~ 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. ~
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 but thinly defended. Indeed, it was a plea for aid that lent desperate speed to their march across the empty lands between.
Anoriath grabbed at her cloak, drawing its gray tattered edge more tightly about her, hoping to frustrate the draft that slid freezing fingers through a rent in the seam between sleeve and shoulder. Tired. She was bone-deep, leadened-muscle tired. So few of the Dúnedain left and so large the Wild.
Now rumor proclaimed that their chief had left his kin to pursue some gangrel, half-dead creature across the lands of the east. There lay the Ephel Dúath and the Dark Lord whose will drove every fell creature in Middle-earth to crawl on its belly out from whatever dark hole gave it birth. And the son of Arathorn, their last and greatest hope, walked in the very shadow of that evil will.
Elros tossed a small leather satchel at Anardil, who started and then caught it before it hit his chest. Tucking his hands and the bag of flint under his arms the better to warm them, Anardil shrugged deeper into his cowl, all but his nose and the puff of icy breath disappearing into his hood.
"Leave off, Bob," he muttered at the Ranger who had dropped to his knees and was now blowing and pushing away the last of the pine-straw from a small circle.
Bob grinned, peering up at the man, "Oh, aye, but there's enough tinder here to set the whole forest to blaze. We'll toast more than our toes if we're not careful."
"It will do well enough," Anardil said.
"Oh, aye, well enough," Bob agreed, flicking away a leaf and examining the ground for more. "But what would Aragorn say, Dil, our heir of Isildur, of his Rangers who were satisfied with 'well enough'?"
Anoriath, her lips a grim compressed line, clouted Bob on the arm.
"Ow! What?" the startled Ranger protested, staring at her.
"Must you say that name so loud in such a place?" she demanded, shaking her hand, her frozen fingers stinging from the slap.
He shrugged, scowling, his mood soured. "What difference could it possibly make?"
"Let us not add to the peril we are facing by giving the Enemy the very thing he seeks, shall we?" she insisted.
"I am doing no such thing!"
Anardil, frowning, commanded without moving, "Lower your voices, both of you."
Within earshot, Halbarad grimaced and continued to walk the perimeter of the dell, peering past the tree-line.
Anoriath, sparing Anardil a sullen glance, did as he requested, but could not resist hissing at Bob. "Your carelessness will be the death of all of us yet."
"Carelessness!" Bob whispered. "You are the one who wanted the fire, remember?"
Startling his friends, Elros pulled his dagger from his belt in a single supple move and plunged it into the turf at Bob's feet. Bob fell silent and stared at the knife.
"Either help me or move," Elros stated flatly.
Backing up, Bob shifted off his knees and, working his own knife free, joined his friend in digging at the iron ground, setting aside clumps of frozen earth. Watching them struggle, Anoriath's shoulders fell, knowing she should get up and help, but able to do nothing but stare miserably at her comrades.
The skin lay slack and blue under Elros' eyes and the corners of his lips settled into lines too long habitually drawn down. Bob's face bore a faint, yellowed bruise from some forgotten attempt to stem the dark tide creeping from the empty, echoing lands of Hollin. Anardil sat as still as a ghost beside her and as present, his dull eyes having drifted far away. Halbarad, his bearded cheeks still gaunt from a fevered wound, quiet and grim, paced restlessly behind her. The gray they wore faded into the settling shadows of night, mercifully hiding their pathetic attempts to knit together threadbare clothing.
The Dúnedain these were, heirs to Númenor, descendants of Elves and the Fathers of Men, with rags barely clinging to their backs and bits of the forest nesting in their unwashed hair. Bereft of the Dúnadan, what were they?
Anoriath's jaw ached and she willed herself to loosen the muscles that ground her teeth together. A chill wind blew flecks of ice into her eyes. She blinked up into a powder of snow drifting from the low hanging sky.
"If you do not think a fire wise, Bob, in this weather," she growled, "then you are a fool."
"Not so foolish as to wish to share it with you," he blurted, annoyed, and jabbed his knife deep into the turf.
Elros surged to his feet, his face pinched and closed. Turning his back on them, he strode to the edge of the firs, wrapping his arms about his chest and lifting his face to stare through the black net of trees trawling the sky for hidden stars.
Anardil drew his knife and fumbled for the whetstone secreted in his belt. Elros' humming voice drifted tunelessly over to them.
All the more stubbornly mired in her misery, Anoriath spat at Bob, "Well, then perhaps you can find your own dark corner to hole up in."
Looking up momentarily from his task, Bob snarled, "If that would stop your voice from reaching my ears, then it would be my pleasure."
The ringing of metal drew her gaze to find Anardil scowling fiercely at her, his gray eyes suddenly as keen as the edge of the blade he drew against the stone.
"I don't suppose you were thinking of using that on me, were you?" she demanded.
Anardil snapped, "It depends on what inducement you give me, Anoriath."
"Enough!" Halbarad shouted, forgotten behind them, shocking them into stillness.
In the resulting silence, the snow drifted onto their motionless forms, specks of white melting to a dull black on their cloaks and bowed heads, and Elros hummed softly.
Recognizing the thin strains of The Lay of Luthien
, Anoriath dropped her head to her arms. If she'd not been so weary, she would have wept.
Bob was the first to stir, quieting Elros' voice and drawing their eyes when he rose to his feet.
"We'll need wood," he mumbled and, leaving his dagger embedded in the soil, seemed to stumble half-blind into the trees.
Halbarad started forward, his company glancing between their captain and the form that had quickly disappeared into the twilight under the forest's eaves. Solitary only at need, no ranger, no matter his skill, would willingly face the unknown alone.
Anoriath sighed and, leaning from her seat, pulled at Bob's dagger.
"I'll go," she said and yanked the weapon out of the soil's frozen grip.
Wiping at the blade with her tattered cloak before tucking it under her belt, Anoriath followed Bob. The coming night embraced the trees around her. Soon the small sounds of the rangers she left behind gave way to the hush of winter, the only noise her own feet crushing frost and brittle leaves. Placing a hand on the trunk of a tree that loomed within her sight, Anoriath stopped, her ears alert, waiting for her sight to accustom itself to the dark. She peered into the thicket, uncertain. In the quiet, her own breath and the soughing of light fingers of snow brushing the dead leaves overhead sounded loud. Bob, for all his usual blundering about, could be surprisingly quiet when he wanted to.
There! Anoriath's head whipped about at the slight sound. Off to the left, the crack of a breaking twig and rustle of the fall of leaves followed by a muffled curse. Anoriath left the trunk that had grounded her in the sea of dark, needing its anchor no longer.
She found him at the edge of small hedge of thorn, pulling on the broken end of an oak limb imbedded among its twisting branches where it had fallen. At her step, Bob glanced over his shoulder.
"What do you want?" he asked, sparing her little attention or breath from his battle with the thorns for possession of the piece of wood.
She shrugged and stopped within reach. "None of us should wander off alone."
He grunted and tugged mightily at the limb. "Ah, so you are here to protect me from my carelessness, are you?"
"Bob-" she began, resolutely ignoring the goad.
"Rest easy," he said, cutting her short. "If anything attacks me out here, I shall do my best not to lead it to you." The dead leaves clinging to the branch rattled in the grip of the thorns as the limb sprang back into their hold.
"That is hardly the point," she said, now scowling at his back.
Bob renewed his grip on the wood. "No? I would have thought you would be glad to be well rid of me."
"The point is," Anoriath raised her voice, riding over Bob's. Protestations of the oaths of brotherhood and their shared call to preserve all for the day their kin would be crowned King waited wearily behind her lips. She sighed. "We can ill afford to lose any one of us."
Bob huffed a short laugh and, tucking the branch under his arm, yanked at the twigs twisted amongst the thorns the better to loosen their grip. "Anoriath, I am touched," he commented dryly. "I didn't know you cared."
"Oh, for pity's sake, Bob," she blurted, having clearly lost her resolve, "cannot you recognize an apology when you hear one?"
He stopped and, turning, let the limb fall back into the brush to stare at her. "That was an apology?" He threw back his head and howled with laughter.
Anoriath swatted at his chest and arms to silence him. "Well, it would have been," she protested once he fell to chuckling, "had you given me the chance to finish."
Bob's lips twitched in a maddening smile as he crossed his arms comfortably.
"Very well," he said, gesturing magnanimously. "Finish."
Anoriath flushed. Just like the man to take pleasure in her humiliation.
"Huh!" she exclaimed. "I've half a mind to just leave you here to face whatever might crawl out of the dark!"
"No, you won't," Bob asserted, still grinning and rocking back on his heels.
"No," she said softly, abruptly solemn. She could not, no matter how much he may provoke her or how poorly she may think of him at the moment. "No, I won't, Bob. I said before that we can ill afford to lose any one of us. It is the truth. You know this."
At her words, Bob's smile dissolved into a thin-lipped line, the planes of his face softening.
"I should never have taken out my temper on my comrades," Anoriath said, dropping her gaze, the grief in Bob's eyes all the more difficult to bear because it so seldom settled there. "We've burdens enough as it is and fewer shoulders every day to bear them. I should not add to the weight heaped upon those of us who are left," she continued and then forced herself to meet his eyes. "Truly, Bob, I am sorry if I caused you pain."
Against the darkening forest, Anoriath could just make out the Ranger before her. As the silence between them grew, she sighed and stared at the shadowed forest floor, feeling all the more spent for having spoken. She shook her head slightly, lost in the sense of cold that had returned. Taking what little comfort she could find, Anoriath wrapped the edges of her cloak more tightly about herself.
'He will return, Anoriath," Bob urged, but then, shifting on his feet, added tentatively, "Won't he?"
Her breath hitched on his unaccustomed insight into the heart of the matter that troubled her. What if the Dúnadan were to never return?
She had dammed her misgivings behind a careful avoidance of giving them voice, for fear they were real enough to be shared. But now the earnest, expectant look on Bob's face swept her under a flood of doubt. Without the heir of Isildur surely they were but a mean folk lurking in the hills, clinging to the pathetic rags of barren myth. In this land of ruins and wasted spaces, how long until the Nameless One hounded them out and ground every last one of them into the dust?
Bob took a step toward her, attempting to catch her eye. "Ani?"
But, it was all she could do to merely shake her head mutely before she dropped it to her hands, wishing the world to go away. When she did not respond, Bob drew a sudden great breath and spun away, his face stunned as if only now aware of the chasm that yawed beneath his feet.
"No! No!" he cried. "If you have done aught to cause me pain, then it is this!" Bob paced in a short arc and jabbed his finger at her.
"This!" he insisted vehemently and she raised her head, caught by the intensity of his words.
"You, Anoriath!" he said and stepped toward her, angry and demanding her attention, "of all of us, you, no less than your brother, you have never given up hope!"
"Ah! Sweet Eru, Anoriath!" Bob swore when she remained mute, and a short bitter laugh escaped from him. "We could be in the midst of a hopeless battle, up to our eyes in muck and filth and facing foes that pour from the holes in the mountain like a swarm of ants," he threw his arms open wildly, "and there you would be, your teeth set on edge and a fire blazing in your eyes as if, if the Valar didn't see fit to crown our chieftain king, you'd march all the way to the Undying Lands and change their minds for them!"
She stared at him dumbly. Who was this man whose eyes caught the last lingering light before the coming night swallowed them?
"And now you tell me –" Bob's voice halted, breathing hard, his jaw working against the sour taste of his words. He shook his head, fiercely refusing to accept what he had not yet said.
"No!" he said firmly, and turned to face her.
"He will return," Bob asserted through his teeth, grasping her arm to command her attention. "And, when he does, he will sweep down upon the wights, and wolves and the fell things that clutch at our people, and they will flee before him!" He threw an arm out, gesturing deep into the forest.
Anoriath stared at the fire that burned in his eyes in wonder.
"He will return! I know it!" Bob repeated in a low growl, shaking her. "Believe it!"
Anoriath nodded, wanting to believe, bands of steel wrapped about her chest, refusing to let her breathe. Bob, searching for her response, nodded in return and, gathering himself, released her and stepped away. She blinked at his back, her tongue befuddled by the flare of desperation that she caught in his eyes just before he turned away.
Watching Bob glare at the thorn bush in the dark, she considered this man she had known since their childhood and yet, apparently, had not known, touched by his dependence upon those he had chosen as comrades and the fact that he had just revealed his most vulnerable part to her. Sifting through his words, she weighed the truth beneath what he had said. Truly they could ill afford to lose any one of them, the death of the spirit as equal a death as that of the body. If one falls, we all fall.
Squaring her shoulders beneath her shabby coat, Anoriath's eyes bore grimly into the dark. Very well then!
The shadow of the Nameless One may indeed swallow them whole, but she wished him the fiercest belly-ache at the meal.
"I think," Bob said, glaring at the recalcitrant tree limb, "the thorns may have won this battle."
Anoriath cleared her throat and recalled herself. A vague echo of words teased her ears. It seemed that Bob had been talking for some time.
"Aye, well, I suppose so," she said. She glanced about at the white that was quickly settling into a thin blanket about them. "We should hurry to collect some wood before this snow turns our best hopes into a sodden mess."
"Aye, if they're too wet and won't do," Bob brushed his hands on his tunic and flashed her a bright grin, "then what say we turn them to unwedging Anardil's toes from betwixt his teeth?"
She snorted and grinned in return. No doubt Bob was delighted that it had been someone other than himself who had spoken rashly, this time. Turning to find other fallen wood that was more easily culled, she called over her shoulder, "Perhaps we should leave his toes there, a kindness, for at least there they'd be warm."
A quiet of a different kind settled upon the forest as Bob's chuckle followed her.
Before long, their voices drifted into the pines where their comrades awaited them, their positions not greatly changed. Turned to catch the lightest of sounds from the forest, the flickering amber light of a small blaze touched features tensely alert beneath the shadow of their cloaks.
"Bob? Bob! It's this way. No, truly, I swear it is." Anoriath muffled call reached them, but Bob's reply was lost to its echoes among the undergrowth.
"Are you daft and blind?" Anoriath's voice cut through the trees, sharper and more distinct, the soft sounds of her footsteps following. "Can you not see the glow from the flames?"
Anardil, sitting at the edge of the fire he had built during their absence, lowered his head to pinch the bridge of his nose and huff a small, resigned laugh.
"Oh, aye," Bob's voice heralded their return, their arms laden with fuel.
"Anardil!" Anoriath called as she strode into the small clearing. The man's head snapped up in response. "Get your arse off my blanket, would you?"
Bob appeared not far behind her, grinning broadly. "Maybe that's why he pulled his knife on you, Anoriath. It was your blanket he wanted, after all."
Catching Anoriath's amused snort, Anardil's face lightened and he scoffed, "Surely, as it is well known to be warmer and less prickly than its owner."
Standing behind Anardil, a slow smile spread across Halbarad's face as his gaze flickered between his sister and friends.
"Ha!" Anoriath said and threw down her armload of wood, "You think I'm prickly now, you just stay on that blanket until I get over there."
At that, a grinning Anardil made a great show of hauling his bulk onto his own blanket and smoothing out the wrinkles he left behind. He patted it in a final adjustment and bowed to Anoriath from his seated position, gesturing broadly at her blanket.
Pointedly ignoring him, Anoriath brushed off the lingering dust and shredded bark from her coat and cloak, and glanced over to Elros still peering up into the pine-branches overhead. While they searched for wood, the snow had stopped and now pinpricks of light floated in the deep black of the night sky between the softened shreds of clouds. She shook her head in mild disbelief. Wood clattered to the pile as Bob's load joined hers.
"Would someone please tell the elf over there that, unlike many of his Firstborn kindred who find rest in lingering among the trees and gazing at the stars, he actually does need to sleep like the rest of us?" she asked of no one in particular.
Halbarad, a smile crinkling the skin about his eyes, glanced at Elros and chuckled at the sudden flash of white teeth as the man grinned in response. Elros, poised under the wings of the pines, waited for the jerk of Halbarad's head to summon him to their small circle and then sauntered over to them.
"Best to get some sleep," Halbarad commanded mildly.
Anoriath looked up from unlinking her sword from her belt to find her brother motioning for his company to bed down for the night.
"Oh, no, Hal," she said, "don't think that you are going to take the first watch. I, for one, expect you to be sharp in the morning, not some half-dead wraith stumbling about when you lead us across the Wild." She set her blade beside her blanket, ready at hand in case of need, and then sank to the cloth.
When Halbarad's glance took in the members of his company, he met only amused confirmation. He shrugged, shaking his head in resigned amusement, and ambled over to his blanket to kick it open.
Bob, having selected a log of suitable width, knelt to lay it across the small blaze and, cocking his head, weighed the benefits of the fire's current configuration. Metal clinked softly on metal as the men arranged their gear before settling to the ground about its flames.
"So who, Anoriath," Anardil asked, smiling wryly in that lopsided way of his as he fussed with his blanket, "in your best assessment of the matter, do you think should take the watch, then?" He sighed and lay back, having arranged the cloth to his satisfaction, looking content to await the warmth the wool would soon provide.
"Why, Anardil, you," she said, propping herself on her elbow to return his gaze evenly.
"Me?" he protested. He clutched at his blanket as if she were about to rip it off his reclined form.
"You were so eager with your blade a moment ago, how could I deny you the only opportunity to use it that you might find tonight?" she replied sweetly, turned over and yanked her blanket over her as if the matter were closed.
Elros' shrouded form looked suspiciously as if it were quietly shuddering with laughter. As he bent over the small fire, stirring the coals, Bob choked and quickly coughed into his fist.
"Smoke," he claimed at the hard look Anardil turned upon him.
Anardil huffed skeptically and turned to his captain. But when Halbarad merely chuckled and plopped himself down, he let loose a brief unintelligible noise of mixed amusement and disgust and threw aside his blanket. "Fine!" he said and, with a soft groan he quickly suppressed when he caught Bob watching him, lifted himself to his feet.
Grinning privately at the embers, Bob worried at the wood in the fire, wedging two limbs more deeply into its midst.
"Leave off with that, Bob." Anardil bent to reclaim to his sword. "I'll watch it, you sleep," he said softly, struggling to rebuckle his blade to his belt with fingers bound against the cold. A quick glance before striding to the perimeter of their camp satisfied him that his comrades were well bedded down.
With a final poke, Bob tossed the stick onto the fire and claimed his blanket, only to jerk to his elbow as soon as he had settled.
"My knife! Where is my knife?" Bob asked, patting his belt and then all about his gear in panic.
Anoriath, sighing at the necessity of unwinding the blanket from about her just when she was beginning to warm, pulled the blade from beneath her belt. Taking it by its tip, she threw it across the fire where it landed at Bob's hand, startling the Ranger into springing half to his feet.
"Ah!" he cried, staring in the direction from which it had flown at him. "What was that for?"
"I have had it for the past hour and yet you said nothing," Anoriath replied and lay back down. "If you cannot keep track of your own gear, then you deserve whatever befalls it or you. You have it back, now go to sleep!" She rolled into the folds of her blanket.
Bob grumbled, "Aye, but it was the manner of its return that was wanting." He fussed with the knife before slipping it to its sheath.
Anoriath's muted voice rose from her blanket. "Shut it, Bob."
"Could have taken off my hand, you could have," Bob muttered and lay down. "Bloody careless of you, if you ask me. Call me careless, will you, and then do something like that? It's not as if I were about to –"
"Shut it, Bob," both Elros and Halbarad called, not bothering to raise their heads.
Anoriath snorted at their muffled voices. Glancing across the fire, she caught Bob's face tipped up at her from where he lay, grinning at her in the firelight before, with a tug, he flipped his blanket about his head and fell still.
The pine-straw was surprisingly comfortable and she settled into its cushion. With a long breath, she released the days and nights that had gone before and those yet to be. The morning would come soon enough on its own without her help. She need not herald it with her anxious vigil. What would come, would come.
Anardil's soft footsteps circled the dell and she could imagine the man reciting poems from far lands under his breath, as he was wont to do to keep himself sharp and awake. Sap hissed and popped, sending a flurry of sparks into the air, opening her eyes briefly. But, the slow, warm breathing of the men about the fire soon lulled her eyes into falling closed and her chest to rise in time with theirs. Her last conscious thought before the gentle shadow of sleep claimed her was that her toes were warm.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.