Harnol rode swiftly through the long grass in the valleys of the North Downs, lying low in the saddle to protect himself from the bitter wind. He had said goodbye to his captain only a few hours ago, yet it felt like a few days from the rough conditions. His chestnut-coloured horse, Fastred, relished these long gallops so Harnol expected to be out of the Downs by sunset. After a few hours, Fastred had slowed to a trot and was breathing heavily.
"Come on, Fastred," he whispered in his horse's ear. "Only a few more miles."
The horse could not of course understand, but perhaps it was some elvish charm, echoing out of the long years before any evil had befallen the world, that made Fastred's head stand a little higher and his pace a little faster.
They did indeed reach Fornost before sundown, and Harnol slid gratefully out of the saddle, his thighs aching. He had hardly taken the saddle and packs off his horses’ back before Fastred slid down onto the wet grass and rolled around on his back, making those little neighing noises that horses do when they're content.
Harnol smiled and then took a small axe out of his pack. He then walked into a small wood that they had stopped by for the night. He found several sticks and two dry logs and took them back to his shelter, arranging them and putting a spark to them. His fire was soon burning merrily and he took Fastred to a tree to tie him for the night. After spending an hour or so in front of the fire eating some of the rations he had taken with him, he stamped out the flames and crawled inside the shelter for the night.
He woke early the next morning, breaking his fast with a few pieces of bread and an apple and then saddling Fastred. They rode light and swift for the entire day, riding down the Greenway, and soon Harnol had reached Bree. The north gate of Bree was shut day and night, owing to the belief that dark spirits came out of the North. The guard at the gate knew better than to argue with a Ranger, though, so the gates swung open almost immediately at his coming. Harnol rode slowly through the streets of Bree, ignoring the stares some of the local people gave him. What they didn't know wouldn't hurt them.
Tying Fastred up outside the Prancing Pony, Harnol walked in and asked for Barliman at the bar.
"'Aven't seen 'im for ages, 'ave we?" said the barman. "Buggered off somewhere, 'asn't he?"
"Barliman? Leave Bree? That dosen't sound like him," said Harnol suspiciously.
"'E's got friends in 'igher places now," said the barman. "'Elped those 'obbits when they passed through 'ere, all those years ago. Now 'e's in the Shire, from what I 'eard tell."
Harnol nodded. He had heard of Butterbur's involvement in the War of the Ring.
"Well, what I really wanted to ask was about the dwarf army, the one from Moria."
"Dwarf army? Moria?" The barman seemed genuinely confused. I 'aven't seen a dwarf in years, leave alone a dwarf army."
"Thank you for the information," said Harnol, tipping him a coin and leaving the inn.
"For what I gave," he heard the man say before the door swung shut.
Harnol walked over to the stables and began to untie Fastred.
"Looks like we have a little more way to go yet," he said. Fastred neighed.
Harnol climbed on and tapped Fastred on his sides.
"Let's go!" he said.
They raced through Bree, avoiding carts and hay bales that were scattered across the road and going through spaces where some very startled people had been a few seconds before. In no time they had reached the south gate of Bree, and had rushed through it out onto the road beyond.
"Where to now?" Harnol wondered aloud.
He knew that the elusive army was somewhere near Bree, since the message they had sent to tell of their coming had been a few days ago and they would have reached Bree by now.
Harnol set Fastred to a trot along the southern road, looking to the left and right for any sign of a camp, hidden as it may have been. Suddenly, his quick eyes spotted something, off the road to the right. A footprint. Small, but with an indentation at the front that spoke of metal, and more distantly a soldier on guard duty. Harnol jumped down from his horse and walked over to it, the grass dewed under his leather boots. As he knelt down, he recognized it unmistakably to be the print of a dwarf. He looked up. A small forest lay ahead of him, thickets crowding around it. He smiled slightly. A perfect place for an army that did not wish to be seen.
He stood up, checked that Fastred was still, and then walked at an easy pace through the long grass, towards the forest. As he grew closer, his ears caught the tiniest of sounds. Someone shuffling, perhaps? They had seen him, that much was sure.
Then suddenly, a harsh voice cried out in a guttural tongue that Harnol recognised a moment later to be Dwarvish. He cried out in relief to them, speaking in the common tongue.
“I am Harnol, one of the Dunedain! I serve King Elessar! I have come to bring you to Fornad and to join our force!”
A few seconds later, dwarves, armed with axes and wearing heavy armour and face masks, began to edge cautiously out of the thickets. One walked more confidently ahead of the rest and beckoned for Harnol to come over.
Harnol stepped over a small bog and quickly made his way over to the dwarf. The dwarf lifted up his iron face-mask and regarded the Ranger, his face looking distrustful.
“I know that you are led by a great captain by the name of Thorin Oakenshield,” said Harnol. “I would speak to him and lead you dwarves to Fornad, my captain.”
“My... my master wait for you,” replied the dwarf, the words unsteady. Harnol judged that he was not used to speaking in Westron. “Come now.”
Harnol gratefully followed the dwarf over the grass towards the thickets, the guards’ kin tightening their holds on their axes when they saw the longbow tied to Harnol’s back. He ducked under a low-hanging branch, even though the dwarf had no need to do so, and suddenly he emerged into a small clearing where the thickets had been hacked away. Small tents were arranged in orderly rows along the raw ground, some having even been erected in the forest beyond.
‘There,’ pointed the dwarf with one stubby finger.
At the head of the line of tents stood one large pavilion, woven of red cloth and with strange, geometric designs woven along the edges. Harnol walked through the camp, ignoring the slightly hostile stares the dwarves around the tents gave him, until he ducked under the flap at the front of the pavilion and walked in.
The air was hot and stuffy inside. Hangings were draped on the walls, depicting scenes of dwarves hacking at goblins with axes in dark caves, smithing at hot anvils, and feasting at long oak tables. A noble and tough-looking suit of armour stood to the left, thick veins of gold twisting over its surface and with an ornate mask under a helm. At a table stood two dwarves, both studying a complex map. One turned round to Harnol. It was Thorin.