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Ragged clouds obscured the moon, and the sharp chill of approaching winter blanketed the lands around Weathertop. Aragorn shivered as he approached the meager campsite. Although a swift reconnaissance had shown the area to be deserted, the night was unfriendly, the silence heavy and watchful. Glad to see the dim flicker of the small cook fire, he quickened his pace. Their foray of the past weeks had been necessary, but it was nearing an end and he was more than ready to abandon these cheerless wilds.
A low whistle sounded from above, then Elrohir leaped lightly from the overhanging rock. “I see no sign of friend or foe in any direction.”
“Then the others will not join us tonight.”
“It does not seem so.” He scowled into the night. “Some weight presses upon these lands. No living thing stirs, neither prairie dog nor blade of grass.”
Aragorn nodded. “I feel it also.” He glanced up. “I will admit that I wish the night was clear. Steady moonlight would be a welcome relief against this darkness.”
He expected the other to make some comment upon his need for a night light, but Elrohir only offered a grim nod. It did not improve Aragorn’s mood. They ducked into the sheltered hollow upon the old hill’s eastern side, nodding to the third member of their party. Daelin son of Dorhaur pulled their battered cook pot off the fire and frowned into its depths.
“Not much more than roots and herbs—a few pieces of jerky, but …” He eyed the expanse outside their little camp. “I have seen nothing in the way of wildlife since we arrived, and did not wish to hunt too far afield.”
Elrohir grimaced at the offering, but poured a portion into one of the wooden bowls. “I think that none of us should venture out alone.” He cast his own uneasy glance past the circle of firelight, then fell silent, sipping his meager dinner.
They ate without further speech, for even low voices seemed to echo around them, as though deep within a cave rather than upon the broad fields of Eriador. The moon vied with the clouds and for a while cast its pale light, though the stark lines of silver and shadow gave little relief. A deep chill settled, numbing Aragorn’s toes and his mind. Struggling to stay alert, he thought back upon the last days.
It was nearly three weeks past that the sons of Elrond had appeared, bearing vague reports of some unidentified threat in eastern Eriador—mostly originating upon the northwestern flanks of the Trollshaws and up into the Ettenmoors, but at least one as far south as the Road itself. “We do not believe the source to be trolls, wolves, or wargs. Orcs, perhaps, but the reports do not suggest the normal behavior patterns. Whatever the cause, we wish to see what may be found. The lands are mostly bare of inhabitants, yet it seems better to us to discover now, if we can, what may be stirring rather than leave some enemy to gain strength in secret upon our very doorstep.” Aragorn could hardly argue with such logic, and made no attempt. He sent Halbarad and Dorhaur with Elladan to scour the Road and its environs, then set off with Elrohir and Daelin along a more northerly route. Should all go well and neither group suffer significant delay, they would regroup upon Weathertop at the full moon.
Their hunt had been inconclusive at best, with no more than a handful of odd tracks and one particularly bizarre description of a ‘living shadow’ from a wild-eyed trapper upon the northern fringes of the Trollshaws. Aragorn was yet uncertain how much credence to give the tale, yet it was not wholly dissimilar from the reports which had brought Elladan and Elrohir to his door. Frustrated, they turned south. As they drew near to their meeting place, however, the sense of some following presence had begun to grow. He thought at first it was only his own fatigue and the nature of their search playing tricks on his mind, but soon he noticed Daelin sneaking glances behind them as they rode. When even Elrohir began obsessively checking their back trail, Aragorn began to suspect that the threat, whatever it may be, was very real. Elves were not, as a general rule, given to such flights of fancy.
Their trek continued unhindered, but Aragon had been glad to see the ruins of Amon Sûl upon the horizon. He would feel better when their numbers increased, and it was a disappointment to discover they were the first to arrive.
A distant howl stirred him from his contemplation, and the uneasy rustling of the nearby horses. He was startled to see his breath fog before him. Beside him, Elrohir rose abruptly.
“This cold is nothing natural.”
Aragorn shook himself and kicked at Daelin, who appeared to have sunk into a stupor against the rock wall behind him. “Stir up the fire. At this point I would rather have a bright blaze than worry about being seen from afar.”
Daelin nodded, groping for the wood stacked at the rear of the campsite. Elrohir peered into the night. “I doubt not that whatever follows already knows our location.”
Aragorn chewed upon his lower lip, considering. “The moon is bright now. I think we should take another look from the top. If we stay low and quiet, fortune may favor us.”
“Perhaps.” Elrohir was doubtful, but did not demur. He looked to Daelin. “Keep the fire high, and your back to the wall.”
“If anything other than us approaches, don’t be concerned with silence.” Aragorn strapped his sword and knife again onto his belt, tying the scabbard down to ensure it would not clatter against either the ground or his leg as they ascended the hill.
Daelin offered a wan grin, placing his back once more against the rock and drawing his own sword to rest at his feet. “They’ll hear me in Rivendell,” he promised.
Aragorn pressed the other Ranger’s shoulder then ducked into the darkness, Elrohir ghosting along behind. The chill deepened. Clouds edged onto the moon’s bright disk. The silence shivered about them, but for the crackling of the fire and a low snort from one of the horses that seemed deadened in the thickening air.
Yes. The night was indeed unfriendly.
They slunk around the hill to the old path upon the far side, as Aragorn could not traverse the ragged slopes so easily as Elrohir. Crouching near to the ground, Aragorn held back and allowed his brother to take the lead—Elvish eyes were better in the dark, and would lead them along smoother ground. Together they crept up the rocky path, testing each handhold and foot placement to ensure not a rock would skitter nor a branch snap to give them away. Aragorn’s shoulders and thigh muscles burned as they neared the top, yet they reached level ground in good time, slinking silently over the edge onto the tumbled remains of the old watch tower.
The moon slipped once more behind the clouds, and a wave of shadow and terror broke over them.
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