The breezy morning chill swept about Highmoor Tower. The bright sun and cold winds wakened the senses of Ranger General Oropher. Standing like a warden over all Arnor, he looked out across the plains of Highmoor from the top of the small tower. To the east he could see the Ettenmoors, their dull mounts illuminated by the rising of the day. To the north, upon the horizon, stood the northern peaks of the Hithaeglir – the Misty Mountains – the predicted home of Arnor’s enemy. Oropher recited the name the men of the watchtower had given them – the ‘red monsters’. It was unwise to call them such a name, it inspired fear and imagery of terror and death in the minds of the soldiers. But regardless, it was wrong to underestimate their capability to destroy.
The Ranger General was awakened from his thoughts by the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him. His third lieutenant, Barahir, stood by the entrance to the top level. Oropher never got used to how stealthy and silent Barahir was, the ability to creep up on the Ranger General without him noticing concerning him somewhat. Barahir had, as always, a hood over his impassive face, the shadows of his garment shielding his dark eyes from the sun.
“Ah, forgive me Barahir, I did not hear you.”
The third lieutenant in no way reacted to his master’s words. Overlooking this, Oropher continued.
“I intend to inspect the bodies of the dead pillagers today. Then I will take the men to inspect the surrounding area. We shall try to find where their lair is, or if another of their attack groups is on the march.”
This time, Barahir nodded slightly.
“I called you up here because I want you to take Rumil and Aldarion and go ahead of us, see if you can find anything. Then tell them to split up and continue scouting the area. You are all to meet us here at noon in five days.”
“Yes, my lord.” Oropher likened Barahir’s voice to old parchment ready to crumble at the slightest touch.
“Very good. The rest of the men will follow me at afternoon today. Now, rise Aldarion and Rumil. I want you to depart within the hour.”
Barahir gave a bow to his lord and turned to go down from the tower.
“Barahir,” called Oropher. The ranger stopped and turned to his lord.
“I do not want any man to die on this mission. So try to stay out of trouble.”
“Tell that to the other men, not to me,” said Barahir. “For trouble does not hear me coming.”
The charred heap of corpses lay still and cold upon the ground. Oropher gazed at them with the trained eyes of a ranger. By him stood Henderch, one of the tower’s more high-ranking soldiers, and Meneldur, another of the Ranger General’s task force. Meneldur was close friends with Rumil, who had departed with Barahir and Aldarion not long before. Though he seemed slightly sad by his companion’s separation, he stood purposefully and ready by his lord’s side, ever appreciative of the Ranger General’s approving towards him.
Oropher took mental notes of what the corpses wore and bore. After he had made a mental summary of the barbarians, he turned to Henderch.
“Henderch, thank you for escorting me, you may now return to your duties.”
The Rhudarian warrior bowed and returned to the tower. Oropher moved closer to Meneldur.
“So, soldier, what do you make of these bodies?”
Meneldur stuttered for a moment. “Well, lord, it is not my place to say.”
“You are far too modest, lad, give yourself some credit. You’ve made it to my personal retinue in this mission, so in my eyes, your opinion counts.”
“Well, thank you, my lord,” said Meneldur, taken aback by this comment.
“And please, call me Oropher, if you wish.”
“I would rather call you my lord, my lord. It defines the status that you have earned.”
“Yes, true, but it does get a little tiring sometimes.”
Both men laughed, before returning their gaze to the charred figures.
“Well, if you ask, my lord Oropher,” said Meneldur, saying ‘Oropher’ slightly uncomfortably, “These men look muscular and strong, and their weaponry is relatively well-crafted. We can deal with barbarians, but…”
“Yes?” Inquired Oropher as Meneldur trailed off.
“…but these are well-armed barbarians.”
The late afternoon sun hung above Eriador like a low chandelier, ready to fall and leave the land at the mercy of the night. Oropher, Amdir and Meneldur crept through the plains of Highmoor silently and hastily. The small group tried to travel as quickly as possible whilst remaining relatively stealthy.
It was more than three hours since Oropher had bid farewell to Captain Thalion at the tower, who had gifted the trio with additional supplies, and a rare luxury from his base garrison supplies.
“Red root, we call it,” Thalion had said to the Ranger General. “It only grows in the woods of Rhudaur. With just a small bite, it will enhance your senses when you are feeling drowsy.” Oropher had accepted it with great gratitude.
The company travelled as straight as they could, for, unlike the other three scouts that had gone ahead, they wished to travel due north, whereas Barahir’s men would meander and change in direction, as was the manner of Arthedain rangers.
It was late at night when the group stopped for the night. They took shelter in a rocky cavern in a low hill, changing the watch every so often, each man with a small ration of Thalion’s red root.
Oropher had just fallen asleep after his second watch, but his dreams were troubled. He saw himself holding the royal banner of Arthedain on a shore by the sea, but the waters were in great turmoil, and in shock he had turned round to see that the land was now engulfed in the waves too, and the storm came from both sides.
He quickly woke to the sound of raised voices. Amdir was on the watch. When his blurred vision cleared, he saw Meneldur unsheathing his sword and hurrying to Amdir, who was locked in combat with a strange figure cloaked in black. Oropher instinctively drew his blade and ran towards the combat. The intruder, alarmed by the onrush of two more foes, left his guard open for a second – which was plenty of time for him to be beheaded by Amdir.
The figure toppled to the floor, the severed head bounding away in an almost comical fashion. Amdir breathed heavily, then cleaned the blood from his sword.
“Report”, commanded Oropher, lowering his voice to be as quiet as possible.
“I was just on the watch when this one attacked me,” told Amdir, pointing his sword at the corpse. “He just seemed to come out of nowhere.”
“I rushed to help as soon as I heard them,” said Meneldur. “I believe that it was a scout.”
“Most probably,” said Oropher. He frowned as he looked at the body.
“Ready yourselves. We will walk through the night.”
Oropher thought he heard a discontent grumble from Amdir, but he took no notice. There was no time to argue with him. For all they knew, Carn Dum had sent another force against Arnor, and they were stumbling right into them.