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The Days Now Are Short
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1

As one, they sped down the Greenway, the hooves of their mounts pounding the old road and throwing up clods of dirt behind them. Need drove them and, heedless to the trail they left behind, they rode hard. The westering moon sailed into the net of trees behind them. The kindly orb lit their way and they followed the path she set.

Ride, ride! Wait not for the dawn!

The cool night air flowed across his skin as if he fought the current of a swift-moving stream. With a clear path to follow, Halbarad, Ranger of the North, knew no weariness, but he longed to set his feet upon the ground to read those secrets only a dunadan can divine from the trail. Despite the chill, the smooth wood of the staff he bore had grown warm where he gripped it. Tightening sinews stiffened his fingers into a claw, but he clutched the close-furled standard still, unwilling to let it fall.

She wrought it in secret, and long was the making.

A ripple in the wind smelled of mountains and the unripe buds that swelled on the tips of the hawthorn trees. Looking back quickly over his shoulder, Halbarad drew his mount to a walk and counted men. Dark shadows, they were, among a swaying thicket of spears. A pale light glinted coldly off the metal tips above them as they came to a halt about him.

The storm is coming.

Quiet, the forest was quiet but for the creak of leather, blowing of winded horses, and restless beat of hoof against the turf. Swaddled in the blanket of mist that rises before dawn, the land slumbered. Throwing his reins to his kin, Halbarad dropped heavily to the ground and strode forward, away from the sounds of men and beast. His boots sank into the turf and the hem of his cloak soon darkened with the dew that glittered in the light of the mithril moon.

Here the air hung heavy with the vapors of the night, bringing with it the musk of wet earth and rotting leaves. Dark holes pocked the dew that clung to the grasses of the road ahead. Halbarad leaned against the staff to lower his body stiffly to his heels, examining the marks.

They were not the first to ride this path, tonight.

He peered about him with narrowed eyes as if their gray gaze could pierce the shadows. Black boles of trees marched along the road, their knees sunk deep in the mist as they stood at attention, waiting. Nothing stirred. But, still the Ranger leaned into the staff he held, its foot sinking into the softened soil. In thought, he reached far beyond sight and waited.

There, at the far edge of hearing, the chatter of water rushing over a rocky bed. Halbarad thrust himself to standing, the smell of rain and wet stone now as clear as a horn-call across an open plain.

Let the Dunedain ride to him in Rohan!

Turning his back upon the river, he stared into the open sky. Beyond the men and the beasts they rode lay home, a land barren and wild, yet known. Where lay his heart? In the Angle of the Bruinen and Mitheithel, where he had left his family to face the fell things that crept out from beneath the mountains? Or far ahead in the alien night, beating in the chest of his chief? What then was this thing that buffeted against the cage of his ribs?

Aragorn has need of his kindred!

The Ranger yanked the staff from the grip of the ground and his stride ate the yards between himself and his horse. Steam rose from the mount's flanks and neck and he snorted his warm breath against his rider's shoulder as the Ranger took the reins.

"Ha!" With a nudge from his rider, the beast leapt forward, his great haunches launching him into a pounding flight down the path.

Let not the swift wait for the slow. Ride!

Halbarad signaled them forward, and they came.

Down the long, slow slope out of the mountains the Dunedain rode until the waters of the Isen filled their ears with a steady roar. They surged across the low-lying bank into its current where their shadows broke upon the running surface, lapped in waves of moonlight and sable that their horses' hooves shattered into a shimmering spume. Onward, they sped, past slowly sinking mounds ringed by rusting spears, until the sere grass of the plains opened beneath their feet.

The hour is now come.

The moon hid its face behind a scudding cloud and out from the night a voice rang loudly.

"Halt! Halt! Who rides in Rohan?"

Horses snorted in protest and danced upon the edge of the plain as the Dunedain brought them to an abrupt halt. Halbarad squinted into the dark, fighting his mount's unease.

There, a shadow moving against the meadow. 'Rohan?' Had he heard aright?

Slipping to the ground, Halbarad tossed the staff to his kin and strode forward, his hand climbing of its own accord to protest his intent for peace. Helm and spear gleamed in the unshrouded moon.

"Rohan? Rohan did you say?" said he, his gaze taking in those before him. Twenty men at least, well-armed and on horseback. "That is a glad word. We seek that land in haste from long afar."

"You have found it."

Halbarad came to a halt. The man who faced him was young, this was clear even in the thin light of the stars, but tall and commanding. A crest as white as the moon that road above them flowed from his helm. He spoke.

"When you crossed the fords yonder you entered it. But it is the realm of Theoden the King. None ride here save by his leave," said the Rider. "Who are you?" he demanded. "And what is your haste?"

A stranger now to the land upon which he trod, Halbarad drew a slow breath. In the shadows of men and beasts, the moon sought out each sharp edge of spear, arrow-tip, and sword, touched each helm and shirt of mail. Men of war, these were that he faced, with their hands tight upon their weapons and suspicion in their eyes.

Secrecy will avail no longer.

"Halbarad Dunadan, Ranger of the North I am,' cried Halbarad, raising his voice to those who stood beyond the tall stranger with the flaxen hair and eyes that burned in the dark. "We seek one Aragorn son of Arathorn, and we heard that he was in Rohan."

Though his heart beat like a broken drum, he stood firm.

"And you have found him also!"

Halbarad started forward, his tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth as if a bolt of lightening had struck him dumb. He stared into the dark, oblivious to all else but the shadow from which that cry had come. He knew that voice. He had heard it calling commands across lines of men, laughing across the flames of a campfire, singing lays about their Elven forebears across the dark, and whispering strength across the burial mounds of their kin.

A dark shape separated itself from the stirrup of a mounted Rider, the sword he carried naked in the night. The moon slid across the blade as he sheathed it and Halbarad's heart leapt.

There is one who may claim it by right.

Anduril, Narsil remade! Flame of the West!

Halbarad stared into the night, hoping to pierce its dark shade for a glimpse of the face of the man who slipped from the pool of shadows on the plain to greet him. Surely, it was the Dunadan! Still, he could not see. But, in the waning moonlight, there was no hiding the fact that this unknown was running to cross the distance that separated them. It must be he!

A mere glimpse of stern features transfigured by delight, and Halbarad found himself caught up in an embrace that threatened to cut short his breath. A low laugh sounded in his ear, his welcome warm and more real than the long road that had lain between them.

"Halbarad!" Aragorn thrust the Ranger to arm's length the better to see him. "Of all joys this is the least expected."

Halbarad searched the radiant face of his kin. Aye, it was he.

Either our hope cometh, or all hopes end.

The Dunedain crowded about them, so close that their warmth walled out the chill of the night. The Dunadan's smile touched them all and they drank hungrily of his light. Silent, they waited.

The days now are short.

Halbarad looked into the Dunadan's eyes to find deep within them a fierce and eager flame.

A small grim smile spread across Halbarad's face and he clasped his chief's arms in return.

The time for skulking in shadows was over.

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