and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
'tis evil in the Wild to fare. ~
Anoriath wished for nothing more than warm feet. Her toes were lumpen bits of wool shot with pins, senseless and stuffed tight in the cold-stiffened leather of her boots. A bed other than rocks and drifts of leaves led a close second, but she was unlikely to get either.
She eased her pack off an aching shoulder and let it fall to the frosted litter of pine needles. They had tramped through the Wild with little rest, through sun and moon on a long familiar path, halting only when the light failed on the second day and their feet no longer knew the land beneath them. Here they stopped, in a small bowl of earth ringed by tall standing pines. Men stood like darkened trunks of trees about the dell, seen only in the movements that separated them from those that were more deeply rooted. Home and shelter from the night it would be for their small company, if only until the dawn tipped over the short rise.
The Ranger dropped to the ground beside her gear and groaned softly. "For pity's sake, Hal," she begged in a low voice, "a fire, please!"
When her brother's twilit features peered about the forest from beneath his hood, she continued, "Certainly there is naught but snow and ice about tonight!"
Anardil dropped to the ground beside her with what only could have been a sigh had his pride so allowed. His frosted breath curled in the air.
"Come, Hal," he urged, flexing and rubbing the reddened fingers that poked through the rags of his makeshift gloves, "surely there is more immediate danger of death from the cold than from anything that a fire might draw tonight. We'll not hit the Troll Shaws for another four days' march, at least. Few fell things dare come so near Imladris."
Halbarad grunted his reluctant acknowledgement and nodded. "A small one, then," he allowed.
At his sister's sour grimace, Hal spoke sternly, "These are dark times, Ani. Who knows what crawls from the shadows even within the lord Elrond's reach?"
Anoriath winced, feeling all the more ill-tempered for her brother's reproof. "I'll just be glad to find a shadow I can crawl under," she muttered.
"Aye, to that," Anardil groaned and shrugged his pack off his shoulders.
Bob appeared behind them, snuffling loudly to clear his running nose. "What ails you, Dil?" he needled the older man. "Feeling your years, are you?"
But of no humor to indulge in banter in return, Anardil merely yawned and stared vaguely beyond their circle.
The pine needles rustled with footsteps and Elros' bag soon joined them. The Ranger followed, crouching beside it to throw open the flap and rummage through it. Saying nothing, his fine features lay hidden in the shadow of his hood. Bob shrugged and, brushing past Anoriath, set to clearing a swathe of ground before them with his boot.
Anoriath watched him vacantly, her wits dulled by the cold and long road. 'Her brother need not tell her of dark times,' she grumbled internally. Did he think her blind and deaf to the groaning of the earth about them? Strange half-goblin men appeared at the borders of Dunland, worrying away at the cautious wall Mateon's holding provided to the south. Trolls blundered out of the mountains to the east. Wolves howled from the hills to the west. The sneering shadow of Angmar reached down from the north. Foes multiplied and the people of the lost kingdom of Arnor dwindled, leaving Bree and the Shire bu
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