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The next day Haldar led on the group of ten rangers, so he now felt better at least as far the numbers were concerned. Each of them was a supreme archer and sword-master, and such a group could easily overpower even twice as many orcs – if they encountered them. Which, he hoped, wouldn't happen. After all, they hadn't seen signs of their presence for several months.
The rangers got up before dawn and set off with the first light of a day. They marched quickly to the position that Haldar and his small patrol reached yesterday; although that point was about ten miles away from the base, at least that part of the way was known to them and they reached it even before midday. Then they made a short break.
Haldar finished his meal the first. He stood up and watched the slopes and the forest. Tree-crowns above them clad in green, and this thick cover of leaves slightly blocked out the sunlight. The air smelled of grass, moss, soil, trees – all at once.
"None of us has ever seen tracks like these," said Borlas in a low voice, having stood next to him. "What do you think, what could it be?"
Haldar did not separate his gaze from the trees; the only clues uncovering his unrest were rising of his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead. He had been thinking about that mystery for the larger part of the last twenty-four hours – ever since they had discovered the tracks. He only knew that they were not made by ordinary animals they knew well, and not by the orcs either. And he was sure that it was not the staff. After all, if someone had passed that way and used it as support for walking, they would have found footprints – at least this time, when rain had not washed away tracks. But there was not a single one.
He knew what did not make those tracks. But he had no idea what did. "How do I know?" he responded finally, still observing the forest. "I can only guess that some creature passed over the mountains and arrived to Gondor from Mordor. But what it is... I do not know. Who knows how many sorts of spawn Sauron created?"
Borlas nodded, as if agreeing with that.
"Considering the frequency and position of the tracks," Haldar continued, contemplating, "I'd say the thing has more than two legs. And that it's big. But more than that, I cannot guess."
Soon they went on; as they were now on the area not checked yesterday, their progress was significantly slower after the break. Most of them searched for the tracks, while four of them covered the front and lateral sides, scouting and checking if there was any danger. Haldar knew what some of them thought about it; it was enough to look at Galador or some others. He could see it in their eyes – they thought he was too old, too cautious and insecure.
He didn't care. Although they hadn't seen orcs for long, if there was the slightest danger, he'd do all in his power to preserve lives.
They climbed higher, and everything was similar to the previous day. There were some parts of the mountain which they could pass easily, and there were some steep parts too. For most of the time they were surrounded by trees, and occasionally they found themselves on a clearing, from where they had a great view towards the Anduin valley below them and towards the mountain tops on the upper side. Even from the distance, it was easy to see that the uppermost parts of the mountain range were steep and inaccessible sharp rocks which offered no chance for crossing. There was just one place where the slopes were mild and rounded – the Pass of Cirith Ungol.
Their starting point this morning was Rangers' base not far from Mindal, the missing healer's village. Mindal lay a few miles northern of Ornost, which was north of the Crossroads. Although their way was not a straight line, from what Haldar could see he realized that their search led them from north-west in the foothill to south-east high in the mountains, which meant directly towards the Pass.
When the evening fell, by looking around and judging their position, he concluded that the Pass was one day of walking away. But although he kept repeating to himself that there was no point in guessing the final destination of their inquiry, some instinct was telling him that they'd have to go exactly there.
The next day was the same as previous one. Rangers slowly advanced searching for tracks and discovering them, and the direction remained the same: with some slight winding, they were going towards the Pass. However, as the day passed, some things started to change. Terrain became rockier – which meant it was more difficult to find tracks – and the forest became sparser. Now it was easy to discern precipitous barren upper slopes of the mountains.
When they found themselves on one bigger clearing late in the afternoon, Haldar stopped and regarded the surrounding and the sky above them. Unlike yesterday, this day was cloudy; the clouds were hiding the sun during the whole day, but as it was a little darker now, he concluded it must have set already and the night would come soon.
Above grey mountaintops there was an equally grey sky. The sight was just like those they had witnessed three years ago, when dark clouds above the Mountains of Shadow were ever present. He had a feeling that everything around him was getting gloomy, just like during Sauron's reign over Mordor; it was as if stepping into the past for a moment. Then he blinked and the vision dissipated. He was in the Fourth Age again, and the clouds were ordinary – those bringing rain – and not the unnatural eclipse created by Dark Lord.
The clearing gave him a good overview and he regarded the surroundings for a short while. They were near the forest edge. While observing the barren slopes, he thought he saw a line a little to the east of their position. Obviously a pathway, he concluded, although he hadn't known about it before. He knew that stairs led from Minas Morgul uphill, but he saw that this was definitely something else; except the fact that this was a straight line and didn't resemble stairs, he was sure that the stairs were a little lower on the mountain than this spot.
The whole group stopped too, waiting for his decision, and he continued to think. It was more than obvious that the tracks led towards the Pass and nowhere else. There was no other place to go to; all other upper slopes were too steep and impervious. If they went on, very soon they'd find themselves in the open, and although the forest was much sparser here than in the lower areas, it still provided some sort of cover. Besides, if it started raining, it was better to be in the shelter of the tree-crowns than under open sky. There was no need – nor point – in going further right now. He didn't want to expose their presence and endanger the members of the patrol.
"We stop now. We'll spend the night here. Tomorrow we'll investigate the terrain from here to the Pass, and then we return," Haldar announced his decision.
He looked around. Most of men just nodded and started preparing the camp, but Galador stood still and observed him.
"Captain, if I may propose, we might go a little further from the Pass and inspect the other side too, and discover what this really is about. Because, this way, we don't really have much to report," said the young man.
Haldar watched him until the youngster finally averted his gaze.
"Propose you may," said the captain. His voice was neutral, but his eyes glared. "But the suggestion is rejected. Everything suggests that some creature came over Cirith Ungol to Ithilien from Mordor. Tomorrow we'll search for more evidence for that claim. But we do not go into Mordor," he emphasized in ice-cold voice. "I have no doubt that captain – Prince – Faramir will do something about it. Also, I have no doubt that the squad to eliminate that threat will be much bigger than ours."
"But we could—"
The young man fell silent, and although he continued to frown, he didn't say another word. Haldar observed him while they set the camp; discontent was radiating from young ranger's facial expression and demeanour. But Haldar just shrugged. He knew Galador was twenty-four; it meant that he was only twenty-one in the time of the War of the Ring, and captain doubted that Galador had much combat experience. Yes, the boy is a great tracker, but he doesn't know that many things can go wrong when we are in action.
While he knew. He also knew what could happen if a squad too small encountered a big peril.
By the time they inspected the surroundings, found the best places for guarding, set the camp and finally ate, it was dark. Unlike last night, Haldar ordered not to light the fire. True, everything indicated that the area was empty. But they weren't far from Mordor any more, and if some dangerous creature – or more than one – passed from Mordor to their side of the mountains, he didn't want their presence to be easily noticeable.
Two rangers went to their guarding positions, and the others were in the camp. They lay on their sleeping bags, but didn't fall asleep immediately.
"It was such a nice view towards the valley from this height, nice view. But it's also cold up here," commented Isilmir, the youngest in the group. He was three years younger than Galador.
Haldar smiled inside. The boy came from one anglers' village on the coast of Belfalas, southernmost and by far the warmest province of Gondor. As Haldar had seen several times before, high altitudes were not his favourite places nor was winter his favourite seasons.
"What, you miss woolly sweaters and caps knitted by your grandmothers?" Cheerful teasing came from Galador.
"No I don't. I am Ithilien Ranger and can handle all the troubles," replied Isilmir in almost ceremonial voice. Then rustling was heard from his position, as if he was turning in his sleeping bag. "Captain, have you ever been this high? Where have you gone furthest and highest on your missions?"
"As for this part of the mountains, of course I've never been here," responded Haldar. "This whole area has long been in Enemy's hands. But more to the north, above Henneth Annűn, I've been very high several times – I think, similar to today's camp."
"The Pass was ill-famed even before the fall of Minas Ithil, y'know, son," added Tarcil, one of older and more experienced members of the group. "And that was really long time ago, as you can conclude."
"Oh, everyone knows that, I'm not so unlearned," said the young man, a little impatiently. "But now that you mention it, I wonder why? There, I haven't heard about that."
"Nazgűl and orcs conquered Minas Ithil a little more than thousand years ago, son. Before that, we still patrolled these parts of the mountains, we Rangers," Tarcil started to narrate with his deep voice. "But even a century or two earlier than that we didn't go this high any more. Because, y' know, old reports say that a lot of scouts disappeared here near the Pass. Disappeared without a trace. Only sometimes, a bow or a sword were found afterwards, but most often, nothing. It was like they just evaporated."
Just like now, a thought flashed through Haldar's mind in the very next moment after Tarcil's last sentence. In fact, looks like the pattern is the same. He started to wonder if the cause could be the same. But considering the time gap, it didn't seem possible to him. How could it be, after all? Only elves and Maiar were immortal; orcs and trolls definitely were not. Could the Nazgűl be responsible for the ancient disappearances? Possibly, but history seemed to repeat itself, and the Nazgűl were now eliminated, together with their master. Besides, none of the beings he just contemplated left tracks like those found. He frowned and felt the beginning of a headache. The riddle seemed big and unsolvable – at least for now.
"And there were many missions to search for them, there were, but no results. We didn't find nothing and nobody. And sure there would be more missions, and maybe we'd find the culprit, but then came the Great Plague. Few men remained, the strength of Gondor diminished, and there were more and more orcs in Mordor. In the end we stopped scouting around Cirith Ungol. And then, as I said, Minas Ithil fell... and you know the rest, son," Tarcil ended his tale.
In the silence that followed only some soft rustling came from the sleeping bags. Lying under the trees that looked black in the night, Haldar couldn't discern much of the surroundings. Through two openings among the branches he managed to see a little bit of the sky, which was just slightly less dark than tree-crowns.
"Surely orcs captured them," spoke Galador a few moments later. "Probably our men were dragged to the Tower or even further into Mordor. Who knows how much they suffered from the hands of the orcs."
That is not the proper explanation, some voice inside Haldar said. He was sure about it.
"Well, at least all of our fallen comrades were avenged in the War, and orcs are now destroyed," added Calion, another one of the elder ones.
"Based on the tracks we found, these disappearances we investigate now are not caused by orcs," said Haldar in a low voice. He wanted none of them to forget that fact, so that they remain fully focused and cautious.
"Yeah, I really wonder what it might be," Isilmir said pensively.
"Probably some unnatural being bred by Sauron, just like he bred those flying monsters for the Nazgűl," responded Haldar. "We are yet to discover what it is this time, and how many there are."
From Galador's position first came loud coughing, and after that he spoke, "Orcs or something else, if there were many, there would be more attacks on our people. I am sure that there aren't many enemies and that we'd handle them easily."
Haldar's lips tightened in anger, but he had to admit that this time the young man formulated his thoughts wisely – not putting them as open opposing, but seemingly as a neutral comment. But it was not neutral and Haldar had no intention of remaining quiet.
"It will be even easier and less dangerous for a bigger squad. Keep that in mind," he said coldly.
After that, nobody spoke of that anymore; they started talking about every day's trifles, but Haldar didn't participate the conversation. He thought about the mysterious creature, about tomorrow's search, about the report he'd have to make... and about his son.
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