Tales of the North
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An excess of weather: 7. Shortfall
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 various 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 even have enough proof to say that it had not been an accident, and certainly not enough to accuse anyone. 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 he lay 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 sounded, 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."
Halladan merely nodded as he finished his soup.
Several others were already gathered in front of Arador's tent. As Halladan sat down as well, 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 did mean 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 wasn't 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 one of them may 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.
"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." He shook his head and went on, "We entered Buckland," Thelion told him. "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 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; signs of a fire having been built there too a while ago. Whoever put it there hasn't been back for some time, as there were no footprints near it. There were wolf tracks in the snow nearby; that's how we found the place."
The thief is bold, but careless, Halladan thought, as he noted the Chieftain'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 alone. With Finglas lodged gloomily on a low branch of the next tree along, this was as alone as he was going to be, and it was enough to give him a 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 shouldn't abandon his post unless there was no other way. For all he knew, this was only the first wave of the attack; these wolves weren't Wargs, but even ordinary wolves might work with Orcs on occasion, and someone should give warning in that case.
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 almost was 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 some 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. It was still too long to daylight to leave Finglas untended, and Halladan was loath to leave him by himself while he returned to the camp for help; it might be his only chance though.
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 has been 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, already half-asleep, 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.
"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.
"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 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 barrel of grain had overturned. 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 shelf over the barrel, and found they were short of his tally." He paused, briefly 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."
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, and on Vëantur and Hador.
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 walked off.
Arador might be inclined to mercy, but it was clear that he had also set some of the men to guard their food and each other even closer than before.
Over the next few days, Halladan put the thefts as far from his mind as he could – first both Finglas and Herion died from the wounds they had sustained in the wolf attack, then the three men who had been sent to follow the trail of the horses returned without success.
The night that the men who had chased the horses returned, Arador announced that they would have to go to even shorter rations. Between hunger and biting cold Halladan found it impossible to fall asleep, so when he heard a commotion outside in the camp he was outside 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 without keeping my boots on.
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 emerged 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 holding him, even if he was still resisting, 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 now, as if he only belatedly 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 could feel 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, and we found this in his pack," and he held up a small package, tightly wrapped in oilpaper and tied with sturdy twine. "A packet of Shire tea."
"I see," Arador said. "Then, Hador, son of Hirgon, I charge you with stealing food from your fellow Rangers, and from those we are sworn to protect; and with neglectful behaviour that has led already to the deaths of several Rangers, and which has endangered all this company. The penalty for these charges is death. How do you plead?"
Hador sagged and he would have fallen had Imlach 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?"
"Unlikely," Halladan said at the same time as Vëantur said, "No."
"You can't prove that," Hador shouted as he tried to break loose from Imlach's grip.
Arador sighed. "I already had enough to hang you, young fool," he muttered softly enough that Halladan doubted any except him heard it. His next words were spoken out loud again. "Hador, you are a thief and a traitor to your oath, and you hereby stand condemned to death. Imlach, bind his hands. Mallor, get a rope."
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