Tales of the North
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An excess of weather: 5. Winter's first bite
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 but light, and 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. Yet the snow made for slower going than he had hoped; they had just about enough food with them, but it would be better if they added to their supply by hunting or foraging. 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.
"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 Veäntur 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 he had found leading his first patrol 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'd 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.
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