Bronze clouds blanketed the sky, speaking of dusk. The rugged terrain of Highmoor was eerily silent and still – if not for the two dark figures desperately sprinting and panting southwards.
Meneldur dropped to the ground in exhaustion. Oropher continued to run a few paces before turning and noticing his fallen companion.
“Meneldur!” he exclaimed, though he was almost too exhausted to speak. They had been running with all speed for nine or so hours now, since Aldarion had spotted the army marching on Arnor. He and Amdir were slower than Oropher and Meneldur, and so had fallen behind somewhat. Their safety could only be speculated on.
Oropher kneeled beside Meneldur, who was now breathing frantically.
“Do not worry about me, my lord,” panted the young ranger. “Hurry on, the watchtower must be warned.”
Oropher did no such thing, instead taking out his last rations of red root – a stimulating plant that Captain Thalion had gifted to him before leaving Highmoor Tower. Oropher placed it into Meneldur’s mouth, who chewed uncomfortably.
“Now get up, or may the Valar take you. I gave you the command ‘we run’, and how can we run if only I run?”
Meneldur controlled his exhalations and stood himself up.
“Very good, soldier,” Oropher said. “No rest till we reach Highmoor Tower.”
It was now four days since the company had set out from the tower. Noon was over the land. Oropher and Meneldur had now lowered their sprinting to a steady jog, their energy running low after excessive running.
“When we get to the tower,” said Meneldur. “What are your plans?”
Oropher noted that Meneldur did not say ‘my lord’, as he was apt to do. Then again, more words wasted breath, which they were both in short supply of.
“Three of us will take a horse each and ride to the capital cities of the states. The remainder will aid the watchtower in the retreat.”
“I thought there might be a retreat. But where will they retreat to?”
“That will be for Captain Thalion to decide. But I would think to head for Valnaril’s Tower, which is only a short journey southwards.”
“Could the captain be charged for abandoning his post?” inquired Meneldur.
“I believe this new threat is large enough for overlords to concentrate on victory, rather than petty schemes and laws. In these circumstances, I believe he will not be.”
“Yes, I believe that is true,” said Meneldur. “Because of this war, for better or for worse, everything is about to change.”
As the first light of morning came, Highmoor Tower could be seen in the distance. It stood atop the horizon like a grim, dark portent of doom, which seemed almost ironic to Oropher. They entered the relative safety of the bastion with not a word to the defenders their, leaving the men to only wonder at what would transpire in the near future.
As the two rangers reached the base of the tower, only then did Oropher speak.
“Meneldur, ready three of our steeds with provisions and water, and then try and get some rest. Report to me when you feel recovered.”
Meneldur nodded without a word and walked to the stables, somewhat relieved and concerned at his usually stern captain’s leave to rest.
Oropher made his way through the levels of the tower, searching eagerly for Captain Thalion. He found him on the second, sat at his poor excuse of a commander’s desk. Opposite him sat a dark and silent figure.
“Barahir!” Oropher exclaimed, startling Captain Thalion. Barahir simply turned and nodded. The Ranger General came towards Thalion.
“Captain, you must order the watchtower into action immediately! A massive force of crimson-garbed warriors is advancing this way! I suggest a retreat to –”
Oropher paused when he realised the grim look on the captain’s face. “Captain?”
Thalion sighed and drew his stern gaze to the Ranger General. “I know of the force that marches this way, Lord Oropher. They are going to march on Rhudaur. And so are we.”
Oropher could not believe what he was hearing. “Please tell me this is a jest, Captain?”
Captain Thalion seemed to look deeper into Oropher’s eyes. “I regret not. The force we stand against is no mere tribe of barbarians. The evil that is amassing in the north has come to raze the very foundations of Arnor into ash, and we cannot hope to stand against it. The Witch-King of Carn Dum is come.”
“Do not tell me I am hearing treason from a Captain of Arnor,” spoke Oropher, now enraged by this turn of events. “You seek to destroy your own homeland?”
“Not destroy it, Oropher! Build it anew!” said Thalion, now speaking with the purpose of a crazed zealot. “The people of Rhudaur are strong! But our overlords are not – fools who beg like dogs on the ground for scraps of meat from Arthedain and Cardolan. Men like you have looked down upon us for too long, Lord Oropher! The men of Arthedain deem themselves glorious and god-like! The men of Cardolan are arrogant and over-proud! You look down upon us and expect submission! But Rhudaur and her new allies will destroy you!”
“It seems to me that you are the arrogant one here, Thalion. You put too much faith in your new barbarian friends,” retorted Oropher.
Thalion chuckled darkly. “I have told you, this is no horde of barbarians. The Witch-King commands them.”
“And who is this Witch-King whom you would so gladly sell your honour and heraldry to?”
Barahir finally stood up and spoke in a voice that Oropher had never heard from him before, “He is older than the towers, mightier than armies, destroyer of kings, Lord of Nazgul, Lieutenant of the Dark Lord!”
“So you too have fallen, Barahir?” said Oropher, “My own lieutenant – a traitor.”
“A traitor? No, my lord, I was never a traitor. I am a spy. And my name is not Barahir – I myself am sick that such a name was ever branded upon me. My true name is Khazal Nightblade, second-in-command to the Witch-King. I have enlightened the good Captain Thalion here to a greater cause, just as I have turned all the other commanders of the northern garrisons. Much of Rhudaur is ready to revolt. All we must do now is deal with those who would oppose us.”
Barahir – or Khazal – drew his sword, and the other warriors present did likewise. Oropher thought quickly. He needed to escape.
“I am sorry, Oropher,” said Thalion. “I truly deemed you a great man. It is unfortunate that you are fighting for the wrong side.”
“We shall see who is fighting for the wrong side, traitor.” Oropher turned to see the voice come from Meneldur, who stood by the stairs with Amdir, Aldarion and Rumil, all wielding bows. They fired.
Oropher immediately ran towards them and down the stairs as several warriors dropped dead. An arrow had hit Thalion’s shoulder and he screamed in pain. It did not take Khazal long to order a pursuit.
“How did you know?” said Oropher as the five rangers ran down the stairs.
“I saw Barahir speak with a host of the crimson warriors out in the wilderness,” said Rumil. “I knew there must be something wrong, so I told Meneldur, and then Amdir and Aldarion who have only just arrived.”
“Never trust a Rhudarian,” smirked Amdir grimly as they reached the base of the tower.
“Run to the stables,” ordered Oropher. “I shall warn King Malvegil, Amdir and Aldarion shall warn Cardolan, and Meneldur and Rumil will go to Rhudaur’s capital – and tell them to be wary of rebellion.”
They were nearly at the stables when Khazal and his men appeared at the tower’s base.
“Destroy the Arthedain scum! Kill them all!” The garrison warriors immediately leapt into action.
“Do not stop!” cried Oropher. A trio of soldiers stood in the ranger’s path. Oropher and Amdir cleaved two of them down, but the third swung his sword in a bloody arch.
“Rumil!” cried Meneldur. His close friend lay lifeless on the ground. Roaring fiercely, he decapitated his companion’s killer. He was ready to charge the other Rhudaurians speeding towards them.
“No Meneldur!” shouted Oropher. “Do not stop!”
“I will buy you some time!” screamed Meneldur. “They will pay for slaying Rumil!”
Oropher had never seen Meneldur like this. He looked berserk. “Meneldur! I gave you an order!”
Finally Meneldur’s berserk side gave way to his rational one, and he quickly nodded and followed, barely noticing Rumil’s corpse.
They quickly mounted their horses and were ready to ride, but Oropher noticed that Amdir stood where he was.
“Amdir, mount up!”
“No, my lord. Meneldur was right. Someone needs to buy you time.”
“Don’t do this!” the order came not from Oropher, but from Aldarion. “Brother, you do not have to be a hero all the time!”
“Aldarion,” said Amdir, “If we are to survive this storm, we will need plenty of heroes. Now ride. For the Valar’s sake, ride.”
The three surviving rangers were now far away from the tower. The Rhudaurian warriors were still swarming about, but Oropher knew they would soon mobilize themselves. And if Amdir’s sacrifice were to not be in vain, they would use the time they had.
Aldarion wept open tears for his brother. Meneldur was grim and silent. The time to fully grieve for Rumil was not now.
“Men, you have your orders." Oropher was monotone and grim. "I pray I will see you both again at Fornost. In fact I order it. Now go.”
With that the riders split and sped towards their assigned locations. As Oropher, Ranger General of Arthedain, rode across the bleak plains of Highmoor, he could not but think that Khazal and Thalion were true. If this new threat was as great as they claimed it was, then only the greatest courage and valour and skill of the men of Arnor would save the north from darkness.