Over one hundred people added to the Company of Arnor. Some were training under the tender hearted bellowing of Molguv and Bear. The barracks looked filled to the brim. Nearly one hundred and twenty people and one Healer. Rin’s mind had been performing contortions since Aragorn had mentioned that back in Osgiliath. She’d not missed the flicker of amusement as her cousin brushed her thoughts either. Funny was it? How was she supposed to sort out two separate Companies, Old and New? It could require her to simultaneously be in two places. Not to mention the logistics of adequate supplies for that many potential patients. The increased likelihood of misadventure and the consequences. Well, until her brother, Wulgof and Khule reunited with Molguv that risk was somewhat diminished.
Hanasian had turned to her and said something, but she couldn’t tear her eyes off the proliferation of Black Company uniforms and all that it meant. True, a return from the peaceful bliss of Ithilien to anything approaching daily routine would be jarring...but this?
”I think we should hurry up and get a family started,” she muttered as she looked about her.
After all, had she not said they would know when to go west? Is this not now?
”Well and good, my love. Only not right here,” Hanasian replied, smiling ever so slightly as he pressed his lips to her brow.
Their arrival had not gone unnoted. Videgavia was approaching at speed from one direction and Farbarad was approaching at speed from the other. They converged on the pair.
”Am I pleased to see you!” Vidgavia said earnestly, reaching for Hanasian’s forearm.
”I hope you’re ready for this,” Farbarad said to Rin.
”You’ve been busy, Vid,” Hanasian replied as his second turned to greet his wife.
Videgavia pulled back to study both Hanasian and Rin’s faces. They were suffused with a positively ridiculous amount of delight.
”I’m not the only one,” Videgavia replied dryly as he took them both in, ”Though, I have to say you must be mad to return. I wouldn’t, unless wedded bliss doesn’t agree with you two?”
“Agree? Look at them, Vid. It’s almost nauseating,” Farbarad chuckled and then glanced at the barracks behind their backs.
Someone in a window was waving.
”What are you looking at?” Rin inquired, eyes narrowing as she studied the Ranger’s intent expression.
Farbarad and Videgavia exchanged a brief, almost guilty glance.
”Cap, lots to discuss. Meeting?” Videgavia inquired of Hanasian, who nodded his assent.
”Excellent, then, Doc, need to talk to you about the new female recruits,” Videgavia said as he moved to stand with Hanasian.
Farbarad meanwhile had deftly placed his hand under Rin’s forearm and begun to steer her towards the barracks.
”Now, just wait a moment,” Rin protested.
”I’m afraid I can’t do that. Take my word for it, Doc. Better to get this over and done with quickly,” Farbarad replied, nodding at Videgavia and Hanasian.
The two men watched Farbarad’s attempt to escort the Company Healer in a dignified manner descend into a brief scuffle over who owned Rin’s forearm half way towards the barracks. Healer and Ranger faced off, scowling at each other for all they were worth and then Farbarad said something quietly that seemed to have an immediate effect. Rin drew up to her full height, picked up her skirts and veritably steamed towards the barracks. Farbarad, who was left now in the dust, turned back to shoot Hanasian and Videgavia a truly wicked grin and then hurried after her.
”What was that about?” Hanasian asked mildly.
”Oh, I’d say he offered to cart her in over his shoulder,” Videgavia replied initially and then realised Hanasian was probably asking a deeper question, ”Oh, the ambush Mecarnil and Farbarad have been planning. That’s what that is. Cardolan business. The pair have been run ragged by it and they can’t defer it any longer.”
Hanasian nodded and decided that he’d give Mecarnil as much time as needed to sort that out. He turned to his second and then frankly asked him if he had lost his mind.
”Khule, Wulgof and Loch...those three...and only Berlas to maintain order,” Hanasian said.
”I kept Molguv back and that, I can tell you, is the lynch pin of that unholy cartel. Besides, the Khule that set off was the Khule we recruited years ago. All business, as was Wulgof,” Videgavia replied, quickly falling in to stride beside his captain as they conducted their meeting ambling about to see whatever it was they could see of the Black Company of Arnor.
”This, Mecarnil, had better be good!”
Rin’s opening statement arrived before she did, but Mecarnil was prepared for it. Long years in the field, the Ranger had mastered the fine art of the ambush. Once the healer had entered the room he waited in, Farbarad at her shoulder, she pressed on with her barrage.
”And, I want to know something. How did you know we would be arriving today? Hmmm? Or have you just been sitting in here waiting for something to hatch?”
She crossed her arms under her breasts, lifted her chin and dared him to return fire.
”Oh, use your head woman. Aragorn told us,” Mecarnil replied calmly and enjoyed the way her mouth opened in surprise.
He had found his way under that icy wall she used to such devastating effect. In this time, Farbarad had found a comfortable arm chair and installed himself in it. He set to packing his pipe, long legs stretched out before him. He nodded at Mecarnil and Rin did not miss that. So, they were in on this together, were they? Mecarnil flicked a hand at a stack of parchments.
”What are they?” Rin asked
“Matters you need to attend to as soon as possible, Rosmarin. We’ve waited, through mutual agreement, until after the wedding. It would be perilous to wait longer. Oh,” Mecarnil said as her mouth opened with another question, ”Before you ask, agreement between Farbarad, myself, Videgavia and your husband.”
“Yes, it was his idea, if I recall correctly. Now, shall we get to it?” Mecarnil inquired, taking pains not to appear over eager, ”I have the ink, quill, wax and your seal prepared. A simple task of signing. It need not take more than a handful of minutes.”
“Signing what, precisely?”
“I can take you through them one by one, if you like. Why don’t you take a seat here and we can get started.”
Farbarad could see just how hard Mecarnil was working to remain calm and unperturbed and it seemed to be effective. By contrast, Rin seemed uneasy. It was a complete reversal of roles. Mecarnil selected the first paper and began to take her through it but she read for herself anyway. Her eyes flowed like a mountain rapid over the words faster than Mecarnil could explain. He was mid-sentence when she dipped the quill in the ink pot and signed. Mecarnil’s expression registered a brief instant of surprise as the seal was affixed. He picked up the second document and began again, shooting Farbarad a pleased and grateful glance which the Ranger accepted placidly in his arm chair. This approach had been his idea, and it was working, but the true test would come with the final three documents.
There was relative peace in the room for a handful of minutes, until they reached the more contentious documents. Farbarad watched Rin’s expression go dangerously smooth and inscrutable. She set the quill purposefully down.
”No, absolutely not.”
“Rosmarin, this comes from the hand of the High King himself. See his mark there, and there.”
“It could come from Eru, still the answer is no,” Rin replied flatly.
Once, when faced with such implacable obstinacy, Mecarnil would have sought to reason and cajole and debate. This time, the Ranger nodded and it was time to commence the ambush.
”I see. That is your final word?”
“Very well. Farbarad, if you would be so kind?”
Farbarad strode smoothly out of the room. He returned with two city guards, who eyed Rin hard in the way of city guards across the land when faced with a potential custodial acquisition.
”Rosmarin, Black Company Healer, otherwise known as Erían of Cardolan?” inquired one man.
Rin felt a familiar frisson of nervous agitation skitter through her. True, she wasn’t in an alley somewhere with someone else’s food or valuables stuffed under her clothing. Still....she had long experience with such a scene. She knew that look and she knew that tone.
”Rosmarin, Black Company Healer,” she replied, choosing to remain seated and eyeing the window behind Farbarad’s recently vacated armchair.
”Rosmarin, we have reports that you were engaged in several acts of public nuisance some weeks ago, at particular impost to our personnel.”
“I have no idea what you are referring to,” Rin replied and the guard unfolded a piece of paper with details on it.
”Ah, well let me enlighten you. To start, there is the matter of bathing in a public fountain.”
“Ridiculous! There was no bathing. We - I mean I fell in and I got out again. Is that an offense?” Rin countered, swiftly correcting herself to avoid implicating the two woman that had been with her at the time.
”And there there is the matter of the public disturbance created in the Harlond.”
“I was never in the Harlond!”
“No, but some twenty three naked Dunlending men were. All claimed you had defrauded them of their shirts and breeches in a crooked game of chance and then led them on a merry chase through the city until you managed to lock them into the Harlond. Took us nearly three days to clean up the mess. Twenty three independent witnesses.”
“That’s twenty three separate counts of theft...or, if you consider the shirts a separate offense to the breeches, that would make it forty six instances of theft...and then there is the matter of the crooked game...” added the second guard.
Rin focussed on breathing. She needed to breathe. Forty six theft charges...she could barely remember their faces and it had been that damn elf and dwarf who started it. Besides, taking their shirts and breeches was mild, compared with what such men had taken from her and Loch. Calm, she needed rational thought. As Rin sat in stone cold silence, Mecarnil and Farbarad exchanged a brief grin of victory over her head and the guards continued on.
”Lastly, there is the matter of a theft from those who watch the city walls. In that, we have three bracelets, a silver-”
Rin’s composure cracked at that. She shot upright and began elucidating a great number of points all at once and all rather loudly. The guards returned the favour and soon the office was a scene of shouting and gestures.
”Why don’t you arrest the dwarf and elf? They incited all of this. All of it! Up to their ears in it, the both of them! Too important and powerful for you to take a shot at, are they? ‘I’d like to see you try,’ the elf said. ‘Take their breeches and I’ll give you the rest of this bottle,’ the dwarf said. Where are they?”
“Oh, so you do remember now? Suddenly recalled something, have we?” a guard countered and Rin’s mouth snapped shut a moment and then she continued on, selecting a new argument.
Into the midst of all this walked Videgavia and Hanasian. Farbarad had a grin from ear to ear, and Mecarnil looked like a cat who had recently acquired a bird dipped in cream. Rin was leaning over the table, both fists resting on its surface and arguing for all her worth.
”You know, all of this could be avoided if you just sign the papers, Rin,” Farbarad said into a lull and Rin whirled about, eyes blazing.
”Extortion! That’s black mail!”
“That’s necessary, Rosmarin. It is as simple as that. This document is necessary for the orderly succession of rule and the integrity of the realm. This document is necessary for the appropriate governance of the former realm of Cardolan. And this document will ensure that whoever is out there plotting foul deeds, your children will be protected,” Mecarnil said placidly as Videgavia escorted the two city guards out to thank them for their performance.
”No, no, no! Arrest me! Fine! NO!”
Farbarad placed a hand on Mecarnil’s shoulder and the man walked to stand by Videgavia.
Farbarad passed the three offending documents to Hanasian across the desk, who read them swiftly.
”Rin, I know you gave up the throne...signing the succession document for the high throne places you just in front of Faramir. Aragorn has a son, a direct heir already, and daughters. The likelihood of you being saddled with his throne is as high as Loch deciding a write a treatise on the art of fish tickling. It could happen, but it’s not very likely,” Farbarad explained.
”If you don’t sign it, my love, then you will remain a device that could be used to rally opposition to the rule of Aragorn and his heirs. This is what he meant when he said he could not unmake your lineage,” Hanasian said quietly and set the document on the desk between them.
”And we promise not to call you Princess,” Videgavia added as husband and wife exchanged a silent glance, filled with meaning obvious only to them.
”Especially Frea,” Videgavia finished.
Then, with a sigh, Rin picked up the quill and grimly signed the document. Princess of the realm! Absurd! Ridiculous! At least it named Erían and not Rosmarin. She could always drop that name entirely. It had yet to feel like hers anyway. Incognito, she’d like to see them try to find her should they need to. There were a million ways a person could conceal themselves out there in the broad wilds and rolling dales.
”This one will set in place a Prefect over Cardolan. It doesn’t have to be you, but at the least you do have the right to veto whoever it may be. Consider what could be done to restore safety to vast tracts of that land. Consider your own experience.”
Rin signed again as she set quill to the decree.
”Would have to be a remarkable individual to sort all that out,” she muttered darkly, ”And that is the voice of experience talking. As for this last....this seems to me to be continuing a tradition that I understood to be required for the royal line of Cardolan. There is no longer a royal line of Cardolan and I will not willingly or accidentally create the perception otherwise.”
“In this, I agree with my wife,” Hanasian added, ”Have not either of us earned the right to live our lives and raise our children without the constant presence of watching eyes?”
“Rosmarin, in the days leading to your wedding, a score of assassins arrived in this city. Their patrons varied, some known and some unknown. You were the target of some, Hanasian the target of others,” Farbarad reported
Rin was shocked by this. She lifted her hand to her mouth and her eyes sought Hanasian’s.
”It gets worse,” Farbarad said and at that Rin moved out from behind the desk to seek Hanasian.
Once she had reached her husband, Farbarad continued with his grim task.
”The chief reason they failed was your uncle. Cullith cleaned Minas Tirith’s house, by means no one in this room would sanction but perhaps can, at least, understand. Cullith went further, though. He scoured the countryside in the weeks. When he turned himself in, he claimed to have dealt with many rebels against the kingdom and Cardolan. This has been verified independently. He took over thirty lives.”
Rin felt physically ill at this. Thirty lives, thirty lives! Her stomach twisted. She had been to hamlets smaller than that. Every man, woman and child, dead by her uncle’s hand under her name. She clung white knuckled to Hanasian, face emptied of colour.
”Where is he?” Hanasian inquired as his wife attempted to recover her equilibrium.
”Dead...murdered in his cell before he could be questioned. It is our belief he had uncovered something sufficiently dangerous to prompt him to turn himself in - to bring it to Aragorn’s attention. The king shares that belief. We do not know what, and we may not uncover it in time.
“In light of this, the king agreed with our assessment that the peril is too great to you and your children to abandon the tradition of a bonded Ranger just yet. Not, at least, until we can be certain the danger has passed,” Mecarnil stated.
”Is it truly so perilous?” Hanasian quietly asked.
”There is nothing I would put past them,” Farbarad said vehemently, eyes flashing with a long harboured anger.
”While you remain with the Company, nothing need change from our usual caution. However, if these men remain at large and their hand unplayed when you depart, you will not go alone. We will not intrude. We are well versed with such a role to conduct it unobtrusively,” Mecarnil said.
”That would strip Videgavia of two experienced men at the least, and Rangers at that,” Hanasian replied, turning to study his second.
Videgavia’s eyes flicked from his captain to the woman on his arm as he chose his next words.
”I would not be able to live with myself otherwise,” he stated.
Rin pressed her forehead against Hanasian’s shoulder and breathed in his scent. She wanted freedom and this seemed to be a cage...and yet what price her freedom? Hanasian’s life, their children? She lifted her head, cupped her hand against his cheek and their eyes locked. Then, she lowered her hand and crossed to the table to sign the final document.
”Now, get them out of here before I burn them,” she growled as she set her seal to the last parchment.
Farbarad complied, swiftly gathering up the papers and heading out. There was silence in the room for a handful of heartbeats.
”If we keep this up, we’ll reach the Prefect tomorrow,” Wulgof said, massaging the sole of his left foot.
They had a small fire going, for there was little to be gained by concealing their presence now. All four had acquired mounts and local clothing. So close to a settlement, many camped in the surrounding lands. They blended in by appearing just another party of travellers. In this land, no one asked too many questions of people they did not know, and so they were left to their own devices. In the weeks it had taken them to reach this far, they had seen little of note. Rather, a general uneasiness had imperturbably grown with each passing day.
Berlas had taken the first watch. Wulgof would take the second, Loch the third and Khule the fourth. They had fallen into a routine, each occupying essential roles. Berlas was a skilled ranger, accustomed to the sort of terrain in Rhun from his service in Ithilien. Moreover, he knew a great deal of the language and customs, given the increasing number of Rhun people flowing through the lands before and after the war. Wulgof was a hardened, experienced soldier. He worked tirelessly, did what he was told, offered careful opinions only rarely. He often took the rear or point, equally valuable in both positions.
Loch was the least experienced campaigner. For all of that, he was a superb hunter and scout and he had an ineffable manner that could disarm and charm the most taciturn. Despite his size and strength, and the fact that beneath that sunny exterior lay a simmering rage, he somehow managed to bring some ease to those around him. He was also welcome comedic relief, intended or otherwise, and the one most likely to try his hand at something inadvisable of all the four. As for Khule, he was commander and master of the people, culture and language. They all followed his lead without him even needing to say so. Something in the way he was with them, rarely seen in the Company. More than that, he possessed a darker set of skills that no one wanted to test out. Assassins were not men lightly crossed.
”Put your boots back on. Otherwise, none of us will live to draw breath by morning,” Loch replied.
Both Dunlending men had the sun darkened look of Rhun now. Loch’s lighter hair could be easily explained away. Many children in this land had mixed heritage, by choice or not. War could be a terrible thing, and its aftermath left more than bodies and scars. By contrast, Rhun was a far more welcoming place for such children. Starved of people by the war, they did not quibble over whether the next generation had unwatered Rhun blood in their veins. All of this turned in Khule’s mind as the two Dunlenders exchanged quiet jibes with one another.
”Why didn’t you come to Rhun?” Khule asked in a lull, catching both by surprise.
”You and your sister,” Khule added by way of clarification.
”Why would we?” Loch replied.
”Far less trouble over your heritage. Many a village would have welcomed two healthy people, two sets of able hands. Particularly Rin’s,” Khule replied.
”There were no shortage of people happy to offer Rin a place in Rohan either. I’d be damned if I sold her into that. Saw for myself what it reduced women to. Forgive me for a sentimental fool.”
“No, I don’t mean that...I meant her skills. The mortality rate of the people in Rhun of simple things, easily prevented, it catastrophic. They would welcome her as a healer, not as a - well, you know what I mean now,” Khule amended as Loch’s face took on a familiarly dangerous feral quality.
”Oh,” the man rumbled, rolling his shoulders and stowing his wrath, ”[/I]Well, in that case, the answer is simple. We didn’t know, Khule. We didn’t know Rhun might be easier or harder. And, in any case, getting there is no easy feat. It’s a long way on foot, without shoes or a map or any real idea of your destination. In any case, I’d be surprised if anyone would have welcomed us as children. Another two mouths to feed? I think it was hard for everyone, no matter where they lived. Rhun, Rohan, Dunland. Another two mouths is another two mouths. Simple as that. Maybe, had we of known, as adults we might have tried our luck. We were already in Edoras by then, and you know how that turned out.”
“The cheese,” [/I]said Wulgof to the fire.
”Oh, I gave her a hard time over it, but it was time to leave in any case,” Loch said after a moment’s reflection.
”Why?” Wulgof asked.
”We were too close to...well let’s just say it was getting increasingly difficult for us to work off our lodgings. Brianne had an eye for recruitment and it had fallen on Rin.”
“I don’t know how you managed it, Loch. It’s not an easy life, that one, but to refuse it when it offered a roof and food,” Wulgof rumbled, ”I know many a man and woman who have not been able to chose as you and Rin did.”
“Easier to do when you saw the aftermath. Rin would return each day with a new tale of woe. And, we did not manage to keep our noses entirely clean. I think Khadre, one of Brianne’s girls, was a source of considerable education for Rin.”
“Khadre...a familiar name,” Khule said
“Yes, a woman of Rhun if I recall correctly. Popular within Brianne’s stable, for all the wrong reasons. Rin frequently had to see to her. They struck up a friendship, as women do I suppose. Khadre let slip that she had started to teach Rin some dances one morning and Rin went bright red. That’s when I knew it was time to move on. I took the Meduseld assignment the next day.”
Both Wulgof and Khule’s eyebrows rose, but they wisely said nothing of the discovery that the Company Healer knew a great deal more than strictly proper for a woman of her heritage. The sort of dances Khadre would know were not the sort of dances a Dunedain princess should.
”Why even take board at Brianne’s in the first place?” Khule instead ask, even as the image of Loch’s sister in the Harad silks dominated his mind’s eye. Now he knew what had taken their Captain so long in that temple and why it was the Captain smiled in a particular way when he had emerged, fortunate man.
”Better than the alternatives, believe it or not. Meduseld isn’t the only job to turn sour. We took a job a few years earlier, proved to be more to that than first met the eye. We got snagged, of course. No one robs an assassin, especially not Treagon.”
“A lie,” Khule said flatly, dismissing it out of hand.
”Not at all. You saw what she mixed up on the ship back to Umbar as I did.”
“It’s not possible.”
“It is. We were sent in to retrieve his book. Rin was only fifteen. I couldn’t fit through the opening, so she went in. Treagon was waiting.”
“If it was true, you’d both be many years dead,” Khule insisted.
”What can I say? Perhaps the man had a hard time killing a fifteen year old girl. That’s what I thought at the time.”
“I can think of another explanation,” Wulgof added and Loch nodded.
”Yes, well even after he took her on as an apprentice, it still didn’t dawn on me. Took six months for me to figure out what was happening. She refused to go. Insisted it was deepening her knowledge as a healer and that he was perfectly honourable. I saw the gleam in his eye eventually. He saw a perfect student, someone to bring in yet more gold, someone no one would suspect, someone who could get into and out of places he never could. And he enjoyed instructing her too much. Still, for all of that, she took more from him than he bargained on.”
And, with that, Loch smiled and leant back. He stared at the sky, arms folded beneath his head.
”Can’t be his heart. Man doesn’t have one,” Khule said.
”She took his purse, his book and a plethora of skills on the fine art of fighting with daggers. Oh, and she’s wicked good with poisons and potions, for all of her talk of surgery.”
Wulgof grunted a dry bark of a laugh.
”And I wanted to teach her how to throw a dagger. Treagon’s only apprentice...” the man said and Loch grinned up at the stars.
”Yeah, she had a good long chuckle at that. We both did.”
“What about you, Loch? Did you happen to study under a master assassin?” Khule asked and saw Loch roll over to his side.
”Have you given any thought to what you’ll do with yourself, now that she’s making her own path in life,” Khule asked.
”Not especially. What happens, happens. I’m with the Black. That’s how it is. She’ll always be my sister. Simple as that,” Loch said.
”You know her life will take her in a very different path now, don’t you?”
“Not just that,” Wulgof said and at that Loch rolled back to face the fire.
”She’ll live much longer than you, longer than most of us in the Black excepting those of Dunedain descent,” Khule explained.
It was clear from Loch’s expression that this thought had yet to occur to him. He chewed it over, rising to a seated position.
”Wulgof, mind if I take the second watch?” he asked after a while.
Wulgof shook his head and so Berlas was relieved by Loch instead of Wulgof. Berlas found the other two men in silence around the small fire. Conversation remained at a standstill through the remainder of the night and into the dawn. As predicted, they reached the Prefect by late afternoon and found the man and his compound in the grip of preparations.
”Black Company, I have been expecting you,” the Prefect said, surveying the four dusty and nondescript men that stood in the yard, reigns still in their gloved hands.
At a gesture, the four horses were taken for tending and the men were following the Prefect into a relatively quieter office. The sun was a brilliant gold, searing shafts stealing in between louvres that had been cracked to admit what breeze there was. The four men removed their gloves and outer robes and gratefully accepted a cool earthen mug of sweetened water.
”It appears we arrive at a busy time, Lord Prefect,” Khule said, the sound of men outside carrying into the office still. ”I was not aware that word had been sent ahead or that we had been marked.”
“You were not discovered. The King.... he sent word of your approach and I have been looking for you. Yes, you have arrived at a busy time. Word of your approach was not all the King sent. He has, at last, seen what appears to be a military build up along the eastern coast. It is pushing towards us, gathering up momentum. To what end, I do not know. The tribal leaders here are uneasy. They speak of war, fomenting rebellion. Their leader is known to you, I believe. He has made no threat, sent no signal of his intention.”
“I would expect nothing less of my brother,” Khule replied, gambling that the Prefect already know of the connection.
”Brother? Is that what he is?” the Prefect replied, looking surprised.
”Half-brother. I have not seen him for many years. So, forces gather under his lead, to an unknown end. Your ears are filled with whispers of war and Rhun’s warriors have been left idle for too many years. It seems we have arrived here to gather word the King already has.”
“Not in vain, I am told. Aragorn is sending the Black Company to follow. Much expanded. We cannot sit here and idly wait. I am told to offer you a choice. Remain and wait for the rest of your Company, or push on ahead and see what you uncover.
“I’ll leave you with that to consider. There is much to do to prepare a compound and civilian settlement for possible siege,” the Prefect said by way of dismissal.
Another officer, this one senior, showed the four Black Company men to their quarters. Each sat on the corner of the cot, pleased to be out of the sun and yet with itching feet.
”So, wait or go now,” Berlas said into the silence.
”I didn’t come all this way to make their beds up and light a lantern for the rest of them,” Wulgof growled.
”Besides, the sooner we start out, the sooner we can have useful intelligence for them when they get here. It’s what they would do in our steads, isn’t it?” Loch added.
”My guess is that the Prefect already has some intelligence. There is a lot of preparation going on out there on a mere chance. A lot of labour, a lot of supplies, a lot of coin,” Khule observed.
”Intelligence he won’t share...because of Khor?” Berlas asked.
”Possibly...or because the Prefect can’t verify it,” Khule replied.
”Well, that’s that then. Unverified intelligence is next to worthless,” Wulgof said and the other three nodded.
Before dawn the next day, their four cots were abandoned though their departure was unmarked.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
To Hanasian, it seemed Rosmarin was both relieved and bothered by the business she had done. There was a certain weight lifted from her, but there seemed to be a different if lighter load put on her. Her mind was obviously pondering what it all meant.
Videgavia was more than happy to hand the leadership back over and Hanasian fell back into the captaincy well. It seemed to him that he had fallen into a month-long sleep and dreamed of the extreme happiness he felt while away alone with Rin. Watching her addressed her stocks of herbs and liquids and pondering in deep thought made him smile. They were together, and now that they were back and the official business was taken care of, a load seemed to have been taken off of him as well. It was also good to get Mecarnil and Farbarad back from their seeming endless concentration on Cardolan. Timely as well for there was work to be done.
With the new recruits working day in and out on the regimen of soldiering, some few fell out. As they did, some few late to the call or showing keen interest in joining were vetted and some joined in. The number remained around one hundred. These first several days under Mulgov's iron hand managed to draw out their various proficiencies, and Hanasian made sure these strengths were recognized and developed. Those that were good with the bow were assigned to Foldine, who was probably the second-best archer in the company. The best, Berlas, wasn’t available. Those who had a tact for close knife work were assigned to Videgavia. Those who had a sense of subtle agility were assigned to Mecarnil. The brothers Daius and Donius took a few of the less physical recruits who had various useful skills of hand and mind, like writing, navigation and languages. With training come minor accidents, and with Hanasian keeping his eyes out for anyone who had special skills, he did his best to best fit them. Rin tended most of the wounds, but she couldn’t be everywhere. So it was that three recruits who showed some ability in tending wounds were brought to Hanasian’s field tent one afternoon.
”Welcome. Give me your names please.”
The four stood, taken aback by the casual demeanour of Hanasian’s after the strict dogma that Mulgov used. Did he want their names, or their Company tags?
The a tall skinny man from Lebannin, spoke first, ”Sparks."
Hanasian nodded and looked at the next Gondorian recruit. Taking the cue from the first man, he gave his tag as well, “Rocks”
Hanasian was already looking at the third, who was a big man with exotic looks.
Hanasian paused and eyed him carefully before saying, ”I see… you can go back to your assigned unit.”
Hanasian pondered the man for a moment before looking to the last recruit. A short youth who had an innocent look in his eyes. He stood as tall as he could and said, ”Bells… well, it was Two Bells but it seemed to have gotten shortened already.”
“I didn’t ask you to explain it, just give it. Why do you want to join this company Two Bells? Adventure? You ever kill anybody?”
A clicking swallow was heard as his mouth opened and closed in silence.
”Very good… Vid has gone over the rules well. Now, you three are here for a reason. It was reported that you stepped out to tend to wounds some of your comrades had suffered. It shows compassion if not the skill however small. You will be…”
A noise was heard outside, a voice grumbled as it approached. Hanasian cracked a slight smile as he recognised it. Soon it could be clearly heard that it was about the situation….
"… how does anyone get in the way of a practice spear throw? They line up in a row, count down...what, did they not see him standing there? These men will slice each other up and it's me that is running to and fro trying to keep them from bleeding to death…”
The tent flap opened and closed, and Rin stood daubed with blood stains and looked rather harassed. She paused as she saw there were others in the tent.
Hanasian seized the initiative immediately, ”You know our healer Rin. Rin, meet your apprentices.”
Rin had not expected that there would be others in the command tent when she had received word of Hanasian’s summons. In the walk from her last patient, she’d been turning over her plan to manage the much expanded Black Company. The sticking point was the time and expense of the plan. Farbarad had been at her to resume training. Every day, morning and afternoon, he told her she needed to train. Unfortunately, every day had seen Rin up to her ears in blood, strains, sprains, broken bones and bruises. So she had not had to point out the obvious to Farbarad. All she had to do was gesture around her and he would shake his head and move on with his business. Were the apprentices his idea or Hanasian’s? Hanasian had not breathed a word of it.
She surveyed the three faces. One, a child’s hope still in his youthful face. Another, a bean pole of a man. A third, a veritable impassive lump. Her eyes went back to the youth and she found herself wondering what would show in his face at the end of a terrible day of gore, killing, death. A chill of premonition skated down her spine and she rolled her shoulders to free her thoughts and corral them back to the present moment. The youth swallowed hard, and had started to sweat. She frowned slightly, flighty healers were bad news, and then realised she had been staring at him.
”Apprentices,” she repeated, bringing her eyes to Hanasian and noted the small smile on his face.
”I am a benevolent commander,” he intoned, smile growing as she raised an eyebrow at him and returned for a second look at the three apprentices.
”I wonder if they might agree with you when all is said and done,” she murmured, ”I’ll admit, three apprentices is a much better idea Hanasian.”
“You had other plans?”
“Well, half formed...problematic. I had thought to train the whole lot of them in basic things, add a small kit to their pack....but the Anfalas boys would need to come up with over one hundred kits and as for time to train so many...three is much more manageable. Why these three?”
One of the recruits was careful to keep his smile from his face as Hanasian and Rin discussed the merits of the apprentices. For days he had been wrestling with the problem of legitimate proximity. His target was well protected, deep in the bosom of the Black Company. When she wasn’t working, which seemed rare, she was in the company of her husband or the inner core of the Black Company. It would take him months to penetrate that inner core, presuming the right circumstance emerged to differentiate himself from the horde of new recruits. Worse, his target was not the sort of woman to just idly strike up conversation and she was more strongly reserved than any siege wall around people she didn’t know. Only last night he had considered becoming one of her patients, as that seemed to him to be the only way to obtain legitimate proximity. Something sufficiently serious as to require protracted treatment. It was a bad plan, because it would require him to move far more swiftly than he had prepared for.
And now, for something no more than slapping a quick bandage on a bleeding Gondorian woman. It had been an unconscious decision, one born of years of military service. Spend enough time in the field and you acquire enough knowledge to serve yourself and your fellow soldiers well. True, those around him were not colleagues, but there had been nothing gained by having the small female recruit bleeding out there on the training ground. As her apprentice, his problem of legitimate proximity would be solved. A fortuitous advance, this one provided by Hanasian himself it seemed. Yes, best not to smile and to observe all he could. The interplay between husband and wife was crisply professional. There was something about them that told him they were deeply attuned to each other. The smooth flow of their conversation, small gestures and expressions. The discussion ended and Rin turned back to consider her recruits.
”Right...you can stick with me until I know what you can’t do.”
“I don’t need a nursemaid,” protested Bells, thinking he had just been relegated to the reserve bench.
”Excellent,” Rin snapped, pouncing on the youth with an icy scowl, ”Because we’re fresh out of those. Only thing more dangerous than a sword is a healer who thinks they know more than they do. You’ll stick with me, boy, or walk. I don’t care which. So. What. Will. It. Be?”
Two Bells would have taken a step backwards if he thought he could get away with it. The Company Healer had drawn very close and had jabbed her index finger into his chest to punctuate her final words. She was taller than him, and in her blood and dust smeared uniform she made a formidable sight. Two Bells was entirely unprepared for her and at a loss as to what to do about it. She was Company Healer and his master, or was it mistress now? She was married to the Company commander. She was a princess, if the talk was correct, and she looked like she would and could happily strip his skin from his bones with a flick of her wrist. Two Bells swallowed hard and decided to remain put and silent. The other two men had acquired a certain small, appreciative smile. The very same smile, Hanasian noted, that Frea and Wulgof acquired after successfully baiting his wife.
”Rin, stop playing with your food,” Hanasian said fondly after a moment and Rin stepped back and shot him a truly devious grin.
”Oh, why? For years I dealt with cantankerous, crabby, irritiable masters. It’s character forming,” she demurred, now calm again.
”Will they do, Doc?”
“We’ll know by days end, judging how training is going again. You three, off to Donius or his brother. Tell him Doc wants you kitted up. Hook needles, gut, bandages, antiseptic. Once you have those, join me with Molguv’s group.”
Rocks turned for the opening of the command tent first and the three new apprentices, Doc’s Ugly Ducklings as they would be called by day’s end, filed out of the tent.
”Oh, thank you my love,” Rin breathed now that no one was on hand to observe.
Hanasian heard the weariness and relief in her voice. He rose and approached her and she leant into him gratefully.
”You should have said something earlier, Rosmarin,” he said into her hair.
”I wasn’t convinced I had a good solution, and I didn’t want to trouble you. You’ve been as busy or busier than I, Hanasian. Last thing you need is me throwing half baked ideas and complaints at you on top of everything else. You are a benevolent commander, and I am a benevolent wife.”
A clearing of a throat saw the two spring apart like scalded cats. Rin whirled to see a tall figure just inside the tent opening, shrouded in a worn grey cloak.
”I trust I am not intruding,” Aragorn said, pushing back the cowl of his cloak and noting the way his cousin’s cheeks flushed slightly.
Slightly behind her, Hanasian seemed to be smiling as he executed a brief bow.
”I have work to do,” Rin said and started to edge past her king and towards the way out.
”Before you escape, Rosmarin. Thank you for signing those documents. Tell me, have you been sleeping well?”
Rin was startled by the initial intensity of Aragorn’s gaze but she overcame her surprise and strengthened her will.
”Yes, sire. I have.”
“No troubling dreams?”
Rin shook her head, and said nothing of what had skated down her spine before. She didn’t know what it meant, what it may indicate. Anything further was interrupted by the sound of Molguv bellowing her name. With a rueful smile, she took her leave and left Hanasian with the king. Aragorn seemed quiet and Hanasian left him to the privacy of his thoughts. Then, after a moment, he shook himself free of them and drew out parchment from beneath his cloak. They bore a familiar seal on them and there were different coloured ribbons. One, green, indicating that the orders could be opened here and now. Blue told Hanasian that there was further instruction to open on the road. Aragorn extended both to him. Hanasian took them, turned to the table and poured out two cups of cooled water. Rin had taken to dropping herbs in their water. This batch had a sweet, wholesome taste to it.
Hanasian broke open the parchment with the green ribbon as Aragorn relieved his thirst. He lowered the cup and uttered a word that Hanasian didn’t recognise.
”Your wife’s work,” Aragorn said of the water and Hanasian nodded, distracted.
”So, back we go, sire,” Hanasian replied, finished scanning the orders and Aragorn gravely inclined his head.
Hanasian folded the parchment. Rhun, there again...All he could hope was that it would end better this time than last.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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”So, you know where you’re going?” Loch asked Khule as they rode steadily down a forest track east of the inland sea.
”Yes, used to live in these woods. Thought it best we slip away from the city this way. We’ll be clear to the east by nightfall.”
Berlas kept his eyes out through the trees. The Ranger from Ithilien was their best eyes in the forests. The trees were old firs, of a sort that didn’t grow readily in the west. Even though it was a sunny day, it was dark and shadowy under the tall boughs. How this enclave of trees survived for so long in a land of axemen was something to wonder about.
As if Khule knew what Berlas was thinking, he said, ”Sacred lands we cross. Be careful not to disturb anything. We are allowed to pass on this track, but let us not go off it.”
Wulgof, who had been well ahead of the rest, had dropped back and in hearing Khule, said, ”What do you suggest we do then. One of these behemoths decided to lay itself down across the track. We can’t ride over it, and from what you say, we can’t go around it either.”
Khule dismounted and walked forward. Looking for sign, he paused, then turned to wave forth the others.
”We can go around to the left. A crude path has been consecrated and will be safe for us.”
They carefully made their way around the great crater and roots of the old tree. They even managed to enjoy a brief stirring of the air to break up the stillness under the trees.
”Do you get the feeling that some of these trees are watching us?” Loch asked as they rounded back onto the old track.
Berlas nodded and Wulgof smiled, saying, ”Ah son, you’re from Dunland, have ye not heard the tales of old?”
Loch grunted and said, ”No, who was going to tell me?”
Wulgof said, ”You have heard of the trees of Fangorn, yes? Well, tales had it that the west was filled with trees and shepherds, but the men from the sea came and made war on them, and turned the trees into ships and houses and such. They did not listen to the voices and permit some to thrive, but cut down each and every one. Our people lived in the trees, and the men from the sea drove us back with the trees, where now only a few remnants clung to the valleys of the mountain streams that poured down from the melting snows of the Misty Mountains. These trees are watching us. They remember.”
Loch moved a bit faster. They would be out of the wood by nightfall, but they would not have a fire. They would dine on some of the fresh foods they acquired from the Prefect’s stores. Maybe it was Khule’s knowledge and skill, or maybe everyone knew where they were and kept clear, but they ran into not one soul on their day’s trek. The darkness was complete, and before the first watch was set, they talked a bit.
Khule said, ”Note this in our report… things are very quiet… almost too quiet.”
Berlas had taken to keeping a log of their journey, keeping notes and such. Hanasian would appreciate it if nobody else.
”Duly noted,” he said as Khule pondered, nodding acknowledgment.
Khule then said, ”We'll change up the watch tonight. Loch, you have first. I’ll take second, then Berlas, then Wulgof.”
“Why the change?” Wulgof asked.
Khule answered, still pondering his thoughts, ”Because I want our youngest and sharpest eyes and ears open early this night. I’ll watch after, and if nothing happens by then, it will be a quiet night.”
“You suspect something?” Loch asked as he looked about the dark.
Khule answered, ”No… well perhaps, but it's probably nothing. You just stay aware, but don’t move unless you absolutely have to. Come get me if something seems imminent.”
Loch nodded and his eyes stared across the rolling grassland. He looked back toward the wood that stood black against the starlit night to their west. A cool chill settled over the land with a slight north breeze, but by the second hour all was calm. Dew was starting to form light ground fog started to cover the land. When Khule awoke, He found Loch looking off to the west. He didn’t even flinch with Khule’s silent arrival. Loch was learning company life well. He could smell a brother approaching.
”What do you make of that over there?”
Loch pointed toward the woods, and Khule leaned forward as if it would help him see further. Over by the edge of the wood, a small glow could be seen. Maybe embers from a fire, but Loch did not see any being lit. There was also no smoke rising. Khule dropped his satchel and took his knife out.
He said, ”Sorry Kid, you’ll have to watch a bit longer. I’m going for a closer look.”
And within seconds, Khule slid from sight into the gathering fog. Loch was a bit worried and wondered if he should wake Berlas or Wulgof, but he stayed in place and waited and watched. As it grew close to Berlas’s watch, Loch thought he heard something. He nearly ran Khule through when he appeared but stayed his hand. Khule was wet with dew and his own sweat.
”Just as I feared. We’re being tailed. Not sure what the glow was, as I wasn’t able to get close. But no time to worry about that. Quietly wake the others and we’ll walk out leading our horses. We need to move…”
And in the early morning darkness, the four moved on silently yet swiftly with Khule leading the way.
The morning light found the Prefect sitting outside looking east smoking his pipe. His chief warden came with the last pouch of it.
”Hopefully more will come with the party coming from the west, but I think they will have other concerns than pipeweed. I thought we had a store of it?” The prefect said at the news.
His warden mumbled something about it being used up, but he was troubled, for he was sure he had stowed several pouches from the last keg before he traded it to Khor many months ago….
”I take it the King’s scouts have left?” The prefect asked.
“Yes sir, early it seems, though nobody noted their movement,” his Warden answered.
He didn’t say that he noted it and sent some men to shadow them. No word has come back from them though as they seemed to have lost their trail almost immediately? He needed to send runners out for them, and to get word to Khor…
”I would have liked to have spoken to the leader... Khule again, but no loss. Did we send anyone to follow them?” the prefect asked.
His Warden answered, ”I did send some trackers to follow but they sent word that they disappeared almost immediately. I hope to have word from them soon.”
It was then the Captain of the Easterling Gondor Legion called, and the Prefect dismissed his Warden with instruction to see if he could find more pipeweed. The Captain was grim.
”What is it?”
The Captain spoke, ”It seems word in the legion is an army from Gondor is coming?”
The Prefect scowled and said, ”No, not an army, just the Company that was here before.”
The Captain nodded and said, ”I see. I’m just a bit concerned.”
The Prefect stood and asked, ”What is your concern? Speak freely.”
The Captain scratched his bearded chin before speaking, ”Well, of late things are unsettled. The Legion seems to be content but there is talk of wanting to do more. I’m afraid this idea from the east may be affecting the men. They want to follow in their fathers footsteps, and I think many will desert to the east, or try and join the company. Already a few have deserted.”
The Prefect foresaw trouble and it seemed the situation was deteriorating faster than he expected. He always thought he had agents in his house, and even more so now.
The Prefect nodded, and asked, ”And where does your loyalty lie?”
The captain fidgeted and said, ”I support the Western Clans and they wish to have peace with the west. But this may be seen to be best served by joining the ones who fought here before.”
“I see,” said the Prefect.
The Captain continued, ”Well, joining the Company still serves the King. And it is known that they are sent where the fight is, and this appeals to many of the warriors. Many wanted to follow Khule before but they were too young. They have not forgotten.”
The Prefect thought a bit. Maybe he could use this to his and the King’s advantage. He said, ”We’ll discuss the options when the Company gets here. They may be rewarded should they stay in line now.”
“I will let them know,” The Captain replied, and with a salute he left pleased with this outcome.
He hoped the men he sent out in search for the four Company men were successful.
Khule and Loch were quite tired, having not gotten any sleep the night before. Berlas and Wulgof were a bit more alert, but they didn’t know the land. They all were exhausted when Khule called for a rest in an old barn.
Loch went out as soon as he lay down in some old hay, used to sleeping rough. Khule leaned against the wall and dozed off, keeping an ear awake in typical company fashion. Berlas watched, and Wulgof made up some of the dried rations for everyone to eat. Their horses enjoyed the old hay in the barn, and for now, they hoped they were out of sight. They would move on again after nightfall.
Not far off, a squad of men had watched. It was one of the younger soldiers who said, ”It is him! He is in command of this squad of men!”
His sergeant hushed him, but he and the other ten guys were excited. They were all like-minded and wanted to report back to the Captain that they had found the Black Company men.
The sergeant said, ”Our squad, who we see as our clan, have risen in the Gondor Legion, and as a squad we will go forth. Even the one who runs word back to the Captain will be with us. Seth, you were last to join us, so it is up to you to get word back. Then, return as fast as you can. I do not know how this will go, but we will have advantage in numbers. Seth, you go now. The rest of you, with me!”
Seth set out quickly, knowing he had the most important errand. What the Captain did with the news he didn't know. He just wanted to get back. Had the four Company men remained a day at the Prefect’s quarters, it would have been harder, but it seemed this was the opportunity so many wanted… he ran faster.
The sergeant set his men save one in order and they walked in step straight toward the barn. The lone man scurried along a slight fold to their right, getting a good view of the rear of the barn. He would be able to see if any slipped out, though the westering sun was starting to throw long shadows.
Berlas noted the movement of men, down to the detail of the runner heading out. He didn’t see the flanker but he assumed there would be one. When he saw the approach of the ten men, he tensed, then had Wulgof wake Khule.
”Khule, I think some friends of yours are coming to visit.”
Khule silently watched the approaching men from the barn door.
”Mmmm, they walk in step like Easterling army regulars, but just off enough to show they are not veterans.”
Wulgof frowned and Berlas asked, ”What do we do?”
Seeing they were well outnumbered, and more could be close, Khule realised it would be futile to either resist or try to slip out. He sighed as Loch now joined them at the door.
”Invite them in. If all goes well, maybe we can have a fire tonight.”
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
In the time approaching deployment, activity became frenetic within the Black Company. Few beyond the Old Company knew where they were going to. Training, supplies, finalising squads and weeding out any obvious unsuitables all had the Old Company up to their ears with things to do. Hanasian poured through intelligence reports from Rhun over the past two years. Videgavia took up the record keeping and general day to day ordering of preparations. Farbarad remained on the look out for any hint that a New Company brother or sister was anything other than they appeared to be.
Mecarnil thought he had a streak of good luck. Despite being abysmally busy training apprentices and tending to the expanded Company, Rin adhered to her responsibilities and undertakings without complaint. He handed her a battered old history tome on Cardolan and expected it to be tossed at his head or onto the fire. Instead, she not only read it but memorised it! He suggested she attend any meetings concerning the selection of Cardolan’s Prefect and expected to have to drag her there. Rather she attended voluntarily, punctual and properly presented, well informed as to the candidates and prepared to offer well reasoned opinions on their merits. No curses, no disappearing acts, no arguments, no bribery. It certainly made his lot easier, and about time too is what Mecarnil thought.
Yet as busy as it was, it was running like a smoothly oiled machine. A commander with Hanasian’s experience knew that this would come to an end. It had just gone too cleanly for too long. There were the usual pre-deployment hijinks. Hanasian did not anticipate that his wife was the master mind of the whole affair but he was unsurpised to learn of Molguv's involvement. Excepting Rin, all made a clean escape and this was the plan. His wife was discovered dangling from a rope mid way between the embrasure of the seventh level and the level the Company barracks were on with the purloined goods on her person. A neat diversion for the City Watch. Hanasian found her in the city jail, busily working on the lock with the concealed pick kit she had smuggled in. The city guards were prepared to one of the nobility. They were not about to turn her clothing inside out, or treat her roughly. Hanasian knew where they would have had of searched to locate that kit. She was the perfect diversion, for of them all, she would receive the best treatment and have the best chance of escape once captured. And, Hanasian knew, with the stunt Rin had planned it was certain that someone would be captured.
Were it not the night before deployment, Hanasian may have been inclined to leave her there. This was precisely the sort of stunt he expected of the Dirty Three. But, Hanasian did not have plans for the night with these men. He had plans for his new bride, the woman who was trying to break out of lawful custody at that moment. He settled into a shadowy alcove and watched her work. She muttered things under her breath and expertly manoeuvred her tools.
”Why won’t you give? You’re a standard lock, nothing special. I’ve met your kind before a dozen times or more...”
“Rust,” suggested a gap toothed man helpfully through the bars between their cells.
Then, a satisfying pop. Rin swiftly stowed her kit out of sight again, cracked open the cell door and slipped out on silent feet rather pleased with herself. She almost padded into Hanasian in the dim light. He was not a cruel man, but he enjoyed the expression of open surprise on her usually composed face. Rin was not an easy woman to unsettle.
”For a moment there, wife, I thought I may have married your brother. What possessed you to break Faramir’s office?”
“And out again, and Faramir's and not Aragorn's,” Rin pointed out.
Hanasian heard her pride in her accomplishment in her answer and found himself exasperated.
”Vid asked me to train the women. Tonight was a... graduation exercise. Did they all make it back?”
“That’s my girls,” Rin said fondly.
”Mecarnil will have a fit,” Hanasian said and Rin shrugged coyly.
”Mecarnil doesn’t have to know, does he?” she asked, wide eyes aimed squarely at him.
He knew what she was doing. Was absolutely aware that she was using her attributes on him in the knowledge that he greatly appreciated those attributes. And, despite being aware, her ploys were working. Those eyes! He could happily drown in them.
”I left Faramir a note, explaining,” she said winsomely.
”As a matter of principle, this can’t happen like this all the time,” Hanasian persisted, unable to look away from her, "You can't bat your lashes, wind a strand of your hair around your finger and press into me like that and expect I will capitulate."
”Just this once, perhaps?” she asked, voice soft now and that devious smile of hers twitching at the corners of her mouth.
Marriage, Hanasian concluded, was enjoyable and he knew this would not be the last time. Rin's smile broke free outright when she saw an answering twinkle in his beguiling grey eyes. Hanasian grabbed her hand and whisked her out of the jail with words of debts being settled in a manner of his choosing. Though Rin thought she might like that very much indeed, she wisely said nothing of it.
Instead, as she was towed through the city streets and dusk, ”Why didn’t you leave me there?”
”It’s the night before deployment,” Hanasian replied, intent on their destination for the evening.
”I’m ready to go, the Ducklings are too,” Rin persisted and Hanasian turned to face her.
She cocked her head, open curiosity, and he could she had a number of questions lined up as per usual.
”Because, it’s the night before deployment,” he repeated more slowly, particular emphasis where it belonged.
Understanding dawned in her expression then and he was pleased to see her questions fade. After all, they were newly weds. There was more than one way to work off pre-deployment nervous energy and it would be some time before they had any privacy to speak of. There was a private dinner, and then the matter of that special something he had been saving for a night like this. Saving for his thief, his wild love, his wife. No time to waste!
When Wulgof woke Loch, the younger man woke with food on his mind.
”No, not breakfast,” Wulgof replied to Loch’s rumbling stomach.
Yawning, Loch rolled to his feet and stretched out his spine. He hadn’t been asleep nearly long enough and it wasn’t fully dark yet.
”Company,” Berlas offered him by way of explanation.
Loch nodded and headed for the ladder to the hayloft. He scrambled up that, more squirrel than man, cracked the smaller door at the rear of the barn, and spotted the flanker. Loch whistled this fact to the three men below, nocked an arrow in readiness.
”Ready for anything, nothing hasty,” Khule said as the men outside continued closer.
They halted outside, still in formation and hailed Khule by name. Khule blink in surprise, Wulgof scowled in eternal suspicion and Berlas shrugged.
”Who wants to know?” Khule asked and was given a name in return that meant nothing to him.
[/I]”Have they got breakfast?” [/I]Loch shouted and Wulgof rolled his eyes.
”We do!” said the leader of the men outside.
”Good enough for me,” Loch muttered upstairs.
Berlas shook his head, convinced that the scout would do just about anything for just about anybody if there was food or ale involved.
”Just you at first, for a polite conversation. No sharp edges,” Khule said and the leader outside inclined his head and approached slowly, hands held open and out to the sides.
By the time the man reached the barn doors and slipped through them, Wulgof and Berlas both had their swords drawn but tips resting on the ground. The man peered at Khule intently, eyes bright in the dim light within the barn.
”It’s you. Khule,” he exclaimed, staring openly.
”Do I owe you money?” Khule asked, not entirely in jest despite how the man’s face split into a broad smile.
”You joined the Black Company,” he said.
”Aye, as did those two leaning on their swords now,” Khule warily replied.
”And that third with a bead on my man,” said the other, ”Do you command the Black?”
“I lead this lot,” Khule said, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
”Would you share our fire this night, Khule? You and your men. Would mean a lot to us if you would.”
“And why would you share hearth and food with us?” Wulgof asked leerily.
”Because he is Khule,” the man replied and Khule signalled Wulgof to silence.
”Gladly, we welcome our fellow brothers,” Khule replied, falling back on the old rituals, and with that the man slipped out and called instructions to his fellows.
Wulgof was swift to query Khule’s decision in the man's absence.
”Was that wise?”
“We’ll stay on our toes. Don’t drink the mares milk, and you should be fine,” Khule answered.
”What’s wrong with the milk?” Loch’s asked from the loft.
”It’s the sorriest case of hero worship I’ve ever seen,” Berlas commented and eyed Khule, ”What’s the history here?”
“It's nothing. I just don’t like killing people I don’t have to. Simple as that,” Khule said uncomfortably.
Little more could be added for those outside entered the barn. A fire was started, a meal was prepared and through it all, men stared wide eyed at Khule as if they couldn’t believe their luck. Berlas and Wulgof hoped things wouldn’t go sour when they learned that Khule, like any other man, had clay feet. Loch was preoccupied with the food. Of the Black Company quartet, it was Loch who struck up conversation and laughter and the other three were able to glean much from what Loch was able to prise forth with his amicable manner.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
The morning seemed to come all too soon for Hanasian. Waking with the first sign of daylight, Hanasian extracted himself from Rin’s embrace and she rolled away with a moan. Now only wrapped in her gown, and feathers fitfully drifting here and there over the floor of the room, Hanasian stroked her flank.
”Time to arise my love. The day begins,” he softly said to her.
Rin’s response was not unexpected. She grunted and burrowed deeper into the covers. Hanasian began, then, considering extending their time alone further. However, the outside world was not inclined to make an exception on the newly weds this day. Hanasian’s thoughts were interrupted by a tap on the door.
”Message from the King. He needs to see you right away!”
The voice echoed through the door before Hanasian got to it. He pulled the door open, and the messenger handed him a parchment with the King’s seal on it.
”Your orders. I think there has been some change in plans made overnight. Please hurry, he wants to see you forthwith.”
“I’ll be there shortly,” Hanasian grunted and with that, the messenger departed with a salute.
Door closed, Hanasian turned to look over at his wife. Rin had stirred, curiosity rousing her and she had her head resting in one hand as she studied him expectantly.
Hanasian said, ”You best get ready. I’ve been summoned to the King’s chamber. You are welcome to come along if you so choose, but I think he wanted me there moments ago.”
“You go my Love,” Rin said, ”I’ll get ready and will meet you on the field.”
Hanasian had pulled on his dark grey leather breeches, and cinched up his dark grey leather vest. He didn’t bother with a shirt and stomped his boots on. His belt with two knives and a couple pouches attached was all he had on when he left to see the King…
Hanasian arrived at the King’s chamber, and was summoned to enter.
”Welcome my friend,” Aragorn said distantly as he sat looking out a window facing east.
He did not turn to greet Hanasian. Looking at the light upon the King, Hanasian could see that he had not slept.
”M’Lord. I came as quickly as I could. Pardon my appearance, for I was expecting to take to the field by mid morning. Even now the men are gathered for their morning meal.”
Aragorn stood wearily and turned. To Hanasian he appeared much older than when he last saw him. The only other time he had seen such a dramatic change in him was when he battled with Sauron with the Palantir. Then, the greyness came to the edges of his beard and hair, and lines spread toward his eyes from his temples. Now he was a bit more greyer, and getting out of the chair seemed much more of a burden to him. But he quickly shook it off, and came to Hanasian and clasped his forearm. He was again himself.
He said ,”It appears I have misjudged the stability of the east. With our recent troubles in Harad, my eyes did not look as hard as they should have. Then when I did, my vision was obscured. So too when I used the seeing stone, as if the lost Ithil stone was preventing me from seeing. But last night I awoke with a fear that something was amiss, and I sent my will into the stone to see clearly into the east.
“There was a power there that I had to wrest with. Not like that of the accursed Dark Lord, but one strong enough that it took most of the night for me to completely subdue. It remains a mystery to me, but I can see that trouble brews to a boil even now in the east.”
Hanasian took a deep breath. Grim tidings and the Company was to set out today for the east. Hanasian asked, ”Any word on my men which set out east?”
Aragorn paced a moment before coming to a standstill, ”Yes, they are well, and they know that their eyes and ears are my eyes and ears. An interesting development had occurred though. It seems that the Black Company has become legend among the young warriors since you were last there.
“They seem to think Khule is a great general and they rally to him. He seems to take it all in stride, and has used this to recruit a whole company of Easterlings under the banner. But I wonder where their loyalties lay. As for Khule… Videgavia said he was a solid commander. What say you?”
Now it was Hanasian who paced a moment before he answered, aware of just what might hang on his words.
”He was quite useful to us when we met him in the east, and with some things he had to do then, made some powerful enemies. I question not his loyalty, and I am sure he has reason to be doing what he is doing.”
“That is what I hope. Berlas, Wulgof, and young Loch seem to be going along with it. But that is not the least of our worries. There are undercurrents across Rhun, and this isn’t some fear driven rebellion such as we had in the south recently. This is much deeper.
“So I have summoned the army to prepare, and I’ve sent word to King Eomer that his aid is needed. You will go today as planned, but you must make haste. For I fear we may be too late to stop that which is coming.”
The sun had broken over the eastern mountains as Aragorn and Hanasian spoke and poured anew over maps of Rhun. They discussed the clans and loyalties, and the undercurrents if restlessness that was working its way through the land. The loyal government was eroding. The young warrior class either deserted the Guard and went away east to join Khor, or it seems had banded together in the guard under a code of the Company. Sending Khule in and with word that he has returned to the land of his birth, may have emboldened this group. But it was too early to tell.
Finally, it was time to go. Hanasian took two parchments from the King as he prepared to leave.
Aragorn said, ”Take care of yourself, Hanasian. Give my best to Lady Rosmarin.”
“And please give my best to your Lady, Queen Arwen. Namarie.”
Hanasian made his way to the camp, looking for his beloved. It seemed everyone was in order, and the new recruits could even keep time. Hopefully most of them come back. ~~~~~
Only a day after the Company set out that the situation in the east seemed to melt. The Prefect was assassinated by a poison dart as he ate breakfast. Three senior clan chiefs were felled by internal rivals. It seemed the revolt had tipped its hand, either by chance or by plan. Regardless, chaos quickly ensued.
The four Black Company men had a good evening talking and eating. They even got some rest while one of their number kept watch. It was relaxed. The next day dawned clear and quiet, this peace broken by a young runner steaming in full speed. The youth spoke to his sergeant in their Easterling language; the sergeant became concerned. Khule too took note, and he signalled to Wulgof that things were going sideways quickly. That said, Khule was impressed that the sergeant kept his men well ordered.
He said to Khule, "This is our runner. He went to get word to our captain that we had found you. It appears he got word to him, but this morning the Captain fell. There has been some sort of uprising. The Prefect and some chieftains have been assassinated; fighting in the ranks of the guard erupted. Fortunately the code of the Company had prevailed with much loss. The instigators were crushed at the palace and around the lake, but things remain uncertain."
Wulgof looked out the back as he said, "I knew something was up when we were there. I could feel it."
Khule hushed Wulgof and Loch took to the loft to regain his vantage. Khule mumbled, "Great, This is just great. No sooner do I get here then a civil war breaks out."
The sergeant said to Khule, "It seems the guard of the code of the Company is coming here. Word of you has reached them, and they all want to join."
Khule rubbed at the stubble on his cheek and said, "I don't have the authority to accept them into the Black Company...."
Wulgof cut in ,"Extraordinary times sometimes calls for extraordinary measures, and I think this is one of those times. Besides, if you don't accept them, it is doubtful we will live to see the end of the day. We'll have to worry about the details when our Company gets here... if they get here. "
Khule thought about it, and with the first troop marching over the rolling hill coming into sight, he made a decision. Standing up on a step, he said to the dozen Easterlings assembled in the barn, "Right, attend well. You want to join the Black Company? That is good. There are oaths of loyalty to the King of Gondor and rules you will need to know about. We'll go over all that later when time permits. For now, I will swear you all in as honorary members until we get the rest all sorted out."
Each man in turn starting with the sergeant gave a nod and a salute of their fist over their heart. Wulgof whispered to Khule as they did this, "Honorary members?"
"Aye, the Cap sort of did that for Loch and Rin after Tharbad if you remember. Kinda gave them a trial period to decide. This is a version of that sort of thing," Khule said in return.
Wulgof looked unsure, but sighed and said as he turned to face the new honorary members, "Extraordinary times."
Khule said to the Easterlings, "Alright now, We'll do the same to your colleagues when they get here, but I'll need you to make sure they are one of your order. We don't let just anyone in."
"It will be so. We know each other, and have code words to verify. Much has been put into place secretly," the Sergeant said, and he barked some orders to his men and they all filed out of the barn and lined up.
Loch got Khule's attention and held up the small banner he had taken with him, being the apprentice standardbearer. Khule gave him a nod, and he came down and affixed it to a broken length of lumber from the barn. He followed the Easterlings out, Khule, Wulgof, and Berlas after him. The four Black Company men stood in line behind the Easterlings as they watched the others soldiers approach. At first there appeared to be only another dozen, but all told, over fifty had gathered. They all seemed to have given a good account of themselves, and the sergeant seemed alarmed that he did not see certain faces among them. The captain was not the only one who fell, or so it seemed.
They set up camp outside the barn and set defensive positions on the hills around it.
Wulgof, observing this turn of events, laconically said to Berlas, " I guess they're on our side. I wonder what the rest of the Black will say when they get here to find we have expanded the company five-fold?"
"I hope they've done some recruiting as well. I would like to see some more westerners to balance this lot out," Berlas said.
Ever with an eye to the immediate, Wulgof added, "We'll see. Right now I just hope Khule can keep control of these men."
Berlas looked about and glumly replied, "You got that right."
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The Company was in full swing when Hanasian first arrived at their embarkation point. To the untrained eye it seemed chaos. Horses, men, a few carts, dust wheeling about; Bear and Molguv were bawling out orders. To the trained eye, however, it was a military Company mobilising. It would take the better part of the day to get everyone across the river by ferry. Frea, Folca and Foldine’s hard work in arranging horses for the expanded Company was finally on show. The horses were well chosen animals, the finest available for such purposes and, above all, militarily trained. Moreso than a few who nervously rode them onto the ferry. The carts were the first things across the Anduin.
These held the heavier supplies for the Company was not going secretly but in open force. They held spare weaponry, water and other essentials. A number of crates held vital medical supplies and Rin protectively hovered like a hawk by them. She would have followed them over had Hanasian arrived earlier and had she known what was closing in on her. She had been so very well behaved and compliant, but she was NOT going to wear that wretched plate armour under any circumstances. Her chain mail was bad enough despite the padded under tunic. How she hated the stuff. It was heavy, noisy, hot and it caught at her hair. It made it difficult to move as nimbly.Yet, she knew enough to pick her battles and so had arrived wearing it and both Cardolan Rangers had been pleased with that. Was it not enough?
Rin stood on the bank, hand shielding her eyes from the glare of sun on water, and watched the last of her supplies go across. She had retained few empty spaces, for in field harvesting. The land they would travel through would offer such things that she would be foolish to pass by. She’d already issued out a list of things for the Ducklings to acquire as much of as possible along the way. Nettles of all sorts, a variant of the wondrous aloe plant and a several other things besides. Things they would need to treat the saddle and foot sore Company in the days to come. Her reverie was disturbed by a firm tap on her shoulder and Rin twisted about to catch an eye full of plate armour.
”No,” she said flatly, not bothering to find out who held it.
”You have to,” Videgavia said and watched her eyes narrow.
Rin turned back to face the river, muttering all sorts of unladylike things under her breath.
”Doc...will you just put it on so we can get under way. They had it made special for you, see. Custom, so it will be more comfortable. Please?”
“Comfortable,” Rin snorted derisive amusement, ”It’s iron. Comfort is the last thing it is. I will not wear it, Videgavia. I won’t! I refuse! No. I will not wear it. No.”
There was a clatter as Videgavia set the armour down on the bank. It dawned upon him that the two Cardolan Rangers, now nowhere to be seen, had known that Rosmarin would refuse the armour. Could he get away with stuffing her inside it? Perhaps...if he had four assistants to hold her down... and eyes in the back of his head for her inevitable reprisal.
”And, what’s more, it think it’s wretched of them to send you to do their dirty work. Where are they, eh?” Rin grumbled.
”Hiding,” Videgavia sourly said, wishing he had thought more carefully about accepting this task.
He eyed the woman standing next to him sidelong a moment. He could see the glint of chain over her leathers. She wasn’t completely unprotected. Mind you, she was also nobility. Royalty. Were he in Farbarad’s or Mecarnil’s shoes, he wouldn’t want to explain to the court why an arrow or errant sword swing had felled a crown princess. Videgavia expelled a long breath.
”Look, just tell them it's far more perilous to put it on at this moment,” Rin said, voice thoughtful as her idea took shape.
”How do you figure that?”
“Water. The last thing they need is for me to drown crossing the Anduin, wearing needless armour.”
Videgavia brightened at that. She had a point, the crafty woman. He liked crafty women.
”And once on the other side?” Videgavia asked.
”What will be, will be,” Rin replied evasively, even more devious than before.
He eyed her sidelong again. Well, less he knew the better. Videgavia nodded, satisfied with this arrangement and moved off. Hanasian’s found half of the Company on the far side of the Anduin and most of the other half in the process of joining them. By the time he located Rin, only a few remained for the final ferry to the far shore. Hanasian quickly relayed his tidings to those there and a veritable war council was held on the spot.
”We move fast then,” Videgavia surmised and Hanasian nodded his assent.
”Have to...no telling how long it will take the larger force to mobilise and civil war already seems likely,” Hanasian replied.
Frea washed his hand over his face at that. Civil war...a truly abominable sort of war.
”Rin, you know anything about this?” Frea asked, scanning Rin’s face for some further information.
She shook her head slowly, clearly worried now, ”Not a thing. I’ve not dreamt a thing about Rhun. Glimpses of Loch, that’s all. I’m blind as the rest of you.”
Rin's swaying braid held a white feather in the weave of her pale golden strands. Hanasian plucked it free, a reminder of fairer and happier things than war. He knew the night they had just spent would be one he would remember to the end of his days. He tucked the feather into his fist but not before Rin spotted it. The soft hint of a smile told him it was the same for her.
”What will be, will be. We’ve dealt with such things before without the benefit of foresight. We can do so again,” Videgavia announced quietly.
”Civil war...messy,” Molguv said, rubbing at his face.
Rin’s thoughts bubbled with the beginning of an idea. This war would be fought on a field wider than that of battle. It would be a fight for the hearts and mind of the populace. For that, they needed a particular type of warrior that the Black Company had. She was suddenly pleased at her stockpiling of supplies. Enough for Company and Rhun, at least those they met on the way, if she was judicious with their use and they could replenish as they went. Hearts and minds...hearts and minds. No time to get into that now, however. They needed to get across the river and on their way quickly. Loch was in the middle of a civil war and it would take weeks to reach him. Instinctive fear skated through her at that thought.
Soon enough the final ferry was on its way to the far shore. Mecarnil and Farbarad had headed across earlier with Bear to help him maintain order on the opposite bank and to clear away the landing path to ensure they could depart swiftly. So it was, on the final crossing, a tremendous splash was heard off the port side of the ferry. The very side Rin happened to be standing at, watching the river speed by. Ripples spread out and her face was very carefully neutral. Videgavia eyed the Company Healer a moment and chose silence. He didn’t see her toss the armour overboard.
When they disembarked and finally formed up, the Company set off into what remained of the day. Not an hour into the ride did Farbarad knee his mount towards the Company Healer.
”Where’s your armour?” he asked and Rin’s eyes widened innocently. She’d been pulling that stunt on him since she was a baby and he could almost predict what she would say next.
”You know, I haven’t the faintest idea. Perhaps it was left behind in that final flurry.”
Farbarad nodded at that, unsurprised. It was against such eventualities that he had packed separately another set of armour. But, he’d keep that up his sleeve so to speak, for a time when it was really needed or she really irritated him. Rin watched a mild, amicable smile slowly spread over Farbarad’s features and was well pleased by this response. Mission accomplished, she concluded with satisfaction.
They pushed at a reasonable rate that day, pulling in after dusk to set up a cold camp. Deployment was always a tedious, laborious, affair. It was for good reason that soldiers through time have reviled this necessary chore of service. The road to Rhun was a particularly long one. When Hanasian broke open the green ribboned parchment and learned it was now permissible for the Company as a whole to learn of their destination, over one hundred groans and moans were heard. Long as the march would be, it would prove a valuable opportunity. It would give the greener members a chance to learn essential military routine. It would give them a chance to conduct larger, more complex exercises. Rin made the most of such things to weave her Ducklings through them, fine tuning the delicate edge a medic or healer must walk on the field of battle. It was all pretend, all under ideal and predictable conditions. Still, it was better than nothing and maybe, just maybe, this drilling would provide enough habit to get them by in reality. In the terror, the bedlam, the blood and fear of real battle, habit and instinct could save lives. It could be the only thing left.
Understandably, things were a little awkward with the Company. Molguv and Bear routinely despaired of the New Company each dawn and dusk. There were stragglers, those out of formation, those who fell asleep on their watch. There were those who had yet to figure out the difference between a march, a field trip and a holiday. There were those whose faces shone insufferably with the gleaming light of adventure. Best to knock that out quickly and so a punishing pace was set for everyone and it worked, at a price. Each day, at dusk, those needing assistance were dotted through the Company. Each dawn, soldiers grumbled harder about having to get up and continue on. No mutiny, of course. Still, the gloss was being worn thin, mile by mile.
A week into the march, the Company halted for the night. The Old Company were wearily working through hobbling their horses and establishing camp and pickets without complaint. Those of the New Company still with the energy to talk were groaning at another set of aches, pains and blisters. Rin and her Ducklings trawled through the Company, setting to rights what needed to be and only that. There were resources to be conserved and no one rivalled Rin for frugality. Aside from plate armour, she was not a woman to waste anything. Not the slightest scrap. Protests and exhortations bobbed after them from those deemed not miserable enough to require intervention. Gratitude and relief followed in their wake from those who were miserable enough for treatment. Still, as carefully as she husbanded their resources, a week at this pace had exhausted some supplies and a concerted harvesting project on the march was now required. That was a difficult feat to muster if they continued marching at this rate.
Preoccupied as she was with such practicalities, the Dream caught Rin by surprise. She was sitting cross legged by the camp fire, leaning comfortably against Hanasian as she remeasured bundles of dried herbs. The next moment she was elsewhere, unaware that her head had sunk against Hanasian’s shoulder and her fingers had ceased their movements. This, in itself, was not unusual. Another weary soldier by the fire. However, Rin’s eyes were not closed and it seemed as though she did not draw breath as she stared fixedly at the dancing flames. A signal from Folca alerted Hanasian, who was engrossed with his journal. Aside from this moment, no one at the fire moved or made a sound.
Rhythmic creaking. The smell of brine and pitch and wood. The snap of sheets and the high pitched whine of lines thrumming in the gathering wind of a storm. The half light of sun filtered through angry clouds. The sway of a rain slick deck. Then, disorientation as she lurched onto steady, soldi ground. The sound of desperate panting, air gargling wetly in the back of a throat. It was properly dark now, was the storm that bad? No, night - red sickening, leaping, dancing light. Fire. Fire in the night and the iron tang of blood, fresh, and of terror. Then, something glistened. Streaked with gore and sweat and a gruesome mud made from blood and dirt. A man’s arm, straining as he reached ahead of him into the terrible gloom of that night. In his fist, her eyes travelling along the bulge of sinew and muscle and tendon and bone, a rag...on a shard of a plank. No...the sickening firelight illuminated it a moment. Not a rag. The Standard. The gargling, straining breath. Whispering something over and over and over like a prayer. ‘Please, please, please.'
The camp fire gave off the pungent scent of burning herbs. Rin’s reaction had been visceral denial. She lurched away from Hanasian’s shoulder and pushed everything in her lap away in refusal. No. It cannot be. It will not be. Rin’s heart was pounding and her head swam. That arm, that fist, she knew almost as well as her own. It belonged to Loch. Hanasian stroked her back, trying to restore some calm.
”Not good,” Folca surmised.
Rin shuddered and drew her knees up to her chest for warmth. Her shoulders were hunched defensively and her brow furrowed.
”Keep this quiet,” Hanasian warned those around the fire, aware that the Company was worried enough.
”Doc, what did you see?” Foldine asked, leaning towards the fire the brush the last of her herb bundles from the flames and add it to the pile he had already saved from a fiery end.
”I saw battle, war,” Rin replied tersely before her jaw bunched and she closed her mouth resolutely.
Those at the fire exchanged silent gazes and Rin was permitted her silence, for now. Much later, as they settled into their bed rolls for the night, Hanasian felt Rin’s hand steal into his own. Her fingers felt cold, despite the warmth of the night. He lifted her fingers to his lips, and as if that were some sign, she drew closer and clung to him. He let her settle there a moment.
”Long ride tomorrow, my love. Perhaps Molguv’s special reserve would ensure you rested tonight?" he quietly murmured into her hair. Some distance away, the bird call signal from one of the Company sentries confirmed all was clear.
”I’m not sure that it would help, dear heart,” Rin sighed. Hanasian was reluctant to pry, but he heard the tremor of distress in her voice still.
”Can you yet speak of it,” he gently asked.
”It was Loch...it was bad. Battle gone bad. He was clinging to the standard, pleading - begging it seemed. He sounded injured. I do not know if this has already happened or will happen...it wasn’t clear. A night time battle gone bad...and ships on the wings of a storm, hastening. I do not know whose and I do not know to which shore or port.”
Hanasian stroked her hair, smoothing the tangles from the day in the saddle. After a while he felt her breathing even out and then, the harmless twitches of harmless dreams. He lay there, studying the stars overhead for a long while. Civil war, glimpses of doom past or future. He hoped Aragorn and Eomer’s army had mobilsed by now and they would reach Khor in time to prevent whatever it was Rin had seen. The ships...what connection those? On such thoughts was Hanasian carried to sleep, his wife’s body warm where it nestled against his own.
The situation in Rhun was complicated. With the assassination of the King's Prefect, it signalled to Gondor that they were in open rebellion. But it seemed the plotters didn't count on one big factor... the arrival of Khule, Wulgof, Berlas, and Loch. Still more confusing was who exactly the plotters were. If it was a means to an end to bring independence, then it was not well thought out. If it was brought on by Khor's agents, it was a terrible mis-use of well-placed people. Most likely it was planned by rogue officers who didn't side with Khor, but unfortunately, they weren't as strong as they thought they were.
The fighting in most areas was over that day, but some areas it went on. The northern reaches seemed to be where they were strongest, and there, those not of like mind were either slain in the fight, or grouped together and fled south.
With chaos among the clans and within the biggest clans, most government control broke down overnight. The remnants of the loyal Easterling Gondor legion held a small area around where the Prefect had lived, and others who had word of the Company marched toward where they heard the Black Company was at.
The next morning when daylight began to break, Khule looked out over the field. It was dotted with watchfires, and it seemed the numbers had more than doubled.
He summoned Dhagat, the sergeant that led the original dozen, and asked, "You know all these men?"
Dhagat looked about the field and said, "Some. I know of what units many are from, and it is quite a mixed lot."
"I figured as much," Khule said. "You and your twelve just got promoted. I need loyal leaders, and I am counting on you for this. Have your kid... Runner, go and ... well a few others too, and have the commanders meet me here at the barn. Also, check the perimeter. With this many men of arms gathered in one place, it will surely draw attention. Also, find fresh word as to what is going on."
The sharp salute of the right fist thumping his chest over his heart was all he did, and he turned to go. Immediately he was barking orders to his men, and with precision they fanned out. Runner took off to the far edge, and by the time the sun was well up in the eastern sky, eighty-four commanders of the various units had arrived. They were joined by a dozen sergeants who led their small units, and a few young individuals who were not military but were armed.
Loch whispered to Berlas, "Khule has his own army!"
Berlas nodded, looking at all the men. Wulgof sat up in the loft, watching the goings on outside, but also keeping Khule within earshot. He was worried about their situation. If this mob turned on Khule, then they would be stepped on like a bug. Even with the rest of their Company there, it would be a bad odds. And if they recruited, they would not likely have the know-how to survive long against these well-trained warrior class soldiers. It all rested in Khule's hands and so far he had held it together well. Wulgof was the only one of the three that had been in Rhun the last time. He knew what Khule was like back then. He could see a bit of that coming out now. He sighed and watched.
The men loyal to Gondor held their own around the Prefect's house. It seemed the weight of the rebel gangs stayed north and east of them. Toward the west, little had changed and the patrols remained loyal and doing their work. It was a good thing too, for they would be the first ones the rest of the Company would first meet.
To the north where the clan chiefs had been assassinated, things were chaotic and lawless for most of the day. The rebels seemed to be poorly organized, which allowed a large group of loyal soldiers get away south. But they seemed to steady themselves by the end of the second day.
Word got east to Khor late on the second day. He was not happy at first, for it was too soon. But he reacted quickly by building up defences to the west. He didn't need an influx of rogue soldiers flooding in, but he did want to screen them as they did. It was one of the first of these that brought him even more distressing word... the Black Company was in Rhun.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The morning sprouted still warm from the day before. Hanasian and Rin were entangled, the result of attempting to find a comfortable position on the ground and the closeness of newly weds. Arms and legs were everywhere under the thin sheet over them. However they were no different to everyone else in the Company. There was little time for anything but sleep during the night hours. The warm season was waning ever slightly each day and the dark hours grew each day before the sun brushed the eastern sky and chased away the stars.
The days still seemed just as long and the going was hard. Even though a trade route had started to flourish between Osgoliath and Rhun, the route through the rough rocks and edge of the swamps was not in good condition. Moving trade goods on wagons was one thing and the way was much improved over what it had been. However a deer track would have been considered a substantial improvement on past arrangements. Moving over a hundred well-armed and provisioned men over it was another matter altogether. Hanasian had sent Darius and Donius along with the recruits they had picked out ahead with the recon scouts so they could try and clear and widen the track through the rough country. They were mostly successful until the Company caught up with them. Then there was no time to do more than clear a few rocks that made pinch points and fill in any deep cuts in the rocks to make easier passage. For all of this, they were approached the western reaches of Rhun after two weeks on the march. The day started sunny like the days before. By noon, heavy clouds had gatheredin the north. Videgavia knew the signs and he said as much to Hanasian as they rode into a wider plain, glad to have left the rocks mostly behind.
”It will be raining by evening. Autumn is coming. A not the best of times to be going east….especially with this gut feeling we may be there for the winter.”
“Yes, it was winter when we were here before too,” Hanasian replied and Videgavia nodded at that.
Hanasian’s brooding gaze took in the men moving along around them and after a moment he said, ”Not the worst bunch we had, but I’m not comfortable going in with most of these men having only four or so weeks of hard training. Still, they seem to be taking to it rather well considering.”
Videgavia again nodded. He added, ”They are a fair bunch. We only had seven drop out, and most of them were due to injuries. Tell me cap, why did Hamoor… Ravenclaw want to join this time? He seems to be straight with us, but there is something about him… “
“Aye, well you didn’t think much of most of the men we brought in at first. And if we get in deep any time soon, most of these will not make it. The ones that do will know how to survive. And I think Mulgov has done a great job with the resources at hand to get them this far. Plus I think we may have a few rough gems with other skills too. I think Darius and Donius have quite a cadre of specialists under their eye."
Silence fell around the two men as they rode. Hanasian looked about and found Rin not far behind. She had her charges close as well, and predictably she had them busy as she seemed to prefer. They were sorting collected herbs and making notes while on horseback. Bear drove a heavy wagon of provision. He was one of the best drivers. While he was well, he would never be completely recovered from his wound from Tharbad. When all was said and done, he had survived evisceration. It did him well to be able to sit some.
The afternoon darkened and it was looking more like night when the first fat raindrops started to fall. White flashes of lightning split the heavy grey and the pursuing thunder hit hard enough to hurt the ears. Any grunts of complaint were well muffled by the sound of the driving rain and the need to control anxious mounts. Donius deployed a creation he had made to collect water for their use. A good thing too, for they had been depleting their supply in the dry heat of the past days. His rig managed to fill to the brim several of their empty barrels. This brother was considered a clever man indeed.
Though it seemed night had come, the rain slowly tapered off and just before it quit, an eerie orange cover the land. The sun managed to find the edge of the cloud as it sank low and it beamed its light under the dark clouds. The raindrops looked like silver beads and a rainbow could be seen at times. But it too faded and soon the red, orange and pink clouds were dark proper. With the onset of night the rain stopped. They set to camp and the defense was set in an arc to the west. Sentries were set to the east, and the rest settled in to eat and to rest. Hanasian ordered there would be no fires this night, for he had a feeling they were being watched.
And they were being watched. The western guard of Rhun had noted the approach of the Black Company.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The arrival of the Black Company, in numbers far greater than ever seen in Rhun before, was as the autumn winds that seemed to sweep up mid afternoon and build towards dusk. Sometimes the winds carried storms, wild and savage affairs. Rin had seen their like in Dunland. How they did not get struck by lightening she did not know. What she could do if they were she could not fathom. It was just another thing to gnaw on during the day. Sometimes the winds only carried dust and heat and dried vegetation. Sometimes the scent of smoke, not just domestic hearths. Every now and again, the unmistakeable scent of death.
The wariness of the Company steadily escalated, particularly amongst those who had been to Rhun before. Old memories rose from uneasy sleep for many, Hanasian included. They moved as quietly as they could, lit no fires at night. The Black Company hackles were well and truly raised well before the first ragged party sought them out at the end of another long day. A haggard looking man and woman with haunted eyes, a dead babe in the woman’s arms against her thin chest. Desperation drew them out, for it was no easy thing to approach a military unit on the march in their state. Their tale was a familiar one. Particularly for the Company Healer.
Treachery swung this way and that in civil war. They had been burnt out of their farm, two elder children left amid the ashes of their home, nearly a week ago. Pitiful as they were, their arrival triggered a ferocious debate amongst the Old Company while the New Company silently looked on and wondered what sort of Company it really was. It was increasingly likely that they were bound for war and they could neither support civilians nor carry them with them into war. Rin had been unsettled and increasingly worried with each passing day. She had been silently brooding over the dream and her brother’s fate, her temper wearing thinner with each passing hour. While she could rationally acknowledge the logic and perhaps, even the ethics, of Molguv’s position, she saw an entirely different battle front to contend with. She argued that if it was civil war, they needed as much as the populace as they could get or face being devoured whole by the nation. Back and forth the argument went, increasingly vehement until Molguv’s questioning of her grasp of military strategy snapped her usual control
”Spend twenty years on the losing side of a civil war before you dare ask me that question again,” she openly snarled, ”Or, let me make it really simple for you. One word: DUNLAND! Now you can all scarper off to wherever it is you need to get to in a hurry. I am staying here and I am doing my job and that is an end to it!”
She whirled on one heel, snapped the name of the nearest Duckling who was skulking nearby, and stalked off to where the two refugees had huddled together, sunk in defeat into the grasses. Two Bells trailed in her wake, looking over his shoulder at the grim faces of the Old Company and forward at the stiff back of his mistress as she stalked ahead of him, cloak flapping like an angry banner. No matter which way he looked at it, he would be in trouble. There was nothing to do for the child and its parents needed a great deal more than any mortal or immortal could provide. Water, bury the infant, immediate medical care, news on what they had seen on their way to this point and where the dangers might lie, some food and it was done. Rin brooded for a long while as she watched them shuffle away. If she watched long enough, they’d disappear into the gathering dusk. The afternoon wind whipped her cloak out behind her and Two Bells knew by now to be quiet if he could. But he couldn’t.
”Will they make it?” he asked, saw her frown slightly and then swing her attention to him fully.
He watched her with those infernally hopeful, youthful eyes. She knew what he wanted. He wanted to know that it was worth it, that it had been successful. That it would be better again, for them and for him. She also knew what she owed him.
”I don’t know, but I hope so,” she answered truthfully and watched his eyes drop to his boots a moment and then lift to watch the departing pair. In this time, it had finally dawned upon Rin that she had been perilously close to open insubordination.
Rin left him there, watching after the forlorn pair in the distance, and turned back to face the consequences of her outburst. After three weeks on the road, the men around her looked every inch the very formidable monsters she had spent years fearing. Molguv particularly, hulking and dark and heavily bearded now. He scowled at her as she passed, and Rin felt her surprise as she scowled back without trepidation. Oh, how swiftly some things changes and how permanent other things were. War led to suffering. Brother against father, mother against daughter. There were those who were there to fight, to contest, and those whose lot in life it was to endure. Rin knew, no matter what they did, that it was likely the two refugees would not make it through the week. But, they might encounter others and say what the Black Company did and word might spread and they might acquire a far more powerful weapon than any spear or sword. Some things were brighter and stronger than steel and might alone.
The lateness of the day resulted in them making camp. Some grumbled about the delay of an hour making the next day longer. She could not dispute that, another hour away from Loch. Was he still alive? Did her dream mean what she sensed it did? Was it the storm of yesterday or the one tomorrow that would be the one that would carry those ships? Where did they go to and who was on board? So preoccupied was she that Farbarad had to step to one side quickly so that she would not walk into him outright.
”Achieve anything useful?” he asked her but she scowled instead at the bundle he had wrapped in his arms, seeing straight through his opening salvo.
Despite the wrapping, it clanked. Farbarad tried to reason with the woman all the same, just once.
”Look, you can put this on voluntarily, or I will sit on you while Mecarnil stuffs you into it. I reckon Molguv might help too, so no use plotting how to get the slip on the both of us.”
“I can’t do my job dressed as a giant metal turtle.”
“It’s this or not doing your job at all.”
Farbarad leaned closer as her jaw firmed and her shoulders squared. He placed a hand on one shoulder, which she glared at, and made certain that she heard every word he was about to say very clearly.
”Not up for debate, Rosmarin. Next lot of refugees may not be all that they seem. You put this on, you get to wage your civil campaign for a little while longer. Don’t put this one, we’ll truss you up and toss you in Bear’s wagon for the rest of the campaign.”
Farbarad saw one sceptical brow rise. The setting sun burnished her hair and he knew she was weighing it all up, calculating her odds. She had worn the same expression when she had broken into Elrohir’s office as a child and decorated some of his more precious books with crayon not ten minutes after she had been sternly warned out of the elf lord’s sanctuary. She had been unrepentant upon discovery, crayon still clutched in her hand, all of ten months of age. He smiled at her now without any mirth at all and looked hard into her changeable winter eyes without hesitation.
”It’s true. Mecarnil wouldn’t hear of it. A gentleman like him would be horrified at trussing you up like a prize calf,” Farbarad said as if he could hear her thoughts, ”Me, well I’m a whole other sort of man. So, do you really think you’d like to test my will or word? I take my oaths of service seriously indeed, Princess.”
And there, before she concealed it, he saw surprise in the depths of her eyes. They were silvery now, only faintly blue. She blinked at him, re-evaluating. She heaved a sigh and inclined her head. Mecarnil, who was watching the exchange from a safe distance as he set his horse to picket, felt his jaw drop open. Of course, once Rin had to wear armour, so too did the Ducklings much to their chagrin. Long accustomed to sleeping rough, sleeping rough in mail and armour while armed was another undertaking all together. Consequently, Rin’s frayed mood had declined further by the time morning arrived.
More ragged, hopeless, bereft and desperate parties emerged and as Farbarad had predicted not at all what they appeared to be. The Company lost two to ambushes on one particularly bad day. Rin stopped muttering about the armour when she had to deal with the ravages of a particularly toxic poison dart. Even Rocks, a stoic lump of a man, looked deeply unsettled by the time the second man had died. It had been a slow, nasty death.
”No man should have to die like that,” he said as he closed the tortured recruit’s sightless eyes.
”Have you still got that dart?” Rin asked Two Bells, who stood nearby and had done exactly as he had been instructed to.
”Find something to wrap it in. Silk – Donius will probably have some undyed silk tucked away. Don’t touch it. Bring it to me when you’ve done that.”
Bells, dart safely aloft before him, sprang away. The press that had gathered veered away from him, eager to avoid the dart and whatever had produced that terrible death.
”Bury them. We have to move out,” Videgavia ordered, for it was not yet noon.
As men swirled about to set to their task, three ‘refugees’ and two Black Company men to bury, Sparks couldn’t help his curiosity.
”What are you going to do with the dart, and from horseback and by whatever starlight can be gotten tonight?”
“More than one can play this particular game, Sparks. All we need to know is what they’re using to play it. I mean to find out. How is no one’s business but my own.”
Rin left Sparks and Rocks to consider her words. Doc had been pointed about sharing information and knowledge. It was, she had said many times, how any healer worth their salt learned. They acquired information, tested it, challenged it, reconsidered it, applied it, passed it on to others. An endless flow, like time or the seasons themselves. Her recalcitrance to discuss this particular matter was, therefore, odd. But not even Two Bell’s boundless curiosity could shake more from her and by mid afternoon, she had sent all three of them as far away as possible from her. Banished, the Ducklings rode throughout the rest of the Company, equal parts curious and relieved and contemplative according to their individual natures.
It was no easy thing to test a poison for identification on horseback, clad in inflexible armour. However, Rin had expended all of her leverage in that argument with Molguv. She wasn’t about to attempt to plead a second delay. Thankfully, Hanasian happened to catch a particular flask that had slipped from her grasp before it shattered on the ground. He returned it to her, peering at her hard. She flashed him the barest of smiles and returned to her task. At least she was focussed on something, which was better than brooding over things as far as Hanasian was concerned. There was just no time for husband and wife to talk, to really talk, to share their mind and their worries and their hopes. A time and place for everything and this wasn’t it. Besides, where was that army Aragorn had been sending and was that yet another band of refugees/assailants that Foldine has flushed out?
The week slipped by and Rhun stretched out around them, a massive land by anyone’s reckoning. The next day, the Company encountered its first sign of civilisation. It was an unusual rainy day, dreary but on the whole welcome. The Black Company had found a small cluster of buildings, not even big enough to be considered a village. They reigned in and swiftly decided to send a squad to the settlement. Hanasian sent in a mix of veterans and recruits, and two healers. One was his wife, the other was Two Bells – the youth was rarely far from her in any case, a real duckling was the running joke amongst the Company men, trailing his mother duck about with the occasional quack. They were not so wise to say so within mother duck’s hearing. No man openly hinted that the Doc might waddle or quack, especially when she was armed to the teeth, married to their commanding officer and of a particularly sharp mood of late.
With the detachment sent in, the remaining Black Company set to encircling the settlement and spread a defensive net to see what they could flush out of the surrounding land. As Hanasian had expected, the land was not nearly as empty as first appeared. In the settlement itself, a whole different sort of trouble was emerging. As cots go, the one that Rin stood in with Bells, Videgavia and Farbarad was a hovel in every sense. The air was close, dank and reeked of violence. The reason for this was a nightmare sight, spread on what passed as a floor. A child, perhaps ten summers old, lay broken and battered on the pressed earth. His uncle or father stood under Videgavia’s mistrustful eye in a corner, dark eyes darting from the child to the Daleman to the door. Outside, the incessant drip of rain and the sound of the rest of the detachment checking the settlement could be heard. Inside, the silence was oppressive. It was one of horror, dismay and shock. Even to the most hardened, what they had found was enough to twist a man’s stomach into rebellion. Two Bells lost no dignity by being green around the gills. Even Farbarad and Videgavia were. Rin, pallid in the grey light, crouched by the child and desperately tried to determine what, if anything could be done.
She eased the tortured child up, murmuring softly to him and blanched at what she glimpsed before she set him down.
”Is that-“ Two Bells broke off his question and pressed a fist to his mouth as Rin reluctantly nodded. He rushed out into the rain and Rin spread her fingers over the boy’s shattered chest.
”Kidneys,” she said, more to herself than anyone.
The boy had been beaten so badly that his kidneys hung out of his body. It was just one of a terrible set of injuries. Bones smashed and protruding from his slack skin, bruises so deep they were black and huge. Worst of all, he had not died. Somehow, he clung on and he watched her with silent suffering. She continued to murmur to the child softly, doing what she could with what she had to steal some of his pain from him. Evidently, she took enough to enable the child to gasp something in his local tongue.
”Not true! LIES!” said the man Videgavia watched in thickly accented Common.
As she comforted the child, for no one could heal his devastating injuries, she noted the contusions on his sun darkened skin. Fists and feet had been used. Adult sized ones. But something like a bar or rod had also been used. It was this that had smashed through the usually resilient leg and hip bones. The child tried again, urgently repeating what he had said before to her, somehow recognising that his last chance to see justice was slipping away and then he was still forever more.
Rin’s hands shook as she removed them. Death, to have her hands and to be attempting a peripheral heal when death took him was always excruciating. For the child, though, it was a mercy. Slowly Rin straightened and her expression was blank as she lifted her head to study the other occupant of the cot. A bar, a rod. Someone had taken not only their fists and feet to this child, but had used something to beat him with. And, as she studied the increasingly agitated man who squirmed under the sudden and ferocious scruitiny of a Dunedain set of eyes, she found herself grappling with memories of her own. Oh, this one struck so closely to her bones. Rin closed her eyes as it all pressed home hard and all at once. She very much wanted to take the elven sword at her side and separate the man’s head from his shoulders. For this child, for all the other children, for the child she had been once. She wasn’t sure who said her name, but when her eyes opened she saw it then. The walking stick the man clutched behind his back. The sight of it made her shudder hard. Her hand had closed around her sword hilt and she had partially drawn her blade without realising it.
”All clear out, except this mess of Two Bells by the door here,” Bear called, his bulk nearly filling the doorway and breaking the sudden tension that seemed to have gripped all those within.
”Bring the man. Hanasian needs to see this,” Rin said, voice hoarse as she released her sword and unhitched her wet cloak.
She carefully wrapped the boy, movements so gentle that none of the three veterans could bear to watch. The boy’s body was in her arms when they glanced back and the sombre squad made their way back to the Company.
”What’s this, Doc?” Hanasian asked as Rin arrived with the boy’s shrouded body in her arms and ghosts in her eyes.
”This is a child who was beaten to death by his uncle,” Rin replied and set the child once more on the soaked earth.
Rain ran over them as she pressed on, turning to one side to indicate a man that Videgavia and Farbarad was escorting none too gently. Bear’s face was thunderous. He looked like he could chew rocks. Two Bells looked like he might lose his stomach again. Rin was dangerously composed.
”Not to put too fine a point on it, children are beaten all over the place. Why is this a Black Company matter?” Molguv asked and blanched at the burst of expression that showed before she could conceal it.
”That is his uncle. I hope you can confirm why the child was beaten, fists, feet and that carved walking stick with the pieces of his nephew’s bone and blood still clinging to the grain. I suspect he beat the boy because the boy was caught running information and or supplies. Between whom, that’s what we need to know. Do you understand the Easterling tongue, Molguv?”
“Some,” he admitted and then listened as she relayed what the boy had said to her.
”Well, do you understand it?” she asked, and repeated the foreign words again.
Molguv nodded, ”Yes, despite your accent. But the fact remains, Doc. You could have just sent for one of us. The questioning could have been done in the village. Now he knows we are here and in what strength. Once the interrogation is done, then what? This should have been done in the village.”
Rin’s hand closed around her sword hilt,”No, it could not.”
“Why not?” Hanasian pressed, catching at something in the steel of her tone.
”Because there were not enough Black Company men in that squad to prevent me from killing that man on the very bloodied earth upon which he stood,” she admitted and then swung away to leave them to it before she forgot herself again.
Sparks and Rocks emerged to collect up the shrouded boy for burial. Molguv and Bear set to interrogating their prisoner. Rin was left to her own devices, for everyone’s sake, and she spent a good amount of the afternoon pacing back and forth. Videgavia shook his head and considered Hanasian a long moment.
”If she keeps this up, she’ll explode and at the worst possible time,” he said as another rain squall set in.
Hanasian grunted agreement, but knew that the approach would need to be carefully timed. Meanwhile, there was a prisoner to interrogate and the matter of his intelligence to analyse. Accordingly, the Company had not moved by mid afternoon and Videgavia called for exercises despite the sodden weather. There were moans and groans but soon enough they had fallen out into their training squads. Any spare moment to hone their skills was not about to be wasted. They wanted to retain as many of these men and women as possible. In the midst of it, Folca decided that enough was enough and took it upon himself to approach the still pacing Company Healer.
His twin spotted him on the final approach and pulled him aside.
”Are you sure that’s wise?” Frea asked and Folca rolled a shrug.
”Well, Khule’s the best swordsman and he’s not here and Hanasian’s not far behind Khule but he has his hands full. I’m third best, so if I’m lucky, I should come out the side in one piece or near enough. Besides, something has to give.”
Frea released his brother’s arm and watched his twin intercept the healer. In the rain and amid the training squads, it was nearly impossible to hear what was said. Whatever Folca managed to say, the amicable and happy go lucky side of the Rohirrim twins was successful in getting the Company Healer to draw her sword on him. She swatted at him half heartedly a few times, and appeared to be humouring him until he pulled a move that had her flat on her back in the mud. Then, it was properly on and the match between the two became a serious one. Folca was a superb swordsman. He had no intention of injuring his opponent. He was not entirely sure the same intention was shared by Rin. She looked like she meant business, fierce and savage and startlingly fast despite the weight of the armour she wore.
By the time the washed out night arrived, several things had happened. The Healer’s mood seemed to lighten somewhat, probably due to exertion and the numbing exhaustion that followed it. Folca seemed a little stiff in his movements. Babble was no longer prepared to risk being discovered lingering about like a bad smell. The prisoner was questioned and handed back to the inhabitants of the settlement to deal with. His justice would come, but not swiftly. The Company now knew that civilians, children, were being used to run information and supplies to various forces in the field in Rhun.
By the close of the fourth week on the road, Hanasian had his answer on the whereabouts of the army. There was another ambush, this one brazen for it came in broad daylight. It offered Rin a fine opportunity to test out the counter toxin she had been feverishly working on in every spare moment. Of course, they had to survive the ambush and this one was well executed. To Hanasian, it seemed proof that Khor’s hand was active in this area. It was military perfection to stage running strikes and then melt away, bleed off an opponent before they even reached the main stage of battle.
Imagine Hanasian’s delight and surprise to find on the western flank that an advance party bearing Rohan’s colours approached. This turned the tide of the encounter irrevocably in their favour. By the time things had settled again, Hanasian espied his wife’s fair head as she winnowed through the press in search of wounded. When none other than Eomer himself swung down from his saddle, hair now silver but eyes as vivid a blue as ever, Hanasian found he had important matters to see to. Of course, there was no bowing or salutes. Out in the field, such behaviour was a certain way to have your ranking officers swiftly killed by your opponents. Hanasian soon learned that Eomer had set out with all haste at the first sign of trouble with their ancient foes and had a great deal to say about what they had seen on their way to this point. The two swiftly fell to talking, two commanders in the field with a troublesome matter before them as their men mopped up around them.
Hanasian’s discussion with Eomer broke off as word carried to them of the outcome of Rin’s counter toxin. Sparks reported that it worked, in a fashion, but those afflicted would need some time to properly recover their strength.
”Ah, your wife,” Eomer said as they set out to locate Rin and see for themselves.
Hanasian rolled his shoulders. ”Yes…she’s a direct woman, lord, and she is particularly sharp when someone interferes with her work.”
Hanasian saw that Eomer only smiled as they strode through the combined press of Company and Rohirrim.
”Be at ease, Captain. Elfwine was thorough in his reports from the Harad campaign,” Eomer replied and Hanasian abandoned damage control at that point as, in any case, they had located Rin.
”Whichever idiot you may be, GET OUT OF MY LIGHT!” Rin snapped, not lifting her head and instead staring hard at the man she was working on.
She heaved a sigh, considered the flask in her hand and held it up to the recently vacated sunlight a moment, muttering at its colour and viscosity more like an alchamist than anything else.
Then, she flicked her attention to Hanasian’s face and he saw some regret in her expression and her cheeks faintly coloured. Then, her attention drifted momentarily to Eomer. The king was clad as any Rider might be and she spared him little time beyond initial study.
”I hear it’s working, but I can see from the look on your face it isn’t,” Hanasian said and she heaved a sigh and agitated the flask.
”I just don’t have everything I need for this particular mix and there’s no way to get it unless one of those horse boys have horses with wings. It just isn’t doing quite everything it should.”
“Horses with wings…Just as well all the wizards have left these shores. If one of them heard that idea, I shudder to think what fearsome creature would result,” Eomer mused and Hanasian watched one eyebrow climb incredulously.
”Wizards? Sounds like you’ve actually read a book if you know about those. Who is he?” Rin’s last question was directed at Hanasian.
Behind her, Frea, Folca and Foldine had all gathered and were watching avidly. Something was afoot.
”Eomer King, my wife…Rosmarin of Cardolan and Black Company Healer,” Hanasian sighed to Eomer and caught out of the corner of his eye he saw Frea elbowed his brother knowingly. Rin’s transformation was truly stupendous.
One moment, cantankerous and sarcastic and the next moment she seemed close to outright panic. Rightly so, Hanasian mused, given her turn of phrase to a monarch. Her eyes grew huge, she swallowed hard, and he just knew that if she could flee that very instant she would have.
”Oh!” she squeaked and at that Eomer seemed to suddenly realise something.
”There! That’s it! I have met you before. You were a mere slip of a thing then, perhaps eighteen years old, no shoes?”
“I- I’m not sure, sire…Perhaps you have me mistaken with someone else.”
“Oh no. I remember faces, particularly yours. You… I remember now…a stolen bracelet from one of the chamber maids.”
“A lie! Firstly, bracelets are inedible and secondly it was so ugly it couldn’t even be sold for coin to purchase food.”
“As I thought… Well, I’m pleased that I decided to hear the matter myself. I’d have no way to explain how I came to permit a maiden of royal descent be placed in stocks or jail. Had I known then what I know now…To think, a crown princess a beggar and serving in my own halls…”
As the king reminisced, something akin to panic took hold of Rin’s thoughts. What was the tally on them now up to? Sixty marks or more? The king of Rohan remembered her? Oh he was smiling now, but that would all end when he realised who she was and what had happened and then it would be irons or worse, rope around her neck. Hanasian watched all of this with narrowed eyes, particularly the barely concealed amusement of the three Black Company rohirrim.
”Perhaps, when this business is seen to, you will return with the Captain to my halls, this time as a guest rather than kitchen staff?”
Rin stared at Eomer, struck silent by her predictament. Behind her, Molguv tried very hard to not laugh and failed. At that moment, Two Bells saved her skin. He skidded up, babbling of some disaster and Rin finally had a legitimate escape. She seized it with both hands and was away in a twinkling of the eye, peering anxiously back over her shoulder to check she wasn't being pursued.
”Definitely her. I never forget a pretty face. In any case, despite her dissatisfaction, I’d be more than grateful if you would consent to sharing that elixir. I’ve lost close to eight men from those infernal darts.”
Hanasian was more than happy to share such information and he continued the discussion with the king regarding the difficulties of the campaign and how best to combat them. By the time Eomer and his party left, he had extracted the necessary information from a Company Healer who seemed determined to not show her face to the king again, ever. Hanasian departed, instructions in hand and Rin let out a miserable sigh. Of all the dumb luck, she mused, rubbing at her forehead. That cheese job in Meduseld would haunt her to the end of her days, she was sure of it.
Ultimately, while she was preoccupied with lamenting her fate, Molguv sidled up and nudged her.
”Didn’t offer him any cheese then?” he asked and Rin gaped at him a moment and then her jaw closed with an audible click.
”That idiot! He said something, didn’t he! That idiot! Lochared better still be alive when I see him next because when I do, I am going to kill that man, twice over!”
Thankfully, the rest of the day passed with little else of note, Bear’s wagon loaded down with men who would need time to recover sufficiently to ride. The presence of Rohan and confirmation that Gondor was not far behind did something to ease the general mood of the Company.
As the chaos ensued after that first day, inside a small prison cell sat a smiling Khurg. Aged and showing signs of senility, he had expected to live out his days locked up. Though it had been many years, the elderly general warlord of the Sagath clan retained his sympathizers. It was thought that most had been killed or imprisoned when Khurg was defeated many years ago. And little was ever said among the ranks of soldiers or the people since. But now it was becoming apparent that a cadre of young officers had simply disbanded and went underground after that fateful battle. Working quietly and in deep secret, they crafted the plan that would free their old leader. Though all things didn’t quite go as planned, and the events were triggered a little earlier than they wanted them to be, it had so far fallen in their favour.
A week had passed when the rebels launched a concentrated assault on the part of the city where the loyal Gondor Legion Guard had gathered and there was heavy fighting. The loyalists gave way a couple blocks at first but managed to take back one. With their supplies dwindling, their position was becoming precarious. Yet overnight the rebels just faded into the darkness. The next morning was quiet…. too quiet! The besieged soldiers sent out scouts to locate their foes. All returned with reports that the city was abandoned. It didn’t make sense to spend such an effort to dislodge the loyalists then simply abandon the front. Something must have happened elsewhere. It was about the noon hour when a din rose to the north. Battle had started, but who was fighting whom? Forming up into ranks, the loyalist men who had taken refuge there after fleeing from the north set out toward the smoke. The Prefect’s guard stayed and kept vigilant watch. It would fall to them to hold the area until relieved.
The prison was just north of the Prefect’s compound and the rebels had in their assault the previous day taken and freed the prisoners. One of them was Khurg. Despite his frail age and senility, he had enough of his wit to know that there would be reprisals for all that had happened. He and some of his old command freed along with him, attempted to wrest for control over the unruly rebels. But the younger commanders who had set things in motion refused to give up their command. Throughout most of the morning, the rebels spent the time trying to sort out their hierarchy. Though Khurg was recognized as their overall leader, the chain of command was not clear below him. It was a style that had suited Khurg well in the old days, but right now when their fortunes were on the verge of changing, decisive leadership was needed to get their affairs in order.
To the east, Khule, along with Berlas, Wulgof, and Loch were preoccupied with their new role as the Black Company elite in the eyes of the many Easterling recruits. They spent a week to organize them, indoctrinate them in some basic Company rules and conduct, identify the natural leaders, and set the men to the task of guarding their land. Khule knew he would have to get them moving, and his senses told him it would be soon. He had daily scouting reports from a light reconnaissance squad he organized under Runner. They ranged far enough west to garner word of the rebellion. Feeling he was as ready as he was allowed to get in a week, Khule issued the order to move out in the early morning hours. Khule, Loch, Wulgof, Berlas and most of the original twelve Easterlings marched at the head, with four groups of forty men following in their wake. They appeared sharp and professional, as far as these things go, and were in high spirits that they were marching to battle under the Company’s banner. Never mind it was going to be against their brothers, kinsmen.
Runner’s squad took the point and guided Khule’s Eastering Company to the north, then west. It was almost the noon hour when they came to an opening in the wood. Down a grassy slope they could see an encampment of rebel soldiers. Khule immediately recognized the banner of Khurg flying in their midst, a ghost from his past flickering over rebel heads. He waved at Dhak and had him set up a picket of men along the wood line, to watch for guards. It was strange that the edge of the wood held no rebel watchers to guard such an encampment from an obvious path of concealed approach and ambush. Could the rebel be so poorly organised? Nobody watched the outskirts and it seemed only a few paid any attention as lookouts immediately around the encampment. He had to strike now.
Addressing the companies, Khule said, ”We have reached the hour of battle. All you who stand before the standard of this Company, and have taken oath to serve its commission, your hour has come. Before us are the rebels who have plunged this land into turmoil. It will fall to you to claim it from them and ease the suffering of your people. For beyond the hills to the south and west marches our Company, and it will be well for us to have matters in hand for their arrival.”
The cult-like adherence seemed surreal to Khule, and Berlas and Wulgof flanked him as he spoke. A cheer was about to begin but Khule anticipated it and held his arm up and flashed the hand-sign for silence. With his other hand he made the motion that the Easterling armies had used for centuries to signal silence. They would attack in stealth and they did not want to give their presence away to soon.
He went on, ”Form into the two-two formation and make ready to move. When we are half way down the hill, rear regiments spread to the flanks so that we charge as a wedge. Maintain unit cohesion and watch each other’s backs. May this day go well. Now let’s go.”
The four Easterling regiments formed as a large square and set forth toward the camp. Hopefully the surprise gained would carry them over. Though Khule was fairly sure most of these men would hold to their oaths as Company men when the blood started to flow, there may be some whose allegiance wavered. Oaths were one thing. The spilling of your kinsmen’s blood was quite another.
Fortunately for Khule, they held together rather well. After they were sighted, the soldiers in camp made ready to welcome the Company as brothers. This was an unexpected surprise, and while it afforded them the unparalleled opportunity to approach, Khule’s face held the tension of the civil duplicity it was. One of the Company commanders gave the order to draw swords and chaos ensued in the camp. Alert of an attack went out, but confusion remained. By the time the Company men made contact with the first men of arms in the camp, only a few rebels survived the onslaught. Crude ranks of rebels formed, engaged, and shattered when several of their men were slain. Khule’s Company men took losses as well. This served to enrage the warrior blood of the others and the battle took on a ruthless quality that Rhun warfare was known for.
Surprise had been achieved and the initial success was great, but there was a sound, and another contingent of rebels emerged from the wood to the southwest. The Company fell back in good order to form up a defensive line and held this line with the first engagement of this new force. A second assault was held as well and the afternoon saw the two sides fall into stalemate. Khule thought they had a good line to hold but was unsure about their right flank. Some of Runner’s squad set out northwest and some went southwest. It didn’t take long for word to get back to him that their position was tenous at best. A small group of soldiers were moving north toward their left, and the rebels had a strong grip on the track to the north on their right. With their backs to the east where uncertainty loomed, it could all go badly for Khule as easily as it had gone so well. With the approach of evening, there was little choice this night but to dig in and hold the line and hope for the best. As for what that might be, Khule could think only of the arrival of relief from the west. Khule set the watch and told the other men to rest.
He hunkered down with Wulgof and Berlas, both men looking as weary as he felt, and said, ”So we don’t know who is who half the time with this lot, and we aren’t sure how many factions there are.”
Berlas nodded and Wulgof sourly grunted and the three men talked in the sparse way of men who had served in tight spots with each other before. To an observer, hardly anything discernable was said. Runner was not far off, talking to Loch. They were close in age and the two young men seemed to naturally gravitate to each other.
”You have done well in a short time Runner,” Loch said, “You have gone from the lowest of the low as a boy soldier in the eyes of the others to an important position in the Company. Your scouts are good eyes and Khule sees you as their leader. That is an achievement, you know?”
Runner nodded as he looked at the ground, not understanding all that was said, but enough. He was proud of this but wasn’t sure how he accomplished it or whether he could continue to in the future. Runner, however, was troubled.
He said to Loch in rough Westron, ”One man did not return. He was he was younger than me. I sent him on the hardest route. Loss, hard.”
Loch frowned at that, aware that his new companion was confronting the realities of battle this night. In this case, Loch felt older than his years. In this, he was the veteran.
He said to Runner, ”He may still be alive. Maybe he got delayed or couldn’t get back for this reason or that. What was his name? He will be remembered in the Company lore.”
Loch hoped his words would help, but in his mind he kept the thought the man may have gone over to the other side. No, he remonstrated with himself, Runner seemed to trust the man. He just might still be alive, maybe.
“You need to tell Khule of this. He needs to know. “
Runner nodded and said, ”Dorghat. He has no family. He called us his family.”
They both then walked over and squatted down on their heels near where Khule was. Some of the commanders came over and sat as well, wanting to be a part of any planning.
Khule sketched a crude map of lines in the dirt and said, ”Under the circumstances, we will have to make for the city. We won’t be able to repeat our success of today on these men again, and with our casualties a tenth of our total strength, it is likely we’ll face a stronger, more determined rebel army in the morning. Word is the Prefect’s guard still hold the city centre and are likely besieged. We will try and breakthrough to them, and hold until our men get here. However, should things develop before then, we will adjust as necessary.”
Night fell with a relative calm between the two armies. But it didn’t last long. A commotion on the south side of the rebel camp erupted into a full-on fight. Whoever it was that arrived wasted no time raiding the rebel camp, setting fire to some of their provisions. Seeing this. Khule ordered one of the regiments to move forth to the left to assist and to find out who it was. His hopes were it was the Black Company, but no such luck. Still, The regiment under the command of Khade quickly set out toward the south end of the rebel line where the fires could be seen and swords could be heard. Khule got word out through Dhak for the others to form up but hold, ready to move forth in attack, but wait ready for now. The old hurry and wait routine that seemed to feature in military service. There would be no rest this night.
This move by Khade’s regiment caused great confusion in the rebel camp. Believing a large force was moving on them from the east under cover of darkness, Khurg gave the order for a general withdrawal to the west into the cover of the heavy woods. Sensing this, and seeing that the battle to the south of their line was going in their favour, Khule ordered the remaining three regiments to advance. With only a few engagements, they shadowed the withdrawal of the rebels and prevented them from moving much of their materiel. Soon they stood in the enemy camp surrounded by much of their provisions. It was into the early morning hours before the last skirmish and clash of sword was heard.
Khule sooned learned that the initial raid was performed by loyalist men from the city who wore the Easterling Gondor Legion badge. The commander had heard of Khule and the Company but did not go to join and had instead chosen a different line of defence against the rebels. He was in high spirits when he discovered that their forces had met and fought side by side in the night’s battle against Khurg’s murderous lot
”I am Commander Kolas. It was an honor to fight with you here this night!,” Kolas said, ”We were just going to hit them once and fall back, but when we saw your army moving toward us in the dark I decided to make a stand since our retreat was blocked. It was sheer joy to us when we saw your men cut into the rebel flank, so we renewed our attack!”
”So it seems to go in this madness. We were going to settle in for a night of attrition before your attack. We had our run most of the afternoon,” Khule replied.
The two talked for some time before parting. The news that the city was nearly overrun but abandoned by the rebels the day before, and that there remained a contingent of men guarding the Prefect’s house was conveyed to Khule. He was also informed that Khurg had been freed. He knew that, and that it only happened this day was a big reason the rebel camp was in such disarray. If Khurg and some of his old command were now in charge of this rebel army it would not be caught at unawares again. The division in command distracted the younger command. If it was resolved in their favour, their attention would be squarely focussed on military matters. It was, no matter how it was looked at, only likely to get harder to deal with these rebels. Harder and bloodier by far. Here, this day was for those who had stood loyal against the rebels. Khule had moved at just the right time, as had the Legion from the city. But to the west, events this day were not so fortunate.
There, the Easterling soldiers were not so much involved in the revolution. They had heard that Rhun had broken with Gondor and so they put up their best defense. They would fight at choke points then withdraw, and would conduct end-run raids on the supply road. With the arrival of the horsemen of Rohan, screening the road was much easier, but it was still hard going. The Black Company would also employ the end-run tactics combined with steady pressure forward. The arrival of Gondor’s infantry freed the Company up to push around the strong points. On the day Khule marched the Easterling Company into battle, the Black had reached the west side of the wood. That evening, Morcal and Sticks brought in a prisoner.
”Look what we found lurking around the edges of our line!” Morcal said as they came in.
They could see it was a boy wearing a regular Easterling army uniform. Belegost stood and took hold of him so Morcal and Sticks could rest. The boy had big eyes as he looked at the men that surrounded him, hard bitten warriors to him, a terrible and awe inspiring sight to behold. He raised his hands and stood as tall as he could.
Mulgov said dryly, ”Congratulations Morcal, you captured a boy.”
The boy said haltingly, ”Company man? Company men you?”
He pointed at the badge on Belegost’s vest, and to the Standard that flipped lazily in the breeze behind them.
Belegost said as Videgavia walked up to apprise the situation, ”What? Wha’ts your name lad?”
The boy looked at Videgavia and said, ”I am Dorghat. You Black Company men… I Black Company man.... We are brothers!”
The boy pointed to a crude small badge on his tunic that was too similar to theirs to be coincidence.
"Maybe in a few years boy...” Videgavia replied.
"No, I am. Khule say! We brothers!"
Videgavia scratched his beard and said, ”Mec, go find Hanasian. There is something he needs to see and hear…”
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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It was inevitable. Hanasian and Rin had their first argument, a quiet tussle of wills that resulted in each of them stalking off in the opposite direction. Hanasian, fuming, hunched over his journal and irritably scratched in the latest updates. His paper bore the brunt of his ill temper. Unfortunately, the men recovering from the poison darts were left to the tender mercies of the Company Healer. Men that could get away, did so with all haste. Unfortunately, those recovering in Bear’s wagons were hampered. One staged a remarkable recovery and managed to evacuate on wobbly legs.
To their credit, Two Bells and Rocks endured for as long as they could. That came to an end when Two Bells produced the latest batch of the anti-toxin. Rin snatched it from his hand, hissing as she held it up to the dying light of the day.
”What are you trying to do? Kill the man? What sort of colour do you call that?”
“C-Caramel?” Two Bells quavered and then flinched as her eyes narrowed.
”Look again!” she demanded and thrust the flask back across the wagon bed at him.
Two Bells reluctantly took the bottle from her and peered. Rocks sighed beside the younger man. This was not going to end well.
”B-Brown? Green? No, hazel!” Bells ventured.
”Exactly! I’ve told you a dozen times if I’ve told you once, Bells. There is a precise order it is to be combined in-“
“I know! I do! Honest!” Bells stated urgently and Rocks clapped the youth on the shoulder.
”Come on, then. Before you dig yourself a deeper hole.”
Rocks steered the younger apprentice away as Bells began reciting the recipe, stumbling and becoming further frantic with each misstep. Rin heaved a sigh and pinched the bridge of her nose.
”Rough day, Doc?” said one of the three remaining men in the wagon bed.
Rin’s reply was indistinct and she focussed on her work, sealing her mind off from that dreadful exchange with Hanasian over the Edoras business. Why, she asked herself, could not the Company maxim apply to her as it did everyone else? There were plenty of Company men and women who had gotten into strife before and they were permitted their secrets. What would Hanasian think of her if she told him?
”Doc, that bandage is pretty and all…but I got hit on the other side.”
A loud and particularly creative curse rose from the wagon. Some at a safe distance clapped. Hanasian’s head rose and his frown intensified. His quill hovered over the page as questions bounded about his mind. Why was she being so difficult? Why could she not be truthful with him? Was duplicity embedded in her nature? Was this who she was? He knew about it all anyway. Frea had spilled the beans after Eomer had left, unable to help himself. What was done was done and he suspected the matter would be easily cleared up if she had a mind to. Why must she conceal it and, more troubling, what else did she hide? Mecarnil cleared his throat warily.
”Look, it’s a bad time… The fishing party have returned with a winnow, an interesting one. Vid wants you to come see, Cap.”
“Can’t he sort it out? No, belay that, Mec. I’ll go,” Hanasian sighed and glanced down at his journal to see a great, fat ink blot creeping over the page that soured his frame of mind further.
Mecarnil wisely squinted off into the middle distance. Hanasian growled, tore out a page and crumpled it in his fist. He tossed the paper onto a fire he stalked off to locate Videgavia, Mecarnil falling into stride beside his agitated commander and old friend.
”How long has it been now, since we deployed? Four weeks? Six?”
“Four weeks and three days,” Hanasian bit off and Mecarnil nodded sagely.
Ah yes, four weeks and three days and the man by his side had not had a moment to spare with his new wife. Yes, they had a month together, but that was not nearly enough to learn the difficult art of marriage. And, marriages were particularly difficult for those in active service. Duty always intruded, always had to be set first, and that took a toll on a man’s heart and a woman’s soul. Mecarnil’s thoughts flickered, but he kept his opinions to himself and soon enough they had reached the small party that had captured the boy soldier. The lad repeated his outlandish claims, inflating his chest as much as possible, and Hanasian’s face registered surprise.
”So, you were recruited by Khule?” he asked and Dorghat was only too pleased to describe the series of glorious events that led to him becoming brothers with the Black Company of Arnor in halting Westron.
”And where is Khule and your unit now?” Videgavia inquired, struggling with the tender years of the boy’s face. He couldn’t be more than fifteen.
Dorghat readily reported all he had scouted out since setting forth, eager to demonstrate that he was a Company man, one of them.
”He could be a plant,” Molguv pointed out and Morcal and Sticks frowned at each other.
”He could. Or he could be genuine,” Mecarnil replied.
They spoke in rapid Westron and it was difficult for Dorghat to follow. Not, however, for the Company Healer who arrived positively bristling. Her network of female Company members, informally dubbed the Black Cats, had informed her and she found precisely the sort of scene that made her blood boil. Or, it would have had her blood not already been simmering at a rapid pace. Warriors, fearsome looking ones to a civilian’s eyes, dripping with weapons and doubts, ringed a boy not old enough to sprout downy whiskers. His eyes were wide and his head swivelled back and forth on a thin stalk of a neck as he desperately tried to understand. His expression wavered between hopeful and frightened in equal measures.
”What is this, then? Interrogating children?”
“Oh, just what we need. Champion of the trod upon, crusading to another rescue,” Molguv stated, crossing his arms over his chest.
”This is a military matter, Doc. Stand down,” Videgavia ordered with a reasonable expectation that she’d ignore him.
”The hell I will, Vid – the boy can barely stand. Just LOOK at his feet!”
“I man,” the boy protested meekly, utterly amazed by the sudden appearance of a woman that seemed to be made of ice she was so very pale to him.
Then he glanced down at his feet, bloody and torn because his boots had fallen apart on him many miles ago. Yes, they were painful, but he was Black Company and he was equal to all his brothers required of him. Hanasian’s gaze met Rin’s and something there sizzled a long moment. Videgavia had not missed the stunned expression on Dorghat’s face. Fifteen, he was the perfect age… Videgavia signalled a crafty idea to Hanasian, whose brows rose as he considered it. Then he nodded and stepped to one side.
”Tend to him, Rin,” Hanasian ordered and Rin stepped forward to do so.
She crouched by the boy, coaxed him to sit and set to work. The men standing about exchanged knowing looks over their heads. The boy did anything, absolutely anything she asked, unable to tear his eyes from her. If she had of asked him to leap the moon, he would have died trying. A fifteen year male was prime fodder for infatuation regardless of which land he called home, and older women were irresistible to such lads. Rin spoke with Dorghat as she worked, choosing simple words that he could grasp across the language divide. She extracted how far he had travelled, how many other brothers like him were out there, and whether Khule had any companions still with him.
As she commenced bandaging his feet, she glanced in question up at Hanasian who nodded with implicit understanding of her query.
”You’re a strong young man, Dorghat. You will be on your feet again in a week. Will you ride with us until then?”
Dorghat’s eyes shone as he nodded. Sticks collected up the boy and carried him into camp, trailed by Morcal. Rin remained crouched to gather up her gear while a rapid-fire discussion took place over her head.
”The city, it’s where Khule is making for. He has too… over one hundred mouths to feed now, he needs supplies,” Molguv stated.
”Won’t the rohhirim be pleased to learn that over one hundred Easterlings have been signed up to their Company,” Belegost said.
Videgavia waved that aside for the moment, ”Word is the city has fallen, though. One hundred or three, he’ll need support.”
”But it does the Black. We need to replenish our own materiel anyway. And, if the city has fallen, the situation will be grim for those within. Order, safety and healers…Rin, are your Ducklings up to it?” Hanasian asked, voice perfectly modulated and strictly professional.
Rin stowed the last of her stuff and stood in their midst.
”As ready as they can be made. They know how to operate now, and the Company knows how to operate around them,” she replied in kind – just as impassive.
That night there was a larger Company meet where the strategy for the city was formed up. They would enter from two sides, north and south, to pursue their varied objectives. Key was finding more supplies and Khule. If opportunity arose to flush out rebels, support loyalists or assist the civilian populace they would take that as well. Rin got to her feet and strode into the darkness, muttering something about patients, after the discussion concluded. Mecarnil was waiting for her and nearly took ten years off her life when he spoke in the darkness.
”Rin, make it right again.”
“What are you trying to do? Scare me to death?”
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes. I would if I could. The milk is spilt and there’s not a damn thing I can do to undo it all.”
He heard her expel a weary breath.
”Look, Rin, I don’t wish to interfere in your life. But the thing is, tomorrow a dart could find you or Hanasian and then where would you be?”
“But it was years ago! I can’t go back in time, Mec.”
Another sigh and she grudgingly furnished scant bones of the Edoras matter.
”That’s it? That’s all? Woman, he knows already.”
“Yes, I know,” rumbled a familiar and much loved voice in the darkness behind her and Rin lost another ten years off her life.
”It’s not how it seems. I’m not a traitor, we weren’t agents for Rhun. I- I’m going to throttle that man when I see him again. I don’t see why the Company rules don’t apply to me.”
“Rosmarin, I am not here as your commanding officer. I did not ask as your commanding officer. I simply wish to know the woman I have bound my life to.”
“But – if you know you might wish you had chosen otherwise, Hanasian.”
“Do you still doubt? How many times must I say it? Always and ever.”
“What do such words mean to me? What can they mean? Always? Ever? Permanence? Safety? Security? Illusions or, if real, ever denied to the likes of Loch and I.”
“Whose ring do you wear on your finger?”
“Then, woman, know this. There will come a time when you will know, in your heart, what such words mean because I will show you. We will build it. You will have it. I swear it. I swear it by sun and moon and stars. I swear it. Together, we will shape it, if you believe in me. Can you? Do you?”
“Yes… despite what you would hide from me. I believe, knowing there is much I may never know of you. Have you any idea how terrifying that is?”
“No, for you have been open and honest with me,” Rin confessed uncomfortably, ”What do you wish to know?”
“All of it, all of you. Only that.”
“Are you sure. Once it is said, it cannot be unsaid.”
“You must take the risk. Do you believe in me or not?”
“Oh, impossible man. That is unfair!”
“Yes, it is,” Hanasian agreed, heard her sigh and then felt her hand grasp his arm and draw him down to sit.
She spoke quietly, shy and reluctant. But she spoke, peeling away at events he never imagined at. Some made him smile in the nights. Other’s stole his breath and made his eyes sting. Hers had not been an easy path by any measure and never before had she displayed so much trust as she was now as she whispered in his ear, warm breath against his cheek. After a while, he softly placed a finger over her lips. She was near enough that he could map out the panes of her face, or knew them so well now that his mind filled in the details.
”Enough, love,” he whispered to her and felt her lower her head to his shoulder. They sat that way for a long while, in silence, as the Company slept around them, and then crept to their own rolls divided no longer.
The following morning saw the Company ready for the city and two very happy individuals floated about hither and thither. Molguv rolled his eyes and Babble muttered under his breath how it just wasn’t fair. One of the Black Cats caught his glance in her direction and flashed him an entirely unpleasant, hair raising smile. When Babble blanched, the woman looked over at her companion and chortled in a fetching girlish manner completely at odds with their martial appearance.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
The move toward the city should have been easy. But just because the rebels had been surprised by Khule’s arrival, and didn’t expect the loyal Guards raiding from the south, and with their initial contact with the main Company on the east side of the wood, still they managed to slip the pocket they had found themselves in. Their position had become tenuous at best, roughly being shaped like a thumb pointing south. Had Khule and the main Company had some communication that day, the better part of the rebellious armies of the northern clans could have been surrounded and eventually forced to surrender. But communication was nil, and the arriving Gondorian infantry was only then relieving the Company. Khule’s Easterling Company was in an uncertain position, unaware of the strength of the northern rebels or what may be taking place in the east, and opted to move into the abandoned city.
It had only been by chance that Dorghat managed to work his way around the north side of the main rebel army. In his quest to gain information for Runner and Khule, he found he was unable to get back east and so avoided capture by moving west until he ran into the Company. There were two schools of thought on whether Dorghat allowed himself be caught by Morcal, or if he was actually snared by the Southron. Only Dorghat knew for sure, and he refused to shed any light on it.
Once the Company had disengaged and turned their position to Gondor’s infantry, they prepared to move east toward the city. But delays in getting shifted set them back a day. It would be the early morning of the next day that the full Company could move out. They took Dorghat with them. He said he knew a good route, and though some did not wish to trust him, Hanasian reminded Morcal that he wasn’t trusted when he was brought in either. Hanasian decided to give the youth a chance to show his worth. He after all considered himself a Company Man and Hanasian wasn’t going to judge decisions made in the field by Khule. There was likely a good reason for this, and it was up to them to catch up with the Eastern Detachment, as Khule, Loch, Berlas, and Wulgof were known as by the old Company.
Hanasian, in a hope he could get word to Khule, called a small group that happened to be around him at the moment together. He said, ”So we will trust the word of Dorghat and he will lead a few of our men into the city in hopes to find Khule. Morcal, you will go with him, as will Frea, Donius, Ravenclaw, and Flint. Wait… Donius you stay.”
Rin came walking up to see what was being discussed, and Hanasian said to her, ”Rin, I need one of your medics to go with Frea. They will be going into the city. Who do you suggest?”
“I think Two Bells will be best," Rin answered without hesitation.
Hanasian said, ”Have Two Bells report here now. Frea, you keep two eyes and two ears out for anything that looks off. Evade, don’t engage, and try and get to the Prefect’s Palace. Hopefully one of our men will be around who knows you. Wear your emblems, and have a small standard ready. If the rest of these men Khule has under his command are as willing to join us as Dorghat, then it will be well with us. We’ll trust the boy to get you in.”
Two Bells came up and Rin said, ”You’re attached to Frea’s Company. Get your field kit and be ready to move.”
Two Bells shuffled off silently and it was not long before they were ready. They set off with Dorghat in the lead. He was followed closely by Morcal, and then Frea who mapped the way. Two Bells followed, with Ravenclaw watching the rear. They were inside the city by nightfall.
Khule’s Company maintained a strong rearguard as they rolled down the rebel line. Slowly the men pulled back, but a few remained, ready to take up position as soon as the rebels moved forward. However there was no pursuit. Instead, Khurg ordered a general withdrawal to the north to solidify his line against the combined forces of Khule and the western Company. Khule realized this and ordered the Easterlings to maintain their front north of the city under command of Wulgof and Berlas as his second. Meanwhile, Khule and Loch, along with some of the original dozen and some of the loyal Guards, sought out the Prefect’s Guards who remained at the Palace.
The city was abandoned for the most part. But signs of life were crawling out of their hiding places. Mostly women and children, and they scrounged for whatever food they could find on the dead soldiers of both sides. Flies had already swarmed in on the bodies and Loch for a moment felt his stomach become queasy.
He said to Khule. ”If I get killed, I don’t want to end up like this.”
Khule looked about and said, ”Don’t worry Kid, the Company looks after their own. “
“But there can be those situations where we can’t get to the fallen,” Loch said in his quasi philosophical manner.
Khule answered, ”Don’t get killed. Then you don’t have to worry about it. Make the other man worry about it. Now quit thinking about it or it will eat you up. Now, what do you think of Runner and his band of merry fleet feet?”
Loch thought a moment about it and said, ”I can relate to them. Having to grow up sooner than they should. I think they will be the most loyal of the bunch.”
“Aye, that’s what I was thinking too.”
A fire was burning in the street not far from the Prefect’s palace. People stood about it and one was heard to say that it would be a cold night coming. If the weather turned now before much more was settled, things would be hard for all involved. Even now as the sun set, a deep chill could be felt on the breath of the wind.
The guard came out to greet them and reported the day had been quiet there; no sign of the rebels. Khule explained that they had withdrawn to the north. It was then that Loch spotted Dorghat moving between buildings. A guard also saw him and another.
”Who goes there?” the guard challenged
Dorghat disappeared behind some rubble and the others moved low and slow. Khule set out forward and Loch stepped in behind him. A few of the original twelve followed, swords ready. Khule called out into the fading twilight, watching as the flickering light of flames danced about the ruins.
”I know you are there. Be you friend of Gondor and the Company, show yourself!”
Dorghat looked at Frea knowingly and Frea smiled. Never thought he would be happy to hear Khule’s voice again.
Frea stood and said, pale hair gleaming in the torchlight, ”We are the Company. Come looking for you!”
Khule too smiled, the Company had come! Loch saw Dorghat and said, ”I see you got one of our boys there with you! I think his commander will be pleased to know he yet lives.”
“We’re coming in.”
Khule signalled to the guard that it was their men and the guards seemed to relax slightly. As Frea’s group came forth, Khule saw that other than Dorghat, Morcal and two others in Company insignia accompanied Frea. One was a complete stranger and the other was the vaguely familiar but not as Company.
”This is it? Where’s the Company?” Khule asked as he looked Two Bells over.
Frea said as they shook hands, ”There has been a lot of changes since you left. We recruited well over a hundred new heads, but attrition and our first battles with the rebels have reduced that number to ninety. The rest of the Company will be tomorrow likely. I see you did some recruiting of your own.”
He looked at Dorghat, who stood proud as he listened to the meeting of two Company brothers.
”You could say that I guess. It was unintentional, it just worked out in our favour,” Khule said, also looking at Dorghat.
Frea asked, ”So what is your situation? We had contact with some faction and the road was a tough one with the Easterling guards either welcoming us or fighting us.”
Come and rest,” Khule said, ”We are setting up across the street from the palace. It’s the best place not wrecked other than the palace, but the palace guards seem to be adamant not to let anyone in there.”
Frea nodded and said to Two Bells, ”See if any of these people need your services. Set up a ward somewhere. We’ll bring you some food.”
Khule motioned to a couple of the original twelve to help out and the rest gathered in the main floor of the building next door. Runer had come when he heard that Dorghat was back and the night for them was spent in relative comfort. But for those holding the line, it was a miserable night, for it was cold, and a light rain started to fall.
”So who’s first?” Frea inquired as they gathered around a welcome fire.
The drip of the rain outside made him consider Folca a moment and then grin because cold and rain never failed to put a dint in his brother's imperturbable cheery facade.
”You, since you’re so damn happy,” Khule replied, ”Who're the strangers?”
“That's Ravenclaw…and the young one I sent off is one of Doc’s new medics. Not healers, of course, but the next best thing to one. Got three of them now.”
“How’s Rin?” Loch inquired, eager for news given that he’d not seen her for months.
”Same as ever and I tell you, Kid, you’d better start running now.”
“She knows you told. The rest you can figure out for yourself,” Frea informed him with a wide grin.
Loch withdrew to chew that over and to see, if all else failed, whether he could lay low with Runner’s troop until the heat died down. Maybe a few years. While Frea and Khule exchanged information on the disposition of each arm of the expanded Company, Ravenclaw saw to getting food organised. Warm food would make a welcome change from the cold rations they’d been subsisting on for weeks, especially on a night like this one. He ventured out to locate Bells and was directed to a ramshackle room that was large and poorly lit. Bells was trying to remedy that and Ravenclaw could see he’d been busy weatherproofing it as well. A few people lay within, dwarfed by the size of the room and making the ratio border on absurdity.
”Expecting more business?” Ravenclaw enquired as he ventured in, skirting a puddle as he went.
Bells glanced over his shoulder, nails in his mouth and a hammer poised in his hand. The sight of food, warm food, gave the young medic the necessary incentive to finish boarding over a gaping hole in the wall above the rear window. A few rapid thumps, the clatter of a hammer being discarded, and Ravenclaw was soon left standing with one metal plate in hand.
”Thanks,” Bells said moments later, voice muffled by the food in his mouth.
”Don’t mention it. Seriously, this room is huge…and I passed at least four that had better walls.”
“We’ll need those too, make sure they know that out there.”
Ravenclaw expelled a breath and glanced at the three men Bells had already placed inside the cavern. He shook his head. Ravenclaw stood to go and Bells hastened to his feet, still chewing.
”Before you leave, could you help me with something?”
“Sure,” the larger man answered and Bells grinned in a way that made Ravenclaw wish he hadn’t decided to be so agreeable.
By the time Ravenclaw emerged, missing both his cloak and his spare cloak, he had a head full of information that had to be relayed to whoever was heading back to the Company and a damp chill in his bones that he believed would not leave until Spring.
”How’s he doing in there?” Frea asked as he returned to the fire.
”Fine, just fine. Someone going back to the Company? I got a skin full of messages from Bells for Doc.”
“Bells can tell her himself when they arrive tomorrow. Where’s your cloak?”
Ravenclaw growled something under his breath and chafed his hands in front of the flames, ”They’re all the same, you realise. Mad, cantankerous, argumentative, demand the clothes off your back and the sun from the sky.”
“Aye…and they hold your life in their hands when you can’t and give it back to you when you can again, no price demanded. If they want the sun, they can have it. If you tell Doc I said that, I’ll break your neck.”
Khule grunted agreement and Loch chortled from where he was stationed with Runner’s group. Dorghat’s tales of the Black Company transfixed the young men. Amazed, Runner turned to Loch and asked if it was true that the Company recruited women too.
Loch nodded and tapped his chest proudly, ”Aye, my sister was their first and only. My sister, mind you, so careful what you say Dorghat.”
“No, there more now,” Dorghat interrupted and stared at his fingers as he did a mental tally, ”There eight now.”
“Eight?! HEY FREA, are there more women in the Company now?”
“Aye,” Frea replied, winking at Khule as Loch let out a great whoop of delight and continuing with, ”As I said, Khule. A great deal has changed since you lot took off.”
Those outside had an uncomfortable night and there was no difficulty getting everyone going early. The light rain broke just before dawn only to return with greater fury an hour afterwards. If marching was unpleasant at the best of times, in the cold rain it was miserable. Donius earned himself not one but two kisses, one for each cheek, when he rigged up cover for those in the wagons unable to walk. He flushed bright in the watery light as the Company Healer spun away, calling a flurry of instruction out to her remaining two medics. One the wagons started trundling, the Company began moving out through the dreary day.
”We have to get this mess cleared up before winter hits,” Videgavia called from his sodden hood across to where Hanasian rode.
They reached the city walls, dilapidated if compared to the brilliance of the White City, just after midday. Sitting cross-legged on a large boulder by the road was a figure in a weatherproofed cloak. Rain, fat cold drops, spattered onto his hood and shoulders. The outriders whistled a warning back to the column behind them and held up their hands, suspicious and wary. The figure lifted his head slightly and weighed the sight before him on the trail. Four drenched and mud splattered men on wet horses that flicked rain from their ears with ill concealed rancour and stamped their feet, demanding to be on their way to a stable somewhere. Foldine, Folca, and two he didn’t know. Gondorians, by the look of them.
”Well…you could probably use a bath by now, but I would have thought you preferred warmer stuff than this,” the figure said.
Foldine squinted through the rain. All he could see beneath the hood was a straggly, unkempt sandy beard.
”Have you anything useful to tell us, Kid?”
“I been working on that for ages! Anyway, streets are secure. You’ll find us adjacent to the Prefect’s Palace. They’re expecting you and I already ate all the hot, fresh food and drank all the ale.”
With that, Loch was off his boulder and capered back through the gates like a mad, sodden, puppet, slipping and sliding on the mud. Folca scratched at his jaw and issued the all clear and move on signal. Foldine muttered into his beard. The other two recruits, a woman called Nets for a reason no one understood and Sticks glanced at each other.
”Who was that?” Sparks inquired.
”Company Jester,” Folca answered.
”If that toad has eaten all the food, I’ll hang him by his heel and use him for target practice,” Foldine grumbled.
”He was joking, surely. An entire city’s food and ale?” Nets demurred.
”Jester and Gut,” Folca clarified and kicked his horse forward and through the gates.
The scene inside was one the veterans had expected. It was grim and one they had seen before too many times. Most paid it no heed, braced themselves against it. The rain and chill did something to lessen the stench of decay but it could not abate it entirely. Bodies lay where they had fallen. Rin was singularly horrified and she became rigid in her saddle. The spectre of disease raised its deathly head and she kicked her horse forward as far as she could because there were things that needed to be seen to immediately. As a result, she rode straight past Loch, was out of her saddle and off in search of Bells before anyone else had dismounted. Sparks and Rocks were forced to scurry after her, packs bouncing as they rushed off. The rest of the Company was more orderly. They pulled up, dismounted, unloaded and filed off where they were directed to, perfectly content to be out of the saddle and the rain. The wagons pulled up and those within were unloaded in the large room Bells had earmarked. Rin paused on her way out again to inspect the direction of traffic. Momentarily satisfied that was in order, she went in search of Hanasian and Videgavia and anyone else she could find in charge.
She found the two men hunkered down with Khule and already in deep conversation around a fire that had been lit in a metal drum of some sort. Khule nodded at her and the conversation paused.
”Yes?” Videgavia inquired and she wasted no time.
”Those bodies have to be properly disposed immediately. I need a detail.”
“There is an entire city out there, Rin. We don’t have the manpower for that right now.”
“I need that detail, Vid. As simple as that.”
“Can it wait?”
Rin wiped her hands over her wet face, searching for some way to convey the urgency of the situation, ”It already has and too long, judging from what we saw on the way in. How much time have we got? I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re out of it already. I won’t know until the first case presents, and then that will become a tide and we will have a plague on our hands and four or four thousand healers will not be enough!
“I need that detail! And quicklime…and shovels… That, or we camp outside the walls – several miles away and to the north, given the force of the prevailing winds of late. And food, it could be tainted. Supplies here will need to be checked. I need that detail!”
With that she spun away and was out in the rain again rounding up men for the unpleasant but necessary task. By nightfall, the immediate area around the Prefect’s Palace had been cleared out and the causalities from Khule’s detachment had arrived for treatment. Bells’ selection of the large room was proven well founded. Time blurred and became indistinct the Ducklings and Rin. Word spread fast that healers were in the city, near the Palace. In the hour before midnight, the first civilian arrived and they spilled over into the other rooms that Bells had requisitioned. Civilians were kept away from military personnel. Any spare cloth was used to section each room, strung up as makeshift curtains to shield the majority of the room from the sight of what went on behind it. In public, they were calm, decisive, organised and in control. Behind that curtain, they were human again as they struggled their way through the initial onslaught. It was terrifying and exhilarating both. There were victories; particularly poignant when an old Palace Guard shuffled in with what appeared to be a mushroom which he said would remedy anyone still suffering the effects of the poisoned darts. He was right, and Bells actually capered about between the stretchers in sheer relief as Sparks clapped out a lively rhythm. There were defeats as well. The worst was a breach birth that Rin just could not save. Too late a frightened child of six had brought in her mother. Their father, as it turned out, had perished along with many of the loyal Palace guards. Just before dawn, the child had lost her mother and an infant brother as well.
Rin sat outside the room, numb and exhausted, staring at the wall of the Palace across the way. Someone had left a chair there. Her hands rested limp on her thighs and there was blood to her elbows and all down her torso. It was quite now, the worst of the initial set up done. Rocks led the child out, glancing at Rin as he passed. A few words passed between Rocks and one of the other Palace guards that had kept a vigil outside. The man placed a gnarled, battle scarred hand on the child’s back and led her away. Rock’s turned back to consider Rin. She hadn’t blinked or moved a muscle aside from her jaw, which she clenched tighter, and tighter. Unlike the rest of them, she’d been working straight since early the morning before. One of the things that could be done behind the makeshift curtains was sleep and she had bullied all three of them into it.
”You should clean up, get some rest,” he said, pitching his voice so that she could hear it and listening to it echo off the stones around them.
No response, so he started forward and tried to pull her up out of her chair. He got a response that time, but it was not helping things. Rocks stepped back, head canted and weighing up what to do next when she abruptly stood and shouldered past him. He returned to the ward and got back to business while Sparks and Bells snored behind their curtains. Rin found Hanasian hunched over by a candle, pouring through reports and scratching out notes. They’d taken what had once been a hall of some sort as barracks and around men and women snored, dry, reasonably well fed, warm. She didn’t say a word but something made Hanasian look up from his study. Gone was the mask. Absent was the control. Fragile, distraught, exhausted and lost now. Silently he stood and drew her further in. The slightest pressure on her shoulders and she sat suddenly. He rummaged through his packs for cloths and began cleaning away the clotted blood she was covered in. As he worked, she closed her eyes. Her shirt was ruined and he peeled it from her. The chain mail she wore beneath gleamed in the candlelight.
”Too much. You do too much,” he murmured, thinking she was asleep.
”I serve,” she replied, words slurred around the edges by her fatigue, ”As I swore I would.”
“A little moderation, every once in a while, is that too much to ask?”
No answer then, because she had fallen asleep sprawled against him. He gathered her up, reached for his papers and continued working until morning proper came. He left her to sleep through breakfast. By lunch he had left with a small patrol to get a direct look at the northern line himself. By mid afternoon she was up again and back at her work in a shirt she had borrowed from his pack. The rain had abated, but clouds hung heavily overhead. Hanasian stood on what passed as the northern walls of the city and studied the sight before him. He could see the Company standard that Wulgof and Berlas had raised. Further ahead, a darker mass on the horizon.
”They’re massing,” Khule observed from beside him.
”Where’s Khor in all this?” Videgavia asked and Khule shook his head.
”No word to be had of him. Could be he’s there, or not. The Sagath are…divided.”
“Nothing new, in other words,” Hanasian said quietly.
”Nothing new,” Khule affirmed.
”We need fresh information; numbers and factions. Else we’re fighting blind,” Videgavia said.
”Aye, it’s time the Black got on with the business we know best,” Hanasian said as he turned away from the horizon and started back down the stairs at a jog, ”Company meet tonight – inner core only. Spread the word. Khule, bring Wulgof and Berlas back for it.”
“Aye, Cap,” Videgavia and Khule said in unison.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
It was the first time since Minas Tirith that the Company was together in one spot. The ‘Old Crew’ as they referred to themselves now. Hanasian, on Loch’s recommendation, had Runner and his messengers be the watch around the room where they met. Their youthfulness had set them apart in their extreme loyalty and enthusiasm, so who else would be better to have as a guard? Outside, a handpicked dozen of Khule’s Easterlings and the new Company of Minas Tirith were set in position, and the rest were bivouacked on opposite sides of the Prefect’s Palace. The Palace Guard held steady around the palace and the other Easterling units held the front line north of the city.
Hanasian looked about at the eighteen faces and gave a slight smile.
”It has been a long time since we all gathered, or so it seems. It is good to see you all here this night.”
He looked at each in the eyes for a moment. The Company had changed so much in such a short time. If only this small crew was the Company still, the course of action from here would be dramatically different than what was to come. But with the Easterling corps that Khule brought in, and the Gondor corps that Videgavia recruited on the advice of the King, they had nearly a hundred and fifty members now. Before the fighting commenced for them, they were near two hundred.
Hanasian said, ”You are the core of the Company, and though some have not been with us much longer than all the new recruits from Gondor and Rhun, you were in on your own merits. There will be things we here will be the only ones to know for now. Those of the new Companies that show themselves to be trustworth will be brought in.
“There are already a few who have shown their worth. If any of you have any who you think are worthy of more development in the Company, then come speak to me about them. Unfortunately most will be just grunts, and will likely be casualties when we move. So you will need to take the necessary precautions for any you take to.”
Hanasian started to walk around, looking at the members. His wife sat on a barrel, oddly enough wearing her chain mail. She seemed distracted, her concerns were elsewhere, but she rested while she could.
He shook hands with Videgavia, one of the veterans of their last Rhun campaign. Loch leaned against a pillar, moving a small knife about in his hand with exacting control. The kid looked like a veteran already. A nod he gave when he looked up to see Hanasian looking at him. Wulgof sat next to him, and Berlas next to Wulgof. They seemed to have made some unspoken bond having had come east before the rest. Khule sat alone, already thinking of who out of his company he would like to see live. Next were the Southrons… Mulgov and Morcal, and clustered by the fire were the Rohirrim. Frea, Folca, and Foldine sat and in the flickering orange light they looked similar. The Rangers stood apart slightly, relatively relaxed in their charge for the heir of Cardolan in their midst. Mecarnil and Farbarad eyed just about everyone outside this group with suspicion, but within this group there was no such doubt.
Belegost, the engineer brothers Donius and Daius, Bear, Anras, and Belegost sat around in an arc that brought Hanasian back to Rosmarin. She looked up at him, and unspoken words with an embrace of shadow went between them. He paused and wondered if he still had what it took to do this. He wanted to right then run off west with his love, leaving the rugged life of the Company behind. Maybe when this was done. Maybe… he turned and stepped up onto a large block
”I know it is hard to know them, but try and know their nicknames. I want to record their deeds in the histories. Khule, if you can get the names of those who had fallen in your Company before we linked up, it will be appreciated. I think the others would like to know they are remembered. Vid has done pretty well with the new recruits from Gondor.
Now, the plan. The Gondor regulars will push against the rebels to the north, and with the pressure on, they will likely retreat somewhat. There is rumour that King Bard II has sent his son, Prince Bain II with an army east into Rhovanion to hold the Easterling rebels from moving west. But there are always rumours in war. If it true, it will be a blessing. If not, the Gondor army will hold and squeeze. The horsemen of Rohan and the loyal Easterling Gondor legion will assist them in this. Our job is to deal with the as-yet unknown situation in the east….”
Khule cut in as he stood, ”It is not unknown. Khor is out there and he likely has an army of some strength. But my brother is at best unpredictable and plays his hand close. It was how he was even when we were under Mordor’s command.”
Hanasian let him finish before continuing.
”I was getting to that. Videgavia told me it was the area that concerned the King before he sent the four of you out. It is what we will continue to do now. We go the early morning the day after tomorrow. There will be an attack against the rebels by the Gondor regulars and we will form the right flank of that force. The Gondor legion will be with us and they will press ahead while we slide off to the east as darkness comes. So there will be a hard day of fighting, as this will not be anything easy. It will be a full infantry assault, and with it will come death, wounds, and confusion. We will need to try and keep our core together as best we can.
“Bear, you will be hold back with some of Runner’s kids to get enough supply for a week moved east. The men going forward will carry their usual supply for three days. We will be reduced in numbers when we break, but how much will depend on several unanswerable variables. Now, you all get some rest, and get me the names of those you want to look after to me tomorrow.“
Hanasian walked over to Rin and took her hand. There was little else they could do for those in this city. It will be up to the local guard.
”Come my Love, let us get some rest too.”
She slid down off the barrel, her mail clinking somewhat. As much as he wanted to, he didn’t ask her why she was wearing it this night.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
The meeting did not end simply because the Captain had departed with the Company Healer. In fact, their absence meant that another matter could be dealt with. It did not take long because all within the room were in agreement. The Captain and Healer could and would do what they could to look after others. Better to instruct the sun to stay abed or the stars to turn their faces than to attempt to suggest to either individual otherwise. By the time the meeting properly concluded, they had agreed that come what may, two people would emerge on the other side if it were the last thing those gathered accomplished. They had agreed something else as well…the less said of their arrangement the better, lest either one take exception to it as one or the other were likely to do.
Hanasian’s hand was warm around her own, strong and steady. They walked the area that the combined Company now occupied, each quiet with their own thoughts. Rin’s mind shied onto something new every time she tried to settle it. She was distracted, knew it and little liked it.
”Your mind is so busy I can hear it ticking like a hobbit’s fobwatch.”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Rin replied and he smiled, because it was true and because she was deflecting him.
They walked a little way further, nodding at those who acknowledged their passing. So much galloping through her mind, she scarce knew where to begin. Battle, real battle. Different to anything she had experienced before. Bigger, more frightening. How to prepare for that? How to prepare for the fact that there would be people that would be dead for no other reason than she could not reach them in time. It would be bigger than any strife she had encountered prior to the Company, bigger than Tharbad or Harad. She felt overwhelmed by it and she knew now was not the time for the Company Healer to get a bad case of the jitters. She had three medics and the entire weight of the Company depending on her to have a steady hand, a cool head. She had no way of knowing if she would be equal to what would come. The sheer unknown enormity of it was, frankly, terrifying.
”Medics and Cats,” she said, murmuring really.
”The title of your Black Company diary?” Hanasian inquired, squeezing her hand and spotting a brief smile illuminate her features.
”No, those I want to get through. The Ducklings, the Cats…and as many as possible. All of them.”
“Ah, well, no small feat then. Rin, you understand that it is inevitable that everyone will not get through.”
“Yes, but I do not have to like it. I know we will try our best and that for some, it will not be enough.”
For a night that was to be restful, their conversation was taking a decidedly unsettling slant. And she hadn’t even gotten to the bottom of what had set her mind spinning like a top. They had to hop over a puddle and when she landed, her chain mail made a distinct jingling noise. Oh, she hated that noise! And it rubbed despite the padded undershirt, dug into places she rather it didn’t, and weighed her down. Hanasian glanced down at her mail discreetly, and again decided not to say anything. She knew he wondered, though. It was too early to say anything. Such things were always uncertain so early on and they were hardly in an ideal setting. She could be wrong too. However, perhaps there was a way to broach something important, and related.
”My love, do you recall Henneth-Annun?”
“Frequently, more than once a day,” he murmured, lips brushing her ear and making her shiver as a result.
”Ahhh,” damn her scattered thoughts, ”Remember how we agreed that we would know when it was time to go West?”
“Of course...” Hanasian replied, his mind now spinning because what if she said that time was now?
”I think we know,” Rin continued, cautiously scanning his expression and finding it guarded.
“Yes…after Rhun. Do you not sense it?”
“Ah, yes. Of course… Are…are you certain it is not now?’
“It seems right to wait until after this, else we would abandon them mid campaign and I do not know if I could ever forgive us for that. Could you?”
“I could not,” Hanasian said, both relieved and a little disappointed at the same time.
”Then, is that what we will do? After Rhun will we go…home?”
The way she shaped the word, the way her eyes had become deep blue pools, the hope that lit her face. He cupped her face in his hands, heedless of who might look on, and kissed her deeply.
”Yes, my love. We will go home after Rhun, by the fastest road and horse available.”
Rin stretched on her toes to kiss him soundly, relieved that at least this was in place. The rest would have to unfold, she would have to wait and hope for the best. Until she knew either way, she’d wear the damn chain mail regardless of how it caught at her hair and yanked strands from her scalp. And, tonight would be theirs and theirs alone. She took his hand and pulled him along towards their rest, their calm respite before the mighty storm that awaited them all.
News that the Black would be deploying and the disposition of its personnel were disseminated carefully and promptly amongst the wider Company. The night passed without incident, or at least incident that found its way to the Captain and Healer. The next day was predictably busy with preparations. Weapons, armour, gear, immediate supplies checked and re-checked. For Rin, in addition to all this she saw to arranging the care for those still in the makeshift wards that would not be coming with them. It was an important responsibility and one that required considered judgement.
It would prove to be an uneasy night for most of them and Hanasian or Rin proved no exception. They moved out prior to dawn, during the darkest period of the night, and were in position as planned arrayed along the side of the units that would assist them to push forward and fade east under the mantle of battle confusion. It was an ambitious gambit. Rin glanced to Loch. He had a white knuckled grasp on the Standard and the tension in his shoulders told her that he was as nervous as she was even if he didn’t look ready to run screaming for safety. He kept rubbing at his jaw. She knew it was his tell. He was worried.
Rin swept her eyes over the Company’s many faces and names, until her eyes rested on Hanasian. They had said their words in private, away from everyone else. Oh she loved him so. There had to be hope, and for her he was it. He would get them through. Then the horns that signalled the start of the attack split the dawn. It had begun and shortly thereafter, the world as she knew it broke apart. The sound as those on the front engaged was like nothing she had ever heard before. Savage, ferocious, steel, screaming men, thumping on shields, the hiss and whistle of spears and arrows, the shriek of pain, the terrible wet sound of bodies collapsing. Yet, in what seemed to be utter chaos, there were threads of order and even logic.
The Company moved in unison, pushing forward with those around them. Momentum was the key. It was like a bloody dance, on a floor crowded with the dead and the dying. It was the most terrible thing she had ever seen and the scale of it was monumental. And through this, somehow, she and her medics had to ply their trade. Impossible! Just impossible, or so she thought until she saw the first one go down, and then there was no time for thought. There was only action.
The Rohirrim were singing, voices fell and bright with battle lust as they fought and slew. Loch’s laughter told the Company around him that his bloodlust had taken him. The fighting was intense around the Standard and he was in the thick of it. Hanasian, Videgavia and Molguv divided their attention between directing those around them and waging their own battle. Medics and one healer darted, weaving in and around and in between and delivering punishment to any rebel who sought to target one they had tended. Still, for all that, there were losses as Hanasian had told them there would be. Rowdy, Nets, Stillwater all fell that day.
By mid afternoon, they had crept their way forward and now only had to maintain position until darkness fell. The rebels would not permit them to remain untested and so even this was punishing. Time blurred, the hours stretched and time and again Rin would look for Hanasian and he for her. The dread abated somewhat and the battle dragged on. Later in the afternoon, the rebels tried their hand at a particularly cunning tactic calculated to unnerve and unhinge the Black Company. They began to target the women of the Company.
The tactic failed, partially because the Black Cats were most ferocious when cornered. The response the rebels earned from their targets took them by surprise, for the women were not the softer marks they had believed them to be. What is more, the Black Company men swiftly perceived the tactic and nothing could better galvanise them better. Thus, in the closing stages of the day, the fighting became vicious and savage despite the exhaustion of those who fought.
Blood was everywhere. It was on everyone, and stained the ground dark in the waning twilight. Hanasian had managed to keep the pressure on and it seemed the rebels thought the Company would be the focal point of the main attack. In this they were successful in that it allowed the Gondorians to push into their flank and inflict heavy casualties. For their part, the Company fared well, though not without loss. Of the old company, Anras was slain, as was his picked recruit Sandals. Donius suffered a wound to his arm yet fought on. Loch had a gash above his eye but it didn't seem to trouble him. It was his first battle scar to mark his young face. Belegost deflected a death blow down and seriously injured his foot.
Of the new Companies, the Gondorian recruits suffered the worst in the loss of their number. The Easterling Company fared better due to discipline and training, but still, they now numbered less than seventy. The Gondorian legion of Easterlings were not enthusiastic about the fight, but Wulgof and Khule with some others managed to prevent their retreat. They moved forward as the rebels began to yield. Hanasian seized the opportunity and began pushing his combined Companies towards the east. Part of the Gondorian company set themselves into defensive positions as rearguard under the command of Mulgov while the rest slid away in the darkness.
The Black finally stopped in a field two hours past midnight. The Easterling Company had gathered around Khule there and Hanasian knew that the Black was exhausted from the day’s battle and the protracted march afterwards. Defensive watches were set in all directions and many hoped that the rearguard would reach them soon. With the Company now largely at a standstill, Hanasian saw that Rin was diligently tending the wounded that required attention. Most were not life threatening injuries, but could become so if not properly dealt with when the opportunity arose. As a gamble, he sent east a small band of Easterlings, many of them Runner’s squad, led by Loch. Though they were boys, Hanasian and many of the others considered them men after their steadfast valour in battle. Berlas accompanied them as well and their orders were to probe east, watch and evade. Unless imminent death confronted them, the small band was not to engage in battle. Hanasian hoped they would return within a few hours.
For most of the others, it was time to rest, sleep, eat, sing, pray, talk or whatever gave them some comfort after the rigours they had endured. It was a day of days for the Black Company. Hanasian tapped Videgavia as he walked by.
"Look Vid, they are a company... all of them!"
Videgavia looked back over the field of shadows. Hanasian went on, "They were seen as the 'New Company’, the Easterling or the Gondorian Company. Now they mingle as one Company. It is something that being brothers in arms in battle does to one's soul. May they have peace of mind this night."
Videgavia took a harder look. Another page of the history of this Company has started.
The longer he waited, the harder this was going to be. Working side by side with her for months now, he was struggling to remain as detached as he needed to be. He was a professional. He knew that in order to perform his role he could not get attached to his target or his employers. The longer he spent, the harder it was to fight that grudging regard that threatened to bubble through. After the day that he had just had, and what he had seen, a genuine admiration had taken root. It had been battle, and he’d experienced their like before. But never as a medic, juggling the lives of others with your own at the same time. She had seemed utterly fearless, pressing in where the most sanguine of warriors would have hesitated without a backwards glance, working with flawless concentration. And, when their foes had started to target their fallen, such ferocity and valour had been unleashed and still more when they started to target the women of the Company later in the day.
It was impossible not find yourself respecting someone like that. Though she had seemed fearless, he knew from working so closely with her she had been as frightened as rabbit caught in a snare. It was natural, especially as the lives of her husband and brother hung in the balance with her own. That fear did not diminish his regard for her, however. It only served to feed it, because she had triumphed over it. The regard he felt towards his target extended more broadly to the wider Company, particularly those considered the ‘Old Company’. Not a single one in that number he would not be delighted to serve beside under different circumstances. The extent of the betrayal was starting to gnaw at his gut. No matter how he looked at it, it was a great mess and he had no clear idea how to extricate himself from it.
Just as he was starting to nod off on the back of such pleasant thoughts, someone tapped his shoulder and mentioned something about Belegost. He climbed to his feet and followed Foldine to where the soldier was sprawled. There was an interesting mix of men gathered around Belegost. Molguv joined Wulgof and Foldine and Belegost was not in a good way.
”I’ll be fine,” the man insisted as a shuttered lamp was uncovered to permit a fragile beam of light onto his mangled foot, ”Just some blood is all. “
“Blood, and half your damn foot man,” he answered, taken aback by the severity of the injury.
It was a marvel that his foot remained intact, given the angle of the injury.
”This is bad, Belegost…really bad….Doc needs to take a look at this.”
“She’s busy. You do it.”
“That’s the thing. I’m a medic….you need a healer…either Doc sees this now or she’ll be amputating later. Either way, she needs to see this.”
“I’ll go get her,” Wulgof said and disappeared into the night.
All he could do was compress the bleeding, because it wouldn’t do to have Belegost bleed out. How long had it been? How much blood had he already lost? Rin would ask him these things. There was a calculation that could be done, she said, based on the size of the person. The range of her knowledge was stupendous. She brushed it aside as just something that had to be. She had told him and the others that a healer working in remote locations had to have advanced knowledge of a range of matters in order to function effectively. He had no idea how she crammed all of into that head of hers and he was slightly in awe of it all. Wulgof returned just as he was working out the final calculations and, as he had predicted, she immediately demanded the information.
”Almost there,” he muttered, busy performing mental contortions and as per her usual self she did not the patience to wait and instead asked Belegost when he had taken the wound.
”Ah….well then, what the devil are you doing still conscious?” she answered, having snapped out the calculation in an instant.
”Sorry, Doc,” Belegost dutifully said, sounding sleepier by the moment.
”A little light, so I can get a visual map,” she asked, setting her hands on his ruined foot.
Foldine cracked open the shutter and if she was horrified she hid it behind that professional mask she said they needed to wear. He could see why. All three of the men were watching her expression like hawks, waiting for some sign of disaster. Instead, all they saw was cool control. She nodded and Foldine closed the shutter on the lamp.
”Won’t you need that for stitches,” Wulgof inquired, confused.
He knew, however, that stitches were not what she was going to do. Rin didn’t answer Wulgof. The task she was engaged in was extraordinarily complex. She’d tried to explain it to him once and it had bamboozled him utterly. There was only one way he knew how to elucidate it to others.
”She’s not stitching him up. She’s doing something…else.”
“What?” asked Foldine.
[Ii”Nearly impossible to explain…suffice it to say that what she is doing is the difference between us medics and a healer…and the difference between Doc and any other healer I ever met or heard of for the last two hundred years, give or take.”
“Whaever she’s doin’, it don’t hurt no more,”[/i] Belegost slurred.
He knew it was an elven technique that she had seized upon and then pushed into new bounds. Experimental, she had said, difficult. Brains were impossible, and the maze of hands, shoulders and knees almost so. Flesh too, given the network of muscles and ligaments and nerves and flesh to be knitted together. She had said it was knitting, but she didn’t use needles. It required an intricate knowledge of anatomy and the sort of skill that was rarely seen in mortals. For that reason, she had said she would happily part with one of her kidneys for the chance to study the principals of the elven technique from an Elf or, failing that, an elven library. Whatever she was doing, it was as remarkable as it was difficult to understand. For Belegost, he knew it likely saved his life. In field amputations rarely ended well. Best case, Belegost would never be able to soldier again and would be unable to walk unassisted. A man needed his toes for a great many things. Worst case, infection and gangrene would kill him in a slow, torturous, ignominious way.
The only sign that it was done came when Rin shifted position and removed her hands.
”Took longer than it should have, Belegost. I am sorry. I am just…tired…” she said.
Belegost, however was too addled by loss of blood and the remarkable thing that had just happened to him to respond. Rin, a shadow in the night with the faintest of starlight caught in the pale prism of hair not smothered in blood, pushed to her feet as she said she’d need to check in on him later. She managed to get no more than three steps when her legs melted beneath her. Wulgof was faster than he had expected and managed to catch the healer before she hit the ground hard.
”I got you, Doc...,” the Dunlending said kindly as he caught her weight.
Rin murmured something, her head falling to one side against Wulgof's shoulder as Molguv lent his aid. Together, they managed to walk the Company Healer back to where Hanasian had stretched out a bedroll beside his own. Hanasian stirred, having only just lay down himself to catch some rest.
”Too much again?” Hanasian drowsily asked as the two men disengaged themselves from their Captain's wife
”Wouldn't be Rin, otherwise, right Cap?” Wulgof asked as Molguv pulled up the blanket over her.
"Probably not," Hanasian agreed.
Bone tired, he pulled close and was relieved that Rin showed some sign of awareness as she nestled in. If she had truly exhausted herself, he'd have to lash her to her saddle in a few hours. Hardly a desirable state of affairs given their current status. Rin managed to wind herself around him, clinging to him fiercely. That she could, after what she had witnessed, was a wonder in itself. Though they were both bruised body and soul, and covered in the grime of battle, he was warm and whole and alive. A wonder, a marvel, her hope made flesh. Never would she let him go again.
It was shortly before dawn before Loch’s scouting party returned with little to say except that the lands seemed sparsely populated and no military activity had been sighted. But nor had any trace of Khor been uncovered.
On a ship, far to the east, a cowled figure stirred after many hours spent still and quiet.
”Could it be as simple as this?” he whispered and glanced at another woman who had been restrained for her own safety and that of others.
”Old blood…powerful blood…coming to us…No need for us to…I had thought he had no kin, but now there can be no mistake. A healing, outright, and a mortal…royal blood, untainted. Could he be so unwise to send such a one to us, or has our obfuscation been more successful than we could hope for?”
Outside the cabin, another heard this and wondered at what he had unleashed in acceding to his shadow’s counsel… and how it might be blocked. The Order could not be permitted to restore their mad priestess. It would mean the ruin of civilisations on both shores. Yet, he had no men of art to set against them. He himself was just a soldier… and history was clear. Against the Order of the Blue Wizards, even the descendants of Numenor could not hope to prevail…
Loch was distressed. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Yes, they scouted thoroughly, and no, they had little to report. But it all just didn’t feel right. He should tell Hanasian, but he thought he would rest a bit and think it over. He was quite tired after a battle then a long-range patrol. Something just wasn’t right. It was Runner who set it all in motion, waking Loch with word that one of their squad had not returned with them. It suddenly all made sense. Runner said he only knew the man for a short time, but had no reason to doubt his loyalty.
Loch said to Runner, ”You know, Dhorgat didn’t return either, and that worked out in our favor. Somehow, I don’t think this will end so well. Gut feeling. You must come with me to the Cap.”
Runner, always eager to be close to the core of the Company, followed Loch closely. He took the time to tell Loch that one of his men had a suspicion about one of the medics. Loch stopped and asked him more about this, but Runner didn’t have anything solid to offer. Still, Loch would remember, and thought he should keep a closer eye on his sister when he could. Right now, he was concerned about their missing man.
”Cap… I have a follow-up to my earlier report.”
Hanasian was writing, but set down his quill when Loch arrived. Rin was nowhere to be seen. Hanasian could see Loch was disturbed and said, ”Go on.”
Loch paused, then said, ”Runner here has reported that one of our number on patrol did not return with us.”
Hanasian said, ”You know men go missing all the time. Usually in battle, but on occasion on night patrol. Do you fear for his life? Or is there something more?”
Yes… well, no sir” Loch stammered, he went on, ”It’s my gut, sir… something doesn’t feel right.”
Hanasian had more than once relied on his gut in the past and there was no reason not to hear Loch out. He said, ”Tell me Kid, what is it you are feeling?”
Loch shifted his weight and Runner drew closer, not sure he should say anything yet. Loch went on, ”Well sir, it wasn’t so much that we saw or found nothing, but we should have. Whoever was out there, didn’t want to be seen or found, and left no sign. But things were too neat if you know what I mean. And with our man not returning…. Well, I think it is just not really how we see them.”
“You get any rest Loch? No, of course you haven’t. Your mind is too busy going over everything. If you can manage a short nap before sunrise, I’ll send you out with some of the Gondorians. Fresh eyes may be needed. Vid, get Plants, Birds, Rocks, and Things together at first light. Dhorgat and Loch will accompany them, as will Wulgof. Khule and the second Easterling squad will follow as their reserve muscle."
Videgavia questioned Hanasian, ”Sir? Rocks?”
“Yes, our missing man may be hurt. Besides, it will do the meds good to get out.”
Videgavia questioned again, ”The Easterlings as the reserve force?”
Hanasian nodded and said, ”Yes, the rest of us won’t be far behind.”
Videgavia nodded and left to make sure everyone received their orders and knew what to do at morning light. Hanasian ordered Loch to stay and lay down to rest, even if he didn’t sleep. He wanted to make sure he gave it a good try. It must have worked, for the scout was out within minutes of lying down. Had to be exhaustion.
A call went out that a runner was coming in. He was from the Gondorian army to the west. A general offensive would be starting, and assisted by the men from Dale in the west, and the Rohirrim will push their eastern flank and cover the rear of the Black Company as they pushed east. Their orders were to find Khor, and talk with him. Hoping to find out what his intentions are and what his loyalties are concerning Khurg. They would be ready for a fight, but hoped they could avoid one.
The next morning at first light the advance squad set out. Loch had managed a couple hours sleep and was there with Runner. They slipped east in stealth, followed by Khule and the second. Soon after, a mixed brigade of Easterlings and Gondorians moved out. The rest of the Company moved slow behind them as they spread their hold. The rearguard kept vigilance against the rebel north, watching the eastern flank of the Rohirrim just as the Rohirrim watched the western rear of the Company. But there was no threats to their positions. The rebels likely had other concerns with the Gondorian army pushing them north and an army from Dale pressing the rebel western flank. For all intents and purposes, the rebellion that started with such precision and surprise, was really no more than a grand prison break for Khurg. Though the destruction and suffering of the Easterling people was high, it didn’t seem to be of a concern to Khurg, as it was not when he was in power before. They were on the defensive now, and things would stabilize now in western Rhun with the protection of the Gondorian army. But the unknown factor remained in the east. The Company would push east to the Sea of Rhun, and beyond it. The wood on the eastern side would prove to be tough, for it would be a tough order. And as usual for this time of year, it started to rain.
Meanwhile, far to the west in Bree…
A cloaked man dismounted at the inn east of Bree. He had heard from his grandfather the Forsaken was a place where Halasian could be found in years passed. It would be a start for his search. He looked at the place and sighed. Doubtful anyone would be there, but it didn’t stop him from having his dagger ready. He forced open the old door, and it squeaked back after he entered. Inside appeared deserted, but not unused. Just not recently. Lots of history here. But any clues he had hoped for were long gone. Just the ghosts remained. Yet some of them seemed to whisper to him. But there was nobody there he could talk to. He would have to go to Bree now.
The next day he arrived in Bree. Talk was words were passed at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, so he made his way there. The evening spent talking to old timers and youngsters alike, proved somewhat useful, if tiring. He would rest in the comfort of the inn this night, and will ponder the information he had gained. He hoped to learn more at morning breakfast. Depending on what else he hears, it would decide his road in the morning.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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She had to snap out it. She had known what to expect anyway. The stabbing pain that drove her to wakefulness after a scant hour of sleep was not a surprise. Despite the mail and armour and leather, battle had delivered sharp and repeated blows to her abdomen. She had known what would follow then and there. It was done. The pain had ebbed after a time and now aching hollowness permeated her. She needed to snap out it. There was no time to spare for self indulgence. Hanasian was deeply worried as it was by this campaign and he needed to focus on the Company for all their sakes, as did she. She would have to tell him later, after all of this was done. Or, perhaps it was best if she said nothing at all. What purpose would be served, she wondered. Her cloak was sodden, her metal and leathers chilled. She shivered hard, pushed this all aside and focused herself on things more constructive.
In the seven days since battle, she now had a thorough assessment of who was still in fighting shape. There were injuries that could be seen and still others that took time to emerge. At least eight had seemed profoundly shocked in the immediate aftermath and she had since revised that number to six in the subsequent days of observation. They could not be placed on the front again, for their own safety and that of those around them. She was worried about Loch as well. Something had darkened in him, become shadowed. There were still the glimpses of his reckless, relentless optimism, but he had changed and he had little time to discuss such things with his sister.
Something was amiss, and everyone knew it. Despite this, the break gave men a chance to recover their stamina and strength. Belegost was coming along nicely indeed, as were a number of others. Talk was rife with speculation of what lay ahead and around. Talk of an ambush, a gathered force under a supposedly iron fisted and highly regarded commander, Khule’s brother. Yet Loch ran the patrols far and wide, sometimes reinforced by Berlas and Khule’s hand picked men for greater range. Yet they found nothing and this only served to increase general tension and unease.
Farbarad squinted through the rain at the heavily wrapped figure that rode ahead. Everything about the way she sat her horse, the set of her shoulders, they way her head drooped, her protracted silence, worried him deeply and he knew he wasn’t the only one. He glanced sideways at Mecarnil who shook his head.
”You’ll get nowhere with her. She doesn’t answer. Not me, not Hanasian. Barely eats. She isn’t sleeping either. Just works and broods, day and night.”
Farbarad drew breath to reply but a stupendous concussive boom knocked the air out of him and everyone else. It sounded like the sky had literally cracked open. People cried out in instinctive fear, crouched in saddle or on foot and, when Farbarad next looked up he saw that Rin was no longer in the saddle. She was on the muddy ground, writhing. He threw himself from his horse with a shout and Mecarnil immediately dived down to locate Hanasian. There was another terrible explosion from far above and Farbarad thought Rin would crack bones so hard did she twist. She was panting hard, her eyes rolled beneath their lids and she was moaning deep in her throat, a primal sound of abject terror. Hanasian fell to his knees with a splash and tried to steady her thrashing head. Bells and Sparks arrived and a small crowd was growing around them.
They scattered when the earth they stood on started trembling and growling. There was a deep ripping sound, wet and savage that thrummed through them. Horses screamed their fright and up ahead Videgavia saw great swathes of the earth tossed violently into the sky. Rin had managed get a hold of Farbarad’s arm and she nearly broke it as she screamed, back arched rigid. Blood seeped from her ears and then she went utterly limp, shaking like a leaf in the wind.
”What the hell was that?” Farbarad asked, shock and fear making his voice savage.
Both medics shook their heads, Sparks still measuring the frantic galloping of her heart, ”A fit? A coincidence? Never seen nor heard of this before…and neither has she, I’d bet. Her heart is slowing. Whatever it is, seems to be passing.”
“She’s cold as ice!” Hanasian said, stricken as he cradled his wife’s head.
”Company, we pause here for the night. Donius, where’s that wagon cover! And any spare blankets or bedding. We can’t risk a fire, and Doc would have our ears we delivered up a whole field of people shot through on her account. Now move, people, move!” Videgavia bellowed.
The shocked Company flinched and then began to scramble, glancing either at the sky or the ground in fear as they went.
”What was THAT?” Khor asked, appalled and not the only one in the tent to be so.
It was crowded with his various officers and their dark eyes were flat with naked fear. Dhak’s expression was grim, as were most of his men. However, there was a cadaverous man with a rictus grin who was delighted and he was soothing a young woman, as mad as she was beautiful to behold. She was incensed.
”There, there…not too much. You are thirsty yes….but for now this little is enough and it will not be long,” the man crooned as he smoothed back dark sweaty strands from the woman’s brow.
She lapsed onto her couch, mewling like a distressed kitten. Khor found he was shaking. Yes, he was terrified but the urge to take out all their throats then and there seemed liable to tear his restraint apart.
He bit hard on his growing rage and fixed his attention back on Dhak, ”Again, I ask. WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!”
The extent of the Easterling’s distress could not be more apparent to Dhak. Khor was a quiet man, a thinker, a man of control. It was stamped upon him, right down to the close-cropped and immaculately trimmed beard that shadowed his lower face in precisely maintained proportions. Dhak’s throat was dry, his stomach twisted in fear himself. That small display had been truly horrifying. What the Order could do with immediate contact did not bear consideration.
”A demonstration, as promised, of the power you have allied yourself with Khor. Just a small insight of what our people are capable of. The armies of Gondor, Rohan and Dale beset your land. What you do about it, with such allies as us, will require careful consideration. No commander takes the field without a full grasp of his…resources.”
“Enough. No more for today. Leave and take that…” Khor bit hard on the urge to denounce the woman a witch, ”woman with you. This is a command tent. Suitable accommodation is available elsewhere.”
The sorcerer’s eyes were sharp, but he merely nodded and more of these foreign devils that he found himself in bed with stepped forward to lift the now twitching woman up. Officers and officials spilled out of his tent and Khor turned his back on them all, reached for something stronger than water and poured out a healthy measure with shaking hands.
”Khor, this cannot be. It cannot. You have seen what they can do. How long did your people suffer under Sauron’s yoke? Would you be willing to shoulder another to merely throw off Gondor’s control?”
“A thousand more years under Gondor’s heel would be kinder than the few weeks under Khurg’s freedom, and as for your Order!” Khor spat, back to Dhak, and drained his drink in one gulp before continuing, ”What do you know of the Black? Little, I would guess.”
“Even less than that.”
“And so…you come creeping into my tent to implore me to ask the Black Company of Arnor to turn around and run like whipped curs home.”
“It must be, or you risk setting a new dominion over the throats of your people and mine.”
Khor sighed and said ”Have you any among your number you would trust with your first born son?”
“What do you propose?”
“Be ready to depart by sunset and mark me well. Speak of this to no one else you will be torn to pieces before you can draw your next breath.”
Khor’s mind was afire with calculations and possibilities after Dhak’s departure. The Black did not recruit women. Of that he was certain. Perhaps this was all part of a wider scheme. His allies were as fractured as his own people. Would this prove advantageous or disastrous? Who was the pawn here? Games within games. In any case, all he really needed was a clear shot on one woman and then this new evil would be defeated. After that, he’d deal with Khurg. As he expected, Khirue edged into his tent with silent questions in his eyes.
”Continue preparations here, be ready, be watchful, but do not move out until I, and only I give the word.”
“And the foreigners, Commander?”
“Watch them closely. If any follow us, you know the signal to raise. Even in this rain, the oil grasses of the Sagath plains will travel faster than sound itself."
In the Undying Lands, Manwe sat in his high tower and stared east. He was troubled. Sworn away from meddling in the affairs of men, it grieved him that some decisions they had made were now affecting them in this age. A hand caressed his shoulder and he pressed his to it. Varda stood behind him and watched eastward now with him.
”You sensed it too?” Manwe asked Varda, and she squeezed his hand and said, ”Yes. I felt it as if it had hit me.”
Manwe caressed her hand and sighed. He asked her, ”Were we right to send them? I know that at the time Sauron meddled and caused much grief in the lands, and in our wisdom we sent forth the Istari Maia into the realms of Middle Earth to oppose him. But was it the right thing to do?”
Varda ran her hand about his neck and came around to stand before him.
She said, ”Beloved, what has been done is done. We pondered this long before sending them. We chose as best as we could. Only Mandos spoke that ill unseen may come to pass from our deed. In the end, only Olorin succeeded in what we hoped they would do. Alwendil did not fail, but became lost in the beauty of the lands.
“Our biggest hope in Curumo failed in the worst way, becoming a traitorous ally of Sauron. Alatar and Pallando … I opposed sending them both. As friends, they were bound to each other, and they faded into the lands without word.”
Varda’s eyes sparkled as she gazed into the east.
Manwe sighed again and said, ”Until now. This was my greatest fear… that one would mingle with the children. We had warned Melian to no avail when she wed Thingol, but thankfully this led not to much ill. But Thingol was of the Eldar. I always feared that if one of the Maia mingled with the second born that it would be ill. And it has come to pass. Are we responsible for this? It will wreak havoc on the age of men.”
Varda took Manwe’s hands and he stood. Together they stood hand-in-hand in silence, gazing deep into the east seeking knowledge.
In time, Varda said, ”My many eyes will watch, but I feel that we may have to act to bring this to an end.”
Manwe sighed again, and after some time, nodded slightly. He said almost in a whisper, ”I will call to council the Valar.”
Varda’s kiss on his cheek soothed him, and they walked down the tower stair in silence.
~ ~ ~
The Company was shaken. They had stopped after the spectacular event that seemed to strike down their healer, Rosmarin, of Cardolan. The position was defensible, but it could be better. It would be better also if the rain, lightning, and thunder would subside. Each flask and following deafening clap made everyone jump, as they were not able to get the one that made the ground shake out of their minds. Everyone was on edge.
The eastern reach of the Company was just north of the Sea of Rhun, and Loch, Runner, and Berlas held watch on a knoll. They were joined in time by Mercarnil. He slid into the trees that provided as good a shelter that could be expected, and he said, ”Should be glad these trees didn’t get lit up by that lightning. High ground, trees that had obviously been hit before. Anyway, have you seen the stars tonight?”
“STARS???” Loch said surprisingly before continuing in a quieter voice, ”Nothing but grey dark clouds, rain, and the lightning you mentioned.”
Mercarnil pointed to the north, and the others looked. Mercarnil said, ”Haven’t seen them so… active."
A small part of the sky had cleared and the few stars there seemed to burn much brighter than any of them had known. A bright streak crossed over there and for a brief moment lit the ground up. Then a gentle, soothing breeze came from the west and the rain stopped. The clouds reclaimed the sky and the stars could be seen no more, but a sense of calm had fallen upon the four. Loch strained to see the stars as the clouds closed. They would not feel rain again until the early morning. Marcarnil said, ”It felt as if Ebereth was watching us. If it were so, may she bless us.”
Loch asked, “Ebereth?”
Berlas nodded, and Runner looked puzzled but interested in hearing about it. Mercarnil went on, ”Yes, the Lady of the Stars. Tales of old spoke of her beauty and her power. The stars of the sky are her many eyes, and with them she sees and knows. And if her concerns are turned toward something, her eyes sparkle with intensity. From what I just saw, I would say she is watching. This could prove good or ill for us.”
“Well, I will hope for good.” Loch said. Mercarnil smiled at him briefly and said, ”Yes, I do as well. Now you go see your sister. I know you are concerned. I’ll take your watch.”
Loch, instead of arguing to the contrary, took leave and set off back to where his sister rested. He had hoped she was well, and whispered as he walked in the dark, ”Ebereth, please watch over my sister.”
A gentle breeze blew around him, warming and drying., and it seemed a whisper could be heard though he did not know what, if anything, was said. He stepped a little faster toward the wagon where his sister lay.
What Loch had hoped to see when he gained the wagon was his sister awake, conscious. She was not. Hanasian sat by her side with his hands wrapped around one of hers. He did not appear to have moved since Loch had last seen him. Farbarad was on the other side, mashing lumps of vegetables in the steaming cup of broth. Farbarad was determined to get some sustenance into her, awake or not. Hanasian had been exhausting himself trying to rouse her with some sort of Dunedain thing Loch did not understand. Farbarad glanced up as Loch climbed into the wagon bed.
”No change?” he said and both men shook their heads.
The scrape of Farbarad’s knife against the tin of the cup continued, ”Mecarnil says Elbereth is watching. Is that true, do you think?”
“We can hope so, Loch,” Hanasian said wearily, lifting one hand to smooth already smoothed hair on his wife’s head, ”Wherever she is, I hope the Lady of the Stars watches over her.”
“Isn’t she here?”
“No, Loch. She is not,” Farbarad said, finally satisfied that the broth was smooth enough and had cooled enough.
Loch watched as the two men attempted to feed his sister. It was a painstaking affair. Small mouthfuls and then Hanasian would gently apply pressure to her throat, stroking until she swallowed. Without her armour and chain, she looked much diminished to Loch’s eyes. She had seemed so…vibrant when he had seen her for the first time back at the city. A whirlwind of busyness and preoccupied as per usual, and vibrant. She had glowed. Farbarad and Hanasian persisted at this for at least half a cup. In all this time, she made no movement of her own. What if she never woke up, Loch wondered. She was rarely idle by choice. In all their years together, it had been her putting him back together. She was rarely ill herself and usually managed to avoid all manner of mishaps that he failed to. Again that warm whispering wind curled around him and he glanced at that patch of clear sky ahead. Dancing stars. Farbarad set the mug aside with a grimace.
”I hate this. How can you bear it?” he asked of Hanasian, loathing the fact that this was an enemy he could not see or defend his charge against.
”I do because I must.”
“You’re both exhausted. I can sit with her if you like,” Loch said.
”Kid’s right. An hour or two would do us both good. He’ll wake us if anything happens…and keep the visitors to a minimum,” Farbarad said.
”Visitors?” Loch inquired.
”She’s to be left in peace, Loch. Doesn’t matter who they are. Noone aside from you, Vid, Mecarnil and the Ducklings are permitted into this wagon,” Hanasian said, a little louder than was necessary for a small knot had gathered again after observing Loch arrive.
”I’ll see to it,” Loch replied and watched as Hanasian bent, whispered something in his wife’s ear and pressed his lips to her brow.
The wagon softly swayed as both exhausted men alighted. He heard them settle under the wagon bed. Loch edged a little closer to where Rin lay. She was swathed in many blankets and cloaks. There must be more than a few shivering Black Company men and women out there. It was quiet…and he wasn’t sure how it started. Only that it did. He found himself talking to her, because she was too still, and he craved something familiar from her. Old memories, stories, jokes, there were so many of them because she was all he had in this world and he had shared nearly every moment of his life with her.
On the knoll, the darkness gradually relented. Dawn in the east was a stupendous thing. Mecarnil was transfixed by the sight of the rising sun. It seemed to emerge from the depths of the sea they were abutting, rising over the distant island in its heart. There had been no news from camp. That mean nothing had changed. It had been a day, a night and now another day. At a guess, no matter how attentive they were, they would have as long again before she perished. His eyes burned with fatigue. Hanasian would be devastated, the Company would be. Brother after brother had come by, searching for some sign that their Healer was unharmed. Theirs. She was theirs. She was Hanasian’s. She was Cardolan’s. She was Loch’s. No wonder the woman fought so fiercely sometimes just to be let be. He should have put his foot down. He should have spoken to Aragorn. Rhun was a dangerous place. She had no business being here. She was all they had left of Cardolan and she had walked unopposed into one of the most dangerous lands and for what? The Company had gotten by without a healer before. That damn oath of service. He had hoped to dandle whelps of Cardolan on his knee, not this. Farbarad looked upon her as a daughter, always had. No sooner had he managed to pull the ruin of Cardolan’s ambition together again was it now disintergrating…and he no clear idea why.
Mecarnil scrubbed at his face, heeled his eyes. One of the Easterlings, the young one Loch called Runner sidled up to him.
“Aye, of the North,” he replied, attempting to gentle the weary growl of his voice.
”Something you should see, yes?”
”If you say so, lad,” he said, once again wondering why they insisted on place questions on the end of statements in this part of the world.
Runner led him stealthily down the knoll and into the tall grasses that swayed on the shore of the sea. It’s soft susurrations provided cover for the noise of their passing. In time, Runner led him to where Berlas stood. Berlas was not alone and Mecarnil could only stare in shock a moment. An Easterling, and three others that most definitely were not Easterlings at all. Those three stared back in equal amazement. Mecarnil shook himself out of it. Runner was looking at him expectantly.
”Yes, Runner. I should see this,” he confirmed and Runner’s chest expanded somewhat.
”Mec, I should make some introductions,” Berlas said tensely, his crossbow trained on the Easterling who was standing quiescently, dark eyes sharply observant.
”This here is Khor,” Berlas said and Mecarnil grunted sourly, ”Sorry, Commander Khor. Apologies for my manners, Commander. With him are three…allies…I thought you might recognise them, but they said you wouldn’t. The one standing next to the Commander is called Dhak.”
“Well now, Commander, you’ve gone and found yourselves some unlikely allies from far afield,” Mecarnil said, peering at the three Dunedain faces.
Khor’s sardonic smile emerged, ”You have no idea how far, Ranger.”
“I have never seen you before. You are not of Arnor. Nor of Cardolan. I know both better than the backs of my hand. And so, Rhudaur?”
Dhak shook his head, his face taut, ”No, such names…realms I presume…have no meaning, no relevance from us. We hail from the sea….south.”
“South?” Mecarnil’s mind was spinning now and he was too tired for this, far too tired for this, ”Black? Faithful?”
“Neither…but we have little time to discuss this now. There is a healer in your number... trueborn?”
Berlas’s hands tightened on the stock of his crossbow instinctively. Yes, Mecarnil thought gratefully, not a single one of the Old Company that he could not place his absolute faith in.
”Yes,” Mecarnil grudgingly replied, his bleary eyes narrowing.
”A woman?” Khor pressed, leaning forward.
”What of it?” Berlas snapped and Khor wisely relaxed back.
For all of this, Khor’s face lost it’s habitual sardonic cast and became troubled.
”A woman of noble birth…royal?” Dhak inquired, incredulous.
The early dawn was split by the ring of Mecarnil’s sword. He had it out and pressed against Dhak’s neck in a fluid, instinctual movement, all fatigue fallen away.
”Queen of Cardolan by birthright, Crown Princess of the High King’s Court, cousin to the High King, Black Company of Arnor’s Healer and wife of it’s Captain. What interest is any of this to you?” Mecarnil snarled.
Khor’s face when from troubled to chalky white as Mecarnil spoke. He glanced at the one holding the cross bow, a man of Gondor by the looks of him, and saw that vengeful glitter there. Oh, the Black Company was notoriously protective of its own and well he knew it. But this was the wife of its Captain. And she was kin to the High King. All thought of assassinating her vanished into thin air. Hanasian and the Black Company would tear Rhun to shreds, and what was left would then be utterly ahnilated by this high king. Khor did not need a blood feud with either man.
Meanwhile, Dhak was speaking, ”She is sorely beset, yes?”
Khor groaned…the man’s questions were going to get them killed and with them would go any chance Rhun had at peace.
”We can help. We know why. We wish to stop it. We need to see Hanasian,” Khor said urgently, adding, ”We have no hand in this evil, and we share a mutual interest in its defeat.”
The Ranger’s sword did not waver, but the Gondorian passed his cross bow to Runner when Mecarnil flicked his eyes to him, and was soon off. When he returned again, Khor was not surprised by the fact that the Gondorian brought others. A familiar face in the Daleman, eyes glittering dangerously, and a giant of a Southron. Under careful escort then were they taken into the camp of the Black Company of Arnor. A hasty camp, made out of necessity. Scowls, dark expressions, a camp bristling with steel and enimity…and a wagon. In front of it stood another two familiar faces. One was Khule, his brother’s face inscrutable as ever. Hanasian’s expression was stamped with the mark of having his wife cut down by some unseen foe. He looked as perilous as he was, more so than his father had ever been if the circumstances were right and it seemed to Khor that nothing would be more treacherous than to attack the woman Hanasian had taken to wife.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Berlas was his usual stoic self when he came to Hanasian, who was seeing how Rin was doing and quite worried. Maybe he wasn’t thinking as clear as he should, for he had a headache that throbbed with every noise. Berlas tapped him on the shoulder and as Hanasian turned his head, a quick sign of Berlas’ fingers told him that his attention was needed on an urgent matter. He left the cover where Rin lay, and duties of care were given to Rocks and duties of watch were given to Hamoor. As they had walked over to a watch-fire, both Berlas and Hanasian made signs that those they passed of the old Company recognized, and with stealth, they slid away to join the two at the designated fire. Khule signalled some of the Easterling Twelve that were nearby to watch their meet, and they quietly took up positions around the fire some distance away.
Berlas said, ”It appears that Commander Khor and some of his visiting friends have come to talk.”
“Khor? You sure?” Hanasian said cutting in.
Berlas went on, ”Well no I’m not sure, but it was how he introduced himself. Khule will have to make a certain identification. But Cap, the three with him are a creepy sort, if you know what I mean. Their appearance is not like the Easterlings, but more like Farbarad or Mecarnil, or you and me. And one who must be their leader asks to many questions about Rin.”
Hanasian flashed signals around, and a fair party led by Videgavia was soon off to answer Mecarnil’s summons.
As Mecarnil waited for their arrival, the intense stand was too long, and too silent. The Easterling and his three visitors were not allowed to move, and some words passed between Khor and a couple of the Easterling companymen.
Mecarnil said finally as two of the Old Company arrived, ”Khor and friends, we will take you back to see our Captain.”
Videgavia turned to Berlas and said, ”Mulgov, you get who you will need to keep a tight watch. Keep Runner with you. If anything odd is sensed, you send him fast.”
Mulgov signalled for some who came with him to spread out and take watch. Mecarnil invited the four to walk with him and Videgavia.
As they came into camp, Hanasian walked up slowly with Khule by his side. Neither said a word until Hanasian turned to Khule. Khule then said in the Rhun dialect, ”Greetings brother. You are looking well, if stressed. Who are your friends?”
He then turned to Hanasian and said in Westron, ”He is who he says. Captain. Don’t know who these others are though. I’m sure the commander will explain.”
Hanasian nodded, still grim and silent. Some simple flicking of the finger told Khule what to do. In full military custom, he stood tall. He then began formal introductions.
”My Captain, meet my older brother, Commander Khor of the fifth Legion of Rhun. Commander, I present you to Hanasian of Arnor and Rohan, Captain of the Black Company, a Free Company of the West.”
A bow from Khor as he said, ”Former commander of the fifth, as my brother is former commander of the ninth.”
“Yes, of course,” Khule replied. He then looked at the one standing next to Khor. Dhak stepped forward slightly and bowed slightly, saying, ”I am Dhak, from east of the sea.”
Mecarnil had stepped aside Hanasian and said in Sindarin, ”He is the one asking questions of Rin. I don’t like him or his associates. Do we treat them as guests or prisoners?”
Hanasian whispered back, “Both. They will be guests as they are here for some negotiation, so we will allow for their comfort as visiting dignitaries. But keep them all, especially Khor, well guarded. Khule has indicated there has been some grumbling amongst the Easterling legion of our Company about this turn of events. Nothing we need to worry about, but we don’t want anything happening. It will be best for us if Khule and Khor can make some sort of peace between them. So for now we will show them to a quartering tent, and we will prepare for a formal council.”
With a wave, preparations were set in motion. Hanasian then went over to his guests and shook Khor’s hand, saying, ”It is an unexpected surprise that you have come to us Commander Khor. For it has been, in part, your activities that have drawn us here to Rhun once again. As I, and my King, wish to know your intentions, I also wish to know your purpose in coming here to us. We will speak of this, and of what you seek as well in a council. But right now, you must be weary.”
Hanasian started to lead the guests to the tent prepared for them. Dhak, having been observant, said as they walked, ”We have great interest in your people, and we have great fear of some of our own. In this we wish to speak, yes?”
Hanasian looked over at Dhak and his two silent countrymen and said, ”Yes, we will discuss these matters shortly at council. For part, I will wish to speak to Commander Khor alone, and I will speak to Dhak and your party as well. We have great interest on your people, for it seems that there may be a kinship long sundered. But now we rest. I have matters to tend to before we meet again.”
The four were shown into their tent, and several of the Gondorian legion took up positions around it. Nobody was going to come or go until council. Hanasian made his way back to where Rin was being tended to. Hamoor was on vigilant watch and Hanasian sent him to join the Gondorian guard around the guest’s tent. Hanasian entered and caused Rocks to jump.
Hanasian said, staring Rocks down, ”Is there a problem?”
Rocks fidgeted and said, ”Uh... no. Just didn’t expect you back so soon.”
Hanasian thought Rocks was trying to conceal something, when he heard a soft voice.
”Is that my husband I hear?”
Hanasian, forgot about Rocks and came to Rin’s side. He said as he took her hand, ”Yes! It’s me! I’m here love.”
Rin didn’t try to move except for her eyes. Soft and glowing, she asked, ”What happened?”
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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”What do you recall?” Hanasian asked gently, picking up her hand again and stroking the long fingers.
What indeed, Rin mused, attempting to collect and assemble her recollections into something approaching a rational arrangement. Pain, brutal and savage and frightening. Then it’s sudden absence and the vacuum and emptiness it left behind, a chasm that she drifted like a mote of dust. So cold and vast. Then, music like she had never heard before. Impossible to describe, impossible to recreate, otherworldly and achingly beautiful. Inexorable tugging, like she was been drawn by a tidal surge and powerful voices. Many of those…and with them came pain because it was too much. A coruscating light and messages echoing and rolling around the inside of her skull. She did not belong there. She had to be sent back. They were coming. They were coming. They were coming.
Where was there? Who were they? No, it made no sense at all. Yet her limbs felt as light as feathers and she felt uncommonly whole and rested. She glimpsed Rocks studying her from over Hanasian’s shoulder and she tightened her fingers around her husband’s as she shook her head. She had no way to make any sense of it yet.
”There was some sort of attack, a power of unseen force, that coincided with your collapse. You fell from your horse, under the sway perhaps of this force, and you were greatly distressed. That was yesterday morning. You have been unconscious ever since,” Hanasian said and watched Rin’s eyes drift to the man that stood to one side.
”A fit…bleeding from ears and nose…significant drop in temperature and escalation in pulse…and a possible concussion from the fall. How many fingers?”
“Four, one, three…oh, enough Rocks. I am not concussed.”
“How do you know?” he challenged, testy and out of sorts.
”Mostly, because I say so.”
Rocks inhaled deeply and then pushed the breath sharply out again through his nose. Then, grumbling, he climbed down out of the wagon. A crowd was gathering and he was forced to shoulder his way past. Farbarad’s hand halted him, planted in the centre of his chest. The ranger was clearly exhausted, pushed to his limits. He and Mecarnil had been huddled together since the visitors arrived, speaking in Elvish as if the rest of them could not be trusted.
”Is she conscious?” Farbarad asked tersely and Rocks’ head jerked assent once.
”Yes, yes and not concussed because she says so,” he snapped back, shaking off Farabarad’s hand and pushing past the pair.
This announcement rippled through those assembled, mostly Old Company men with some exceptions. Rocks had spent enough time in military units to know that word would spread faster than wildfire. Already the Dunlending was on his way to find Loch and Frea was on his way to find his brother and Foldine. Bear, Berlas and Belegost, the three B’s as Rocks thought of them, were looking pleased with themselves as if this development had something to do with them. Mecarnil and Farbarad were already climbing into the wagon and, short of room in there now, Videgavia was leaning over the rear of the wagon tray.
”Simply, enough is enough Rin,” Mecarnil said, raking his fingers through his hair as both Rin and Hanasian considered him.
”This can’t continue,” Farbarad said, pitching in as he had already agreed to do.
”What are you talking about?” Rin inquired warily.
”This,” Mecarnil replied, hands expanding to encompass the interior of the wagon.
”Well, I’ll be out of this wagon as soon as my commanding officer permits me. Then it will be freed up for proper cargo again.”
“No, not this wagon. I mean Rhun! I had my concerns about this and I held my tongue at first. That was my error and I’ll not make it a second time. This is too dangerous and we simply can’t-“
“That’s enough,” Hanasian interjected and Mecarnil looked unhappily to Farbarad.
”No, it’s not actually. He’s right. We can’t-“
“Enough…Mecarnil, Farbarad…enough. This is our last campaign. Rin and I plan to depart the Company once it is done,” Hanasian said, eyes moving to Videgavia’s thoughtful mien.
”But only when it is properly done. Not a moment before,” Rin insisted.
Mecarnil’s brows rose and his head swivelled to consider his colleague. Farbarad looked desperately relieved.
”And I hope that you will accept the captaincy, Vid.”
“More talking,” Videgavia said, lip curling in distaste, ”An honour, Hanasian…but I am not certain I am ready for it…or if the Black will accept me.”
“I am, on both counts, which ought to count for something don’t you think?” Hanasian replied steadily.
There was a silence at that, thoughts tumbled in heads and Videgavia rolled his shoulders.
”Right, well, if we’re to finish this, then let’s finish this. You want to speak to Khor first, Cap?”
“Aye,” Hanasian replied, lifted the back of Rin’s hand to his lips and began to make his way out of the wagon.
It was then that Rin began to move and was met with four men shaking their heads.
”Oh no…and don’t even try it. You might run roughshod all over your ducklings, but it won’t take with me as well you know. You’re not going anywhere until you eat something and prove to me that you’re fit to move. Do you disagree, Captain?” Farbarad asked mildly and Hanasian shook his head.
”Not at all,” Hanasian replied as Rin scowled, and continued his way out of the wagon.
He left his wife with her two keepers and headed for Khor’s tent. Videgavia and Khule entered with him and interrupted the Easterling’s restless pacing. If Khor had been discovered looking uncertain, he was quick to mask it. He clasped his hands behind his back, squared his shoulders and stance so that he was able to meet the gazes of the three men levelly.
”Commander,” Hanasian began, nodding, ”You have interesting allies and have come to us at an interesting time.”
“Captain…neither one of us has the luxury of time to expend, so forgive my forthrightness. I am not a supporter of Khurg and the plan to free him did not involve me or have the support of my men. You may have been told differently and you will need to decide whom you believe on that count,” Khor said brusquely.
”There has been word of rebellion, connected with you and your gathering of disaffected men from the tribes, for some time now,” Khule answered and at this Khor shrugged.
”Of course…and it came from the Prefect, who was likely informed by men who gathered his intelligence for him…and was not the rebellion that saw Khurg unleashed again one that came from within the Prefect’s compound? I gathered the restless young warriors…it was that or have Khurg’s supporters gather them up. The Prefect was poorly advised by men keen to see him fall. He was losing support. An alternative that was not Khurg was required. That is all.”
Khor had been about to move onto his next point however something happened to forestall him. He blinked, unable to quite understand or look away. Spun gold, tumbling and dishevelled, over long lithe limbs clad in the ubiquitous black leather of her Company, the delicate structure of her face, and most of all those searing blue silver eyes. Storms…storms of sky or sea that raked over him and seemingly through him. She was not alone, of course. The dark haired ranger he had already encountered was in her wake, chagrined.
”I told you, Mec, I’m fine now. Honest,” the woman said as she fully entered the tent.
Khor’s brows climbed as he glanced at his younger brother. Words were not needed. How did anyone get anything accomplished with this about?
”You get used to it,” Khule answered in their local dialect and Khor shook his head, sceptical all the same.
”Commander Khor, it appears you are meeting the Black Company Healer, Rosmarin of Cardolan,” Videgavia said slowly, as unhappy about this as the dark haired ranger was, ”Early.”
”So it seems,” Khor replied in Westron, bowing smoothly in an eastern style that seemed to make her scowl irritably.
”Who told him?” she demanded and turned on the dark haired ranger.
”Doc,” Hanasian said to his wife and she turned back to face him.
”I remembered something. They’re coming. That was what I was supposed to tell you. They’re coming.”
“Well, I thought the Commander might know,” Rin answered, eyes returning to Khor and for some reason he shivered.
”Whoever they are, I hope that they can manage a feral witch and her litch of a wizard. That is why I am here…and it is why Dhak accompanied me. If we do not stop them here…then we will have the distinct pleasure of watching a new Dark Lord or Lady take shape. I have no desire to watch history repeat itself. One War was more than enough, Captain, was it not?”
Khor’s mouth sealed in a thin line as he stopped himself from speaking further, shaken by the way the woman’s scrutiny seemed to pull things from him. Perhaps it was her lofty Dunedain blood, the very blood Dhak said enabled the witch such terrible powers. With a start, Khor realised he had spoken that aloud. Hanasian’s wife was staring at the thin, delicate skin of her inner wrist and the veins that ran so close to the surface of her creamy skin.
”I think it’s time for that council,” Videgavia said.
”The sooner the better. Witchcraft is an anathema to our people. I do not long how long Khalid, my second, can hold the men in check,” Khor said and cursed, ”Is that what you are too? A Dunedain witch?”
“No!” Rin objected, eyes wide and stepping back in sudden fear, ”No I am not! I am not, do you hear me Commander!”
With that, she withdrew, fled really from the tent. The four men inside followed her out and the command was given to summon Dhak and his two companions for the council.
”I believe you’ve made a new friend,” Khule said dryly in their mother tongue.
”She’s of royal blood? I expected…no, I am not sure what I expected,” Khor amended and his younger brother grunted, flashing a rare grin.
”Could be worse. You could be missing your purse and not even aware of it,” Khule said inexplicably.
There was little time to question him further, however. The council was about to begin imminently. Dhak and his two men joined Khor as people gathered around them. Hanasian held up a hand for silence and Dhak’s eyes found the woman that stood just behind her husband. The three men said something to each other that Khor did not understand, but those who understood archaic Aduanic did. Then, all three men dropped to their knees right there. Khor was not the only man surprised by this.
”Them too? You told them too? We had a deal, Mecarnil!” Rin said belligerently to the Ranger at her side and folded her arms under her chest, highly agitated now.
”I don’t know what the hell you three think you’re doing,” she growled.
”Allegiance, we seek to swear allegiance,” Dhak answered, head still bowed.
”Oh no you don’t. Not here, not me, no way. No.”
“You are of the High King’s court, no? Crown princ-“
“First I am accused of being a witch, which I am NOT, and now this?! Look, I don’t know who you are or what you’re up, but this is not how it works. Right?”
Rin glanced first at Hanasian, then Mecarnil and Farbarad. All three men looked perplexed and her relief at having cut the stranger’s pronunciation of that ridiculous word faded. Farbarad was scratching at his head.
”Right?” Rin repeated, not nearly as certain now.
”Well…by rights…you’re probably the high ranked official member of the court in Rhun, so it might,” Farbarad said, Hanasian and Mecarnil nodding slowly and Rin threw her arms up.
”Fantastic,” she drawled, vastly displeased.
”Company, we will first hear what Commander Khor and his companions have to say or request of us. Then, we will discuss what our response will be. It would seem that we confront powers beyond the mortal ken,” Hanasian said, gesturing that Dhak and his men should stand once more.
”Wizards again. I lost a battle under one fighting another, we had to deal with another in Harad and now this? I have had my fill of wizards,” Wulgof muttered darkly and beside him Molguv grunted. The council had begun.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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There was a sense of tension in the air as everyone began to gather. It was too risky to have this council in the open and so Hanasian issued a silent order that they would disband. The older hands knew to watch for further instruction and it arrived sure enough. The leads of the Old Company would reconvene in the largest provision tent. Mecarnil and Farbarad shepherded Rin between them and she did not protest, eager to be away from Dhak and the uncomfortable realities he presented. She had given up her throne to avoid precisely the sort of business that had just unfolded.
Dhak and his two countrymen were unsure what was going to happen, but freely went with their armed escort to the council tent. They seemed to discuss matters in a native tongue that nobody else understood. But it didn’t take a genius to know there seemed to be some sort of contention and disagreement among them. But after they arrived in the tent, they sat quietly and seemed to accept what Dhak had said.
Meanwhile, Khor was taken to see Hanasian. It was obvious that Khor had played his hand in the east and was ready to deal with whatever outcome was to come. The discussion between the two seemed hard and formal, with little being achieved, and so Hanasian said it was time to go to the council. But what was achieved was Khor felt he could trust this captain of the Black Company, and considered throwing in with them if the conditions were right. He would have to talk. As they started to walk to the council tent, Hanasian and Khor were joined by Khule and some more Easterling companymen.
Shortly after that, they paused as Khor said, “I never wanted rebellion to happen. I didn’t expect it to happen. Khurg is a scourge on this land, and in his aged state, very dangerous. Yet he still has powerful followers. But even I feel the years on me, and maybe my little brother does too if he paused long enough to think about it. I know that Rhun cannot survive without the friendship of Gondor. But old rivalries run as deep as the years of strife between our nations. I tried to find strength in these newcomers from over the eastern sea but there is something more to these people. I think they come from a land far away and out of the reach and sight of these lands. It was not the right thing to do, but before I realized, I was in further than I could conceive. Now, it seems there are powers at play with them that even the worst of the clan struggles could not reach to meet."
Hanasian looked at Khor as he took in all he had said considering his next words carefully
"I believe the arrival of the newcomers has distressed our King. There is some power that has kept his eyes from seeing the shores. It is why we have come east again. To find out what was happening in the mists of the east. But it seemed events took their own hand and played it. The rebellion and freeing of Khurg was unlooked for. So too was the assassination of the Prefect. Also, it seems many of your younger countrymen have seemed to have taken a liking to our Company. This too was unexpected."
Khor nodded and said, "Yes, it seems my brother has done well in this."
Khule stepped around Hanasian and came face to face with Khor. He said, "I did not ask for this brother. It just happened. So they look up to being part of the Company. So? I'm not in command, Hanasian is the Company captain, and Videgavia is his second. Most of us are feeling the strain of all the wars and battles. Let alone the years. It is the young men that the future leans on, be they from Rhun or Gondor"
"I agree brother," Khor said, "but as to how it all comes to be is the mystery we need to watch for."
Hanasian said, urging the two to move on toward the tent, "There is much in play here this day. I need to know from Khor, how I should deal with your guests? They have some power to cause grief, especially with my wife. So do you embrace their wishes or oppose them? I need to know, and know now, before I meet with Dhak."
Khor, paused again and sighed, "I never wanted it to come to this. I had bargained with them when they first came in hopes a might in arms would be our saviour. Their counsel was to wait until the passing of the King. I, nor many of us, would live to see that day, so I started having second thoughts. The newcomers have disagreements of their own, and this will be what Dhak will likely speak to you about."
Hanasian looked grim as he nodded. He said as there were footsteps heard behind them, "It was good we had this talk. We will speak again soon, alone. Right now my wife joins me for the council."
Rin arrived, escorted by a vigilant, hawkish Farbarad who favoured Khor with a wary glance. Khor gave a bow while Khule stood tall, hoping to remedy any earlier discomfort between them. She cautiously inclined her head, no more than that. Hanasian embraced her and quickly kissed her cheek as they met. This was a revelation to Khor, such warmth and affection from Hanasian. They continued in silence to the council tent.
In the tent, Videgavia had gathered most of the old guard that weren't on the front watching. They were awaiting the arrival of Hanasian. Little did they know that he was also bringing Rosmarin, who seemed to have recovered enough to attend. The best of the Gondorian and a detachment of the Easterling legion were set as guard. As they entered the tent, Dhak stood in honour, and Hanasian waved him to sit with a wary glance at his wife who was clearly on edge. They all took up position around a large brazier that Donius had scavenged from the city and brought along.
Hanasian said to start, "We will forego the formalities and get right to it. Lord Dhak, I wish you to answer me these questions. What what are your intentions? What is it you seek from us? And what power do you know of or possess that causes the earth and sky to explode?"
Dhak blinked and saw this man knew how to clearly get to the point. Dhak stood and folded his arms as he looked about the people in the tent.
"I will start by saying that our people have come far to reach this shore. The seas are rough and strange, and passage is hard. Many millennia did our forefathers come over the sea from the west and settle the lands. There was in time a mighty tumult of the land and sea, and there was much destruction as the world changed. But a few of our kindred lived on, making life with what they could of what they had.
“It was the coming of the two wizards that things started to change. We had our knowledge re-awakened, and we were soon able to build ships to sail the seas. But we could find nothing to our west but mists and shrouds, and the sea always drove us back. It was only by the power of the two together that could part the shroud. But even they could not for long do this.
“So it came to pass that one of the powers wed a mortal and she had a daughter. It is this daughter that we fear, though she makes crossing the sea passable. She has powers unknown to us, but she does not think for her mind is broken. It is she that threatens us all. I ask you to help us break this hold. What say ye?"
Hanasian just blinked as he listened, he looked at Rin to see if she was affected by the words of Dhak. She sat silent, listening intently and scrutinising one of Dhak’s companions. Hanasian knew there would be more to this campaign in the east than what they had hoped or expected.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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”If we agree, what do you hope for?” Hanasian pressed, sensing there was a great deal more.
”The Order must be dismantled. Here first and then we must root it out at home. There will be reprisals, terrible, if we fail to pursue it back to its nest. As you have already seen, I would have us swear to the High King and abide by his rule and that of his heirs. Perhaps…an alliance? A reunification of our sundered peoples. Your king’s realm would expand and in return, his protection?”
“You seem eager to swap one ruler for another. On whose authority do you speak?” Rin inquired softly, her gaze resting on one of his companions.
Her question prompted Dhak to glance at his two companions briefly and this told those that watched a great deal.
”My lady, the Order’s dominion is oppressive. I cannot be sure of how many of my countrymen share our desire to throw off their shackles. There have been attempts in the past to free ourselves that have failed and the consequences have been dire. Many of us have families at home. Many may decide the safety of their kin outweighs all other concerns.”
“But not you…and you have family there, do you not?”
Dhak answered carefully, ”Yes, I have family there…and had the Order not waged war against the court of the High King I would not be standing here now. I have no thirst a war that would mean our destruction irrespective of who prevailed. The Order is powerful enough. If it rose yet further to cast its shadow over the realm of your court or if it failed…”
Khor glanced about those gathered within the tent in a bid to gauge the response thus far. Opinion seem divided. One, a dour faced rohirrim whose hair was showing silver and face was a map of the grassy plains of his home, nodded in acknowledgement at Hanasian’s wife. He was clearly pleased with something, and Khor imagined he knew what.
”How many in your camp, Commander Khor?” the rohirrim inquired tersely and confirmed Khor’s suspicions.
”I gathered some five hundred men of the various Sagath tribes. This number is further supplemented by one hundred of Dhak’s country men. More are a-ship, waiting. How many I do not know.”
“Three thousand,” Dhak replied grimly, noticing how the noble woman’s gaze still rested upon the same man, almost predatory in its intensity.
”And your five hundred, Khor?” Khule inquired.
“Will not serve any wizard or witch, regardless of their cause,” Khor affirmed.
”So that only leaves some three thousand and ninety seven Dunedain, two wizards and one insane witch,” Frea summed up.
”Perfect,” Wulgof sarcastically intoned, ”Un-winnable odds and a strawhead that can count.”
Khor watched the dark face of a Southron split into a wide smile and some of the tension leaked from the tent. Rin shook her head as if to clear it, the gesture noted by a number of those in the tent.
”This witch of yours, she is the one that poses the threat that the king foresaw…and is responsible for the attacks,” Videgavia asked as a shudder skated down Rin’s spine.
”I cannot speak for what your king saw. But she is the tool responsible for what you saw, manipulated by another. One of the two wizards I spoke of,” Dhak replied as Hanasian leant to confer with his wife.
”What is it?” he asked, aware that Farbarad attended closely on the other side.
”A…tugging…someone or something, tugging at me…” Rin murmured and shook her head again as Hanasian’s gaze met Farbarad’s.
”The witch?” Farbarad inquired gravely.
”I don’t know. Possibly…”
“Is it like before? Do you recall?” Farbarad pressed and something flashed in Rin’s eyes at the question.
”No,” she snapped, ”As it so happens, she doesn’t announce herself. Who’d a thunk it?”
Rin crossed her arms, scowled at the flames.
”It probably is” opined Wulgof.
”Oh probably,” Rin breezily replied, ”Is this a council or some sort of frenzy in wild, unsubstantiated speculation?”
Molguv cleared his throat and kept his eyes on his boots, determined not to look at Wulgof and so avoid laughing out loud at his pet.
”Well you’re fully recovered, clearly, and back to your usual charming self,” Frea growled.
”Which, in itself, proves that we are not in this alone. Doc has been healed, clearly, and is being shielded now. The Valar are in play in this, mark my words,” Folca stated and Rin shivered involuntarily again.
The idea that something like the Valar had any particular interest in her was far from comforting. She frowned and tucked a strand of hair behind one ear and was glad when Molguv spoke up into the uneasy silence that followed Folca’s announcement.
”The only way to eat an oliphaunt is one bite at a time,” rumbled Molguv, ”If you must eat them at all. Stringy, fatty meat…”
“Just what is that supposed to mean?” demanded Foldine irritably.
”Well…we start with Khor’s camp. Even if this trio is all we got, between our numbers and Khor’s men, we will easily outnumber the ninety odd remaining.”
“And the wizards? And witch?” Wulgof inquired and Molguv shrugged his massive shoulders.
”I suspect Folca is correct. More than mortal men are in the field and if it is through their intervention that the witch cannot wreak greater harm, then I am grateful. However the Valar will do as they see fit in this and in all things. The Company must, as ever, look to its own affairs. The decision as to whether to engage with the Order seems clear. They present a salient threat to the High King’s realm, a hostile invasion. Irrespective of the disposition of forces, and whether Khor’s men will stand with us or not, we must give answer to that. It is why we are here,” Hanasian stated.
There was general assent to this.
”I repeat, my men will not serve with the Order. They have had their fill of wizards and dark power. Let me send word to them that you move against the Order,” Khor pressed.
”We will consider it,” Hanasian allowed and with that Khor had to be content.
”And, presuming we survive that, then we must decide if we pursue this threat beyond Middle Earth. One bite at a time, as Molguv rightly pointed out,” Hanasian continued, nodding at Molguv.
Bear rubbed at his chin, ”You’re not sure if we’ll make it that far, are you Cap?”
“I can give no assurances. While the numbers may seem in our favour, there are greater powers at play.”
”There usually is,” Wulgof sighed, undeterred.
Hanasian considered next his wife and found her studying Dhak thoughtfully. She expelled a breath and looked at Hanasian somewhat forlornly.
”I suppose I sort of have to now, don’t I?” she asked him, clearly nonplussed.
”It may be for the best,” Hanasian replied, considering Dhak a moment and then nodding.
”I don’t like this at all. What if I’m wrong, or if they appear more than they already are?”
“Rosmarin, you have been staring at them for nigh on half an hour. Do you honestly think you are making a mistake?”
“I suppose not,” she allowed, fingers already searching for something she apparently believed stowed on her person.
”Ah…” she hedged, cheeks flushing, ”I appear to have lost it.”
“Is this what you are looking for?” Farbarad inquired, emptying a small pouch he had kept at his belt into her hand.
”Well, of course you’d have it,” she growled and he smiled smugly.
”Naturally,” he agreed as she slipped her father’s ring onto the finger she had seen Aragorn wear his on.
It felt heavy, unnatural and wrong. Dhak watched this occur, blinked and dropped to his knees as she edged closer, reluctant.
The exchange was tense, Dhak swearing allegiance first and followed by his two companions who spoke in halting Westron. All three pressed their lips to the mithril rose of Cardolan and with that, found themselves sworn to a king they did not know and a realm they barely understood. Rin was swift to slip the signet from her finger and return it to Farbarad. With that done, all was set in motion. Men peeled from the tent, each with their own tasks to see to. Videgavia assigned Dhak and his three men to Molguv to keep a weather eye on. Khor found himself assigned to his younger brother and on his way to explain to no few of Khule’s recruits just where he stood on the matter of Khurg. With battle to prepare for, there was no shortage of tasks to see to in the remains of the day so that they could move into position the following day.
Hanasian himself tasked Loch with the task of slipping forward with Runner’s squad to see what lay head. If word could be gotten to Khor’s men, it may well mean the difference between victory and defeat. In the dying embers of sunlight, Loch stood with his head bowed near his sister, both of them deep in discussion. They spoke Dunlendic quietly. Hanasian watched Rin glance to where the medics were gathered, sterlising bandages and then shake her head. Loch gestured at Runner and Rin sighed. Clearly, they were having a difficult conversation. Rin pinched the bridge of her nose and then nodded barely. This, apparently, was sufficient for Loch and he wrapped his arms around his sister’s shoulders in farewell. When he pulled back, Rin spoke again, this time tapping his chest to make her point. He nodded dutifully, they embraced a second time and then he jogged away towards where Runner stood. He lifted his hand to his sister and she returned the gesture, watching as Loch and Runner moved out and into the now long shadows of dusk. Hanasian set down his journal, having mostly recorded the events of recent days, and got to his feet.
He curved a hand to rest on her shoulder as he walked to her side.
”He’s very good, you know…”
“I do, my love…still…”
She turned her face to study his in the sunset. Already the chill of night crept around them.
”Vid tells me that you, Farbarad and Mecarnil have barely slept these past three days. I said the Company Healer should do something about such an untenable situation,” Rin said gently, and ran her fingers tenderly over his bristled jaw.
Hanasian let his eyes close at the gesture, ”An early night, then?”
“A shame all the tents have been broken down,” Rin murmured and something in her voice made his eyes open to consider her speculatively.
”That would hardly be restful,” he remonstrated and saw a brow quirk.
”Well, not at first….but afterwards you would sleep like a babe.”
Hanasian pulled her to him and rested his chin on top of her head.
”Well, yes…but such a plan would not work for the other two…unless…”
“Careful,” he heard her warn, breath warm against his neck.
”Unless you have been teaching those Cats more than Vid or I asked you to.”
He felt, rather than heard her laughter thrum through him. So vital, so alive, this was an unlooked for treasure that he instinctually tightened his arms around.
”I will not be drawn on who is teaching whom what when it comes to those women,” Rin replied mysteriously, pulled back and gathered up one of his hands in her own. ”Now, to bed with you, husband.”
“Yes, wife,” he replied dutifully, towing her after him on his way to their packs and bed rolls.
He was truly exhausted and no sooner had he stretched out was he drifting to sleep, Rin still fitting herself around him. He woke only once during the night to a sky clear of cloud and bejewelled with stars that seemed to flicker and dance. Rin was breathing steadily against his ear, nestled close and warm. Hanasian felt himself swiftly sink below the surface of his dreams. Elsewhere, under the same stars, one young man watched the face of another expectantly.
”You’re certain?” said one of them and the other nodded.
”An opportunity we cannot squander, Runner,” Loch replied, decision made as he signalled the rest of the squad. They would get word to Khor’s men…and more besides. They would deal with the witch that had so nearly killed his sister once and for all, before battle began in another two days…sparing countless lives in the process. But it would not be easy. Important things never were.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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