dunlendings have to be dealt with, it was also even more important now that the remains of the bridge be cleared soon, before any more of Saruman's men could cross the river. After a few minutes, Daeron joined him.
"I did not want to ask in front of the men, but what will happen to the Dúnedain now, with Aragorn dead? Who will lead us?" Daeron asked.
"Aragorn appointed me Chieftain," Halbarad replied.
Daeron gave him a sharp look. "Then what about the line of Isildur? Are you Heir as well?"
"No." He shook his head wearily. "The line of the Kings is ended."
"Ended?" Daeron looked puzzled. "But you, can you not..."
Halbarad shook his head again, now more emphatically. "Aragorn decided thus, and I agree. Not all would accept me as Heir, and we cannot afford strife." He would not yet speak of the Ring, but he should not let their position seem less serious than it was either, so at Daeron's questioning look, Halbarad added, "The Enemy will not stop with Minas Tirith, nor even with Gondor. He will come north in force. Not yet this year perhaps, but come he will, and we must be ready and undivided."
Daeron looked down, thinking, then after some time met his gaze. "I understand. You have my support."
The next morning the Grey Company set off again. Two men from the Tharbad garrison went with them, both to bring the news of Aragorn's death to Sarn Ford and the captains at Fornost, and to bring details of the Dunlendings' whereabouts when they returned to Tharbad.
Halbarad hesitated whether he should not ride north and see for himself; it would take no more than a few days. No, the captains should be able to handle this for now, and he could return west quickly enough if necessary.
By the evening of the third day they neared Andrath and the southern edge of the Barrow-downs. Halbarad had been checking their supplies and instructing the man from Tharbad who would ride on towards Bree and Fornost the next day. As he paid attention again to the general conversation, he just caught the end of an argument between Hunthor and Borlas.
"We can make better time if we keep to the Road," Hunthor said.
Borlas scoffed at the idea. "Go through Bree? In full battle gear? Even if the Road is not held against us, we might as well put up signposts to the Angle while we are at it. No, we must turn east off the Greenway and not return to the Road until after the Marshes."
Hunthor looked down, his embarrassment at having his suggestion dismissed clear to see.
Halbarad agreed with Borlas, but he had some idea also of what bothered Hunthor and gesturing at Borlas to leave it to him, he replied, "Hunthor, I do not like it either, but the time to reveal ourselves has not come yet. Eriador is not Gondor, and the Dúnedain must remain hidden a while longer."
"Then when? When can we stop skulking in the shadows?" the other asked bitterly. "What they say in Bree and the Shire, 'when the King comes back,' for what people know is not going to happen? You may as well tell me that now, for it is about as likely to occur."
When the King comes back... Somehow, Halbarad managed not to flinch at the familiar old saying. He held Hunthor's gaze without saying anything until Hunthor looked down and started to fidget at his silence.
"I doubt it will be long before we come into the open," Halbarad finally said. Soon, he would have no choice but to reveal the Rangers' purpose, for he doubted the brigands around Bree could be rooted out without that happening. Even knowing it was unavoidable, Halbarad did not understand this eagerness to be out in the open. They had all seen the Enemy's armies before Minas Tirith. Hunthor should be able to figure out how long the Angle would stand against such numbers.
Later, when Halbarad relieved Hunthor from his sentry duty, the younger man hesitated, then said, "Sir?" Halbarad nodded, and the other continued, "Captain, earlier, what I said... I must apologise, I did not mean to say it like that."
Halbarad held Hunthor's gaze as he spoke. "Hunthor, this is hard on us all. I will not take you to task over well-intended words spoken from the heart, even if badly put. But keep some rein on your tongue nonetheless. While I would have you free to talk about Aragorn and to remember him, I will not tolerate disrespect towards him."
Hunthor looked half relieved, half ashamed. "I am sorry, Captain. I would not... I meant no disrespect."
Halbarad shook his head as Hunthor walked away. The young Ranger meant well enough, but he seemed on occasion to have an uncommon talent for saying things the wrong way.
Despite the detour around Bree and the continuing bad weather, the Grey Company still made decent time over the next days, though they had to ease up slightly after Beleg's horse pulled up lame again, and he had to switch to one of their spare mounts.
They were now only a few miles from the Last Bridge, and nearing the end of their journey. That night, after he finished cleaning Andúril and had resheathed it, Halbarad addressed Borlas, "After the Bridge I will go on to Rivendell and you can take the rest of the Company into the Angle to bring the news to Caras Dirnen. I will follow as soon as I can."
Borlas looked up from where he was sitting mending a strap on his saddle. "I am coming with you."
"You are the Chieftain. You should not be riding around on your own, certainly not when Orcs have been seen near the Road."
"I can look after myself."
"Is that what Aragorn told you before the Pelennor?"
Halbarad had to swallow before he could reply. He hoped his voice was steady. "That is a low strike, Borlas."
"But to the point. And another thing, why do you go to Rivendell before the Angle? Should not our own people come first? Let someone else be messenger to Rivendell. Prove to the Dúnedain that you are not another who looks to the Elves more than to his own, like A..." Borlas abruptly fell silent as he met Halbarad's gaze.
"Without Rivendell, the Dúnedain would have dwindled to nothing a long time ago."
"Perhaps, but if not for Rivendell's recent counsel, we would have had a living Heir of Isildur."
Halbarad bit back an angry reply, and stood up instead, staring at the dark forest beyond their campfire for some minutes. He sighed as he turned to address Borlas again, "Very well then. You and Gethron can accompany me to Rivendell. Halmir will lead the Grey Company to the Angle."
Borlas started to agree, then exclaimed, "Halmir? He is barely more than an untried youth!"
Halbarad merely raised an eyebrow at his lieutenant. He had never unfairly favoured his son, and Borlas knew well enough that no man who was chosen for the Grey Company could be called an untried youth. Borlas met his gaze and gave him a hard look, but said nothing before he walked away.
Some time later, Halbarad sat staring into the campfire, wondering whether Borlas' hostility to Rivendell would become a problem later on. In itself it was nothing new, though his second had never been this outspoken before. Still, these questions were to be expected, nor would Borlas be the last to raise this point. Halbarad had questions himself about the reasoning that had led to sending out the Fellowship to destroy the Ring, though Elrond might well be unwilling to answer them.
Halbarad shook his head. He would have to watch Borlas, even if he did not like giving the impression that he would stifle dissent. A man should be free to speak his mind to his captain, or to his lord, as long as in the end he would abide by what was decided. Aragorn had certainly always expected him to speak plainly and give his honest opinion. Halbarad knew well that even so he had more than once come very close to overstepping the mark in arguing with Aragorn, yet once a decision had been taken, he would fall into line. However, he was not Aragorn, and Borlas was not him. He could not afford leniency, not as Chieftain and not as Captain, not yet at any rate.
Borlas' outspokenness also complicated the choice for Halbarad's second and the new captain of the Grey Company. Borlas was the obvious choice for the position, and despite his misgivings, Halbarad had already as good as decided that it would have to be so. Several of the younger Rangers, including Halmir, did show promise, but it would be some time yet before they were ready to lead a company, let alone serve as his lieutenant and command the Grey Company. The other captains were all needed where they were, so he could not move one of them, even if he would much prefer having Daeron as his second. He would just have to continue to work with Borlas; he knew him well enough, though they did not get along, and never had. At least he was capable, though to Halbarad's mind overly cautious at times. Even so, it would be better that the news come to Caras Dirnen from someone who would not speak against Halbarad choosing to go to Rivendell first.
The three Rangers set off long before dawn the next morning. They would not make it to Rivendell that day, not even if they rode their horses to exhaustion, but Halbarad still set as hard a pace as was possible.
Around noon, Borlas, who had been keeping back to watch the road, warned that there were four riders behind them.
"Rangers?" Halbarad asked.
Borlas' reply was just as curt. "Elves."
"We wait," Halbarad decided. The first of the riders soon caught up with them and as he approached, Halbarad saw it was Glorfindel.
The normally cheerful Elf looked grim, and as Halbarad was about to speak, he said, "I already know. We came past Tharbad and heard the news there. You are going to Rivendell?"
"Yes," Halbarad replied.
"Then let us ride on together."
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