Dorghat was the linchpin to Loch’s plan. He had been sent with speed back to the Company to report that they had located the place where the witch from the east of the sea was living. It also seemed evident that Khor’s men were nowhere to be seen. Instead, a cadre of mariners from the east made up the town garrison. There appeared to be more than a hundred. Around a rather ornate, if squat, stone palace, two large guards stood beside the door wearing black velvet tunics and tall domed helms that covered their faces. Any Easterlings that happened by steered clear of the place. Even the regular soldiers of the east passed with nervous quickness and in good order. Something was amiss and Loch could not put his finger on it. He knew that there was likely more here than what Dhorgat was going to report, so he would have to send another. With that in mind, Loch slid back to the wood where Runner and the others waited.
Loch said, ”I don’t have time to teach you all the silent language of the hands, for I barely know much of it. But I want you all to know these signs.”
They listened and watched closely, eager to know some of the languages the Company uses. Loch went on, ”The number of fingers tells how many score of men, and the four fingers at an angle tells how fast they are moving. Once placed, keep an eye on each other, and on the roads both in and out. We don’t want our men walking into trouble here. Now, who's the fastest?”
A young man who may have seen eighteen years raised his hand as others pointed at him. It was unanimous.
Loch asked him, ”You… Kallach, are you ready to take word to the Company? It is a matter of urgency!”
Kallach nodded enthusiastically. Loch came face to face with him and said, ”Tell them we suspect there are more than the one hundred soldiers from over the sea. There is a different sort as well. Also, Easterlings with Khor's insignia have not been sighted. They must be wary on their approach. Now you get that to them fast!”
Runner said a few words to Kallach in their Easterling dialect, and Kallach prepared to travel light. He chewed some dried meat and fruit and packed the rest in his small satchel. Moments later he set off west.
Loch and Runner set their remaining men out at various watch points where they could see one another. Their number were few but they were determined. Runner was disturbed by what he knew of Loch's plan. All he could do was keep watch on him the best he could. He could see Loch, closest of them all to the palace, perched on an overhanging rock surrounded in scrub bushes. They all watched, counted and tried to calculate the numbers of men that moved about. As they did this, Loch made some calculations of his own. The thief in him identified the best way into the palace, and marked the comings and goings of the guards and others. Now all he needed was a distraction.
He didn’t have to think about it and was barely ready when it happened. A cart pulled by a horse broke a wheel and spilled a load of potatoes into the street. Not only were the guards distracted, but so too was the rest of his men and he realised he would have to do this alone, without Runner. Loch slipped out and down the steep slope.
Runner was only distracted for a moment and when he turned to look for Loch, discovered the Black Company scout couldn’t be seen. None of the others could see him either. Where had he gone? Runner moved stealthily toward Loch’s last position and caught sight of him. At least Runner thought it was him. A man with Loch’s gait was partially dressed as one of the guards and bypassed the cart as one of the door guards tried to get the man to move along. Runner, aware of what Loch was up to, wasn’t going to let the man go in alone. But how was he going to get in? And where did Loch get his disguise?
It didn’t take Runner long to find out. Working his way around and down Loch’s scant trail, Runner found a dark stain in the dirt at the bottom of the slope. Loch had landed on one of the guards that happened to be standing there, and killed him. Runner hid the dead man in the bushes before trying to find a way inside. It was clear to Runner that he wasn’t going to be able to go in the Loch did. The guards were back in position at the door. He would have to search for another way.
It seemed dark inside the palace despite the bright autumn daylight without. Loch slipped from shadow to shadow, watching and mapping the passages in his mind. On several occasions he had to freeze or move for cover while men in the ornate black velvet passed.
Once one paused, saying in their language unknown to Loch, ”I thought I saw a shadow move.”
But the other looked briefly down the hall and shook his head. They went on. Loch took a moment to steady his breathing. He was on his own here. Rin was nowhere near. It felt odd, unnatural even, to be doing this without her yet he did this for her. For his sister and for his Company. He was sure the woman was brought here from the ship. He moved in silence as he searched. Finding a stair, Loch felt confident would be up there. But how to get up there without being seen? The sweeping stair was at least eighty steps, and the open railing offered no cover. No thief, or assassin, wanted to be caught on the stairs. It was why the rooftops were invariably preferred.
Meanwhile, Dhorgat had reached the scouts of the Company, and soon his report had been given to Hanasian.
The Captain quickly snapped out orders, ”More scouts out on the flanks, and watch carefully. Get word to Wulgof on point to move swiftly and keep eyes and ears forward. We need both swiftness and stealth, for our advance team has placed themselves in a precarious position.“
Hanasian summoned Khor, but Dhak came with him. Regardless, Hanasian asked ”Where would your men be Khor?”
Khor's reply was halting as he puzzled, They likely avoid the presence, but I am sure they not too far away.”
Dhak had a look of concern and said, ”It is as I feared. With the woman on these shores, it may be that the way across is being held open and more ships will come. Our time runs low.”
”That just may be, but we aren’t going to walk into a trap. We will get our men and Khor’s men out if we can, but it will seem this will be a hard road. We better get up front,” Hanasian replied, turned and called, ”We need a runner to return with Dhorgat! We need to get word back to Loch.”
Dhorgat was soon ready to set out without rest with a lanky young man from the Gondor legion called Mallet. Meanwhile another runner came from the east with word that a general offensive was being waged against the slowly shrinking bastion of Khurg’s rebels. Intended to be good news, Hanasian knew that no further help would be forthcoming until that offensive had successfully concluded. They would have to go it alone, as impromptu allies with Khor and Dhak’s faction of the mariners from east of the sea.
Kallach was making good time west when he heard a noise. He paused and started to go to ground when he heard a hiss. He fell hard as his hand grabbed at his neck. The arrow aimed at his chest had caught him at an angle and cut him deeply. He faded as he bled out with a soft, wet gurgle. His message would never reach the Company. Moments later, a soldier dressed in black approached the dead messenger. He searched him for anything written or otherwise useful and found nothing. The message had died with the messenger. Another came to stand and look at the body. The two men started to talk when a yell came from behind them. They had barely time to turn before being cut down by sharp axes of the Easterlings. Khirue’s men were determined to stop the scouts the Order had sent out and most had been killed. Unfortunately, they arrived too late for Kallach. Khirue ordered his men to push west and set watch and to push east to guard the road by holding the high ridge. They would be able to see most of what was east and hoped Khor returned soon from the west.
The Company pushed on without surcease. Dhorgat and Mallet located the advance of Khirue’s western watch and were held and questioned. Khirue found it hard to believe that the Black Company had people in the east, even in the city by the sea, when they had not heard of it. Loch and Runner were quite good at evasion. Once the pair had convinced Khirue that they needed to get word through, with the agreement of Commander Khor, Khirue let them through with a few men of his own. It was likely they would need help.
Meanwhile, Loch spent the hours standing in a windowsill behind a large curtain. Trapped halfway up the stair, he had taken refuge in the only place to hide. Little did he know that there would be a general gathering of the Order. There may have only been a dozen who seemed to be a part of a high council, but they kept standing and walking and talking in a language he did not understand. He had no chance to move and his legs were throbbing with stiffness. But to move would surely be his end. He would wait them out. He had to.
There was a commotion and the talking slowly ceased one voice at a time. Loch, able to see slightly through a strained stich in the curtain he hid behind, could see heads turning toward him. Had he been spotted and they now toyed with him? No, someone was coming down the stairs! Loch could not see them but he heard them begin their descent. Instinctively, he counted the steps with each footfall. His tally reached thirty three when the light dimmed with their passing. All he could see was a flash of red with long flowing dark hair. It was the woman he had come for! It seemed she had sensed him as she passed for her head turned slightly. But she didn’t miss a step. On her arm was an old man in black. He could see the heads below begin to bow as the two approached the bottom of the stair. Two more sets of feet started descending the stairs, and Loch counted as he watched the floor. At thirty three steps, two shadows passed by the curtain. These must be the attendant girls. One said something back up the stairs as she passed, and they too were soon at the bottom of the stairs.
Those around the woman and the old man appeared to exchange pleasantries. Loch noticed the woman did not speak or show much of any expression when he could glimpse her face. He swallowed hard for he thought her beautiful and his resolve faltered. A bead of sweat ran into his eye, its saltiness burning. Loch didn’t flinch, just watched. He had to move or fall, his legs both ached beyond anything he had ever felt. He saw the people on the floor had started to move to another room and were no longer looking up the stairs. Silence fell as voices drifted away. Loch had to take a chance. He started to move a leg that badly wanted to move yet felt as limber as a tree trunk and eased himself down to the stair. So far so good. No cries of alarm and with as much speed as he could muster to his aching and stiff muscles, he continued up the stairs three at a time. Somehow he managed to be both quick and quiet and he gained the top of the stair.
Pausing just long enough to see if the hall was clear, and unsure what he would do if it wasn’t, he stepped around and looked at the doors. The ornate frame around a door three from both ends of the hall seemed to be the most likely location for where the woman was housed. Pausing by it, he again looked down the hall toward the stairs. Someone was ascending and a woman’s voice seemed to be asking a question. It was one of the attendants… the one who spoke going down the stairs. Loch pushed against the door and it seemed to give way before him. His stiff legs could not control him. Loch lost his balance and fell hard against the door. It hit someone who was opening the door to respond to the ascending attendant and they fell backward. Loch fell atop her, his hand covered her mouth. The door bounced shut and he realized he was in trouble. He had one girl gagged under him and another approaching the door. He stood and pulled the girl up by her wrist, and thought putting his finger to his lips might mean something to her. Her eyes were dark but bright, and what happened next took Loch by surprise. She quickly pushed him toward an open closet door and closed it after him just as the room door opened. A questioning voice and the girl he had tackled said something in answer as she stood with her back to the closet. Loch realized he was at the mercy of this girl maybe his age if not younger. His only chance was if she kept him secret right now. Going by the exchange it seemed his luck was holding. Then he heard the latch of a lock. He had been locked in! The two voices faded and the room door closed.
"Loch, you've really done it this time," his voice in his head told himself, "You've gone from being the assassin that would save your sister from torment to the prisoner of an attendant girl!"
But he had his knife, a few of then actually. He used one to trip the lock open and he stepped out. This was where he wanted to be. The curtain by the bedside would have to do. He would be able to strike from there. But it meant more long hours of standing still.
On the outside of the palace, Runner searched. He found why a guard was placed below the slope. There was a larder in the back side. Runner managed to slip inside the door and get out of sight. He knew it was only a matter of time before the missing guard was going to be missed.
"Oh Loch, what are you thinking!" Runner thought to himself in the darkness of the cellar.
He knew he didn't have half of Loch's cunning and so he had to think himself a way to find his commander. The first thing was to find a way out of here without raising alarm. Finding the door that led up into the kitchen, he found it locked. Choices were limited. Going back out the way he came, or out this way when the opportunity arises. Runner too had to bide his time.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
As the sun westered, two men wondered if they would survive to see it rise again and the Black Company of Arnor finally met with the Khor’s substantive forces. The Company pulled into position at last in the late afternoon. Word had spread that Loch and Runner were in a precarious position. This meant that Rin was on hand as Khor’s lieutenant laid out the bones of the matter succinctly.
”More of the mariners arrived after the Commander departed, including others we had not encountered before. From their garb you could easily think them largely ceremonial, you’d think…only the regulars along side them want nothing to do with them. Once they showed up, we pulled back and cordoned off the area. Our estimates puts their total numbers at around four hundred now. A few less, since we decided we didn’t like their scouts,” Khirue finished with a fierce grin that set his dark eyes to dancing.
”These newcomers…are they familiar to you, Dhak?” Hanasian inquired and man grimaced, aware that Rin was staring at him hard.
”Nothing ceremonial about them. They were a military sect, but now are widely considered part of the Order themselves. They will defend it to their last breath. Fanatics. They little like to rub shoulders with common soldiers. But that palace will be infested with them. It bodes ill.”
“And what of Loch’s squad?” Videgavia asked.
Khirue’s mirth vanished and he rolled his shoulders. ”Seem to be missing two, though. They’re ahead. Cunning, stealthy…wouldn’t mind having them as our own.”
“Which two?” Rin demanded, pouncing on the Easterling. Khirue blinked in surprise and glanced askance at his Commander. Khor gestured with his hand and the lieutenant answered
“Don’t rightly know...” Khirue responded, hesitating as he struggled to discern the correct form of address for the woman. Clearly of rank, and clad as a warrior, she was an enigma to him in all ways. At his answer, Rin scowled and spun away on one boot heel. She had clearly instructed Loch to be careful! Careful! Odds were he was one of the two, and that Runner that seemed permanently attached to his elbow in recent times was with him. She knew it. Just knew it! Rin kicked at a clod of grass. Easier to be angry with him than afraid. And she was. Fear iced her blood and in her mind was the sound of his pleading chant repeated over and over again: Please, please, please, please...
This was torture! Every muscle in his body screamed in agony. Loch ached to move, just a twitch. He’d been trying out those muscle exercises his sister had told him about, but after a time they just weren’t enough. Could he do it? He’d never set out to kill a woman like this. He’d never killed a woman before. Was she someone’s sister, like Rin? Was she a target because of what she was, rather than who she was, like Rin? Down such paths lay recrimination, doubt and failure. He attempted to slowly tense and relax his muscle groups and harden his resolve. He was not doing this because he wanted to. He was doing this because he must. For his sister, for his Company, for the king and realm they served.
Dorghat eased the door close behind him and surveyed the empty room. It had to be hers. Neither she, nor Loch, were in sight. But Dorghat knew that if Loch was not here already he would be soon. Madness. This was madness. He understood why it must be, but it was madness. He regretted ever telling Loch that he knew where the witch was now. But, it was done and now their fates were in motion. He padded silently to the bed by the window, crouched and slipped underneath it. There was a muffled oomph and the sensation of colliding with a body. Panic set in until a familiar, if incredulous and hoarse voice whispered ”Runner?”
Runner suppressed the insane urge to laugh and briefly grunted assent. He heard Loch expel a sigh of relief beside him.
”Just as well these witches have very wide beds,” Loch said and after that was silence.
There was a special way to breathe to ensure you were not detected. There was a special way to think to ensure you were not distracted. There were special exercises to keep the body as limber as possible to ensure you were not handicapped. The sun gradually sank, there was footfall outside the room. The door opened and several people came in. Runner was closest to the door and judged that there were two women and a man from the feet he could glimpse. They spoke that strange language of them, nonsense to the ears of the two young men under the bed. Though there were three people, only two spoke. The man spoke rarely, voice dry and sibiliant. A young woman also spoke.
Back and forth the feet wandered, sometimes out of view. Then, two feminine sets of feet approached the bed and a wooden screen scraped over the stone floor as it was drawn across behind them. Runner felt Loch’s fingers tighten around his wrist. Carefully, oh so carefully, Loch and then Runner rolled out from the other side of the bed and peered over the mattress. Both women had their backs to the bed and window. One woman was patiently unlacing the back of the other woman’s red gown. Loch recognised the witch from her garb and hair. The other was an attendant, possibly the one that locked him in the wardrobe before or one of the other two. Would they have to kill two women tonight? What of the man?
Slowly they crept around the bed and padded towards the women. Loch’s grip on his knife was slick with sweat. He had to this. He had to. Runner’s knife shook in the light from the sconces. By none other than sheer chance, the attendant glanced to her right and saw Loch standing there. Her eyes went wide and her mouth formed a silent ring, hands stilled on the laces she was unweaving. Loch moved his eyes to the witch and then back again, hoping she might understand, hoping that her earlier concealment of him was a tacit statement of mercy. The attendant’s small hands dropped from the laces and she stepped back. It was now. It had to be now. Runner saw Loch coil and he leapt for the attendant, wrapping a hand around her mouth and literally picking her up as he dragged her backwards, so that her shoes would not scrape and scuff on the flagstone floors.
On the other side of the screen, the man heard movement that somehow seemed out of place. He frowned and turned towards the screen, goblet of what passed for wine in this land forgotten now. Loch heard the man ask a question. The question was repeated as the screen was dragged roughly to one side. The man’s eyes registered alarm and then rage at what he saw and he gathered not only his powers but those of the woman that sagged in the arms of the assassin, head lolling and a curving red gash across her throat. In desperation he released all that he held and chaos was unleashed.
”Rin, time to come clean. You’re more than a thief, aren’t you?”
“Not by design,” Rin muttered, eyes fixed on the trail that Loch’s squad had seen Runner hare off down earlier in the day.
“I was never officially his apprentice and I only stayed six months.”
“Look, all I need to know is whether you’re up to the task of getting in and out of that palace or not.”
At that, Rin transferred her attention from the trail to Khule. ”Khule, how many times to you think I paid an unofficial visit to Meduseld?”
Khule studied her expression a moment and then nodded in satisfaction. He had found his last member of the squad that would be sent in after sunset to locate and extract Loch and Runner from the palace their squad had sighted them approaching. It would be a small team, numbering only four: Videgavia, himself, Berlas and Rin.
”No. Absolutely not. Over my dead body. Hanasian, tell him,” Mecarnil hissed as Khule reported on his selection.
Hanasian glanced over to where his wife stood, stripped of her usual gear. No armour, no packs, no sword or bow and quiver. She was winding her braid around her head and had a length of black fabric that she would shortly wrap over her head. Khule gestured at her without looking.
”She’s able to get into spaces the rest of us can’t. We need a woman for this, and none of the Cats are her equal as of yet. We’ll watch her like she was our own because she is.”
Mecarnil muttered something in Sindarin under his breath and Hanasian reluctantly nodded. Khule didn’t salute for obvious reasons, but he knew what his captain was entrusting him with. He turned on one heel and strode to where Rin stood with the other two. There was a brief conferral, most of their plans already set. Rin turned to sight Hanasian. She lifted her hand slightly and saw him echo the gesture. This was going to end well. It was. Her vision on the trail was false, a possibility already averted. That had to be it. As the sun set, four shadows slipped past the lines and ghosted towards the town. The evening stars had started to emerge. There were pools of shadow, places of obvious cover that they flitted to. Behind them, the Black Company watched and held its breath.
Rin had a particular approach in mind, confirmed as they drew nearer to the palace. It was not the smooth stone assembly seen elsewhere. Natural hand and foot holds abounded. Up the side, down through the top. The eastern face that looked out over the sea would be best. The guards would be clustered around likely access points. But no one would be expected from the inland sea. The question was, did she have enough rope for the climb. It was a relatively squat structure, but still easily four stories tall. Once she was in, did she have enough rope to secure her fool of a brother and drag him out by the ankles. Her mind was busy with such thoughts it happened. It seemed that a giant, invisible hand seemingly picked up the earth and gave it a good shake as if it were a carpet. The resultant force exploded like a great wave across the town with a dull whump.
Far aloft came the piercing cry of an eagle. The stars flared brightly and then faded back to their customary beauty. By the time the Company had picked themselves up, a heavy pall of rock dust hung in the air where the palace had been. Beneath it laid grotesquely tangled ruins, as if the palace had been nothing more than a house of cards.
”Ulmo, Manwe, Aule too…Varda…whatever happened, it was big,” Mecarnil murmured, ears ringing.
On the road, the four people lay sprawled on the ground. Slowly they rolled themselves to relative cover. Rin shook her head and stared at the scene ahead. Fear gave way to dread at what she saw and she had no clear recollection of what occurred next. When her senses cleared next it was late at night and she sat in the rubble. The night was crystalline cold and unnaturally still, as if it held its breath. She was covered in dust, sweat and blood, and filled with the realisation that Loch was gone. Despair flooded her and dully she stared at the scene around her. Torches had been brought to cast back the night and the light danced and flickered over the ruin. Men scrambled over the shattered stones and timber, heaving what could be moved aside either alone or in groups. Elsewhere ropes and horses were being used. It was utterly incomprehensible to her until atop the largest pile Wulgof raised his arm.
"DOC! HERE! FOUND ANOTHER ONE!"
She had no idea how or why her body obeyed and yet she rose and answered the summons. And so it continued, stone by stone, victim by victim. Those not combing the ruined palace for two missing Black Company men were taken aback by the calmness of the town. The only strife had been with the men that Dhak had described as fanatics and most of those men were too injured by the palace's collapse or lying within the tangled wreckage to mount any significant opposition. And yet, the Company felt as though they had just confronted a grievious battle. They felt battered, bruised, tattered and saddened. When dawn finally spread soft delicate light over the east, some thirty bodies had been recovered from the ruin. None of them were Black Company men.
The devastation of the blast not only collapsed the palace, but it had caused some damage to nearby buildings. As the search and clean-up went on into the morning, Hanasian de-briefed and recorded in detail everyone of the Company men that were a part of Loch’s squad. They were at the time of the blast stationed at points in the hills above in an attempt to get a better understanding as to what may have happened. Most reported a flash of light before the shaking of the ground was felt. Then a shockwave of heat and cold blew past them and the air had a strange odour. This account was all the same with the difference in what odour was noted to resemble. Then they all reported they fell unconscious. Likewise, Khule and Khor questioned any locals that were nearby and other than the amount of time and what their senses noted. It was all pretty much the same.
Hanasian could see that Rin had retreated into herself and was silent yet dutifully treating the injured one after the other. There were a lot of them. Everything from minor scratches to shattered limbs. She started to treat Ghorn, one of Runner’s men for a severe head wound when he woke suddenly. Hanasian was right there. He was asking what happened!
”Let me bandage your head before you start talking and moving around too much!” Rin barked at him.
He settled back as if scolded by his mother, and Hanasian let his wife finish her work before pressing him for more information. It was then that Videgavia came with his report, and Hanasian brushed Rin’s hair with his hand and let her know with a look that he wanted to talk to Ghorn, and her, but was going to step away and hear what Vid had to report. They walked some steps away, still in sight but out of earshot, before Videgavia started speaking.
”Still not sure what happened Cap. Dhak is with the few of the black mariners that survived trying to get anything from them, but they are a tight-lipped bunch. Dhak said something about the rift being closed, but it didn’t make much sense to me.
“Since they speak in their language akin I believe to old Adunic, little of it we can make sense of. And I’m not so sure about trusting what Dhak says either; being he’s the only one we have to translate. If body language and vocal tones are to be trusted, they seem to be arguing more than anything.”
Hanasian waved Mecarnil over and asked, ”You of all of us are the most learned in the languages of the Old Edain. I have seen you intently listening to Dhak and his companions when they go off talking to one another. Have you been able to make any sense of it?”
Mecarnil shook his head in such way it was difficult discern whether he meant yes or no.
He said, “Cap, all I had found was some old worn parchments that were quite water damaged. I have studied more the writing than the spoken... being that nobody in Middle Earth speaks the language true anymore.
“We have some key words and phrases that we use that we have learned being raised in Arnor, and you, me, Farbarad, Aragorn, and some of the old Greys know them. But what we know is not a language. So no, I can’t tell you any that’s being said, but I listen and pick up the inflections I think is the punctuation inscribed on the old scrolls. I’m learning Cap, but I can’t tell you anything.”
Hanasian nodded, and said, ”Farbarad will have to stick with Rosmarin for a bit, help in healing and observing her. I will too within my abilities to do so while leading this Company. Now, Vid, what is our situation?”
Videgavia looked around and then started to speak, ”Overall, it looks like we as a Company came out reasonably well, apart from Loch’s command. We found one dead, three badly injured, and the rest shaken. Khor’s men he had in town suffered wounds, and some of the Mariner regulars that were nearby were killed with a dozen more wounded.
“It seems most of the dead were clustered around this palace, and were those of this ‘Order’ that Dhak referred to. Unfortunately, we have three missing.”
Hanasian glanced over at Rin who had Ghorn sitting up and looked back at Videgavia, saying, ”Loch, Runner, and who else?”
“Ravenclaw.” Videgavia answered.
Hanasian then asked, ”Ravenclaw?”
Mecarnil looked about and mumbled, ”Yeah, that would be about right.”
Hanasian turned and asked, ”What did you say?”
Mecarnil spat and said, ”Nothin’”
“Didn’t sound like nothin’.” Hanasian said.
Mecarnil looked at Videgavia who huffed out a sigh and said, ”Let it out Mecarnil. You’ve been itching to for some time now. I know you want to tell me that you told me so.
“A bit of background Captain… as you know, when you were off honeymooning, it was left to me to recruit and get things set to head to Rhun. Ravenclaw, otherwise known as Hamoor, was one of the men who volunteered.
“I didn’t like the man, especially since we all had rejected him first time he tried to join when we were in pursuit of Simra. But this time I thought we could use him here. So far it seemed to work- -”
“I would let it out if you would shut up.” Mecarnil cut in, “I said at the time he had a bad air about him. Didn’t like bumping into him on Hanasian’s night, didn’t like him years ago, and certainly didn’t like him becoming part of the Company. If I wasn’t so wrapped up in royal business at the time, I’d have made myself clearer.”
Hanasian put his hand up to his head as they bickered, and then grabbed both by the collar of their tunics. He dragged them close, nearly knocking their heads together.
”Enough! Yes, he stinks, yes he has history, and there is something about him I don’t like either. But what’s done is done, and like it or not, he is Company! Now I don’t need this from you two right now, or ever, really. There are many reasons men go missing.
“Remember when Mulgov was missing three days the last time we were here in Rhun? He went to relieve himself in the woods in the dark and ended up falling down a steep slope and knocking himself out. He eventually found us again. So, for now I write Loch, Runner, and Ravenclaw down as missing in action. Now Vid, how are we in numbers?”
They both were silent, and as Hanasian let go of them, they stood straight and adjusted their tunics. Hanasian could see that Rin had noted the discussion, and signalled that Ghorn was ready to talk. Hanasian gave her sign that he would be there shortly, and listened as Videgavia finished giving his report.
”Except for Loch, we have the rest of the old crew, fifty-three from the Gondorian recruitment, and sixty-seven of Khule’s Easterling recruitment. Of them, there is only a half dozen of Runner’s squad of swift feet left fit. Kallach is confirmed killed on the trail by Khirue, two have broken limbs and will not be moving swift anytime, Ghorn is badly hurt and being attended to, and as reported, Runner is missing.
“Khor has ninety-six with his main body under Khirue, and says there are another fifty or so posted on the outskirts. He has sent word to have all but sentries recalled. Of the mariner regulars, there are sixty-four who we have contained comfortably, being treated as prisoner-guests as they seem to listen to Dhak, and we have seven of this Order in captivity.
“Dhak said some of the regulars have reported some of the Order’s elite guard had left the day before, which corresponds with what Khirue said when they killed the ones who killed Kallach.”
Hanasian nodded and said, ”Thanks Vid. I want to have a Company meeting this afternoon before it rains. Let the old crew save Mulgov and Khule know we’ll meet there by those trees in an hour. Have Mulgov and Khule come see me now, and let their companies know there will be a meet in two hours by the destroyed palace.
“Until then, have them rest, for the night has been long and the march before that longer. Meanwhile, see if any sign of Ravenclaw can be found. Khor has the locals still rummaging through the rubble for sign. I’m going to see if Ghorn can tell me anything more.”
They parted with a grasp of the hand, and Vidigavia and Mecarnil headed up the hill where the old crew was, chuckling.
Vid mumbled, ”Mulgov had to be a sight… laying there knocked out for however long with his breeches down to his knees…”
More chuckles, and when they tried to contain themselves upon reaching the old crew’s camp, Mulgov looked at them and said, ”What’s so funny?”
Which set them both laughing hysterically. Vid got a hold of himself and managed to say without laughing, ”You and Khule need to go see the Cap right now. He’s with Rin at the aid camp in the field below.”
Mulgov waited for Khule before setting off down the hill, saying, ”I wonder what is tickling them?”
“It’s best you don’t ask,” Khule said, not having a clue what it was all about, “I’m more worried about what the Captain wants.”
Hanasian came up to Rin and gave her a kiss. He could see the deep worry in her face beneath her professional demeanour. She was going to go attend to another when Hanasian stopped her.
”I want you with me to hear what Ghorn has to say. The others say he was closest and was moving to cover for Runner.”
Rin hesitated, then said, ”I don’t know if I can, love. I’m not ready to accept Loch is dead.”
“He isn’t dead, he is missing,” Hanasian said, “If you feel the need to go to tend others, then do so, but I ask you to stay.”
She paused and thought as an Easterling soldier was brought with a rag tied over his right eye. Rin squeezed Hanasian’s hand and said, ”I would for you my love, but Rocks and Two Bells are working without break, so too should I. I‘ll only be a few steps away, tending this man. We will talk later of all this.”
Hanasian gave her a kiss and she set to work on the man next to where Ghorn sat. She was likely within earshot anyway. Hanasian sat down next to Ghorn, who tried to get up and stand at attention. He was in every way a proud Easterling member of the Company, and thought having the captain talking to him a great honour. Hanasian steadied the young man and helped him sit back down.
”Easy. I need you in good health. Let us talk some. Tell me all that happened as you remember it.”
Ghorn started when he saw Loch’s last signal. He had been busy counting the order’s elite guards moving out. Four troops of twenty, of which one group went up the hill. The approach of Khule and Mulgov distracted him slightly, but made him want to be as detailed as his memory would be. Hanasian signalled them both that there was possibly eighteen of the Order elite somewhere outside of the town. One of the least bandaged of the runners was sent to the camp on the hill to get word to Vid and the others. They would have to be on the alert as it was obvious these men were dangerous and unpredictable. Hanasian made a note to speak with Dhak and see what more he would say about this. But right now, Ghorn was reporting.
”When I again looked to signal my numbers to Loch, he was gone. Runner too was out of position, but I spotted him heading for Loch’s last position. He was puzzled by Loch’s disappearance too.
“I signalled him my numbers and he signalled back to me he was going in. He remained in sight by the palace for a short time, but disappeared from my sight around the back of the palace. I started to work my way down to cover and the others set new positions to keep full watch.
“I took up Loch’s old position and it was a long time, maybe hours before I decided to move down. I had not seen any sign of Runner, or Loch, and I got this feeling that something was happening inside. I had counted and had it signed to me that all but the twenty of the guards had come back to the palace, almost as if they were summoned.
“It was right when I stepped down that everything went white. Heat and cold both blasted me and I was thrown back against them rocks, and I remember no more… wait. A vision. I don’t know if I was awake or sleep, but I saw Loch and another.
“They were flying, as if they went by me. It was not Runner with him though. It could have been the effects of the blast but it seemed so clear at the time. It bothers me that I don’t know who was with him. Next thing I know is I am lying here in pain. That is all I know sir.”
Hanasian took his hand and squeezed, saying, ”Very well son. You heal and get well. We need you back with us!”
No better words could he receive. He smiled and gratefully lay back down, obviously dizzy. Ghorn watched as the captain stood and directed Mulgov and Khule to summon their commands and have a meet before the all Company meeting. Many decisions had to be made this day, none easy.
Ghorn said as Hanasian began to walk away, ”Sir, if I remember any more, I will let you know.”
Hanasian nodded to him and said, ”Yes, do that. Consider it an order.”
Hanasian felt he was starting to gain a handle on working these Easterling Company worshippers of Khule’s. He was headed to talk to Dhak when Two Bells came to him and said, ”Captain, there is something you may want to see.”
Hanasian detoured and went over to where the rubble was being sorted. A wisp of smoke, steam, and chill icy air weaved around each other from the pile. A precarious opening was made that led down into the cellar of the palace. A couple locals braved entry, and brought out a broken bloodied body of a girl.
After they crawled out, one said in the dialect of Rhun, ”There is another! May be alive!”
Two Easterling Company men pushed their way in one after another. They found them partially buried in dirt and trapped under a beam.
”Breathing but not conscious,” one of the men said out to another of his comrades outside the hole.
The commotion that someone had been found alive spread and Rin looked up. She resisted leaving her patient in mid–operation to see if it was her brother and returned to her task of removing a huge splinter of wood from the man’s eye. The eye would heal, but wouldn’t be able to see much from it.
Rin needed to believe her brother was alive, but she prepared herself as best she could to accept he was dead. She didn’t miss a move when word came that it was a woman found alive.
The two men worked to free the woman from under the beam. There was no little room to work but they managed to use a part of a beam as a lever to get the pressure off of her. They could see her gasp for air and breathe easier but they had lots of work to do. They dug away the dirt and rocks, and managed to move her. She moaned in pain but it had to be done.
The man outside the hole said, ”You two nearly done in there? We hear creaking so hurry up. The whole place may soon fall on you!”
The two heard creaking too. They had placed support from the pieces of wood and rock around the best they could but knew they were changing the dynamics of the structure. They freed the woman free and worked her to the opening, where she was pulled free. A cracking sound followed and things began to slide. They scrambled out as the remaining framework came crashing down. Too close! Hanasian would get their names and give them each an award of honour later. Right now he wanted to know about the two who were pulled out if the rubble.
One was dead, but the other was not. He sent for Rin to tend to the girl, and sent for Dhak, Khor, and had one who appeared to be an officer of the surviving Order elite brought forth. He wanted answers and he was going to get them. Two Bells examined the surviving girl and cleaned her face. To Hanasian, she didn’t look like she was from any race of men he had ever seen in these lands. Of the closest, the dark hair, tanned skin, and facial features reminded him most of the women of Khand. But not enough to be Khandese. He suspected that she and the dead girl beside her were from east of the sea, perhaps a people long sundered in the beginnings of the song? He hoped answers would come. Dhak was the first to arrive. He was astonished to see the girls.
”They didn’t!” he said in the eastern mariner language under his breath.
The girl heard him and stirred. She looked over to see the face of her sister and wept as she reached for her hand. She said something that only Dhak could understand.
When pressed by Hanasian, he said, ”She wants to know where her sister is, her other sister. Captain, don’t let any of the Order see her. They think they’re all destroyed.”
Hanasian agreed and countermanded his instruction to bring the officer. He and the rest of the Order were instead were put under the watch of Wulgof, Bear, and some of the Company men that had just recently arrived. Wulgof inspected a building one of Dhak’s companions suggested they use and deemed the cellar perfect for the job at hand. The prisoners were herded into the cellar and the place guarded several trusted Company men. Hanasian was satisfied with this arrangement and pleased that newly arrived men were used by Wulgof. For whatever reason Dhak didn’t want them to know about the girls being found, he thought it was best the guards didn’t know about them either. There could be powers at work here he did not know of. He would have to deal with them later.
He listened as Dhak interpreted what the girl said. He asked her how many sisters were there and she answered three. Dhak talked with her for some time, and told Hanasian of the three sisters who had come over the sea to tend to the witch. They were apprentice students, hoping to learn what they could from her, and given the task because the three triplets had shown some sort of a benign shielding capacity.
The Order hoped they would protect the witch through their proximity, but it seemed things went horribly wrong. Hanasian didn’t think Dhak was telling him everything, but he had to fear the worst. Thinking this girl may hold the key to what happened, he wanted to know more, but right now the girl only cried. She could talk no more.
Rin’s arrival prompted immediate action.
”You men! Get some blankets! She is barely clothed and is shivering! And cover her sister and move her away! What’s the matter with you?” she cried in dismay.
Hanasian pushed the others away and let Two Bells and Rin tend to her many wounds. The girl’s leg was smashed and her ribs were bruised with some of them broken, but she would survive. The girl slid into and out of consciousness, knowing her older sister was dead and her younger sister missing. She was surrounded by strange voices speaking strange languages she did not understand. She was in a strange land, all alone, and as she drank some water with something Rin had given her, she fell into a deep sleep.
Setting a guard around the girl, his wife and the Two Bells, Hanasian gave orders that she be taken to somewhere warm and dry once Rin approved her being moved. Hanasian went next with Dhak, Khor, Khule, and Mulgov to where Wulgof was keeping the prisoners and interrogated the officer of the Order. He got little information and left Dhak to verbally spar with him until they were sealed in. What to do with them were just one of Hanasian’s problems this day. He had another renegade band of these Order fanatics on the loose in the land, Dhak and his soldiers, scores of wounded soldiers and townsfolk, a seriously hurt woman from across the sea, scores of dead to be buried or burned, a grieving wife, and the mystery of three missing men. It was only mid afternoon too, and the rain started to fall from the grey sky. They were going to get wet during their meeting.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The call to a compulsory Company meeting arrived just as the rain started to rush from the heavens. Thick, angry drops splattered, hurled resentfully down. It only added to the general misery for those working on the ground.
”You have to be kidding! We’re up to our necks in blood, bone and mud here. A meeting now?” Rocks protested when Babble arrived with the news.
The man nodded, shoulders hunched beneath his rain cape and strode off towards where the Black were camped. Rocks glanced back to where their healer was. She didn’t appear to have taken any notice. Rin was in grim shape. Every time they brought someone or something out, he saw hope turn to ashes in her face. The fact that he could discern anything of her thoughts revealed a great deal in itself. This was a woman whose capacity for self containment rivalled some of the best. Her leathers were ruined, abraded and gouged after a night and day of forcing herself into dangerous places to provide emergency treatment before the located victim could be removed. She’d been on her feet through a day and a night and now most of this day. He knew she was reserving her strength, parcelling it out so that she could make it last for as long as possible. Farbarad had asked to step down and rest already and she had refused him, staying that she would not leave until Loch was found. When she went down, it would be hard. Rocks glanced at Bells and issued a covert signal for the younger man to head off to the meeting. Once Bells had complied, Rocks cautiously approached Rin.
”You know, I seem to recall you telling us that the only thing more dangerous than a medic who didn’t know what he didn’t know was one that worked while exhausted.”
He had anticipated her silence and so continued to apply relentless pressure, ”Never figured you for a hypocrite, Doc.”
At that, her fingers stilled a moment. He saw her jaw bunch and she swallowed hard. Then she resumed her stitches. They were good and the civilian she was working on would heal cleanly as a result, but they were not her usual painstaking perfection. Another sign of how exhausted she was.
”I would have thought that you had enough trouble to wallow in without adding failure to report as ordered to the pile.”
“If you don’t let me concentrate, I’ll stitch your mouth shut,” she growled and Rocks smiled and jammed his hands under his arms.
”If you don’t show up to this meeting, you won’t be stitching anyone’s anything as you'll be on report. How useful will you be then, eh?”
In this time she had finished up the stitches and she shot him a look that suggested she was repressing the urge to clip his ears by the slimmest of margins. Rin expelled a sharp breath and beckoned one of the Easterlings over. Once she established that the man could do a decent bandage they were on their way.
Donius and Daius had done their best to rig up some kind of shelter with what they could set their hands to. Even so, it was not nearly enough to keep everyone dry. Rain thrummed over the capes and hoods of men and women who clustered together. Rocks realised they were amongst the last to arrive. What happened next, however, surprised him. People parted way silently to admit them, a silent mark of respect for the particularly grim work the four of them had been doing and, Rocks suspected, a way of offering some comfort for the woman who had lost a brother. He was lost, as far as Rocks was concerned. The rubble was their tomb, their tangled cairn. It was a thought he kept to himself as he followed Rin through the press, and he was not the only one to think it.
Upon sighting Rin, Frea levered himself off a camp stool and beckoned her to it. She took it reluctantly, pushed her hood back and revealed that her composed mask was in place again. Rocks headed to where Bells and Sparks stood on the other side, near Wulgof, Molguv and Morcal. Many eyes darted between the three medics on one side, the healer on the other, and the command of the Black Company in the middle of it all. Hanasian swiftly called the meeting was swiftly called to order and Videgavia opened with a summary of their current situation.
”Which brings us to the three Black Company individuals currently missing, and our next course of action,” Videgavia finished, glancing to Hanasian.
”Missing? We know where two are, even if we haven’t found them yet,” Wulgof interjected belligerently, eyes flashing.
Rin’s jaw tightened and her head bowed so that her chin nearly rested on her chest, arms tightly crossed and fists clenched so tightly that her nails dug into her palms. The pain gave her something to focus herself on. She kept her eyes fixed on her muddy boots. Folca’s hand lightly brushed her shoulder and she jerked away.
”As for our next course of action, it’s as obvious as the nose on my face. We find this Order and hunt every last one of them down. What has happened here demands an answer!” Wulgof finished.
”There is nothing obvious about this,” Hanasian cut in sharply, ”Nothing! We don’t know nearly as much as we guess. Loch and Runner could be anywhere here. Have you searched every nook and cranny of this forest, Wulgof? First things first, anyone who has knowledge of where Ravenclaw might be is to step forward now.”
Wulgof muttered darkly, but otherwise there was no response. No one stepped forward.
”Right… we have three men missing, a number wounded, some eighteen elite hostile foes and some hard decisions to make.”
“If Loch were about, we’d have found him by now. It’s been a day, a night and a day,” Wulgof persisted and Foldine’s temper snapped.
”Can you have some respect, some decency? Must you be so eager to declare him dead and buried, in the face of his sister?”
“Look at her, you fool! She knows! Just look at her! This devilry demands answer! The longer we equivocate, the longer will justice be denied!”
“Justice? Sounds like another Dunlander thirsty for vengeance to me. Thought you’d outgrown your barbarian roots,” Foldine sneered and at that angry voices began to rise.
Tension rose inexorably towards dangerous heights. People jostled against each other. Hanasian, Videgavia, Mecarnil and Frea shouted for order frantically. They were tired, heartsore, overwhelmed and if any one of them drew a weapon against their fellow soldier, catastrophe would follow. The sound of a piercing wail sliced through the mayhem like elven steel through summer grass. It startled them all, including the woman responsible for it.
Rin found herself on her feet, panting hard and shaking so hard her teeth threatened to chatter. She ripped the Company brooch that pinned her muddy cloak to her throat free and flung it at Wulgof's chest with all her remaining strength. Her cloak soddenly slumped around her boots and the pin bounced off Wulgof's chest and fell to the ground heavily. Seering rage burnt in her eyes.
”WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE ANY OF YOU? WHO! Is this what the Company is? Is this what we stand for? Thugs and mercenaries?” she rasped, voice husked by grief.
She strode to confront Wulgof, bare inches from his face, ”Lochared is NOT DEAD! Yet, even if he was, who are you to demand vengeance in HIS NAME? After all we have endured!” she savagely demanded of him.
”How DARE you! How dare you incite anyone to spill blood in my brother’s name! How dare you render him a savage effigy! Is THAT WHAT YOU ARE? Ravenous, hate filled, bent on revenge, another monster marauder from Dunland?”
Wulgof’s eyes were wide with pain at Rin's onslaught. ”No, Rin! No-“ he mumbled, eyes dropping and she teetered back a step.
She turned, still quivering and the tow of one boot kicked the brooch. Rin stared at it a long moment before she raised a grief ravaged expression to Hanasian. The hush amongst the Company was absolute, broken only by the drumming rain. Her back was to the gathered Company and she could not bare their pity filled eyes.
Rin turned her head and asked over one shoulder, ”How many of you believe Wulgof is right?”
A great number of hands raised. She knew this because she saw in the grim expressions of Hanasian and Videgavia.
”Then I was wrong about this Company…and I will have no further part in it.”
Bells, Sparks and Rocks gaped at her flat statement, devoid of inflection, weighted with despair. She turned and pushed through them, headed back out into the rain without cloak or hood. Hanasian shot a pleading glance at Farbarad and the Ranger hurried after her, grabbing the nearest medic and dragging him with him. Hanasian drew a deep breath and steered the meeting back onto course as the two men trudged after Rin.
”I need something to knock her out. She can’t continue like this,” Farbarad said plainly and Rocks nodded.
”I know just the thing,” he replied, the very thing Rin had been using on the various survivors in mind, a refinement of Molguv's Special Reserve.
It was not the only thing in the medic’s mind and his thoughts jarred, clashing with each other. They caught up with her down at site, where a small number of injured people had gathered under the canvas rigged up over the medical area. She was so exhausted that her reactions were already lagging. Farbarad placed two gentle yet firm hands on each of her shoulders and resolutely turned her about. Rocks pressed the soaked scrap of bandage over her nose and face. It was a simple thing, easily done. Her eyelids dragged down over her betrayed expression and Rocks’ thoughts cleared into a single realisation. He couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t do it. Silver Fox hadn’t paid him yet. Yes, he was giving up a veritable prince’s ransom, but he couldn’t. As the last remaining tension fled Rin’s body and she sprawled against Farbarad, whose expression was achingly sorrowful, Rocks felt a great weight lift from his shoulders.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Rosmarin was sound asleep in their tent and Hanasian thanked both Farbarad and Rocks for all they had done. She would be asleep for some time, so Hanasian sat by her side and updated his annals. It pained him, but he made note of Runner and Loch as ‘missing and presumed dead’. It would be their status until hard evidence proved otherwise. Other men of the Company had gone missing and were written off as dead the same way with even less proof, because there was just nothing to find. Hanasian referred back to the List of Names and read through them. All had been accounted there, and even those who served the least of time were remembered. Caras, a young Gondorian who joined as they rode out of Minas Tirith toward Rhun the first time to battle the warlord Khurg had burned to ashes in the ambush of fiery spears. There was nothing to find but his belt buckle days later. Or Faradas and Ergono who went out on a scouting patrol when they were in Khand. Neither were ever seen or heard from again. They disappeared withut a trace. Back in the war in the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Malach was so badly hacked up and trampled, the only thing recognizable was the hood and the mangled brooch of his grey cloak. Hanasian thought about them all and could see each of their faces, laughing, yelling, arguing, thinking… he reached over and played with a curl of Rin’s hair and sighed. Sometimes you want to believe they are alive, but the pragmatic side of your thinking says they are dead. Runner was a good lad. He practically worshipped the ground we Company men stepped on. Loch… a wild and free spirit, who embraced too well all that the Company was about.
Hanasian didn’t want to, but it was in the best interest of the Company. Rosmarin was relieved of her role as Company physician. Temporary mind you, but definitely now. The loss of her brother and the stresses of the life in the Company has taken their toll on the Queen of Cardolan. Two Bells, being most capable, will have to fill in. Rocks will back up, and a couple of the Easterlings seemed to have taken interest in the healing arts, which was something not widely considered in the Easterling armies. Perhaps he could get Rin into teaching some of them a bit of her healing arts? The Company cannot have too many medics and it looked like the Easterlings would be a major part of it from now on. Maybe in a few days she would be more acceptable of this?
Hanasian decided to give the Company some down time if they wished it. Many took it upon themselves to conduct the clean-up around the palace while the locals, many of the Easterling legion, and Khor’s men helped elsewhere in the coastal town. The Gondorian legion took up the outpost guard with some of Khirue’s men. There had been raids on some of them and a few were killed. There seemed to be none of the raiders killed. It was the renegade Order squad. They would have to move on them, and soon. Mulgov and Khirue organized some raiding parties of their own, and sent them out at night in search of the renegades. They proved elusive, but a few had been killed.
Meanwhile, those who were in the town worked to had painstakingly remove the rubble of the palace stone by stone. Runner’s squad of swift messengers were there doing their part, and the old crew got into the digging. It was likely more to do with them wanting to find their comrades and always holding an ever dimming flame of hope that they would find them alive in some wine cellar enclave. But alas, it was becoming evident that this hope was futile. A knife hilt with burned marks on it where the blade was had been recovered, and Wulgof identified it as Loch’s. A warped belt buckle was identified as Runner’s, along with small pieces of cloaks from them both. The finding of Runner’s homemade Company patch, and Loch’s right boot in the debris of the palace largely confirmed it for Hanasian’s records if not in the minds of the rest of the Company.
After two days, all that could be found there had been. The remains of bodies found were identified as men of the Order, and blasted fragments of flesh and red silk were rightly identified as that of the witch. An aftershock bounced the land and it was fortunate the search through the palace rubble had concluded. For it had caused the collapse of a few weakened and damaged buildings around the town, and Dhak seemed very pleased that the building housing the captured order had fell in on them. Nobody was in a hurry to see if there were any survivors under that wreckage.
On the morning of the third day, Hanasian announced that Runner and Loch were listed as missing and presumed dead, and they would be holding the Company service for their missing comrades. It wasn’t an absolute acknowledgment of death, but it may have well been. It would be a wake of memory, and there would be much to remember.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Little had been seen of Rin by Hanasian’s design since the events of the last Company meeting. Only those few who he permitted into the tent had set eyes on her. Farbarad, Mecarnil and Videgavia all were stricken by what they saw. Pale, silent, all too still aside from the recovered dagger hilt that she turned over and over in her hands. No matter how many blankets, no matter the amount of wood stuffed in the brazier that Farbarad had found, she shivered. She ate, barely, when told to. She slept poorly, driven mercilessly by dark nightmares of distant events.
Round and round the dagger hilt turned. How he had brandished them in Mithlond, chuckling with delight. A matched set, elvish make, that he swept about in absurd, grandiose flourishes like a rank amateur. Which he was not and it had made her laugh until her sides ached. That late afternoon memory, on the decks of the ship that took them to Pelargir and their first Company deployment, now seemed so very remote. The dagger hilt spun again and then, a gentle yet strong hand wrapped around hers. His touch was so warm, so vital.
”Are you sure, beloved?” Hanasian asked her, crouching over his heels in front of her and studying her anxiously.
She nodded at him but Hanasian was not in the least convinced she was up to this. She was wan, and her dark garb only further underscored it. All the spark, all her brightness had been snuffed out of her. The delicate structure of her face struck him as fragile, her eyes too large. She had lost weight and he was reminded powerfully of their first encounter. She looked more forlorn and stricken now than she had then and once again he found himself tempted to forbid it. Yet he could not bear to deny her this. His wife had lost every member of her immediate family to deaths that were too soon and far too violent. She had never had the chance to farewell any of them, until now. He did not think she would forgive him, no matter his motivations, if he prevented her farewelling her brother.
”Very well,” he said softly, and pressed his lips to her brow.
He drew the hood up over her head and slowly they emerged into the dusk. It was a clear, bitterly cold, night. Torches flickered in a stiff wind that came from the inland sea down at the collapsed palace. The light danced over those who had gathered. The stars had begun to reveal themselves, one by one, and the moon seemed over large. Slowly, down the slope they went, followed by Mecarnil and Farbarad.
The crowd was surprisingly large. The Company was there, of course. Khor and a great many of his men where there, as were the Easterlings Khule had unofficially recruited. A great many of the townsfolk gathered as well, for many considered that the two men were responsible for freeing their town of an entirely unwanted and sinister presence. What surprised Hanasian most, however, was the presence of so many of Dhak’s men. They stood as solemn faced and respectful as all of the others. For Rin, the faces largely blurred. So many of them, all around, none of them Loch. Every time she saw a Black Company uniform she found herself looking for her brother. Her mind had taken to deceiving her cruelly.
Runner’s squad clustered on the shore. A small boat had been found and filled with candles and keepsakes. It was their custom to release their fallen upon the sea, to be taken to the sacred isle at its heart. A great many voices urged Runner’s spirit to the protection of that isle. When the chanting was completed, the line was released. It slapped into the water and the greedy tide ensured that the little vessel bobbed away from shore. A silence fell over those assembled as they watched the glittering candles, protected from the wind by the gunnels of the boat, drift out over the waters of the vast inland sea.
But it was not yet done and Rin had started to shake hard. Still she managed the first step towards the pile of rubble. Hanasian made sure that she reached it and she sank to her knees before the stones to set her hand upon them. He heard her suck in a breath and then placed her other hand upon the tumbled stones. Her head bowed between her outstretched arms. Brother…are you cold? Was it fast? Did you suffer? Did it happen before you knew of it or did you lie here, listening to us look for you, death devouring you slowly, piece by piece, hour by hour? Have I failed you? Did you know I looked for you? So many of us searched? Did you think I abandoned you? The stone she touched held no answers, no memories. Slowly she raised her head and the hood slipped back to reveal the gleam of her hair under torchlight. She did not know if she could muster the strength to do what was needed but she knew that he would try for her. Rin drew a deep breath into her trembling body, lifted her head and began.
Never before had anyone gathered there heard Rin sing, not even her husband. The lament was a reflection of the land and people it sprang from and Wulgof sucked in a breath at hearing his people’s dirge. It was fair, wild, fierce and perilous. Wulgof joined his voice to hers once he found it and together they wove the two verses as custom required. He sung of the strength and loyalty that all Dunlanders were expected to epitomise. She sang of the hearth and home that all Dunlanders were expected to protect as ferociously as required. The third verse, however, Wulgof did not take up. It did not belong to him. It was not right for him to sing. There was only one to whom it belonged and the fact that she sang alone, where there should have been many, made it all the harder for him to bear.
There was no shame in grief and Loch had touched many lives in his brief time with the Company. His generosity, his good cheer, his steadfast loyalty and his rascal’s smile had left their mark. Once the lament was ended, there was a period of protracted silence. Then, either alone or in small groups, people began to drift away. Hanasian knew the way of his Company. Up at the camp, there would be people talking long into the night, sharing memories. Rin slowly rose to her feet again, hand lingering on the stone as if loath to surrender contact. Her fingers traced the grain of the stone, badly damaged by the forces that had held forth here. A gust of wind tugged at her cloak and dark skirts and sent her hair flying. She seemed lost somewhere else entirely. Recalling the barrows on the northern downs and fearing what these stones might reveal to her, Hanasian stepped forward to pull her hood back into place.
His fingers grazed her cheek as he did so and she took in a breath and turned to face him. Rin stared intently at him and he had the impression that she was seeing him for the first time in days. Her eyes roamed his face, searching for what he knew not. Then she spoke his name. It was like she was waking from a dream, a dark dream. He traced the fine line of her jaw softly and her eyes drifted shut.
”It is done, beloved,” he told her and took up her arm again to return to the camp above.
Wulgof squinted against the morning sun, his head pounding more than it ought to. It had been a late night spent with Molguv, Khule and the others. He shaded his eyes with one hand. His other hand fidgeted with an envelope. It was thick, crinkled and grubby from being crammed into a soldier's pack. Wulgof looked back to where the others stood and saw them shoo him on. It was time, they said. He didn't argue with them over that. However, given his last encounter with the letter's recipient, he was not in the least convinced he should be the one to give it to her. Molguv and Khule outvoted him on that. He heaved a sigh and trudged the rest of the way.
Hanasian had decided to make the most of the bright winter day. He had scared up a table from somewhere and some mismatched chairs. He had installed Rin in one and then headed off to check in with Khor, Dhak and the men that guarded the Order. Rin had a book open that she wasn’t paying any attention to. Instead, she was staring at the ruffled surface of the sea, lost in her thoughts. The funeral garb of the previous evening was gone. In its place she wore her battered leather breeches, a thigh length tunic with a frayed hem and her badly abused leather jacket open over it. Her boots were unlaced and her hair was only loosely braided and had started to come free. A beggar princess, Wulgof thought, surprising himself with the poetic concept. When Wulgof’s shadow fell across the table, she drew in a deep breath and blinked to refocus those remarkable eyes of hers on his face. The Dunlender felt his gut tighten.
”I’m not here to argue or give you a hard time,” he said as hesitancy entered her expression.
She lifted a pale brow at that and she said, ”Not even if I deserved it?”
Wulgof found he couldn’t really answer that and her eyes dropped away from his face and back to the sea. He sat down at a spare chair and wondered how he was going to do this.
”If you’re here to see me in any official capacity, I must advise you to seek out one of the others. I have been stood down indefinitely,” she said.
”Look…your brother asked me to give you this if anything should…happen…”
Wulgof pushed the tattered envelope towards her across the table and she stared at it like he had brandished a poisoned dagger in her face.
”Rin…I hope this isn’t out of line…but me and the others just wanted to say that we’re sorry…and…well you’re Black too whether you quit or not. We do right by our own. Not that the Cap don’t do right by you or nothin’…” Wulgof's voice trailed off and he found himself wishing that Khule had done this instead of him.
She continued to stare at the envelope and so Wulgof stood and left her to her privacy. She swallowed hard and reached for the envelope. Her fingers only shook a little as she folded out the paper inside.
If you are reading this then I am dead and I just want to say that I’m sorry. I didn’t do it on purpose. I really do listen to you when you tell me to be careful. Please, don’t be mad with me-“
Rin jerked her eyes away and back to the sea below. Her heart pounded in her ears. Paper crumpled in her grasp. She closed her eyes and focussed on her breathing. It was shallow and unsteady and her head was starting to spin. Only when she felt she had a grasp on herself did she recommence reading Loch’s letter. His cramped handwriting made her heart ache. So many arguments back and forth about why it was important to learn how to read and write. He had forced a whole page out, a significant effort for her brother. She could hear his voice in her head as she read and she steeled herself to push on. As she read, the warmth the sun had left in her blood faded.
She folded the paper up again and placed it back into the envelope. Her heart was pounding again but this time it was anger that propelled it. As chance would have it, Rocks ambled down the slope towards the town right at that moment. Her eyes tracked his progress as her mind tried to come to grips with this information. The question was: what, if anything, to do with it? And, when? Her answers came willingly. Enough was enough. She was sick of being hunted. Sick of running and hiding. Sick of watching the treachery of others cut down those she loved the most. Rin slowly stood and set off down the slope. Enough. Was. Enough.
”Company meeting mid afternoon, remember?” called Farbarad after her and she lifted a hand in acknowledgement without pausing.
Hanasian watched the Company arrive for the meeting. His wife arrived late, her expression taut. She was walking very closely behind Rocks. Rocks peeled off to sit with the other medics, seeming unusually rattled. Rin stood with Farbarad and Mecarnil off to one side. She met Hanasian’s eyes a moment and he realised then that she was icily angry. She turned slightly and murmured something in Mecarnil’s ear that made the man go utterly still. She placed a hand on his forearm to stop him from drawing his sword and spoke again. He shook his head, clearly disagreeing and her expression became colder still as she spoke a third time. His arm relaxed and she turned next to Farbarad and whispered to him. Farbarad’s spine stiffened and his head whipped about to stare at her. The pulse in his temple started to throb. She spoke on, the skin around Farbarad’s eyes tightened and he nodded once. He pushed Rin firmly behind Mecarnil, whispered something to his colleague and swiftly departed. Mecarnil set a flat stare directly on Rocks.
Farbarad materialised again, this time directly behind Rocks, was not lost on Hanasian or the medic. As much as Hanasian desperately wanted to know what was happening, the rest of the Company had arrived and it was time to attempt this meeting once again.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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In the north of Rhun things did not go well for the rebellion. Their hand was played in the Prefect's assassination and the release of Khurg from prison. Despite these early successes, achieved through surprise, they had been compressed by an increasing force on three sides into an ever-diminishing part of northern Rhun. Further to the north were the dwarves of the Iron Hills at the ready. The rebels had not yet fought with them and had no desire to. To the west pressed the Army of Dale across a solid front that kept them from infiltrating west. From the south pushed the combined might of Gondor and Rohan, reinforced by the Easterling Guard that remained loyal to the Prefect and Gondor. Food now ran low and resolve of the northern clans had become strained.
The collective of former commanders and officials that thought getting Khurg out would be a good thing were mostly of the fragmented Sagath clan. Even they saw how their hopes had been misguided. Despite their intention to restore the old ways, matters had gone terribly awry. They had underestimated the degree of Khurg’s declining mental state. Khurg had shown little gratefulness for his freedom, with fierce admonishments that it had taken all he had to offer them. After the first weeks of masterful military tactics that saw them withdraw from a superior force, it became apparent that Khurg now lived in some past moment of his life. He could not accept their present reality and dismissed it as fantasy. He was convinced that he was once more the supreme warlord of Rhun and whittled away his days with rants and edicts for underlings that had either died or never existed. Soon, his closest circle was comprised only of the few servants cared for him. Nobody was sure what happened, but the morning the joint Gondor/Rohan/Dale offensive started, Khurg was found dead in his bed. Blood seeped from his ear and stained the linens about his head. They whispered that it was his mind at war with itself; each part finally killing each other in an intense battle in his sleep. Ignominious old age and dementia proved the end of Khurg, the Easterling Warlord General of Sauron.
The armies of the West made little headway when the offensive started. The first day proved difficult, but signs of weakening rebel resolve became clear as their lines fragmented. Tired and hungry, they began surrendering, in small units at first that increased in size as the days passed. Word spread through the rank and file of Khurg’s passing. The remaining senior struggled with each other to assume command. Beset with disarray and privation, the will of the northern clans to continue disintegrated. Many of southern and central Rhun quietly thought it a fitting end to the rebellion. Kings Aragorn and Eomer rode forth to meet only two tribal chiefs and accept formal surrender. For the Sagath clan it was a bitter moment, their pride bruised and their resolve in tatters. The remaining Sagath scattered and made their way east, some hoping to find the armies of Khor while others hoping to find the Black Company.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The remaining men of the Order had hunkered down in a thick wood to the north of the town on the eastern sea. Their commander was puzzled and unsure what to do after the blast and resultant disaster had claimed their mistress.
”It should never been able to happen! It had to be treachery!” The second said, scratching his head.
The commander said, ”Yes, something unlooked for I think. My suspicion is on the sisters three. The young one, a dreamer, was never fully committed, and I had my suspicions about the eldest as well. She always seemed distant. But no matter, whatever it was, it has killed our supreme mistress as well as the wizard of old. With their deaths, the rift is now closed to us. There will be no returning to our lands.”
The second nodded, but then said, ”But the shielding the sisters have… could they not still find a way back? Would they know enough?”
The commander shook his head and said, ”It is doubtful they, or any of the House survived. Powers known and unknown to us were at work, and they all came to head in the house that our mistress occupied. Maybe some of our comrades survived, but it is doubtful.”
The second looked deflated and lost, and asked, ”What of us now? All we had served and believed in has come to an abrupt end. We are now lost in a foreign land, adrift.”
“Not adrift!” the commander said, “We have come to do what had been ordered, and that is what we will do to the last man.”
The second nodded reluctantly, recalled a conversation he had with the elder of the sisters on the ship. Maybe he wasn’t as committed as a man of the Order was expected to be, he thought. He wished to know the fate of the sisters. He would have to go along with his commander… for now. He said, ”What can eighteen of us do here in this land?”
The commander gazed the fire. It hissed with every raindrop that fell into it. ”We must go down into the city and see what we can discover. The way will be watched, so stealth and evasion will be our path. Kill only if needed, and listen and see. Groups of four will go, starting tonight. The rest will stand here, for it is quiet, off the tracks and well hidden.”
The second nodded, deciding to take three of his hand-picked men with him this night. He found two of them and gave them the word to be ready. But the third he could not find.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ravenclaw watched and listened. He circled the perimeter of the camp and slowly drew closer. The first guard he came to didn’t even notice him and only realized his presence when he felt the thin rope seize his neck. Not a sound was heard as Ravenclaw stretched him out on the earth, neck broken in a swift twist. Ravenclaw moved forth in silence and two more guards fell the same way. Satisfied with his work, Ravenclaw retreated to the safety of his small cave where he notched the staff he always carried.
The commander did not get word of his dead men until after his second officer set out with three others for the town. He ordered further vigilance and to await the return of their scouting team. But they never returned. The next night, three more guards fell in silence. The commander realized too late they had been found and were being picked off, one by one. The third night he did not set guard, but set out for the city himself. He took with him three men, and his second officer accompanied with another three. They had little hope to live another day if they did not move.
Ravenclaw followed one of the groups and took out a lagging man. He set himself in his place and made his way down. He was impressed with the skill the sergeant showed in evading the watch of the Easterlings, and they got past a couple watchpoints the Black Company set up as well. They sought out the brethren of the Order, but realized they would find none alive. Ravenclaw slipped away from them once in the town, shed his disguise and headed toward the Company's camp. He would have much to answer for in his disappearance.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The meeting of the Company was tense and Hanasian could feel there was something in the air. However he could not dwell on whatever it was right now. He had given long and hard thought to the Company's next step and the news brought to him by a swift rider earlier in the day made him think even harder. The whole Company saw Gondor's messenger arrive and hand over the parchment. With a bow and a few words, the man was off west without rest. The Company knew there were tidings, perhaps even further orders. The man had delivered a message from King Aragorn that confirmed he was now in Rhun with the army of Gondor. News of Khurg's death and the rebellion's collapse had also arrived. Aragorn intended to come east as soon as possible with King Eomer in hopes to settle hostilities. This was welcome news. Hanasian was mindful his Company sorely needed rest. The wisdom of the King would be most welcome in seeing to the mysteries of the mariners and the Order. Had it not been for the ill-fated rebellion, they may have never come to know of all this in the east. Yet it was the veils of wizardry that fogged the vision of the King, and his suspicions proved to be mostly true.
Hanasian wanted to announce his retirement as Captain, but he resolved to await the King's arrival. Maybe after that, this matter would be settled and he and Rosmarin could leave freely. Maybe it would be the end, and the King will disband the Company? These matters would have to wait for another day, despite how they circled his mind on wings. This day, other matters had to be addressed.
”Company attend me well!
"It has been a hard run here and little rest has been had while we grieve our fallen comrades. Yet we do rebuild our strength. We will remain here a little longer, for our King is coming. The armies of Gondor and Rohan have been successful in bringing an end to Khurg's rebellion. Though it had only brought more grief to the people of Rhun, it is hoped it will be the beginnings of healing between the clans. As for the Company, we have grown. Dedicated Easterling soldiers serve in honor, and the recruits of Gondor have served with distinction. We have established a strong medical cadre and individuals with the ability for leadership have blossomed and will be ranked as sergeants.
"Is there anything that anybody wishes to say here while the whole of the Company is gathered?”
“I do,” spoke a voice well towards the back of the assembled Company. A bit of celebration formed around the man who spoke, for it was Ravenclaw. That they had one of three men return provided no small measure of cheer to the grieving Company.
Hanasian called to him, ”And we want to hear it Hamoor. But first, where have you been? We were about to bury you along with the others, but my gut said to give you a few more days.”
Ravenclaw spoke of how he got separated from the Company, his attempts to return and how his misfortune led him to find and kill several of the Order renegades. But he didn’t tell all. Hanasian cut him short and said that he wanted a full report by the next day.
He then said, “Is there anything else that I should know about?”
He looked over a Mecarnil, who was looking at Farbarad who was looking at Rocks.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Rin could not help but be stung by sharp and bitter resentment. Why had Ravenclaw returned and Loch hadn’t? It wasn’t fair that everyone should be cut down so violently and so early around her. Her jaw tightened and she squeezed her eyes shut. And then she heard it. Loch’s voice, asking her solemnly if she’d really turn her back on all she was to trade one man’s life for another’s. Oh, but that cut deeper still. And then, the beguiling murmur that perhaps Loch wasn’t really dead either. That way lay madness, but it beckoned sweetly to her to come slithering down its slippery precipice. In this time, Ravenclaw had finished his report and Hanasian had asked a question. Her eyes flew open and she found he was staring pointedly at Mecarnil and, worse still, Mecarnil looked ready to talk. The expression on Rocks’ face was sheer panic. They’d tear him to pieces if Mecarnil reported now. This was not the arrangement they had made, she and him. She had to intervene before it all slipped between her fingers.
”It is not a Company matter,” Rin said loudly and far sharper than she intended to.
Farbarad, at Rocks’ shoulder, lifted both brows in open surprise and Mecarnil choked on his own tongue. Those assembled murmured to each other and a number of the core Company members began to appear gravely concerned indeed. It was going from bad to worse!
”It isn’t,” she hissed at Mecarnil, ”And well you know it! I will not see the entire Company dragged into this mess. Cardolan’s ambitions have stolen enough lives. You insist I accept my rank and position so here I am. Mecarnil, as your queen and a Crown Princess of the court of the Reunited Realm, this is not a Black Company matter. Gainsay me at your peril, Ranger.”
Though this was said all very quietly, everyone had observed them. From her position behind Mecarnil it was clear his spine had stiffened. Anger, dismay, disapproval? Her heart thudded in her ears. Time dragged before Mecarnil finally broke his silence.
”Princess Erían", he said with particular emphasis on that wretched name, ”Is correct.”
Rin felt the urge to grab Mecarnil’s ears and tug them in the opposite direction. Hanasian’s gaze flickered back and forth from Mecarnil’s face to his wife’s furious one. A Cardolan matter, then, he swiftly deduced and calmly nodded his thanks to Mecarnil for saying as much so neatly.
”Very well, then. We will reconvene once the King has arrived. Until then we will maintain our current position. Ravenclaw, your report by this time tomorrow. Company dismissed.”
As people peeled away, Rin swept around to confront Mecarnil with eyes that glittered with her anger.
”I suppose you consider yourself particularly clever now,” she snapped at him and he rolled his shoulders belligerently.
”I believe I have already made my position on this matter clear. You have no way of comprehending the perils associated with this notion of yours,” he replied as Farbarad pushed Rocks towards where they stood.
”What better teacher than bitter, cruel experience? The ambitions of these men have taken everything from me. I have lived my life under their shadow whether I knew it or not. Do not patronise me, Mecarnil!”
Mecarnil’s stony expression wavered at her answer. It was entirely unexpected. He glanced to Farbarad, who actually looked chastened, and then dropped his eyes a moment.
”My apologies,” he murmured, meeting her icy eyes a moment later.
Hanasian watched this exchange with no small amount of interest as he waited for the others to depart. Some, the old crew, lingered until he dispatched them with a clear signal to be gone.
”One of you, I presume, will tell me what is going on,” Hanasian said once they were on their own, looking in turn at each of them.
Rocks’ mouth compressed into a thin line. Mecarnil resumed staring holes through Rocks. Farbarad re-evaluated Rin with new eyes. Rin approached Hanasian and extracted a piece of folded paper from beneath her jacket. The pair stood off to one side, heads together. Hanasian flinched as he read the opening line and glanced at his wife. Her eyes also lingered on the words Loch had set there and he could see the pain within their depths.
”Where did you get this?” he murmured to her.
“Loch left it in Wulgof’s keeping. He gave it to me just before midday. The second half, love, is the heart of it,” she replied and redirected his attention back to the letter.
When Hanasian came to the end of it a second time, he found himself confronted with the urge to take Rocks’ throat out then and there. Rin’s hand tightened over his forearm. Mecarnil watched them discuss the matter. Back and forth it went between them for a span of heartbeats and then Hanasian drew a deep breath and nodded tersely before they swung back to face the others.
”Secure Rocks and make arrangements to meet with us at dusk in our tent. Bring Videgavia, Folca, Frea and Berlas with you,” Hanasian ordered and after a moment’s delay the two Rangers complied.
Hanasian and Rin spoke quietly with each other as they returned to camp. The pair disappeared into their tent and were not seen until Mecarnil and Farbarad arrived with the others as instructed at dusk. Husband and wife were waiting for them. Once all were settled in Hanasian laid out the matter.
”We have within the Company a man who has been approached by one of Cardolan’s rebels to perform a task.”
”Who?” Videgavia asked sharply. His dark eyes glittered with sudden danger.
”Rocks,” Folca replied swiftly, ”Saw Mec and Farbarad bring him up after the meeting.”
“Is it him?” Videgavia inquired and Rin nodded her head.
”It is…and I would say at this point that he has not done as asked by these rebels despite at least one opportunity to do so. He is the sole advantage we have over these men and I mean to exploit it to the fullest extent.”
“Fine…I hear what you’re saying. Don’t slit his throat, yet,” Frea grumbled.
”Just what was he asked to do? Assassination?” Berlas queried, head cocked to one side.
”No…his part, as far as he admits, was to deliver Rin to others who would make themselves known to him at Lake-Town by mid winter. That is all we have,” Hanasian answered.
”How certain of this are you?” Folca inquired and Hanasian looked to his wife.
”Runner’s squad noticed something amiss back at that city and reported it to Loch. Truth be told, so did I, but events overtook us before I could pursue it further and in any case it was a minor thing.
“Loch mentioned his concerns to me before he set off that last time,” Rin paused and her eyes fell as she mastered a welter of emotion that was entirely unwelcome at that juncture, ”But he was vague. Apparently, he set down the details he had yet to substantiate in writing and left it with Wulgof in the event of anything…untoward. I received that letter today, just before midday.”
Rin’s jaw bunched as she recalled that final conversation with her brother. They had nearly argued outright. She’d found his suspicions outlandish and unfair and she had told him exactly that. She remembered the queer look he gave her. His mouth had been open to argue and then he had changed his mind and directed their conversation onto safer footing. She knew now why. He knew he had written it all down and he trusted to Wulgof. He had not wanted their last exchange to be one fraught with conflict. She would take it all back now if she could. So many things she would do differently. As her thoughts circled, the discussion in the tent surged on.
”So I take it that you intend to use this information to flush the rest of them out into the open and deal with them once and for all,” Videgavia said and Hanasian nodded assent.
”You’ll need more than Mec and Farbarad for that,” Videgavia stated.
”This is not a Company matter, Vid, and in any case we cannot risk a large group. If they see us coming it will tip their hand and any advantage we have will be lost,” Hanasian replied.
”May not be a Company matter but it is a family one. We’re in,” Frea said and Folca nodded emphatically at their cousin.
”And I…because Loch isn’t here to see this one through,” Berlas said simply and Rin found her thrust into a humble realisation that she had not yet considered.
”If you set out within the next month, you could be in position comfortably at Lake-Town before mid winter,” Videgavia said and Hanasian nodded.
”This will be discussed with the King, Vid. Until then, we need Rocks under constant watch. This needs to stay tight, so others won’t fetch any ideas into their heads. Nothing is official until Rin and I have spoken with the King, but it would be wise to commence preparations for a journey to Lake-Town with our small group,” Hanasian stated and it was done.
On the discussion went, plans set down and arrangements made. Rin found it difficult to keep track of it all. Within the hour things were in order and the tent went from crowded to comparatively empty. Hanasian dropped some wood into the brazier and stirred the coals. He studied Rin carefully as he did so. She seem distracted and withdrawn.
”You’re quiet,” he observed softly and set down the poker to sit beside her, ”Have you doubts?”
A wry smile flittered across her face at his question and she emerged from her thoughts and met his eyes.
”Only a few thousand, just like you,” she answered and Hanasian smiled as she continued, ”But I do not doubt this is the right course to take. It has to end, beloved. We cannot live our lives forever under the shadow of their treachery, nor can Aragorn’s realm.”
Hanasian gathered her close to him and held for a moment. He stroked her hair and felt her heart beat against his chest.
”Come, lay your troubles aside for just a while and rest here with your husband.”
“Gladly,” she sighed.
It was late and little moved within the camp. He had waited for precisely this moment. The Company was a living creature to him. He knew its moods, its heartbeat and breathing like his own. He slipped into the supply tent where Rocks was being held with a clear purpose in mind. The man had been restrained, bound to the wrist thick sturdy centre pole. Rocks did not sleep easily and this was no surprise. He padded towards where the man had curled around the pole and slowly drew out a long knife. He crouched and pressed the chill metal against the man’s jugular. Rocks grunted as his eyes flew open and his body tensed. His mouth nearly brushed the man’s ear as he bent and whispered.
”Have you wondered why we are called the Black? Betray her and you will learn. We will come for you. Have you heard what the Easterlings, Dunlendings and Southrons do to traitors?”
Despite the honed edge pressed over his throat, Rocks swallowed and blood started to well in a thin line across his neck, as the man elucidated further. Satisfied, he withdrew his dagger and padded out of the tent again. Outside he nodded at Khule and Molguv and signalled his thanks to Berlas who had agreed to watch Rocks through the night.
Berlas resumed his position with a grimly satisified smile as he watched the Dirty Three stride into the night. If anyone could terrify, it was Wulgof in a very bad mood. Dunlendings…scratch the surface and they were howling savages. Wulgof, at least, was their own.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The trio of the old Company had let Rocks know in no uncertain terms. Some things are just dealt with. The Company seemed to do that on those occasions that it is needed. Hanasian didn’t want to know about it, but Hanasian had also felt his leadership and his ability to lead this fast-changing and wide-ranging legion of men had come into question. His marriage to the queen of Cardolan and his need to exercise his duty as Company commander was a hard thing to balance. Rosmarin’s presence added further difficulty no husband easily dealt with. Hanasian did not know of any man who would ever be comfortable with the dangers his wife faced in the course of her duties. Rosmarin did not withhold herself either, did not expect to be sheltered or protected. She seemed to throw herself into what could only be described as harm’s way in her service to his Company. She was not just another soldier, not to him and not to the two Rangers sworn anew to Cardolan. They were circumspect about their concerns but he knew they ill-liked the situation and he could not blame them. They had sworn to protect a woman in an impossible situation and they would answer to censure from the highest levels if they failed. She did not make it any easier. In his heart and mind, Hanasian knew what he had to do for himself, for Rin, and for the Company.
He awoke from the uneasy sleep he had found himself in. Rin slept soundly beside him, her breathing coming in long deep breaths. Where her thoughts and dreams lay this night Hanasian had no idea, but he was relieved to see she rested. He played with the locks of her hair that had fallen across her cheek, and after winding them around his fingers for a while he set them back into place again. She was beautiful and the love of his life. If that compromised his decisions in any way, it was because he could not help it. But should that compromise cost just one life or many of his Company, he could not live with that. No, the Company needed someone who could lead without burden. Still, the Company was his, and this day dawning was the day they expected King Aragorn to arrive.
Hanasian let Rin sleep, as he readied himself. Before going out to see to call the Company to arms, he woke Rin.
”Wake up my love and ready yourself. The Company is being called to arms. Parade grounds in an hour.”
He gave her a kiss and left the tent. With the first of the Runners, an honorary title given to the remaining men of the messenger and scouting squad that Runner had gathered, Hanasian sent word to all the commanders in the area. It was made clear that everyone should wear their best. Within the hour, Hanasian and the Company stood ready. Rin was dressed in her battle leathers, the only uniform presentable enough left to her, at his side as Aragorn and Eomer made their final approach. It was a welcome any field Company would have been proud to give.
With the battles in the north done, Aragorn sought to reconcile Rhun under it’s own rule. He wished to avoid the need to leave an occupying force, but the only way this could be done effectively was if all the clans come together. This appeared to have occurred rather easily, for the word of otherworlders landing on the eastern shore of the great Eastern Sea had spread and made the Easterlings tense. Only the most stubborn would not see an advantage with an alliance with Gondor. The leaders of the clans answered the call to join the Kings of Gondor and Rohan in the east, in the town of Skhar where the Black Company was positioned. They travelled the road east swiftly for the winter was nigh. Aragorn wanted to see for himself the origin of the disturbance and would not be swayed to delay the trek until spring. The weather was chill and wet, with a steady drizzle falling nearly all the way. So it was until they descended from the highlands toward the city. The skies remained was grey and threatening, but it was dry.
The Company had prepared tents for some of the men, and space for the tents of the kings and their men were readied in the fields near the town. Aragorn approached slowly and studied the sea and its horizon. The obscuring of his vision east came to an end with the great shift of the ground. He was surprised to find things so well in order here, but he knew why that was. He had the Company to thank for that. They had handled matters as they encountered them and had even turned Khor aside. He and Eomer dismounted before Hanasian and Rin, the Company standard snapping in the breeze, black and silver against a grey sky. Both men bowed formally before Hanasian greeted them.
”It is good you have come m’Lords. There is much to discuss and settle, and I believe we have much to reveal to the other.”
Aragorn nodded as he embraced Hanasian, said, ”Much changed since we saw each other just a few short months ago. A new threat had come unlooked for, and unseen, yet not un-felt. I will be very much interested in knowing of that, and how you dealt with it.”
Hanasian sighed, ”I think it would be wise if you and I met privately before we all gather.”
“There will be time. It will be at least two days before the clan chiefs I have summonsed arrive,” Aragorn said, ”I will need to talk with your man Khule, and also Khor, for I understand he is here?”
“He is.” Hanasian replied as he scratched his cheek, ”I have found him quite amicable and have given him some autonomy in administering his territory here."
Aragorn frowned in thought, then asked, ”Do you think that was wise? He was likely active in planning rebellion.”
“There is more to it than that…” Hanasian answered, “There is much to discuss, and now is as good a time as any, for it will be some time before your tent is raised. Come, let us walk.”
The two walked slowly about, with the King’s Guardsmen not far behind, and was Rin left to deal with the king of Rohan and no immediate option of escape. Hanasian explained that Khor had quite a number of men under his command with able commanders. Even with the Company expanded by the Gondor recruitment and Khule’s Easterling intake, their losses in battle had their number around one hundred. It would have been unfeasible to challenge Khor in battle without known reserves. He spoke also of the mariners from across the sea who had taken over this city due to its usable port, and though Khor accepted them at first, he did not like their demeanor. It was apparent now that they were beset with their own political differences. While Dhak wished to pursue an alliance, others appeared to want subjugation. Talk about Dhak and the mariners led Hanasian to explain the events as he knew them, and that Loch and Runner remain missing after the collapse of the palace. Aragorn was sure there was no direct intervention by the Valar, but it seemed the events progressed faster and in a way that none had anticipated. Hanasian took Aragorn to meet with Dhak, and to see the girl they had saved from the palace ruin. Afterward, they both walked to the ruins of where the Order had died, and then to the quay to see the two ships.
Aragorn stared long at the ship, ”The art of Numenor is in those timbers yet they are foreign. It will be well to know from where they came, but it is well beyond my reach to go there. Would it be within the Company’s grasp to find out?”
Hanasian answered solemnly, ”It may well be in the Company’s grasp, but it is not in mine. To ask us to leave these lands may be a tall order for many. Yet there may be some who would answer such a call. I know Loch, our lost apprentice standardbearer would sign on if he were here. He was in a natural element when he was aboard ship sailing south. I think a hardy crew of seafarers will be required to man these ships and we have few such amongst us.”
He paused and looked about and they started to walk back before he continued, ”I intend to resign my commission in the Company.”
Aragorn didn’t seem surprised by Hanasian’s statement, ”It’s a hard thing to do, to have your wife with you in harm’s way. In truth I expected this day to come when you returned from Ithilien last.”
Hanasian said, ”Well, it isn’t just that, though that has dominated my thoughts. There are still desperate people who wish to kill Rin, and there are severe dangers in being a healer on the front lines. Sometimes in her independent thought, she is reckless. I find myself second-guessing decisions I know to be right, for the fear of harm that might come to her. But it is not only that. The veterans amongst us are aged, and even I feel the years. The younger recruits have a fire and a will of adventure, but they lack the battle experience. Those who survive their first and second battles usually will do well enough, but I don’t feel I could lead them.”
Aragorn nodded as they walked, aware of what Hanasian wasn’t saying. He could not watch the next generation die around him in this Company. The king’s thoughts ran deep for a while before he spoke again.
”What is the state of your Company? Who would you have succeed you as Captain?”
Hanasian was silent for a few steps as he formed his response, ”Well, Videgavia would do it and do well, but he is not much younger than the veterans. The twins from Rohan, Wulgof, Mulgov, all are aged and some would not do well with leadership. Khule could do it, as could Mecarnil, but he will resign to stay close to Rin, as will Farbarad. I think the best and steadiest of the younger men would be Berlas. Give Vid the captaincy and make Berlas his second. That would be my choice.”
Aragorn agreed, ”I could see that. But I will have to ponder the future with all that I have heard here. I see my tent is set. I think I will retire for a few hours and rest and think.”
“As will I.” Hanasian said and they clasped hands as they had of old, allies, friends, men of the North.
Aragorn said in parting, ”These are interesting times, for the last of the old warlords have gone and peace may be at hand. Much will change before this week is passed.”
Hanasian nodded, ”We will speak further this evening over dinner. The Company will gather, as will the Easterling commanders. There is much to be done.”
With that they parted. Hanasian walked back to his tent and found Rin sheltering inside. He silently took her into his arms and kissed her.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The day had been an eventful one. She had known that Hanasian would resign but she had not expected it to be now. Though it made sense, it still caught her by surprise. So too had the fact that she had been left to entertain the King of Rohan. Eomer made her distinctly uncomfortable and the reason for that reminded her painfully of Loch. Now evening approached and there was to be a dinner. It was some kind of formal event, with nobles and officers and the sort. Really, she would rather just remain in the tent, where Hanasian had found her hiding from Eomer upon his return from his meeting with Aragorn.
”Is Aragorn upset?” she asked warily as Hanasian moved about the tent in preparations.
He shook his head, picked up one of his boots and began polishing it.
”No. Why would you think that?”
“Well…isn’t it my fault?”
Hanasian's head lifted and he considered her where she sat, cross legged on their camp bed. A number of possible responses ran through his head.
”Captains do not remain Captains their whole lives, if they are fortunate enough to live them out. There is no one to blame. Change in command is inevitable, indeed a healthy thing.”
Rin nodded but appeared unconvinced all the same. She dropped her eyes away and considered the dagger hilt beside her. She spun Loch’s hilt less and less with each passing day, he had noted. Rin was fighting against grief and despair and was slowly winning ground, but she was still not wholly herself.
”Out with it,” Hanasian prompted and her eyes lifted to his, mouth already open to protest her innocence.
She reconsidered when he cocked a brow at her and sighed, ”None of this would be happening if I hadn’t signed on…if our paths hadn’t crossed. You wouldn’t have these concerns to worry about. You’d still be Captain…and now Aragorn has lost one of his most experienced commanders in the field.”
Hanasian was still a moment and then, with deliberate care, set down boot and the rag he was using to polish it with.
”Did you just ask me if I wished we had never met?” he inquired, voice deceptively mild.
Rin flushed under his scrutiny but her resolve firmed and she challenged back, ”You’re being evasive and that means you know I am right. I’m onto something!”
“A fast horse to madness, woman, and that is no mistake. I thought we agreed on this. Do you expect me to believe that this,” his hand swept the interior of the tent, ”Is what you want for the rest of your days? If so, you certainly have an odd way of telling a man. Most career soldiers base their accomplishments on following orders.”
“I do follow them, mostly, and you want people to think for themselves! And I am most certainly NOT a soldier!”
“Mostly,” Hanasian teased and he saw the foundations of a genuine smile there in her face for the moment.
He picked up his boot and rag and resumed polishing, ”I know what you’re up to in any case and the answer is no.”
“No to what, precisely?”
“No, you cannot hide the night away in this tent.”
“I’ll find another tent.”
“I’ll pull them all down. You’re going. That is an end to it.”
“I have work to do,” Rin grumbled and pushed out of the tent.
Hanasian shook his head. He distinctly remembered standing her down from her duties. So much for mostly following orders. Or was this her version of thinking for herself?
”And I have nothing to wear,” she called from outside and that, he realised, was true.
Hanasian was nothing if not a resourceful man and Rin was prepared to admit that she liked what he had sourced through Donius, only not outwardly because she was still nonplussed about the dinner. Hanasian could tell, however, from the way she studied the clothing she wore. She played with the tunic that skimmed narrowly down to mid calf. It was local garb and so was slit to her hips in the manner of women’s clothing here. The hues were that of the coast, muted blues and greys that suited her fair colouring well.
Muted grey pants were so full underneath as to appear as a skirt. A creamy long sleeved shirt under the tunic. The fabric was warm, soft finely milled wool and heavy cotton that had a faint sheen to it. There were no draped, billowing sleeves or skirts, velvets or silks. There was no stitching or stones. As much as he enjoyed her in such things, this had an exotic and unmistakeably feminine appeal that he also enjoyed. While Hanasian’s thoughts wandered down enticing paths, Rin bent and reached for her sword belt and Hanasian shook himself back to their tent.
”Put that down.”
“I mean it. Donius has gone to considerable effort.”
“This is more than simply finding you something presentable aware, a common enough occurrence for I have never met a woman as hard on her clothing as you. This is about the local commanders meeting with Aragorn and Eomer.”
“Really?” she retorted sceptically and shook the sword belt she had yet to release in his general direction, buckles jingling, ”Because this does not look like a meeting or an Easterling. And, by the by, I was not in the least responsible for what became of my last tunic, if you care to remember.”
Hanasian remembered well indeed, had been remembering all afternoon as he had polished his boots with rags made from its remnants. But, her ploy to distract him, while artful, was not going to work. Vixen.
“How many local women have you seen sporting weapons, even simple belt knives here? Not only that, what have you to defend yourself from? Or is that those also attending cannot be trusted to protect you? That is how such things are viewed here, my love.”
Rin sighed in defeat and dropped the belt onto their bed, ”Fine…Anyway it would look odd with these impractical slippers. I can’t even run in them for fear they will come right off.”
“That," Hanasian murmured as he straightened his formal uniform, "Is general idea.”
Despite Hanasian’s assurances and the fact that he cut a truly delightful figure in his uniform, Rin was not convinced that the evening would go well. Aragorn’s warm greeting only served to deepen her unease. Eomer was there again, and just as determined to strike up some sort of cordial rapport as he had been the other two times their paths had crossed. They took their seats at the table reserved for nobles and officers and the conversation was polite around her.
”Hanasian reports that your men have acquitted themselves well, Commander Khor. Indeed, he credits the general state here in no small part to you,” Aragorn said as he smoothly plied the currents that ran under the surface.
Khor glanced with some surprise at Hanasian and then his sardonic smile emerged, ”Only fitting, really, that we assist to remedy the mess made here.”
“Do any of this Order remain still at large?” Eomer asked.
”No. Only two survived the initial earthquake and our subsequent engagements. One appears to be an officer. Both are under guard.”
“Neither will capitulate,” Dhak added to Khor’s account.
”And yet you did,” Aragorn pressed and Rin shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
She stared at the food before her. Loch would be scandalised by her lack of appetite. ‘Insects, Rin. We’ve been so hungry we ate insects once and that, right there, is lamb…or least, I think it is.’ She prodded at it with her fork but couldn’t muster herself to eat it. She knew that it had been a mistake to take that oath from Dhak. She’d not only made a mess of things for Hanasian, she had started on Aragorn’s court. Rin sighed, because this was entirely the point she had made to Mecarnil at the outset. She was not qualified for this sort of thing. She knew not a thing about it. She was a damn good thief, an even better healer. Give her a terrible disease, a broken body to mend, or somewhere to get in or out of that she wasn’t supposed to. The rest belonged with others who knew their business.
Dhak meanwhile smiled gallantly at the only woman at the table, ”Surely it is no surprise.”
Aragorn inclined his head and Hanasian squeezed Rin’s hand under the table.
”Indeed not. In this it was fortuitous that someone of sufficient rank, and charm, was present with the Black,” Aragorn stated and glanced at his cousin. ”It was astutely done. The oath will be honoured.”
”Is it common practice now for the West to embed highly ranked nobles in such Companies?” Khor inquired.
”Absolutely not,” Aragorn said and Eomer agreed.
”I understand there has been some debate over it in Minas Tirith,” Eomer continued.
“It’s none of their business! What I do, where I go, how I occupy my time is solely my concern!” Rin stated and Aragorn held up a hand to placate her.
”M’lady,” he began and she expelled a sharp gust of distaste that made Khor’s, Dhak’s and Eomer’s mouths twitch with amusement, ”They are naturally concerned for the safety of any heir, no matter how distant, to the high throne. Especially one that has been missing for so very long and discovered in such spectacular circumstances. There is nothing for you to be concerned with. The matter is well and truly in hand.”
“Oh…come now Aragorn. You cannot suggest that your court does not want her precisely where they can keep an watchful eye on her?” Eomer added mischievously.
”I think, in this instance, I will be generous and permit the Lady Rosmarin to first grace your court, Eomer,” Aragorn said dryly and Eomer’s laughter boomed out through the gathered men and women.
”Done! Now you shall have to come visit, by merit of Royal Decree,” Eomer said victoriously and twisted to where Gram stood quietly listening, ”And we shall truly see if this maid with hair as gold as Meduseld’s eaves cannot manage our rowdy marshals.”
“When next I seek my sister, we shall be sure to take up your invitation, m’lord,” Hanasian said firmly before Rin could dig herself any deeper.
“How wonderful,” Rin muttered, stabbed at the lamb on her plate and felt a pang at how much she missed the grin that Loch would have plastered all over his face right now.
Once the evening meal was done, Aragorn moved to discuss more broadly the many matters that had drawn him here. He spoke of the need for Rhun to know peace and stability and his hopes that it could be delivered by a hand other than his own and without a sword. He praised the bravery, skill and accomplishments of the Black Company and Khor’s men in resecuring this port. He welcomed Dhak and his adherents and spoke of his hopes for renewing the bond between peoples long sundered. He spoke of the danger posed by the Order to the freedom of all. Hanasian knew the king was sowing seeds.
”How would you deal with those who seek to throw us under their yoke?” asked a voice from the crowd, and Hanasian thought he recognised Wulgof’s voice.
”Deny them…but I would not sit here and merely wait. If they can come to land here, then it is not beyond them to put a hostile naval fleet off the coast of Gondor itself. They have proven able to defeat even the palantir.”
There was murmuring amongst those listening until a voice spoke out, ”It’s obvious what we have to do.”
”The Company has reached a fork in its road and the paths it might follow are many. They cannot be decided now. Before you can do that, you must know who would lead you.”
“That we already know, Sire, and a fine job he has been doing of it too! Hanasian will lead us,” called out a voice towards the back but the more experienced men were not in the least certain.
It was an open secret amongst the inner core of the Company that Hanasian had other concerns that would surely take precedence over the Black. In any case, he had a life to shape with his wife and one that he surely deserved begin before the years slipped further away from him. They were aware of just how much their Captain had given of himself, first in the war as a younger Ranger and thereafter in the formation and leadership of the Black. The older hands, those who knew this and who just how dearly he loved his wife, were not in the least surprised at what followed.
”Brothers and sisters of the Black, and those who have fought by our sides, the time has come for me to step aside and to let this Company continue to flourish beyond my limitations.”
Molguv and Bear called for quiet amongst the more recent recruits and Foldine asked the necessary to reach what appeared to him to be a mostly forgone conclusion.
”Who will lead us?”
“Hanasian has endorsed and I have approved Videgavia for the captaincy,” Aragorn replied and Videgavia nodded at the reaction because that surprised not even the newcomers.
”And, to assure the secession of strong leadership within a Company that is essential to the stability and interests of the Reunited Realms, Berlas of Ithilien has been promoted to second in command.”
Not everyone was surprised, but Berlas certainly was. Videgavia found it hard not to laugh outright at the expression on the other man’s face.
”Let us all pause, and consider all that Captain Hanasian has achieved for the Black, for the realm, for each of us here. It is for good reason his name stands large amongst the many worthy men who have served us.”
There was silence, and then a rousing cheer of approval and gratitude as a toast was made. Another followed it for Videgavia, and then for a bewildered Berlas and then for Khor’s men and then for Dhak’s men and, last of all, for all those that had fallen along the way.
When the tankards were lowered, Aragorn turned to where Rin quietly sat by Hanasian’s side. Her hands were wrapped around her tankard and her expression was sorrowful no matter how she attempted to hide it. Aragorn knew that that fires most siblings never faced had forged the bond between Rin and Loch. Hanasian himself reported that she had witnessed his violent, untimely death. It was not the first time she had been confronted with such catastrophes and she endured with the steely determination that must surely be thickly woven through the cloth of her spirit.
”I was grieved to learn of Lochared’s untimely death. From all reports, he served with unstinting loyalty and valour the Black, Cardolan and the Reunited Realm. I am sorry I did not know more of him.”
All Rin could manage to do was nod and Aragorn pressed on, ”One of the many customs our respective peoples shared was the recognition of those who served with particular distinction.”
“The Companion of the Rose,” Rin said quietly, glancing up and surprised Aragorn.
”Yes, as it was in Cardolan. In Arnor it was Companion of the Seven Stars. It seems to me that your brother surely merits such recognition.”
“Indeed,” Hanasian replied and watched Mecarnil and Farbarad nod emphatically.
”With your consent, I would confer both titles upon Lochared. While it cannot restore him to you, it would ensure his contributions are duly recognised,” Aragorn said.
Hanasian squeezed the hand he still held and Rin was unable to speak. Her eyes were bright with bittersweet gratitude that was palpable to those who watched. The night passed swiftly as did the day that followed. One by one, clan chiefs arrived until all had gathered. In that time, Aragorn met individually with Hanasian and the others. By the time he had spoken with the Company’s outgoing and incoming captains, Khor, Dhak and Khule, his idea was formed.
The next day he and Eomer would meet with the clan chiefs. That night, they sat in his tent and shared a far simpler and quieter meal. He had pulled in Videgavia, Hanasian, Mecarnil, Farbarad and his cousin to join him. The meal passed simply and Aragorn had watched how Rin picked at her food. It seemed odd to him that a woman who ate so little did not look gaunt. She was back in her leathers and keeping her own counsel. At a guess, and he knew healers well enough, she was preoccupied with her work. The others had tamped their pipes and were enjoying them.
”Are you not hungry?” Aragorn pressed her, leaning forward and she shrugged one shoulder.
”She should be. She’s barely kept anything down all day,” Farbarad said from around his pipe and she sent him a scowl because he was supposed to simply do his job and not spy on her.
”I’m not hungry. Clap me in irons and toss me in jail!”she muttered caustically.
”Very tempting, is it not Hanasian?” Videgavia said mildly and Rin sighed at the unjustice of it all. Men always stuck together.
Aragorn leaned back in his chair and diverted matters away from Rin before she did something reckless, as Hanasian might put it. She shot him a relieved glance when next he spoke
”Hanasian, Videgavia…I desire your opinion on something, your free opinion,” Aragorn said.
”Of course,” Hanasian answered.
”I have spoken to Khor and his brother. The clan chiefs that assemble tomorrow expect me to announce an occupying force will remain to assure Rhun’s stability. I would rather the formation of Rhun’s first Free Company, comprised primarily of Easterlings.”
“And Khor to lead it?” Hanasian swiftly guessed and Aragorn inclined his head.
“A Free Company is risky…it could be suborned, won over by partisan interests,” Videgavia answered.
”I would require an oath that it never take up arms or rebellion against the Reunited Realm.”
“Then are they a Free Company at all?” Hanasian asked.
”They are free to act as they see best, provided they comply with the laws of the land and do not engage in rebellion. I know it is dangerous, and that is why I hope to second Khule across to assure its…neutrality towards the West.”
“How did Khor put it last night…Rhun cleaning up its own mess? It is a gamble but it could work,” Hanasian said and Videgavia nodded reluctantly.
”It would give those who do not want to take ship somewhere to go…no dissolute warriors wandering about with nothing better to do,” Videgavia said.
And so the matter was set. All that remained now was to have the clan chiefs agree to it, and after that split the Black Company and then this matter of the conspiracy in Esgaroth. Aragorn wanted to question the agent himself because it was a perilous venture that his cousin proposed. Perilous and possibly reckless. She was not nearly as careful with herself that anyone would like and of course, the same could be said of him, Aragorn mused. But that, naturally, was entirely different.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The incessant rain did nothing to dampen the talks amongst the clan leaders of Rhun and the High Kings of the West. The days stretched into weeks and the chill kept the fires burning throughout the camp. Yhe political aspects for the most part left Hanasian to his own devices for Rosmarin would at times choose to go and sit with Kings Aragorn and Eomer during the talks. Hanasian had other concerns. Splitting the Vompany was proving a bit harder to manage than first thought. As a whole, it was full of factions based on origin and when they were recruited. The old crew was just that, old, and Hanasian’s announcement that he was retiring set many things in motion.
Wulgof who found kegs of black local ale in a cellar of a building reduced to rubble by an aftershock. Mulgov, Donius and Daius, Morcal, Videgavia, Belegost, Folca and Frea, Bear, Foldine, and Berlas all set up their bivouac there. Sometimes Khule, Mecarnil, and Farbarad joined them. Each night they gathered and drank some of the ale in any sort of utensil that would work as a makeshift cup. Th discussion always turned to their collective futures.
The night was particularly cold. Rain that was really drops of melting snow felt like small knives when they hit exposed skin. The makeshift shelter the old crew had built over the cellar was particularly crowded. Everyone was there except for Hanasian and Rosmarin. Dhorgat had been accepted and was the “Kid” now, after Loch, in Wulgof and Mulgov’s eyes. Like the before, the talk moved to what they were thinking of doing in light of the Captain’s retirement and the future new Company.
Wulgof stated in a fairly loud voice, ”Well, it is good the Cap can quit and go off and make a home with Rin. He has that option. Me? I have nothing back in Dunland, so I will be staying with the Company, whatever that means.”
“Me too,” agreed Mulgov and a tin cup clashed with a flat pan, splashing ale around and they downed their ale.
Folca said, ”Well, I’m getting too old for this soldiering. As much as I hate the smell of horse dung, I’m thinking Westfold would be good to see again.”
His brother Frea didn’t say anything but nodded in agreement as he rubbed his shoulder and moved it around to work out the stiffness the damp cold had caused.
Videgavia then said, ”Well, I’m committed to the Company no matter. And if a blade or arrow or a bolt of lightning doesn’t take me down, I’ll be here. From what I hear, things are going to change quite a bit. But that is only rumor.”
“And I will be a part of it as well," Berlas said, stood and lifted his clay pot of ale.
Belegost agreed with a hearty assent and lifted his proper mug. It looked quite out of sorts. The brothers Donius and Daius also concurred.
Bear shook his head and said, ”I haven’t been right since Tharbad. As much as I love this, I don’t have the fire, or even the strength to push onward unless the captain asked me to. I think I will take the option to go home if it is offered.”
Mecarnil said, ”I will go with Rosmarin.”
Farbarad stood and said, ”As will I!”
There was silence after everyone took a drink and all eyes turned to Khule. The man had been very quiet. He looked up and realized they all were waiting for him. He just shrugged and went back to looking at the floor.
Dhorgat saw the opportunity and said, ”I will go with Company, I Company man! And the Runners will all go too.”
He too looked at Khule and finally the man stood and spoke, unable to ignore his painfully young eyes.
”You all don’t get it do you’? This is it. Here in Rhun, the Company ends. The man who started it is giving it up. And the rest of us are going this way or that way. But there is more to it. We have here two fair armies of Easterlings, one of which is Company and seems to grow with new recruits from the rebellion campaign each day, a fair if small company of Gondorian recruits we picked up before heading here, and us old crew. Now I’m Company all the way, but I am being asked to make other considerations.”
A voice in the dark said, ”And it will be good to know what it is you all are considering.”
Heads turned to the opening that was covered by canvass to help keep the heat of the fire in and the cold wind and freezing rain out. Hanasian pushed it aside and stepped in.
Vid jumped up and asked, ”How long have you been out there?”
”Long enough to know what most of you are thinking about doing. If you drunks would have thought of posting a guard, I wouldn’t have been able to gather such information from your banter.”
They all looked at each other and eventually their eyes swung to Morcal. He had stepped in to warm himself by the fire for a few minutes when the discussion and drinks had started. He had been pondering his future when Hanasian first spoke.
”Sorry sir, I had been out there for some time, and needed to warm up.”
Hanasian nodded and said, “I see that, being you’re the only one wet from the rain in here. Dhorgat, you relieve him. Give us warning if anyone approaches.”
Dhorgat’s chest puffed with pride and he smiled. He wasted no time grabbing his cloak and sword, demonstrating the same tolerance for unpleasant duties most avoided where possible that his namesake, the original “Kid” had. It was a good choice for now Hanasian had all of the old crew there. It was time to tell them about the future of their Company.
He said, ”You might want to give me some of that ale.”
A wooden bowl was found and some ale was poured and passed to Hanasian. He took a good drink and then set it down as he started to speak.
”After much talk, several things had been agreed upon tonight. Mainly, the future of Rhun and the future of the Black Company. First, Rhun will be a free state with an alliance with Gondor.
“The chiefs are weary of war and fighting, and too many sons have been lost. They hope peace will prevail, but will have an army on call if Gondor calls for aid. Likewise, Gondor will come to the aid if Rhun should outside influences or outright invasion should come from over the sea.
“In this Rohan abstained, but agreed to support Gondor in the east should the need be required. This army will be Khor’s army, but Khor will not command it. His second, Khirue will command. Khor has chosen to take a core of his men and will be readying for a voyage.
“Now, about the Company. By order of King Aragorn, the charter has been withdrawn and the Company is disbanded.”
A commotion of murmurs and rumblings and gasps was be heard, but Hanasian quietened them again.
Hanasian went on, ”Now… listen up … all this means is we are no longer bound by the restrictions placed on us by it. Since change was coming to it anyway, it was best to make other changes now as well.
“Anyone who wishes to go back to whatever lives you may have had or want to make will be paid out. You’ll return west with Rin, myself and the Kings.
“For those of you who remain, you will be paid to conduct a mission on behalf of the King of Gondor and the new Legate of Rhun. You will be a Free Company that will abide by the traditions and rules made by the Black Company and, in effect, an extension of the Black. But you will be a Free Company. With the task that is set before you, this is a good thing.”
Hanasian drained the ale he had, and went on, ”Those of you who wish to go west will put yourself forward tomorrow. Those of you who wish to remain here will venture forth as the Free Company of the West, for where you are going, it will be well east of here.”
Hanasian spoke impassively. He was both reluctant to miss the adventure they would encounter, yet relieved he would not be a part of it. The men grumbled and whispered to each other as to what this all meant. Hanasian spoke again when their questions seemed to be forthcoming.
”And it gets better. Dhak and his remaining few will also join, as will Anvikela, the girl pulled from the ruins and healed by Rin. All I can say about your next mission is you will be seeking her homeland.
“What that entails is a mystery to me and everyone else. Yet you know what we have encountered here. All I can say is that it is best to be on the utmost alert, for the unknown will be daunting and from what we know, full of peril.”
The men were subdued. With the rest of the night and the keg of ale, each would make their final decision.
Up in the hills above the town, the Gondorian component of the Company was set on watch for the night. There, the rain was a bit more frozen but it wasn’t quite snowing. It did manage to soak everything within its icy grip. Huddled around a struggling fire stood Flint, Two Bells, Things, and Sticks. Flint was a master with fire,and did all he could to keep this small one burning. The hissing of the wet wood and falling slush seemed to make as much steam and smoke as it did heat, and they huddled around to discuss matters.
”I knew it would not be just adventure and sightseeing,” Flint said as he piled some branches atop the burning embers.
Two Bells, nodded and said, ”I have to say I learned quite a bit from Rin. All I did to get noticed is to care enough to help fix a man hurt on training. Now, I think I have found a good calling.”
They all managed to stay as warm and dry as they could, aware in their minds that they would be left with a big decision to make come morning.
Morning arrived and the weather remained unchanged from the day before. The only good thing was it warmed somewhat and this made the rain less icy. The Kings and those whose path took them west gathered. And those whose path held them there also gathered. The formal decommissioning of the Black Company took place with little fanfare and Hanasian handed over to King Aragorn the annals of their years. They would be homed in the royal library of Minas Tirith. Once this was done, a new commission for the Free Company was provided.
Those who remained were sworn in and their orders were handed to both Videgavia and Khor. They were to make ready to take ship east to find the lands from where Dhak, Anvikela, and the Order had come. It would prove to be difficult since the way between lands had been severed with the death of the witch and the wizard of old. However, Aragorn remained optimistic that it would be possible after he met with Anvikela. It would take them some months to ready. It was never wise to set sail on the open sea as a northern winter settled over them. Anyone with seafaring or even river boating experience was called to the port.
The Free Company as well as the Gondorian, Rohirrim, and Easterling armies were culled for volunteers. No fewer than a hundred stood waiting when Aragorn’s host set out west. This new Free Company would have many new faces, and the half dozen old faces would have to do their best to carry forth the traditions. With the Easterling followers who joined, it would not be too hard, for they knew and even worshipped the Company and their ways. At last the time arrived to set out west and they did so under the cover of winter rain, for it fell on that day as it had most other days. It would be a long journey in the short gray days, and it would be sometime past midwinter when they would arrive in Esgaroth.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The host that travelled west was sizeable, far greater than Rin had anticipated. The days grew colder and shorter and the distance they could cover shrank as a result. Yet they attained the eastern reaches of the Iron Hills before mid-winter all the same. Here they would split. Most would press south, for Rohan and Gondor. It was snowing that day and the wind whipped it about them. It was a fraught day. It was the day men bid their captain farewell and returned to lives they barely knew. It was the day that they left their brothers, and one sister, to face uncertain tides in Lake-Town. It was also the day that Rin’s secret was discovered.
It had not been easy to conceal it. So many men, kings in their midst, meant the host travelled warily and eyes were watchful. It had taken all of her abilities to come and go as needed after meals. The nights were by far the worst. The watch set was vigilant and the smell of food cooking had driven her to find some way through them. She had lost count of the number of times that she had nearly lost her dignity and her privacy as well as her stomach. Rowdy was the worst of them. He had an unearthly ability to sneak up on people and a knack for arriving at precisely the wrong time. Rin suspected the man knew. She could only suppose his silence was habitual rather than any sympathy for her wishes.
If this was not enough, Aragorn made the most of his time with his cousin. She found herself spending large tracts of the day in his company as he did what he could to fill in all of the education she had missed on courtly matters. Rin was prepared to admit to herself that it was actually interesting. However, it was difficult to concentrate. She was frequently light headed and distracted, and not only because she found it impossible to keep food down. Her mind drifted between what lay ahead at Lake-Town and beyond, how she might control her stomach and what she would do once she got her hands on the benighted fool who had called this morning sickness. Morning! Probably a man, she concluded. Over all of that, however, her mind dwelled on her husband.
She knew he faced a difficult transition and she felt a profound sense of guilt that he did because of her. It’s what all the Old Company men had said before they had left. She didn’t doubt them. Would he be happy, content, to stay at home? This was a man who had wandered the wide world for longer than she had been alive. Now he faced a very narrow set of horizons, or so she thought, and now this…the timing was singularly appalling. She wrestled with this and, until she found an answer to her satisfaction, she resolved to say nothing.
Aragorn was a perceptive man. He knew Rin to be an intensely private soul and she kept her own counsel with such success that it drove those closest to her to distraction. He was pleased to note she slowly thawed towards him. She was, after all, kin. He saw glimpses, only flashes, of what lay behind her walls. He had known from the outset that she was of dangerous intellect. Distracted though she clearly was, she proved able to absorb the information he conveyed to her. As the days passed, she smiled a little more often. There was one occasion where she laughed outright. The loss of her brother had struck her to her core, but he was confident she would emerge stronger than ever in time and he said as much to her husband on the day their party divided.
”Time, Hanasian, and patience. You have an abundance of both, and she will not give up on you. The woman you know will return to you. This will not overwhelm her.”
Hanasian nodded, relieved, and the two men squinted through the snow at where the subject of their discussion was sorting things out to her satisfaction.
”No, no, no, Bear! It is not nearly too heavy or large for you to take with you. Mark my words; by the time you make Rohan, you’ll be glad of it. Now pack it, unless you want me riffling through your possessions!”
Bear was easily two times her mass and stood a head higher. Despite his age, he was the very image of a formidable veteran warrior. He stood in the snow by his horse as Rin bustled around him, exasperated and amused. Then, he lifted his shoulders in a resigned shrug. Rin, by that time, had opened one of his panniers and was boldly pawing through it, making room. He very gently, but firmly, picked her up and set her to one side. What he said to her could not be heard, but she smiled at him brightly, he melted somewhat and then ruffled the top of her head. She swatted at his hand and he chortled at whatever she shot back at him before she moved onto the next Company man preparing to depart south.
”This matter at Lake-Town…I need not tell you great care will be needed. I have prepared letters to request aid is made available to you. I have spoken to Eomer and he has readily agreed to make men available to ensure those you capture make it to Minas Tirith for trial,” Aragorn continued.
”Thank you, sire. We’ll make for the Gilded Lantern and proceed from there.”
“These men will recognise Farbarad and Mecarnil, and likely you. It is well you take Frea and Folca with you. Will anyone else come?”
“They all would, given the chance. Rin insists this is not a Company matter. Suffice it to say they do not agree. That said, Rowdy has volunteered to take Berlas’ place and, truthfully, he is most welcome along with others that had decided to volunteer irrespective of what Rin thinks. A larger force will attract too much attention and scatter the men we seek to apprehend.”
“You mean to draw them out, bait them?”
“Aye,” Hanasian replied grimly, clearly uncomfortable, ”That has been her plan from the outset. I hope to track them down before it comes to that. We have enough men to lay a good net in Esgaroth, and we know covert work well.”
Hanasian’s attention drifted to his wife. She was moving from horse to horse and, in the snow, she appeared at that moment to be winter incarnate. It hung in her pale hair like a jewelled crown, it brought a fetching flush to her cheeks and it made her eyes sparkle in a way he had little seen since Loch had perished.
”I’ve questioned Rocks on several occasions. I believe the man has told us all that he knows, and he believes it to be the truth. That said, we cannot verify the intent of this conspiracy,” Aragorn said, ”I have given the matter no small amount of thought. These are rapacious men, and the only conclusion I arrive at is truly evil.
Hanasian’s gaze returned to Aragorn and found he was unusually troubled.
”What is it?” he asked quietly, his stomach twisting.
”There can be only one reason they desire her alive and healthy. Royal heirs have two purposes. The first, to rule, is one she has set aside in a public manner. The second remains; and that is to produce a successor as soon as possible.”
The enormity of what Aragorn suggested left Hanasian aghast. His face paled and Aragorn watched his old friend grapple with horror and anger.
”But…why? Even were they to succeed, what difference would it make?”
Aragorn sighed, for it was a dark matter he spoke of, ”If they declare her of unsound mind, they invalidate her decree to dissolve Cardolan’s throne. Clearly, they know she will never accede to take it up herself. They would take the child they force from her, mould him to take the throne. As you said, these are desperate men.”
Aragorn set a steadying hand on Hanasian’s shoulder. What Aragorn spoke of staggered anyone of good heart. Abduction, imprisonment, rape, child stealing, treason, and likely murder because she would only become a liability once they had the child.
”Does she know?” he whispered and Aragorn shrugged.
”I have not spoken of it to her, but I would not be surprised if she has deduced it for herself. Hanasian, I tell you this not to change your course. I tell you this so that you might determine ways in which to locate these men before the necessity of baiting them arrives. To achieve these ends, they will need a secure location to hold her for some time. Arrangements must be in place, people…supplies…it is a staggeringly complex scheme…and you know the flaw with such things.”
“The easier it is to unravel,” Hanasian said and Aragorn nodded.
”I wish I left you in brighter circumstances, my friend. I will watch for tidings. I hope that when summer and the need to seek Fornost comes, I will look in on you as I pass and discover you both happy and well.”
The leave-taking began with that, and it took most of the day. Words, bittersweet smiles, embraces, jests all passed and at the very last, Bear swept Rin into a tight embrace. He frowned and lifted her up a second time that day.
”Hmmm,” he commented loudly, mischievous grin flickering over his face as he set her down and held her out at arm’s length, ”You’ve been living on a sparrow’s diet, and yet despite that, you’re almost getting fat, woman!”
Rin flushed with bright embarrassment and pulled her cloak tightly about her. Men chortled but Hanasian noticed the furtive alarm that crossed her expression before it vanished behind her scowl. His mind ticked that over, on top of everything else, and all of sudden it all lined up. The distracted mood, the inability to keep anything down, the grumbling over how tight her leather breeches were getting and the way that her hair and skin glowed with vitality. It happened, he had heard, for some women. His head spun for a second time that day and he glanced at Mecarnil and Farbarad. The two Rangers had known her mother. Mecarnil squinted at Rin and Farbarad’s jaw dropped open for a moment. He began to chuckle, turned and clapped a congratulatory hand over Hanasian’s shoulder.
”Mind your manners, Bear, or that sister of yours will be getting a letter from me,” Rin growled and scooted out of his reach.
Hanasian looked utterly dumbfounded and she knew it was all spiralling out of control. By late afternoon the snow had thickened, the shadows had deepened and those headed south had departed. Rin was a bundle of nervous energy. She threw herself into re-organising her packs. Frea ambled over to her and grinned at his brother.
”Letting yourself go already,” he rumbled provocatively and she answered by way of a rude gesture.
”I am not getting fat. I was just weighted with things I had yet to stow after the supplies were divided.”
“Is that what you’re packing now?”
“It’s none of your business!”
“That, if I am not mistaken, is Bear’s favourite dagger!”
Frea dropped to a squat and pulled the pack she was organising from her. Upon inspection, he found a small number of items that were not her own.
”Doc! Have you no shame?”
“I wasn’t robbing them!”
“No? Then what’s this?” Frea brandished one of Foldine’s favourite pipes, ”Taken up smoking, have you?”
Rin coloured again and she mumbled, ”They’re keepsakes.”
“Souvenirs, you mean.”
“And maybe they might come looking for them some time.”
Frea dropped Foldine’s pipe back into her pack and cocked his head to one side. Her eyes were lowered and so she did not see the fond smile that slowly grew across his face. His embrace startled her.
”You couldn’t just ask them to visit you, could you Doc? You’re a strange one, alright,” he said as he patted her back with awkward affection, like he might a favoured pet, or horse.
When he pulled back, he frowned at her, ”Although I still think Bear was right.”
Hanasian’s hand descended on her shoulder and drew her to her feet.
”Yes, he was,” Hanasian said solemnly as he studied Rin’s face.
Her expression tensed and her eyes dropped from his, uncertain and troubled.
”I think we should speak, you and I,” he said and drew her away from the others.
Her heart thudded in her throat and she knew he had figured it out. Was he angry? Was he upset? Was he pleased? She found herself utterly unable to read him. When Hanasian turned to her again, he placed two fingers under her chin and lifted her face. The only way she could avoid his eyes was to close her own. She was so nervous she thought she’d be sick. It would not help matters and she clenched her jaw against it.
”When were you going to say something, wife?” he asked her and his voice betrayed his emotions.
Confused, hurt, surprised and scared. She swallowed hard.
”I…wasn’t sure at first…and then…there was no chance, no time…so much was happening…and-“
Her voice faltered and then her eyes did close. He could feel her shaking through the fingers he held under her chin.
”And you were not sure how I would react,” he answered for her and she winced before she nodded.
”I know we discussed this…but that was before…everything…and now…this is not the time…I didn’t do it on purpose…I…”
“Look at me. Look, Rosmarin! Open your eyes!”
When she did, he could see the dread in them. It made him want to shake sense into her and comfort her all at once.
”Again you underestimate me! Why? What cause have I given you to doubt me? Honestly, Rosmarin, you drive me to the edge of my wits sometimes!”
“I am sorry,” she whispered forlornly, arms wrapped around herself.
The snow was coming in flurries that sealed them off from the rest of the world like a thick, chill velvet curtain. It made the howl of the wind in the gathering evening all the sharper.
”For what? For concealing this from me?”
Hanasian’s hand dropped from her chin and he found it difficult to speak for a moment. He pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her. He bent his head to speak his next words into her ear.
”So help me, woman, if you are apologising for carrying my child…Yes, the timing leaves a lot to be desired. But I do not regret this…I will not reject this…Rosmarin…this is a remarkable gift we have…and I demand you share it with me. I’ll accept nothing less from you. I am your husband, I am this child’s father and I will always be so. Do you understand me?”
He felt her shudder with relief against him and she nodded before he continued, ”Now…this makes it all the more imperative that we resolve this business in Lake-Town without placing you in harm’s way. I’ll brook no argument on this. I have already spoken with Mecarnil and Farbarad and we are all three of us agreed. You will abide willingly by this, or you will be sent to Minas Tirith.”
“Please do not send me away!”
She held him so tightly he found it hard to breathe, ”Very well…now, my love, let us find a fire…and I will see about making some tea.”
“Yes…there are several that will do for this purpose. You must eat more.”
A fire had been coaxed into life in their absence and the air about it was heavy with expectation upon their return. Mecarnil and Farbarad had clearly spoken with Hanasian’s cousins. Folca smiled openly and Frea winked at Hanasian. Rowdy and Rocks both made no response at all, for different reasons. Water was soon set to the boil and Hanasian sourced what he needed from Rin’s packs. She peppered him with questions over what he was using, how much, how it worked, her curiosity clearly getting the better of her. In time a mug of steaming tea was poured out and passed to her. She wrapped her hands around it to warm them and sniffed experimentally at the brew.
”Come on…all of it…and if it works we can see about something more substantial.”
“If it doesn’t?”
“We’ll try a different one.”
Rin’s face screwed up at her first mouthful, ”Gah! Are they all so bitter?”
“No…this one is by far the worst,” Hanasian calmly replied and she stared at him pointedly.
He busied himself with removing the water so that food could be warmed through and ignored her for a while.
”Then why start with the worst?”
“It’s the most effective,” he answered mildly and then added, ”And it’s the one you will remember the next time you decide to withhold something important from me. Now, drink up. All of it and another mug besides. Take your medicine, Doc.”
Mecarnil grunted laughter he could not conceal at the expression on her face. She did as bidden, grumbling in Dunlendic all the while. It was not easy to get down, but once down it surprised her by staying there. After that…food…it had been so long since she had eaten anything of substance. That night, Rin was overruled when it came to drawing lots for the watch. She wasn’t happy about it, but she was hardly in a position to press the matter with the others. She wrapped herself carefully against the cold and Hanasian did the same. They slept under a hastily erected tent, but the ground was freezing. The hunting done along the way had not only supplemented their supplies but provided pelts and skins to act as a barrier. It certainly helped, but it could not hold the chill back entirely.
In time, her shivering stopped and Hanasian was warm against her back. Her mind delved through the day’s events like an otter seeking dinner. Hanasian’s words circled her thoughts. He thought she underestimated him and she knew that was not the case. She hadn’t found the words to convey it to him at the time and they jostled at her now.
”I do not underestimate you,” she whispered and his response was to softly hush her, his breath warm against the back of her neck.
Rin shifted slightly and pressed on, ”I told you this in the Chetwood. You are a marvel to me and always will be. Rather, I know myself.”
One of these days, he would realise he overestimated her worth. She was convinced that would happen. Each day she would gladly take until that moment came and he walked away. It was like knowing the fire that warmed her now would consume her, wreathe her in agony, and yet she could not bring herself to step back to safety.
Hanasian shifted the arm he had clasped over her and brought his hand from her stomach to press his fingers gently against her lips. He was too tired to argue and this was a matter words could not settle. The woman he held had been convinced over thirty long years that she was less than a speck of dirt. It would take time to undo that, and love. Not just his, but the child she carried. Patience, as Aragorn had wisely said, and love. He had both in abundance.
Some miles away, Bear patted his torso and belt to locate his dagger. At this point, the cakes of cram rivalled rocks and only a very knife could penetrate them. No one wanted to eat a whole cake of the stuff in one sitting. After a few unsuccessful pats, Bear glanced down. He twisted about and tried to locate it and then swore.
"What's the problem?" Foldine asked, busy with something himself.
"I've lost my bloody dagger. Now! Of all times! Had it with me from the getgo, and now it's gone!"
Foldine snatched up his waxed leather pouch of tabbac, tucked it under his tabbard, and began to hunt for his pipe.
As he did so, Bear continued, "I suppose I've dropped it in the snow somewhere. Hell of a time to lose it, on the way back home."
Farbarad grunted, more in surprise than at Bear's statement and searched again. He had located his second pipe, but the first which he ordinarily kept carefully wrapped with it, had vanished into thin air. Foldine drew out his second best pipe and his eyes narrowed as he reviewed the day. Bear loses his favourite dagger, after carrying it successfully through years of risky activities. He had lost his best pipe, on the very same day. The same day as they had parted company with Hanasian...the same day as a certain Company Healer with known sticky fingers had diligently divided up supplies as if she were the Company's storemaster, logistics expert...
Foldine sighed and then flipped Bear one of his daggers. It landed in the snow near the marine's foot.
"Yeah...must have dropped it in the snow. That's it. That's what happened," Foldine said dryly and began packing tabbac into his second best pipe bowl. At least she had not taken the tabbac...and he had a reasonable idea where to find her to get his pipe back.
Many partings were made amongst friends and comrades in Skhar when the wet gray morning came. Hanasian and Videgavia, who had walked the path of the Company from its first days, spoke long of things past and present. Partings were hard but the old crew was very stoic. The emotions they felt were kept mostly in check. It would all come out in the next few days.
Not only was it hard for the old crew, but so to with what had become known as the Gondor Legion. Some few of them, most who had some experience with watercraft, and some who were itching for adventure, decided to stay in Rhun and signed on with the new Company. Also, a half a dozen men from what had become known as the Rhun Legion decided to go west on an adventure of their own. Of these, all save one went with the King’s Army. One decided to accompany Hanasian, because he was one of the original twelve, and his loyalty was to the original company captain. He had gone forth with a high recommendation from Khule, so he considered it to be an honor to go with Hanasian. Hanasian in turn put high regard on Khule’s word, and the young Easterling would be most helpful in the days ahead in Dale.
Some of the young soldiers from the Army of Gondor, mainly those whose seafaring Numenorean blood ran a bit thick, were given leave to sign on with the Free Company. Also, a few from the Army of Rohan stayed after given leave of their duties by King Eomer.
With the goodbyes being hard for most, it was some time later that day toward evening that the old Company men gathered around in their bar camp. It was Berlas who noted something missing first.
”Has anyone seen my favorite beer pot?” he asked.
Wulgof answered, ”It was on the bar yesterday, as was my cloak. It seems to be lost as well.”
Everyone decided to take stock of their personal goods, and the discovery was an item precious to each of the old crew was missing. Mulgov said in a low voice, ”Rin.”
There was a certain amount of grumbling but nobody was really upset about it. The possibility that they would never see Rin, Hanasian, or any of the old company that departed was heavy on their minds even if they didn’t say it.
It was Berlas who spoke as he reached for the missing fine silver chain he usually wore around his neck, ”Well, maybe next year, should we go wayward on the ships, we will come to Mithlond and may see them again.”
They were silent in thought. Nobody really thought that would happen, but it gave the old crew something to consider.
The rain never seemed to stop there. From fine foggy drizzle to heavy cloud bursts, the water and mud was hardly noticed after a while. No matter, work had begun on the ships within days of the King’s departure, and it was determined they would only have enough hands to man one. So the second ship was stripped of anything that would make the voyage easier and docked out of the way. Provisioning began but was slow going finding all that was needed. They had no idea how long or how far they would be going, and what they would find. In an effort to gather as much information as possible, Videgavia summoned Anvikela to speak with him. The lady had remained out of sight since the day she had met with King Aragorn. Since he was tasked with leading this Company and expedition, and she was entrusted to his care, it was time to find out a bit more about her. She arrived without notice, in the company of Nets and Flint. He stood and greeted her with a slight bow, and she returned a slight curtsy.
He asked, ”Greetings Lady Anvikela, I trust we are keeping you comfortable?”
Her eyes did not move from the floor by Videgavia’s feet, but she said in a deeply accented Westron, ”I am well. I am but a servant, yet you treat me as royalty. Why?”
Videgavia was taken aback by her question. He looked at Nets who shrugged, then he said, ”It is the wisdom of King Aragorn that could see you are a remarkable woman. We are to see to your needs, and we treat you as though you are a princess from a land far away that we know nothing about. You expressed a wish to him that you wanted to go home, and we are going to attempt to do just that. Think of us as your escort home.”
He had stepped closer to her, and stooped down enough to look into her eyes. She did not want to look at him but he managed to capture her gaze. She lifted her head as he stood.
”That is better. I prefer your beautiful eyes looking at me instead of down.”
Anvikela almost broke eye contact and looked down, but instead only blinked and blushed.
Her question sounded curiously like a statement, She said, ”You have powers?”
Videgavia said, “No, the only power I have is my strength of arms.”
She said haltingly, as if she did not know the words, ”I served the Lady … for I had shielding…. with my sisters. But…”
She swallowed and her eyes watered. Videgavia looked concerned and said, ”You are free to look away. I’m sure I’m hard on the eyes. I just wanted you to know it was permissible to meet my eyes when talking to me.”
She swallowed again and maybe a slight smile spread across her face for a moment as she said, ”I wish not to. I just know not of your ways. We… my sisters and I, were not to look the Lady or the Order in the eyes. “
Videgavia offered Anvikela a chair to sit in, and she did so haltingly. He said, ”Sit please. Now we are a rather rough bunch since most of the cultured of our number left for the west, but we know it has to be hard for you losing your sisters. We don’t follow your Order's predilection for subjugation either. Be at ease with us, and let us show you respect. You are our honored guest from another land. Now I need to talk to Nets and Flint. You are welcome to stay if you like."
Anvikela nodded and said, ”I would like that.”
She sat quiet as Vid said to Nets, ”Thank you for keeping an eye on Lady Anvikela. Good work teaching her our common tongue.”
Nets shrugged and said, ”She is a fast learner.”
Videgavia nodded before saying to Flint, ”Heard good things about you.”
Flint stood for a moment, finally asking, ”What have you heard?”
“I heard you could write.”
Flint answered, ”Yes I can when I have the time and the means.”
Videgavia nodded, saying, ”Then you will have the job of records. Hanasian was always writing things and kept records of everything the Company did, who served, who was lost. I want you to do that. Berlas could do it, but he will not ever get started. He would give briefs to Hanasian, and he can continue to do that for you. If you don’t want to do it, let me know now.”
“It will be an honor to do!” Flint said.
Videgavia retrieved everthing Hanasian had left of his clean parchments, ink, and quill and handed it to Flint.
”I suggest you get started. A record of names will be a good start.”
“Yes sir” Flint said as he left.
He passed Dhak and his shadows outside the door. They entered without announcement, and Dhak said, ”I understand you wanted to talk to me, no?”
“Yes, come in. I want to know what we can expect when we come to your land?”
Videgavia said, noticing the instant discomfort in Lady Anvikela upon their entry.
Dhak said as much as he needed to, at least as much as he thought would appease Videgavia. But he underestimated the new Company Captain. He could tell Dhak was balking at the idea of trying to set sail for home. With the departure of the royalty, he now sought to convince Videgavia that it would not be worthwhile to go. Maybe he was right, Videgavia thought, but he and all who signed on with the new Company were commissioned by the King to do this very thing. All Dhak’s stalling and vagueness did was to make Videgavia trust him even less. He obviously had something to hide. But Videgavia let him talk. Videgavia could smell a rat, and Dhak, for all of his prowess, was smelling like one here. He would have to talk with Khor about him, for he had much more extensive dealings with this man. And it was clear that Lady Anvikela did not trust him. There is something more going on here, and Videgavia hoped to gain as much knowledge about it before they would leave port.
He had a lot of time before that would happen, so he told Dhak and his companions, ”It would be best for you three to stay within a certain boundary in the city. I don’t want you walking freely about for your own safety.”
Dhak looked at his companions before asking, ”We are not your enemy. Why do you wish to limit us?”
Videgavia said, ”More for your own safety. For there had been some whispers on the street that you were the last of ‘the invaders’.”
Dhak took exception, ”So you will imprison us, no?”
Videgavia said, ”No, I won’t. You are free. The streets of Skhar could be dangerous to you, so know that should you and your companions go about, we cannot guarantee your safety.”
It was a chance Dhak was willing to take. He nodded and excused himself, with his shadows. The rumors were true, and Videgavia knew that Lady Anvikela too would be in danger of reprisal. He decided to have her lodged in a house closer to where the company stayed. Nets and others would remain with her at all times.
It would be many weeks before they would be ready to leave. Word came that in addition to the supplies left by the King upon leaving, his foresight had called for more supplies to be sent to help heal the country ravaged by civil war. Some was provided for the voyage, which would help with their provision.
After that day onward, the cloud of grief slowly seemed to leave Lady Anvikela, and in the days and weeks afterward, she and Nets spent more time with the old crew, and she learned more and more of the language and the ways of the Free Company. Videgavia and Berlas kept a close watch on her when they were in the Company den. She would not drink, so she was appointed bartender, and it seemed she was beginning to relax among them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Esgaroth New Town in Dale
The snow fell lightly in Esgoroth and along the west shore as the chill wind from the northeast pushed across Long Lake. The light dusting gave a chill, silvery sheen to the night, and the air was quiet but for the sound of the wind and the water lapping the edge of the lake. The few lamps that were lit gave a shrouded glow about them, and one of these was by the sign of the Guilded Lantern. Inside, the handful of men that had not gone home worked on finishing their stout ales before leaving. One man in particular was talking to the serving girl who was cleaning tables of empty flagons and plates. She didn’t want to be bothered, but a silver coin convinced her to hear him out. She was to watch for strangers and note their appearance and the time they were present. The man told her he would return in a week or so to hear any news. A second silver coin was passed to help her remember. Having made a week’s wage in a moment to do what she does anyway was a blessing. It would help her care for her aged father who was wounded in the War. The man downed the last of his ale and set his flagon on her tray and headed for the door.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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There was still some distance to cover and little time left to them. Mid-winter was only a week or two away. Between Esgaroth and the eastern corner of the Iron Hills, they had to traverse the Hills, the Desolation of Smaug, the Lonely Mountain and then the lake itself, for Esgaroth stood under the eaves of Mirkwood. The morning was blindingly bright and blessedly still. Wind nor snow marred the sunshine. Their small camp was up at its usual hour, their breath silvery in the air as they moved about. They had a routine for breaking camp and this morning proved no different.
Rin had stowed her bedroll, gathered her pack and panniers and grasped her saddle ready to lift it onto the back of her horse. She just levered it off the ground when Farbarad swooped and snatched it from her with a frown.
”Hey!” Rin protested as he swung it away and onto her horse.
”I don’t want to see that again, do you hear?” he growled fiercely at her.
Rin planted her fists on her hips, ”And why not? You had no trouble at all with me saddling my own horse yesterday.”
“That was yesterday,” Farbarad said and bent to cinch the girth strap tighter now that her horse had let out its breath.
”And what’s the difference between then and now?”
Farbarad finished checking the tack and simply looked at her over one shoulder. His gaze travelled to her panniers.
”How heavy are they?” he asked and Rin sidestepped to stand in front of them.
”Is this how it’s going to be now?” she challenged and Farbarad shrugged.
”Yup,” he affirmed with a nod, ”At least for a good…well can’t be nine months. What would it be now? Eight? Seven?”
“NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!” Rin responded, scandalised.
Farbarad shrugged unapologetically and scratched at his beard, ”Well, that may be. This is how it’s going to be until the little one comes, whether you like it or not. No matter how you scowl and argue.”
He shot her an unrepentant wolfish grin and set off. Meanwhile, the only other woman with them was doing a very poor job of concealing her amusement nearby.
”It’s not funny,” Rin stated and that only made Slip laugh harder.
The small woman actually wiped tears of mirth from her face, ”Aw, it’s sweet!”
“It’s offensive,” Rin replied and grabbed the straps of one pannier.
”They’re just trying to take care of you.”
“I’ve been taking care of myself my whole life. I don’t see why today is any different,” Rin grumbled as she strapped the first pannier on.
”You really are difficult to please, aren’t you?”
At that Rin grinned across the rump of her horse at Slip, ”It’s the only way to manage all these men.”
They were off at a good clip soon thereafter and the Iron Hills drifted by, mile after mile. Rin saw no sign of Dwarves despite Mecarnil’s insistence they were there and they certainly marked the passing of the mounted party. The weather stayed fair for several days, the nights were severe and cold. However, just as they gained the eastern cusp of the dragon’s desolation, the weather took a turn for the worse. The snow fell with increasing fury, the wind picked up and blasted over them. It was miserable going and both exposure and frostbite kept Rin more than busy. It took them three weeks all up to reach Esgaroth. It seemed to Rin, irrational though it was, that the blizzard gave up once they seemed likely to survive it.
Esgaroth appeared like a golden jewel in the chill night. It glimmered and beckoned down on the icy lake. Each lantern in each window was like a golden star. It had stopped snowing but the wind had picked up sharply after sunset. Hanasian led them into the town at a rapid pace, eager to make the Guilded Lantern as soon as possible. No sooner did they make the stables were Mecarnil and Farbarad off their horses. The stable was marginally warmer than outside, but they were all shivering before the two Rangers had returned and reported that arrangements were satisfactory for the night.
In the Guilded Lantern was a warm hearth, hot food, a hot bath even. Oh how she wanted one of those more than anything in the world. Her scalp itched and she thought she would smell like horse for the rest of her days. All this glorious luxury was only a few short steps away. She even had coin to pay for it.
”We’ve secured enough rooms for those of us as will remain here as well as extra rooms tonight. We’ve a private dining room as well, thought that best,” Mecarnil said.
”And a bath? You organised that too, didn’t you. They’re warming the water right now, aren’t they?” Rin asked, practically bouncing on her heels in excitement and a bid to warm herself up.
Mecarnil glanced at Farbarad and Slippery moaned, ”Typical! Content to wallow in their own muck for years, these men are!”
“You never complained ‘bout that afore,” protested Stillwater and Slippery sniffed.
”I never had anything to compare you to before.”
Farbarad grinned suddenly, ”Of course we remembered…not worth our hides to forget, is it?”
Rin muttered something under her breath and Hanasian had to catch at his wife’s cloak to prevent her from marching out into the open. He pulled her back, pulled the cowl of her cloak back up over her head.
”We cannot afford for you to be seen in Esgaroth, Rin,” he cautioned solemnly.
With that, they left the stables and entered the inn warily. They went first to the private dining room. It was panelled in oak and sizeable enough to accommodate them easily. Bread and cheese had already been laid out and a serving maid bustled in laden with a tray of foaming ale. All Rin wanted was a bath. All the men wanted was the ale. She was not permitted to wander the inn alone. Slippery proved her saviour.
”Come on, I’ll take you,” she said and the two of them vanished in a twinkling of an eye.
”Three crowns we don’t see either one for at least an hour,” Folca said.
”Gives us time to discuss things without interruption,” remarked Frea.
While the men downstairs had their discussion, the women upstairs lounged in steam, bubbles and blissfully hot water. Their fingers and toes had become prunes, their hair was detangled and every last inch of skin was properly clean.
”I’ve never seen anyone love a bath quite like you,” Slippery drowsily commented.
”They’re still new, I suppose. Had my first hot bath, with proper soap, just before I officially signed onto the Black, in Bree.”
“I bet there isn’t any warm baths back at that town in Rhun.”
“There isn’t. I looked for them.”
In a while it became evident that the water was not going to stay hot forever and nor would the food last indefinitely below. The women emerged and rummaged through their packs for clean clothing. Slippery just pulled on a simple tunic over her leggings. With her belt slung around her hips, all she needed were her boots again and she was ready. Rin, however, found things a little more challenging. Since regaining the ability to eat, certain things had begun to markedly change. For starters, she was not going to get back into her breeches again. That left her with the two dresses Bea had given her at the Prancing Pony. The blue dress was out of the question. However, the chemise with the ruby kirtle still fit…if she let the laces across the front of the kirtle mostly unlaced. Slippery giggled, fingers pressed to her lips.
”You’re going to need clothes soon,” she said and Rin sighed.
”It’s happening already. I’m getting fat…no wonder Hanasian isn’t happy about this,” Rin replied, gesturing at her midriff.
It was concealed by the soft folds of her chemise, but there was no mistaking the soft swell that had started to emerge.
”It’s a change, is all. Men are terrible at change…and I don’t think he’s displeased. He’s just got a lot on his mind. There’s no point getting glum about it Rin. I mean, you can still see your toes, so enjoy things while you can, I say. Now, I saw cheese below. Let’s see if it’s still there, shall we? Don’t forget your hood,” said the young Gondorian woman with a wink.
Slippery started off down the hall for the stairs at a jaunty jog. In the dining room, things had largely been arranged to their satisfaction.
”So, tomorrow we’ll set out for Bard’s halls. Best if we stay there, all things considered, so that we’re not recognised. Safer for Rin too,” Mecarnil recapped, ”And we’ll run the patrols out of here.”
“Anywhere we can find local work, the right sort, will be a good place to start,” Frea said, ”Eyes and ears open.”
“How will we communicate with you if you’re at Bard’s?” Rowdy asked, the first thing he had said in days, ”Like as not you’ll be seen coming and going if you make a regular habit of it.”
“I’ve a letter from Aragorn for him. I plan to request access to the ways under the town.”
“Beneath the boards?” Stillwater inquired in response to Hanasian’s statement.
”Aye, there’s a way beneath from Bard’s hall to access points throughout the town, over the surface of the lake itself. It’ll be the best option for us, if he’ll consent. Aragorn has requested his assistance and Dale is an ally of Gondor’s still, as recent events in Rhun demonstrated.”
The discussion paused as the door opened to admit Slippery and then Rin. The two women removed their cloaks and quickly found places at the table.
”Any hot water left?” Frea asked.
”Any cheese?” Rin swiftly retorted.
A serving maid circled, picking up empty tankards and dropping off freshly filled ones. Rin leaned back to intercept her.
”Please, some more cheese? And ale?”
“Cheese, certainly…the ale though…”
“You can’t have run out, surely,” Rin answered and the maid glanced at Hanasian.
”She’s been told that you can’t have any,” Hanasian said.
”None! That’s an outrage!”
“I can fetch you watered wine, ma’am,” the maid said awkwardly on the heels of Rin’s protest.
”Water…no tea, yes tea would be best,” Hanasian replied calmly as Rin stared incredulously at him.
”Yes, good sir! At once!” the maid answered and shot for the door.
”And bring more than just cheese. She needs a proper meal.”
“I don’t want a proper meal. There is nothing wrong with cheese!” Rin mutinously growled and crossed her arms under her chest.
”So, everything settled?” Slippery brightly asked, moving her ale out of Rin’s reach for good measure.
”Yup…we’ll start the net tomorrow. Cap, Doc and the two Rangers will head off to Bard’s. They’ll use some sort of underboard boat system to reach us here and keep in contact,” Stillwater furnished.
”Underboard?” Rin asked, sufficiently intrigued.
”Nothing you need concern yourself with,” Farbarad said crisply.
”And why’s that?”
“Because you won’t be setting foot outside of Bard’s hall, nor near a window, until this is all done.”
“But…that means I’m a prisoner!”
“Until this is done,” Hanasian solemnly said, ”If that is what it takes to keep you safe, then so be it. You chose, Rosmarin, to come here rather than go south to Minas Tirith.”
Rin looked like she was going to say more but then the tea arrived. Rin stared glumly at the teapot. Slippery imagined it was some sort of symbol for her loss of control. That’s what was troubling her so. She was losing control and freedom, and she had chosen this what is more. It wasn’t that Hanasian was upset with her. He was merely trying to defend his wife and unborn child the only way he could. Still, as the conversation moved on, Slippery could not help but feel sorry for her friend. Rin had a forlorn, lost look to her. Her shoulders slumped further when a proper meal was set down and she was ordered to eat. Slippery watched the other woman wrestle with herself and moment and then pick up a fork. If any of the men noticed this quiet battle they gave no sign of it. No one except Rowdy, who noticed everything.
They did not stay up late for they were all fatigued from their travel. They were soon all on their way to rooms, the routine for the night’s watch predetermined even though the Guilded Lantern had been deemed safe enough for them to remain the night.
”It’s for the best,” Slippery whispered to Rin and squeezed her hand on their way to their respective quarters for the night.
Rin nodded but otherwise said nothing.
”I will take no unnecessary risk, no chance, Rosmarin, and I make no apology for it,” Hanasian said to her as he wearily removed his boots one by one.
Again Rin nodded and said nothing. The morning came too soon and after a brief breakfast they were on their way to the halls of Bard II. Rin remained quiet and withdrawn upon arrival. A quick introduction and Aragorn’s letter ensured they were swiftly led into the homely comfort of Bard’s hall. Bard was a man bowed by the season and the weight of years on his shoulders. He sat in a stout chair, swathed in blankets, great silvery eyebrows drawn together to bristle as he read Aragorn’s request.
”This says you’re kin,” the elderly lord said, peering up with dark eyes that were still sharp with wit but not sight.
”Come closer then, girl! I don’t bite! No teeth left,” he demanded and flashed his gums.
Rin sidled reluctantly closer despite his assurances and he studied her a moment and then nodded.
”Well, what aid do you be hoping for?” the lord said after a while, eyes flicking back to Hanasian who had done most of the talking, ”You stay there, girl,” he added when Rin shifted to step back.
”Lord, I have brought men who will flush these traitors out for you. However, I do ask that you permit us to abide here, so that we are not recognised before we can locate them,” Hanasian replied and Bard’s head nodded.
”Yes, yes,” he said impatiently, ”Of course! Not the first you are to request that. Nothing else? They said you’d ask something else. Where are they?”
“With respect, my lord, where are who?” Hanasian asked.
”I said stay there, girl! You’re a flighty one, make no mistake. You break one of my windows leaping through it and there’ll be trouble!” Bard roused at her and Rin flushed.
Precisely at that point, the door to his reception hall opened and in strode two individuals that Hanasian did not expect to see at all. Both executed gracious bows for Bard and then again for Rin, which only served to unsettle her further.
”Elladan! Elrohir! A fine sight unlooked for! Mae Govannen!” Hanasian cried and the twins smiled.
They clasped hands first with Hanasian and then with the other two rangers.
”Have you asked yet?” Elrohir inquired.
”No!” Bard grumbled.
”He’ll be wanting use of your dock, lord, and the access hatches you have wisely constructed throughout your fair town,” Elladan said smoothly.
”Is that all? This is what you kept me waiting for? Hmpf…no respect for an aged man. Well of course. You’ll be wanting boats too, I suspect,” Bard stated gruffly and then levered himself out of his chair.
His son’s wife took his arm and began leading him from the hall.
”Put them in the west rooms. They’re the warmest this time of year,” Bard continued and his escort inclined her head in understanding.
”What are you doing here?” Hanasian inquired, still surprised by their arrival.
”Aragorn sent word of trouble, of course. We but followed the trail.”
“But you could not have set out before the High Pass closed,” Farbarad said.
”Think you that the only way across the Mountains?” Elrohir gently teased.
”Your delicate elf boots probably barely made an impression on the snow,” Farbarad replied, voice a roughened growl to heighten the comparison.
Rin watched all of this bounce back and forth, silent and definitely overwhelmed. She had not moved from the spot Bard had commanded her to occupy. Memories flooded her. Sunlight. Colour. Smell. Taste. Large boots and blue flowers. Lochared most of all. It made her heart ache. They had loved that little place, there under the trees, where the stream was gentle. They had whiled hours away there, together. There were frogs and fish and butterflies and all sorts of wonderful things to do and explore. Bard’s hall fell away and she was lost in that bubble of memory. No cares or concerns. No death, no conspiracies. No wars or battles. No unborn children that were driving a wedge between her and her husband.
Her bubble popped when a man of middle years appeared to show them to their quarters. She crashed back to reality. Loch was dead, Hanasian found it impossible to look at her without questions crowding his eyes, and she was about to embark on her prison sentence. Hanasian walked with the twins behind their guide, deep in conversation about what the two had found since taking up the trail on the western side of the mountains. Farbarad and Mecarnil followed and Rin trailed along. When she did not walk fast enough for their liking, Farbarad turned about and snapped at her to hurry up.
The western rooms were warm and comfortable. She was not permitted a window to look out upon lest someone mark her identity. She was not permitted to wander the hall either, nor step outside. With her instructions issued, the men soon departed to explore this dock of Bard’s and the boats. Rin turned about the now empty quarters. She had never felt lonelier. Lonely, overwhelmed, caged. She sat down in a chair in the parlour she stood in as Slippery’s words from the night before circled. This was for the best, apparently.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
As it did most every night in winter, the chill northeast wind blowing across the lake spread a light dusting of snow over Esgaroth New City. The freezing temperatures rarely let its grip loose, unless the low sun found a break in the gray blanket of low clouds and fog during the peak of the day. But even then, it would warm barely enough to melt some of the collected snow into wet gloppy slush and mud that would freeze again in the waning daylight. On the nights after those days, one had to watch for ice under foot and under the fresh snow. But for that moment of the struggling breath of warmth, the days it didn’t warm were better.
It was such a chill night, with random stray snowflakes falling steady as Tarina, the serving maid at the Gilded Lantern, walked home from a hard evening of waiting tables. Barely enough snow had come after nightfall to leave tracks in. There was enough to hear the light crunch of footfall. The sound made her feet hurry a little faster towards home. Her last look back to see who may be following revealed a faint shadow in the distance and she turned to run the last block home. But the hidden ice claimed her step and her feet went out from under her. By the time she turned to try and get back to her feet, the shadowed figure stood over her. A hand reached down and helped her up. But he wrapped his arm around her and his other hand pressed over her mouth, silencing any sound she tried to make as she was drawn into the alley and out of sight.
A voice hissed, ”Cease struggling girl! You will be safe! I’ll let you go but I expect only whispering from you.”
Tarina nodded and his hand relaxed. She took a few hurried breaths, each one let out a silvery plume in the chill air, before she whispered, “I expected you days ago!”
”Have you found anything for me?” the man asked.
Tarina found her anger as her breathing began to slow, ”You scared me half to death! You could have come to the inn!"
The man wheezed, ”No, I could not. I paid you to be my eyes and ears there. So tell me, what do they see and hear?”
Tarina pulled free of the man, straightened herself and said, ”These eyes have seen a lot, but these ears have heard very much. There have been some travellers coming into town, most are traders looking for a place to winter. Words are the usual… the price of tea from the south, or of pipeweed from the Shire. Where the inns with the best beer are, and how the roads are much safer now that King Elessar rules.”
The man grew impatient and gripped her wrist hard.
”Stop! You’re hurting me!” Tarina cried faintly.
She saw the blade the man now wielded, and he pulled her to him, grasping her under her arm and spinning her back against him. The blade rested against the pale skin of her neck.
She wept and gasped out faintly, ”Please! I have a father who needs me. Please don’t kill me!”
The stench of his breath blowing over her shoulder from behind caused her to wretch, and the movement of her neck as she tried to keep her stomach in check pressed the knife into her skin. A light crimson trickle started to run down her neck and started to stain the collar of her shirt.
He wheezed in her ear, ”A coin bought your eyes and a coin bought your ears. They best start seeing and hearing more than the usual common room chatter lest I claim them back for the money I spent. Much is seen and heard in common rooms, usually in the shadowy corners out of the way. Now, I will ask again, what have you seen and heard since I saw you last?”
Tarina sniffled as tears ran down her cheeks. Her voice shook and was breathy with distress, ”Please! I will tell you… days after you left…”
The man began to relax his blade from her neck, but he and Tarina heard next was a loud thud. The man fell forward, his weight pushed Tarina to the ground for he was knocked out cold. She looked up into the dark alley above her and a young man who held a log of firewood reached for her, grasped her hand and helped her to her feet for a second time that night. She looked at the dark body sprawled in the snow and then at the man who hit him. The man spoke in heavily-Easterling accented Westron.
”Do you know him? He was hurting you.”
Tarina again looked at the man laying in the snow, then said, ”No. He paid me a sizable tip some days ago, and thought it should buy him other favours.”
The Easterling then said, ”I am Kholas! I come look for you to give tip. You served me a good dinner and kept my ale full. I wanted to give you something but they told me you went home. I saw your tracks in the snow. Then I saw them turn with others into this alley. I stood by the wall and listened, and when I heard your voice I took log from pile there. He was cruel to you, yes?”
Tarina smiled slightly, then said, ”Yes, he was.”
Kholas pointed at the blood on her shirt and said, ”You are hurt!”
He considered swinging the log he held at the man’s head again, but Tarina grabbed his arm, saying, ”No.. no… I’m alright! Leave him be….”
Kholas nudged the man with his boot but he was still out cold. A breeze carried ever more snow with it, and it was falling harder now. Tarina picked up her bags of leftover bread and cheese rinds from the inn and said, ”Will you walk me home? I can be certain I am safe that way.”
She smiled up at him and he nodded. Kholas walked over to the woodpile and set the log back exactly in the same place he had found it. Tarina had her bags mostly gathered and he hurried over to help her with one. She almost slipped and fell again on the ice but he grabbed her around the waist. Tarina didn’t seem to mind as she smiled. Kholas returned it and let her regain her footing. She took his arm and they started to walk down the street.
”I would say introductions are in order, yes? I am Kholas of Rhun, merchant, trader, and traveller. I travel to trade merchandise.”
Tarina smiled and said, ”Pleased to meet you Kholas. My name is Tarina of Esgaroth. I am a serving maid at the Gilded Lantern Inn. I’ve lived all my days right here. As for travels, my brother and I set out once. We tried to walk all the way around the Long Lake.”
“Did you make it?” Kholas asked.
Tarina answered, ”No. We left north, and we forded the river that feeds the lake from the Dwarf King’s Mountain. We worked our way south, but the river leaving the lake was too deep and swift. We lost all our belongings and only barely managed to get back to the east shore. We found an old boat that had been abandoned in the bushes, and we made it ready to carry us over the lake back to Esgaroth.”
“I boated some, along the edges of the Sea of Rhun. My boat leaked a lot. How did your boat fare?” Kholas said excitedly.
Tarina sighed and said, ”Not very well. It was abandoned for a reason. Fortunately, my brother rowed while I scooped the water out. We were in sight and approaching Lake Town when some rot gave way and water poured in. It sank and we swam the final leg. So ended my days of journey.”
Tarina didn’t live far away and both Kholas and Tarina took ever smaller steps as they talked. Kholas said, "Perhaps someday you will go elsewhere and see many sights. It is a big world out there."
"I would like that. Maybe one day."
They walked along silently for a short time when she stopped.
"This is where I live."
They stood in front for a moment as she took the bag from Kholas. She smiled and said, ”Thank you very much for what you did for me tonight. My father would be quite pleased with what you have done.”
Kholas smiled and said as the snow drove ever harder and faster in the building gale, saying, ”Please, I will shake your father’s hand and tell him I was honoured to help you get home tonight.”
“No…” Tarina said with some sadness, sighed and said, ”It would not go well Kholas of Rhun.
“My father fought in the Great War and it was on the battlefield south of here where an Easterling axe hit his helm, splitting his head taking his mind. Another Easterling axe cut his leg giving him his limp. Though he healed and lived, he has not been right since. He remains bitter in his old age. Part of him died that day, or so I believe.”
She looked at the ground by their feet and sighed again. After a moment, Kholas said, ”Your father and my father fought. Perhaps they fought each other. I was just a baby when he marched away towards Dale in the Great War. He never returned.”
They stood there in silence a moment and then, on chance, Kholas held his arms out and Tarina embraced him. They stood quietly together for a moment, buffeted by the wind before Kholas said, ”Such is war. May there be no more wars.”
Tarina nodded as she burrowed in Kholas’ cloak, saying, ”May it be so. Yet things I see and hear, I think there is still much trouble in the wide lands.”
Kholas looked over Tarina’s shoulder into the dark gray shroud of the snowy lands and asked, ”What have you seen and heard Lady Tarina?”
She pulled her head back to look at his face. He looked at hers as the snow flakes caught in her hair. He reached to pull her hood up about her cheeks as she answered.
”There is trouble brewing here. That man tonight, he wanted information. I don’t know who he is, he just paid me one night to gather it. I didn’t want to tell him, but he nearly forced me to had you not done what you did.
“I will tell you for I have seen you are alone. A small and very secretive party of travellers arrived at the Inn nearly a week ago. They rented many of the rooms, and reserved the private dining room for themselves. I was able to observe them rather close that first night, for I served them the ale and food. Not all are still there, some left after that first night. Three Rangers of the North and woman of their people left and have not returned. Between that man and these people, I smell trouble all over.”
Kholas’s finger went up to her lips and tapped them and she stopped talking.
”Fear not. There will be little if no trouble Lady Tarina. Come, let us get you home before you are missed.”
Tarina nodded and they walked once again. It was only about fifty paces to get to her house, and Kholas noted its location. She started to go when Kholas said, ”Wait! I wished to give you this! It was to be your tip tonight, and why I left the inn to find you!”
She turned and he handed her three coins. Two were silver like those she had gotten from the shadowy man. The other was a gold coin of Rhun. Its worth was in its weight, not the value embossed on it. She looked at it and said, ”Thank you Kholas, but this is far too much! It would buy a week of meals at the inn!”
”No, it is for you, for your kindness to this man from the lands of a once hated enemy. This hour tonight means more to me than you will know. Please take it. Keep it secret and use it at need.”
Kholas said as he closed her hand around the coins.
”But this one is Rhun gold! I cannot use it without drawing suspicion. What do I do with it but to have as a keepsake of this night?” she said as her eyes started to tear up.
He wiped them away and said, ”You keep it. In the right time, at the right place, you will know when to use it. You may want to visit the smith at the livery.”
Tarina’s father opened the door and peered out into the darkness.
“Tarina! That you? You’re late! Who is with you?”
Tarins smiled at Kholas then turned and said, ”A gentleman, Da. I had a bit of trouble on my way home tonight and he helped me.”
He grunted and tried to make out the figure beside his daughter in the driving snow. He finally said gruffly, ”Well you are home, so he can be on his way!”
He slammed the door most likely to try and keep the heat of the fire inside the walls. Tarina smiled and leaned up and gave Kholas’ bearded cheek a kiss.
Kholas smiled and said, ”Maybe I will see you again? I’ll likely not leave for days. Weeks maybe. I might be convinced to stay until summer! The weather’s very bad now you know. Nowhere to go.”
Tarina kept smiling as she walked away, not turning back toward him, but said over her shoulder, ”You know where I work.”
Kholas smiled and turned to walk away. He mumbled to himself as he walked into the wind, ”Same place where I am staying.”
He followed the barely noticeable tracks they had made. But for where they had stood for a time, they were already obscured by fresh snow. Kholas was careful and all the more vigilant in not making any noise in the quiet night. Only the wind howled mournfully. He was especially careful when he returned and saw the man he had knocked cold was no longer where he had laid. The amount of snow where he had been gave Kholas a rough idea on how long he had lain there. He looked about, expecting a sore-headed man come flying at him at any moment. But there was only silence. He followed the tracks down the alley and saw the door of which they led. He then returned to the street and walked to the Inn, and he again slipped inside into its warmth.
Mecarnil sat and ran over all those he had watched that day. There was nothing out of the ordinary really. He had hoped they would be able to coax out any of those who still wished to kill or take Rin captive. He hoped their numbers would be so few they would finally die. But like a bad rash, there was always one who wished to keep the idea of an independent Cardolan alive. They had to find something in this cold snowy town. Rocks said they would be near here. With the weather as it was, if they were hiding in the outskirts, they would have to come in at some time. No, they were here. Surely they have the Gilded Lantern watched. Surely the arrival of their party, as late in the season as it was, had been noticed by someone.
Trying to remain unnoticed was at times proving difficult. There were a few around who knew Hanasian, and even he almost ran into someone he knew. The best man they had to get out regularly was Rowdy, Slippery, Stillwater, and the old twins Frea and Folca. Also, arriving much later, was Kholas, an Easterling that Khule recommended from his original twelve who came to him to join the Company. He spent the first night out in the wood, and the next day as well. On the third day he arrived at the Gilded Lantern and he looked every bit the part of an Easterling trader. He was the best source of independent eyes and ears for them in the common room.
While some of the others would come and go, and at times sit and listen and watch, they never acknowledged Kholas, nor he them. He rented his own room, which by sheer luck was directly above the private dining room. It was also by sheer luck that the private dining room was where an unused floor hatch accessed the underboards. It wasn’t on the map Bard provided, so was probably never used. Being it was sealed, it would take a bit of work to get it opened. It was a matter of luck that Kholas in his room the first night noticed a large knot in the floorboards.
He carefully managed to work loose the knothole so he could whisper to those in the room below. The knot he worked loose was tapered the right way so he could simply drop it back in place to conceal it. He thanked the tree for growing a branch just so, and the mill for cutting the wood so, and the builders for using this plank so. It however wasn’t so easy for the men in the dining room below. To get near it, one had to climb up close to the ceiling in the corner of the room to be able to hear him. They needed to avoid the noise carrying and occupants of both rooms had to be careful about who might be outside the respective doors. This meant that an intricate process of moving of a table and then clambering atop it in the corner of the room was needed to get someone up to hear Kholas. Still, it was worth it to keep Kholas separated from the Company in the eyes and minds of the locals.
Rowdy early on had noted that the young sandy-haired serving girl seemed to spend much of her day serving them. He had to assume she would be listening to conversations and watching carefully those who came and went that weren’t regular. And they weren’t regular. It was in the afternoon that Rowdy sat at a table with some locals playing cards. On the afternoon Kholas first walked into the Inn, Hanasian would have been proud of these two new men, recent inductees to the Company from two different cultures in two different places, not knowing each other beyond the divisional patch they shared.
They communicated with just a sidelong look. Kholas knew before he ordered his first meal who to watch and she was rather pretty, an unexpected treat on this very serious matter. It was Kholas watched her that night and again the next day and into the night. She was definitely listening if not watching. He had managed to not catch her eye, but he did talk to others about trading, filling the air with words of no meaning. When she left for the night, he followed her.
Returning well chilled to the common room, Kholas shook off the chill with the snow all over him after he entered the Inn. Rowdy was in a card game with a couple remaining locals but noted his face. He found her and had information. It was time for him to retire from the game.
The next hand he scraped up his winnings and said to the two remaining players, ”Don’t worry, I’ll be back tomorrow night. Maybe you will win it all back!”
They grumbled and decided to call it a night. Rowdy went to the dining room, and Kholas had a small mug of stout before retiring to his room. The innkeeper went and locked the doors for the few hours before the Inn would open for breakfast. It was only a few minutes before the knot was lifted. There was a quiet scramble to get Rowdy up to hear what Kholas had to say. He was direct in his report.
”I found the serving girl. She was paid to gather information. She was good in not telling for her contact threatened her. I took him down and I spoke with the girl at length. She has noted the coming of the Company and has noted everyone that arrived the first night. She knows there are some missing from the inn and can provide basic descriptions of who, or rather what, they are. I think I can keep her from talking to anyone else. Make suitable adjustments to accommodate her eyes. She will be here at work again in the morning.”
The knot plugged the hole and Rowdy climbed down.
He said to Frea, ”We’ve been noticed by the serving girl. What’s more, someone paid her to talk of what she may see or hear. Kholas took care of him and her for now. Nothing is believed to have been said. We need to talk with Hanasian.”
Frea chuckled and Folca said, ”He’s been out of sight, holed up with his wife in Bard’s hall. Surely he will be paying us a visit by morning.”
Rowdy considered that and believed it would be doubtful Hanasian was seen any time soon, all things considered. He knew what he would be doing were he in Hanasian’s boots.
”One would hope. But in case he doesn’t, we need a back up plan. Now that I got a job at the smithy, I’ll be outside this inn. So I hope this will not be a problem,” Rowdy said.
Frea asked, ”You are a blacksmith?”
Rowdy answered, ”I’ve some experience. Made chain mail mostly as an apprentice. Didn’t like it much, but it will be enough to get me by. I won the job in a card game. Any of you get any work?”
Folca answered, ”Yes, in the livery, which is right next to the smithy.”
Nobody else answered. It was about that time that the hatch was worked free, and at the right time. Hanasian came crawling up a few minutes after it got opened. The first thing Hanasian did after emerging was to go to the hearth and tried to warm up.
He said, ”Damn, those crawlways may be convienient to move about under the city, but you’re only inches above the water and the wind gets under there and freezes you to the bone! Now, tell me what you all know.”
They let Rowdy fill him in on what Kholas told them. Hanasian nodded and considered their situation. It was always the serving girls, he noted. His father had been quite fond of several, especially the sisters at the Forsaken about the time he was born. Why mother put up with him he would never know. Hanasian himself befriended a few along his path as well and found they were well placed and often valuable assets. They always hear and see more than people expect.
He asked, ”Is she a threat?”
Most were unsure, but Rowdy said, ”Kholas says he has her handled.”
“Good,” Hanasian replied, ”I think the man who was asking for information that may be one Rocks’ contact here. We need to find him.”
Plans were made as to where they would look, but it was unanimously agreed that the best chance would be for this man to find Kholas. They were sure he would have a grudge to settle. The tap code got Kholas to pull the knot, and instructions were given that pleased him to no end. He was to keep befriending the girl and keep her close, and in time the man would make his move.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Hanasian returned from the Gilded Lantern filled with news and chilled to the bone once again. Rin piled wood onto the hearth in the parlour as Mecarnil and Farbarad closed in. Elladan and Elrohir had left some days ago, intent on searching Mirkwood and hopeful of seeking aid of some sort from Thranduril. As Hanasian reported the details, Mecarnil's expression lost some of its frustration and Farbarad's gained a fell light. They had a lead; the net was being drawn tighter.
From her position by the hearth, Rin observed that having something to focus on did the two Rangers as much good as it had done her. Hanasian had been artful indeed and well she knew it. At first, he had ensured that he had drawn her full attention in ways only he could. With Mecarnil and Farbarad out during the day, and Elrohir and Elladan absent, they had the rooms to themselves and Hanasian had found an excellent use for them.
"We owe Khule a great deal for sending Kholas along," Farbarad said once Hanasian had finished and Mecarnil grunted, stroking his beard as he pondered.
"And I owe Rowdy an apology," he allowed a moment later because he had harboured enduring suspicion of the man.
"Another to add to the list," Rin observed and Mecarnil's head twisted about to catch her quiet smile.
"Well played," he admitted, they were each as proud as the other, and Rin lifted a shoulder in half a shrug.
"I'm learning," she casually answered as she walked towards her bedroom, for it was late.
She had caught Hanasian's smile as she brushed past him and a moment later Farbarad asked, "Speaking of learning, how goes those other lessons?"
"I didn't burn the pastry at all today."
"Pastry? Is there a pie? Why haven't we seen it?" Farbarad persisted, aware that he was onto something.
"Note she referred to the pastry…not the filling," Hanasian murmured and Mecarnil chuckled.
At her request, Rin had been permitted to venture into Bard's kitchens. Rin's plan was simple. In under a year, she'd have a family to care for, plus two hungry Rangers and there were things she needed to know how to do, despite her unorthodox upbringing. Hanasian was well aware that a preoccupied Rin was far safer than anything else and he was running out of energy as the week progressed. He had agreed once an initial check of the kitchen's staff and security met with their exacting satisfaction.
Thus far, she had mastered the art of burning things that should be edible. Ovens, like beds she had discovered nearly a year ago, were trickier to use than their simple appearances suggested. It had only been three days. Tomorrow, she was sure she would have something to show for her efforts. As she closed the bedroom door to prepare for sleep she heard them discussing who between them should take on responsibility for the cooking once they had settled in at home. Apparently, the three men out there were not nearly as certain as she and this only made her more determined.
Elsewhere that night a man grimaced as his split scalp was closed by another. Silver Fox silver paced to a fro, highly agitated. The man was at his most dangerous in such states and the others in the room watched him carefully.
"Fool!" he eventually snarled, turning to face the injured man, "If your carelessness tonight proves our undoing, I will take it from your hide!"
The injured man kept his expression neutral and lowered his eyes in acceptance. There were no excuses to satisfy Malagorn at this time. That Easterling had appeared from nowhere and had he had more time with the serving girl, things would be different now. Now all he had to show for the night was the gash in his scalp, a pounding headache and absolutely nothing other than unsubstantiated hunches and suspicions. Silver Fox looked away and focused on another man.
"Your report," Silver Fox demanded and the man nodded.
"The farm is ours …the old man was only too pleased to be quit of it and with a reasonable sum of money in his possession. The well is dry and will prove a secure location that she will not be able to escape from. No locks to pick. The farm house is in reasonably good repair and far enough from Esgaroth that no one of any account will notice aught amiss."
Malagorn nodded, pleased with the development on this front at least. The discovery of the farm had been a boon. Taking up residence in an abandoned building drew attention, but this farm was not abandoned. The old man had proved amenable to selling, his wife dead and his children scattered and the well dry. And that well! What a find! A perfect place to keep someone for a protracted period of time. They would need to hold her for at least nine months, presuming they were met with success immediately. It was also valuable tool to use in bringing her into submission, for that would be necessary. Isolation, darkness, they could cap it and leave her there without food and water for a time. Yes, perfect. And, once they had what they required, simply cap it and walk away. They'd never find the traitor. Never. Cell and grave both. Ideal!
Pleasing as that was, however, it was clear that there had arisen salient threats in Esgaroth that could undo all of this. The attack on his man tonight might merely be chance, but Malagorn had never believed in chance. It was likely that their traitor was in Esgaroth already. If she was here, the fact that she was not already in their hands proved their agent within the Black had been compromised. The Black were notoriously effective in acquiring information. And he knew Mecarnil was here based on a suspected sighting some days ago.
Farbarad was unpredictable, wilder. Mecarnil, however, was easier to understand. The man worked according to strict principles of honour and integrity. Had Farbarad been spotted, Malagorn would not know whether Erían was nearby or not. Mecarnil, on the other hand, made it certain that she was somewhere in Esgaroth. There was simply no conceivable way that Mecarnil would leave her. Malagorn knew this, just as he knew it was wise to presume that they not only knew of of this conspiracy, but it's aims. Erían, Farbarad and Hanasian had not been sighted to confirm any of this conjecture. They therefore would be holed up somewhere safe. If Erían was in Esgaroth, then she would be in the safest placed there was – Bard's Hall.
Bard's Hall was not easy to penetrate. He'd sent men to sign on there as a precaution in the preparations for Mettarë, when the hall would be full of guests and hands would be short. The men he had sent were skilled but had not managed to gain a foothold in the hall itself. Still, the whispers they had heard of guests of great import only confirmed the suspicions that had formed upon possible sighting of Mecarnil. Malagorn's attention moved from the man responsible for acquiring and preparing the farm to the three men who had failed to gain employment in Bard's Hall.
"Well?" he growled.
"We've found a provender who keeps Bard's larders full of ale. His labourers found themselves unable to attend work yesterday. Ale barrels are very large and frequently heavy."
Malagorn tilted his head. This was something, at least.
"If you see an opportunity, take it. No unnecessary risks," he said and beside him, ensconced in a chair by the hearth, a man of a similar age to him cleared his throat.
"Indeed? If we do not seize opportunity, like as not she will slip through our fingers. What purpose can caution serve now? Is this not our final gambit?"
"Not necessarily but that is not your concern, Glarvis. I recommend you look to your own son for he had best be ready!" Malagorn snapped and his gaze flicked to the younger man that lounged behind his father's armchair.
That one had said nothing and spent the evening admiring his nails. While his reputation preceded him, Malagorn had doubts about the boy.
In his chair, the man's father snarled, "He's ready!"
"This is not some trembling milkmaid you can merely slap into submission! She will come for your throat!"
At that, the younger man smiled coldly and lifted his eyes from his nails to Malagorn's face.
"Fear not, I will pull her claws," he murmured and Malagorn's doubts shifted at that. He moved his attention back to man's father.
"Have a care, Glarvis, lest your son ruin your ambitions. She must live to bear this heir if it is to be any benefit to your House. As for you," Malagorn swung back to the injured man, "I want that agent dead and I care not how it is accomplished."
"Aye, Silver Fox."
It took him another two days to contact his bar wench. It would have been faster, but the Gilded Lantern was a busy place and he was convinced now that some, if not most, of the men that came and went were Black Company. he even spotted the Easterling and tempting as it was, he knew he could ill-afford to inspire further censure from Malagorn in some spiteful vendetta. He had work to do, something to accomplish and he could ill afford to be recognised before he had done it. Ultimately he found his opportunity came when the wench came out the back of the inn to toss out scraps. He seized her arm and dragged her sharply to one side, the wooden pail clattering to the ground.
"Time to earn your keep, wench," he snarled into her frightened face.
"Wh-what do you want?" she cringed in alarm and his face twisted into a scowl.
"I want you to fetch a man out that is inside, here, to me."
"What for?" Tarin asked and gasped as his grip on her forearm became brutally tight.
He bent close and hissed, "Because I said so, wench!"
She blanched and he went on to describe the agent. Her eyes grew wide and he knew then, he knew that the turncoat was inside.
"I haven't seen-"
There was a crack as the back of his hand caught the side of her face and she let out a soft cry of pain, "Don't you lie to me! Bring him out here, or I'll take my argument up with you. Do you hear me, girl?!"
He shook her hard to jolt her and she nodded, one cheek an angry red already. Then he released her and she stumbled back inside, bucket of scraps forgotten. He pulled back to wait, hand still stinging as he slipped it under his cloak and wrapped it around the wooden stock there.
Inside, Rocks folded his arms and sighed. It wasn't going well, he knew, even if no one would dare speak of it. They were never going to make contact with this man Kholas thought he could track down. Grudges didn't mean a thing to these men. What they needed to do was let him out to the place he was supposed to have been at nearly a fortnight ago. They needed to let him make contact, as arranged, to set it all up, draw them all out. These men were smart. Kholas had been back to the building he had marked and found it empty and nothing of any use there. Rocks could have told them that too. Not that they listened to him. Rin would have, were she here. Instead, they had her cooped up safely. She was their other best chance, perfect bait and they had her warming her hands by the fire under their over protective guard. She'd give them hell, the Doc he knew.
Still, after several days of waiting for the serving girl's benefactor to reappear, they had at last deigned to let him sit in the Gilded Lantern's common room. It was a small improvement. Perhaps, by summer's end, they might start to see things his way, he sourly thought. The re-appearance of the serving girl barely caught his attention at first. Once their gazes brushed each other, her eyes grew wide. He could see she was shaking hard and that someone had recently used the back of his hand on her. He drained his water, for there was no ale for him, and nudged it towards her to give her an excuse to approach. Folca and Rowdy were at work. Frea was holed up with the others in the dining room because Kholas had just come back with an arm load of nothing to report.
The girl collected up his empty mug and swiped at the table with a rag.
"Sir," she mumbled awkwardly.
"You have the wrong man, if that's the case," Rocks replied dryly. Rin would have chuckled, but this one just looked ready to burst into tears. Kholas might fall for the helpless lamb charade but he really couldn't see the appeal of it, no matter how pretty the face.
"What's the problem, girl," he asked with a faint shake of his head and she glanced over her shoulder towards the kitchen.
"I- There's a man out back…wants to see you," she muttered miserably, her shaking increased.
Rocks snorted, "That so? Well what's he waiting for? I'm sitting right here."
"P-please sir," she stuttered, bottom lip quivered, "He says if you don't go out there, he- he'll – he'll…"
Rocks sighed and inwardly cursed his newly formed conscience. Life was much simpler, easier and clearer before a certain Company healer. There was a time when he'd send the girl on her way without a second thought in her direction. It was her problem if she accepted money from strange men.
"Is that who hit you?" he asked and she nodded, a tear spilling over as she fiercely twisted the rag between her hands.
"Right…follow, but not too close. Don't let him see you, no matter what," Rocks said as he gained his feet.
He trudged out through the kitchen with his serving girl ghost haunting along at a safe distance. He paused at the door, glanced back at her and shook his head. He could not believe he was about to do this. Chivalry was overrated. He stared at the hand he had on the door latch for a moment, took a deep breath, and opened to door to step into the alley. He nearly tripped over a discarded bucket of kitchen scraps at first. The alley appeared empty but Rocks knew better.
He heard the whack of the hammer an instant before the quarrel thudded into his sternum and shattered his chest wall. He grunted in surprise at that. He had not expected a crossbow. It was one of the screw ones, the sort that were small enough to conceal, accurate enough over short distances and easier to reload. When the second bolt tore into him, he thought it unnecessary. The first one had been enough and bolts were expensive. His vision was darkening as a man stepped out. His contact glanced at him appraisingly, found everything to his satisfaction, and then strode out of Rocks' line of sight.
Tarina heard muffled sounds that were unfamiliar and frightening as she pressed her ear to the kitchen door. She heard boots crunch over the snow in the alley and become distant. Unable to help herself, she cracked the kitchen door open and saw a bright, garish splash of red snow. The man lay slumped, as if he sat on the ground and leant back against the wall of the inn. His legs were canted and folded unnaturally and two thick things protruded from his chest. His hands were limp in his lap. His head sagged, eyes open but they saw nothing. Horror flooded Tarina at the sight and her chest heaved as it threatened to overwhelm her. Where was Kholas? Her hand fumbled for the golden coin, tucked into a pocket of her apron and then she recalled his words.
She left the door hanging open behind her as she flew into the alley, stumbling in her hurry to reach the smithy near the livery. She practically fell into the hot and dark smithy and tripped over the doorframe in her haste. A man, bare from the waist up in the oppressive heat, stood with the biggest hammer she had ever seen raised over his head and frozen there. Fire made his skin glisten and he wore a thick leather apron. He stared at her hard and then his hammer swung down but did not collide with the horseshoe he was fashioning on the anvil before him. He strode towards her, through the fumes of iron and fire and steam reached for her.
She jerked back as if stung and Kholas' gold coin fell heavily to the floor and spun a moment. Rowdy crouched and closed his hand around the weight and studied the girl that had burst in. Then he turned about and headed deeper into the smithy. She stared after him, agog. He emerged again, dressed in a shirt and throwing a cloak over his shoulders despite the terrible heat and the way the shirt already clung to his damp skin. He placed one hand under her arm, not cruelly but firmly all the same, and retraced her steps until he found Rocks. The girl uttered a low moan at the sight and Rowdy swiftly towed her past it and into the kitchen of the inn.
"You know who did that?" he asked on their way to the dining room and she nodded miserably, pale with that greenish tinge that suggested someone was about to wear her breakfast soon.
He pulled her into the dining room without knocking. Slippery shot to her feet, Frea scowled at him and Stillwater froze at the sight of Rowdy and the serving maid from his vantage atop the table. Kholas wisely fell silent.
"Rocks is dead. They know we're here," Rowdy said, releasing Tarina now they were inside the dining room.
"And in your grief stricken madness, you decided to bring her in here," Slippery snapped, eyed Tarina dangerously as she wrapped a hand around a dagger hilt.
"She brought me your coin, Kholas," Rowdy replied, ignoring Slippery's sarcasm.
"Kholas?" Tarina tremulously said and from the roof came the sound of an Easterling curse.
"I'll get Folca," Frea said.
"Watch your footing out back. Treacherous," Rowdy warned and Frea took his meaning immediately.
"And I'll fetch Hanasian," Stillwater said as he climbed down from the table.
"Kholas?" Tarina repeated and Slippery rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
"Well, Prince Charming," she quipped and another Easterling curse was shut off once the knot of wood was plugged back into place.
Slippery could hear Kholas' boots on the floorboards overhead as he crossed to his door. She returned her attention to the serving maid. The girl was frightened out of her wits.
"Tarina, isn't it?" she asked and the girl nodded jerkily, "Tarina, I suggest that you grab a seat and take a few deep breaths to steady yourself. Perhaps some water might help."
"W-why? What's going on?"
"Well," Slippery said, glancing at Rowdy who shrugged, "Soon this room is going to be filled with irritable Rangers with a lot of questions for you."
"But I didn't do anything!"
"They'll be the judge of that," Rowdy said and Slippery shot him a scowl because he wasn't helping and she did not know why the man had suddenly decided to be so loquacious.
"What's going on?" Tarina demanded with greater force, loosing any composure she may have recently regained and becoming agitated.
"Have you ever met a princess before, Tarina?" Slippery asked as Kholas admitted himself to the dining room.
Tarina shook her head from side to side and Kholas said from behind her, "Well, appearances can be deceiving."
"You're no trader," Tarina spat at him as she whirled about.
"No…though one day I might be. Perhaps," Kholas said with no small trace of regret at her response, "But you have met a princess and a queen."
"Do you recall the woman who left with the Rangers of the North?"
Tarina looked from him to Slippery, who nodded, to Rowdy who simply returned her gaze impassively. She recalled the woman clearly. She had been very tall, with pale hair like morning sunlight and such remarkable eyes. Tarina had never seen anyone quite like her before. She had not been very happy. In fact, she had struck Tarina as so very sad that she hid it behind anger.
"You're going to hurt her! I won't allow it! I- I'll-"
"You'll sit there quietly, Tarina, of your own free will or not," Rowdy said and Slippery rolled her eyes at him.
"Not very helpful, you clod," she snapped at him as Tarina became fearful once again.
Kholas stepped forward and she shrank back from him several steps.
"I swear it, Lady Tarina, we are not here to harm her, or you."
"That is actually true," Slippery helpfully added and then settled in to wait for the hatch in the floor to pop open again.
Stillwater emerged, along with Hanasian, Mecarnil and Farbarad and one other Slippery had not expected to see. She appeared to be wearing flour. It coated her forearms where she had rolled up her sleeves, smudged her nose and cheek and hung in her hair. No sooner was Rin on her feet did she turn to face Rowdy.
"Where is he?" she demanded.
"You can't go out there. It isn't safe," Rowdy replied and Rin took a step closer, bristling.
"Where. Is. My. Man?"
With that question, Slippery understood why Rin was here and she glanced sympathetically at three Rangers who were none too happy about it. Rocks may be a traitor, but Rin still saw him as hers. Her Duckling, her medic, one of her men. She had been as fiercely protective of her Ducklings as she was of her Cats and there wasn't a Black Company man or woman who didn't know it, Rowdy included.
"He's in the alley. There's nothing you can do for him, Doc," Rowdy answered once her scrutiny got too much to bear.
"We can bury him. Not leave him there like garbage," she hissed.
Rowdy looked past her to the three Rangers and Hanasian reluctantly nodded.
"Bring him in from the alley. Bard's men have been notified. They will collect him."
"The cellar," Tarina said, surprising herself and then discovering all the attention of a princess, a queen even, and three Rangers settled on her.
She swallowed hard and continued, "There is a spare room there and it is quiet and cool."
"Thank you," said the queen, just like she was any other woman Tarina might bump into on the street. Like she had thanked Kholas the other night, grateful and not haughty at all.
"Rowdy, Stillwater, see to it," Hanasian said.
"Cap," they murmured and followed Tarina out.
Slippery sidled closer to Rin and the two women exchanged a knowing glance that spoke volumes.
"So, how goes the wife classes," Slippery inquired lightly and despite it all, Rin actually laughed.
"Slowly, unless the art of it lies in burning anything edible."
"She's mastered that," Mecarnil rumbled.
By the time Stillwater and Rowdy returned with Tarina, Frea had returned with Folca and it was time get on with things.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Yes…that's it…now keep an eye on it, your Highness. Young Rob here has been heating that oven for you since before dawn."
"Please! How many times?"
"Until you quit burnin' them-"
"No…the titles!" Rin interrupted sharply, both hands on her hips and a deep frown on a face flushed from the oven's heat. With things on a knife edge out there, no slip was too small to ignore. Since Rocks had been killed two days ago, everyone was on edge. They were all out, combing Esgaroth and its surrounds for anything out of the ordinary. They were all on edge, her included. She lived in dread. Dread that Rocks' fate would find others, find Hanasian, or the others. It dogged her day and night. Hanasian, Mecarnil and Farbarad left before dawn and rarely got back before midnight, if indeed they returned at all.
"Oh…well…I know….but it isn't right. Not right at all," the cook said abashed and caught sight of a sack of potatoes being set down precisely where the whole kitchen will trip over it.
These new labourers had proved no end of trouble and he bellowed at the man responsible. To his great chagrin, the man stared right at him then turned about and walked back out to the wagon. Of course, this needed to be corrected at once and it gave him a chance to escape an irate princess of the highest court. No sooner had he reached the door to berate the labourers, a blast of the morning's chill permeated him, was there a terrible cracking, grinding sound. The barrels in the wagon had come free and crashed into the snow bound courtyard. Some of the barrels split, others remained in tact. Ale was spreading over the snow, freezing before his stunned eyes. Two of the labourers had managed to avoid the crush but the third had not been so fortunate. The cook stared and then he spun about to face the kitchen. Everyone within was frozen in alarm with the exception of one. Rin came to stand at the door with him and surveyed the disaster outside.
"Hot water, now…clear that table, send someone to fetch Bard's cutter immediately and find me clean cloths, whatever you have…sharp knives too, the paring ones," Rin said in a firm voice and the cook nodded, jowls swaying with the movement.
She placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed so that he would pay attention, "Keep this door shut until I call to open it. We need it warm in here. And get as many as you can out of the kitchen, so we do not trip over them as we work."
He fumbled at the latch and she did not look back as she continued into the courtyard. The fallen man lay twisted at unnatural angles in the wagon tray. She picked her way towards the wagon carefully, assembling the scene as she went. The wagon wheels had not been braced. A rope lay, snapped through, on the snow. The man appeared to have climbed into the back of the tray and it would have tilted or rolled under his weight.
Rin harboured no illusions. It may already be futile. The temperature was frigid, but her pulse was roaring as it always did. Ironically, she never felt more alive than when death drew near at times like this. There were two other men in the courtyard and one was trying to re-position the barrels while the other secured the wheels. Their movements betrayed a waxen quality that suggested shock to her. They'd need to be brought in as well, but the fallen man came first.
If any of the Black saw her now, they would be howling with anger, but so too would the family of this man when they heard a Healer had been available and cowered inside for fear of her own life. It was as simple as that. In truth, the fact she was taking a risk did not occur to her until after she was already in the wagon. Instinct had taken over and it rode her hard now. This was who and what she was: a healer. Multiple, catastrophic injuries, blood was freezing, jagged bones protruded from skin and clothing, and parts of him had been pulped by the heavy ale barrels that had slammed over him. Somehow, despite this, he still breathed.
His eyes fluttered as she knelt as carefully as she could to avoid upsetting the wagon further. She paid little further attention to the other two men and set her hands on the broken man's shattered body to begin. At the least, she could ease his final moments. At best, she could keep his heart working while those inside marshalled what was needed to bring him in and start work proper. She could hear his lungs filling with blood and labouring. His breathing was shallow, wet and gurgling. It was so cold that he was not in immediate danger of bleeding out. His wounds were clotting with frozen blood. The internal bleeding, however, would kill him. In this instance, the temperature was an ally, for it had slowed his heart and thus the bleeding inside.
"Don't strain," she said advised but he could not help it, his body was screaming for air and his pain was excruciating.
Rin glanced to the kitchen door and wondered if enough time had passed to ensure they were ready inside, provided he survived the transfer in? It was a delicate balancing act and as she weighed it all up a coarse cloth was pressed over her mouth. She heard the stricken man gasp as her consciousness fled and the full force of his pain returned. Once her weight was absolutely limp, the two men moved swiftly. Within minutes, they had her secured in an empty ale barrel in the tray and the wagon was on its way, bouncing through the streets. They left the dying man with the fallen barrels in the snow of the courtyard, a necessary price for this success.
Bard's cutter paced around the kitchen table within impatiently a moment longer and then barked at the cook to open the door. While the medic was perplexed by what he saw outside, the cook was horrified by what he did not see there in the courtyard.
"Is this some kind of jest? I am not here to be dangled at a noble's whim, no matter how highly she might be born!" the cutter growled and the cook slammed the door shut.
"GET THE RANGERS NOW!" the man cried, aghast.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rin stared up into the darkness overhead. Her clothes were soaked in the fetid water she had been left in and caked in the mud and slime that coated the belly of the well. The fabric of her skirts had started to ice. Dare she try it? She could just make out the shaft of the well. It was bricked but it was old and there were footholds and handholds there. She just might be able to work her way up. There was a wooden cap over the well. She did not know if it would be barred or locked. If she fell…well, it would be fast, at least. She would be spared the horror and humiliation of what she knew lay ahead of her. When would it begin? What would they do once they discovered she was already with child?
Her decision was made with that thought and so she stretched to her full height, scrabbled for a crumbling hold and was pleased no one else was in the well to watch her lower limbs kick and scramble indecently for some leverage in the vault's roof. A root proved her saviour and she set her weight against it, gathered her strength and propelled herself up in a surge. It would take hours, and all her strength, to get far enough up that she could brace herself across the shaft of the well. It placed inordinate strain on her legs, but it gave her arms respite. Then, back pressed on one side, feet on the other and hands pulling and pushing, she began to wriggle her way back up to whatever was above.
Rin's head brushed the underside of the well cap as the day's shadows reached their zenith. Exhaustion had her muscles shaking. She expected the cap to be locked or weighted but even so she tested it. She could not face a certain death without at least trying, no matter how futile. She nearly burst into tears when the cap started to move. She steeled herself, sucked in a breath and shoved the wooden well cap aside. It fell into the snow drifts around the well. A few more inches and she would out! Shoulders above the lip of well, she brought her arms up to lever herself out, for her legs were about to fail her entirely. As she struggled, the wind at dusk icy on her damp face and clothing, she began to wonder at things. Did they watch? Where was she? How would she escape once out of the well, particularly as she knew her legs would not be able to walk, much less run? Where would she find shelter so she would not freeze tonight?
Questions crowded her exhausted mind and at that moment the strength in her legs failed and her arms took the full extent of her weight. Death's maw yawned beneath her, hungry and dark. Panic suffused her in an instant and there was nothing she could do. A cry was dragged from her throat, hoarse and dry from panting with her exertions. Then two hands, like iron, were under her arms and she was pulled sharply up and out of the well. Her head spun as she was dropped into the snow. A moment later, she was hauled up. Rin's vision cleared and the twilight revealed a face she did not recognise at all. She tugged in new alarm but she had no strength left and it made little impact on him. He dragged her through the snow towards a farmhouse. Light twinkled out between the curtains drawn over the window. Another strange man stood by a door, watching impassively. Smoke curled from a chimney overhead. The man by the door pulled it open as they drew near. She was roughly shoved through the door and into what felt like a furnace compared to the chill outside. The door closed hard behind her and she stumbled to her knees on the floorboards of the farmhouse.
"Had I known you to be so eager to begin, I would have sent for you earlier," said a silver haired man.
Rin pushed herself with great effort to her feet. Her knees nearly buckled and so she pressed herself back against the wall. The man who had spoken stood slowly from his chair and clasped his hands behind his back. He approached the shaking, filthy woman and considered her at length. Her expression, despite her obvious vulnerability, was an inscrutable mask. Her father had worn the same mask in his time and the fact that she had managed to climb out of the well displayed Bereth's determined fire. That fire had availed him naught in the end, as his treacherous daughter would soon discover.
What Malagorn was struck by, however, is how hauntingly she resembled her mother. This could have been a Queen they could have been proud of. Fair, proud, strong, and provided she had been true to her people and properly matched to a suitable Consort, Cardolan's future would not require such a grievous assurance. They would have willingly rallied to her had she just merely proved faithful and true to them, to her heritage, to her birthright and blood. Instead, she had reduced them to this. Malagorn's hands tightened at his back. Rage, no matter how justified, would serve no purpose. Instead, he stepped back and angled just slightly so that she could see the other two men in the room.
"Well?" he asked the other two men.
Rin knew predators when she saw them. She had learnt that lesson early in the most brutal way imaginable. Loch would kill these three in a heartbeat were he here to see them. The two men that Silver Fox spoke to regarded her like she was nothing more than an animal. She had no idea who they were but she knew the threat they represented. The younger one spoke first.
"As you said, though she is filthy."
"Something I am sure we can remedy," Silver Fox replied, the others smiled and her skin crawled.
He turned his attention back to her, "Introductions are due, your Majesty. You, of course, are Erían, Queen of Cardolan by undisputed birthright and traitor to your people as demonstrated by your perfidy and actions of late."
Malagorn watched her composure flinch with some satisfaction but was then surprised when at last she spoke. Her voice was a low growl of outrage and contempt.
"I know who you are, dog, and I care not for the names of your curs," she snarled dismissively.
It was a ploy, she knew, but she desperately needed to gain some power if she was not to be torn to pieces by the men in the room. She watched the Silver Fox's expression carefully. A raised brow, a tight nod and a small smile. He had been chief counsellor to her father, her birth father. Silver Fox, Malagorn, as dangerous as a rabid bear and as smart as his namesake. Even Bereth had feared him and worked hard to retain him as an ally.
"Well then, it seems we can dispense with formalities, your Majesty, and begin in proper," he said and at that, the young man rose from his seat with a cold smile. She saw then a belt had been wrapped around one hand and he slowly unfurled it.
It was dark and the sky was clear when she was brought back to the well. Her back was on fire and the frigid air only made it worse. Two men accompanied her. One held a lantern and the other dragged her. She was barely conscious and the brilliant stars overhead left dazzling trails as they streaked over the sky. She blacked out entirely before they reached the well. The two men lowered her down with rope and once she had reached the bottom they simply let go. The well cap was replaced and heavy stones fetched from the eaves of Mirkwood secured it into place to ensure a repeat of the day's near miss would not reoccur. It was unlikely anyway, given the state she was in after that beating. Not so much as cry or word, but they'd heard the sound of the lashes and the soft grunt of the man who delivered them.
The well secured, the two men returned to their stations to maintain a watch. Vigilant though they were, their mortal eyes could not penetrate the shadows of Mirkwood to find two Elves concealed there. Elladan had a hold of his brother for Elrohir had stiffened and nearly broken cover at what they had just seen. So very softly, Elladan spoke to his twin.
"Seek Hanasian, and swiftly."
"No! We will not make that same error again. We left her last time and came to rue it. You saw her as did I…you saw what they did!"
"Aye…but it will take two of us to bring her out, and they will know. Even if we shoot both guards, they will know. We are not enough, Elrohir. Seek Hanasian! I will keep watch!"
"And if they come for her?"
Elrohir's voice spoke of a more personal grief and Elladan knew it. Their mother's suffering had been immense and it had driven her from mortal shores. They had found this nest of foul, cruel men too late to prevent whatever had taken place already, delayed by their attempt to seek the aid of Thranduril's people. Elladan laid a hand on his brother's forearm.
"I will defend her, brother, even if it be the last thing I do."
Elrohir knew the truth of that and so darted away, moving over snow and through the trees with deadly speed and grace.
The hours stretched as night drew in and Elladan watched and waited for Elrohir’s return. The temperature plummeted and his vigil was edged with concern for the one he watched over. There was no moon but the sky was clear and the starlight more than sufficient for his keen Eldar vision. Though he had advised Elrohir against the wisdom of pressing in on their own, he calculated various approaches that he might attempt on his own. The light from within the farmhouse flared on the snow outside whenever a curtain was twitched aside. He knew they watched.
From his position in the fringes of Eryn Lasgalan he could mark the dark shapes of the stones they had set on the cap of the well. He would be able to get to the well if he were swift and remove the cover. But that was the least of his concerns. He had no way of knowing if she was able to climb out. If he had to go down to retrieve her, they would be vulnerable for he would not be able to watch from above. Not only that, those in the farmhouse would surely note something amiss and they would not permit him to go unchallenged. What would follow after that was simply too risky to countenance. He would act in haste if he had to. If he must. That time had not yet come, he resolved, and so he remained where he was.
Hanasian fought despair as the night closed around him. So many wagons came and went in Esgaroth and none of the wagons they had been able to track down had been the one they were chasing. The cook had given a detailed description of the wagon and the men driving it. She’d been taken hours ago. He should never have let her into the kitchen. Never. And now…he could not think upon what was happening now or it would drive him mad and he needed his wits. It was nearly midnight and he squinted at the shape of Stillwater as the man returned them. They were on the outskirts of Esgaroth and Slippery thought she had seen the spokes of a wagon wheel in a fire that several vagabonds had built to fend off the chill. That had been enough to send Stillwater in.
”It’s Doc’s,” Stillwater said upon return and Hanasian nearly missed pulling Farbarad back from the man. Farbarad’s restraint had been whittled away hour by hour until he was now little more than a fight waiting to happen.
”What did they say?” Mecarnil said as Hanasian shoved Farbarad back.
”Two men, wagon full of ale barrels. Stopped, removed a woman from one, unhitched the horses, set off west with the woman on the horses.”
”West…Eryn Lasgalen,” Rowdy said.
”And farms between the forest and Esgaroth,” Hanasian added and in his mind the task became impossibly large. The time needed to search each farm thoroughly and the sheer scale of the forest did little to inspire hope.
”We should split up,” Frea suggested and then, from the darkness, came an elven fair voice.
”A very bad idea for I believe we have need of every sword you have,” Elrohir stated plainly.
”They have her!” Hanasian cried and Elrohir extended a hand and set it on Hanasian’s shoulder.
”Yes. Elladan and I have seen her. She is being kept on the farm nearest to Thranduril’s realm.”
“Is she safe?”
“She is in a well. I imagine it is very cold. She was not dressed for it,” Elrohir replied, uncertain of the wisdom of speculation for he believed there was something else awry given what they had seen as she was dragged out and thrust into the well.
”I will take you there. Elladan watches to prevent anything else befalling.”
“Else? What else?” Farbarad growled sharply.
”We don’t have time for this,” Hanasian snapped and nodded at Elrohir, ”Lead on, Elrohir, with all speed. I’ll not have my wife freeze to death in a pit waiting on us.”
It was all they could do to keep up with the Elf in the moonless night, for he moved with characteristic swiftness through the snowy expanses. Weary and frantic as they were, however, they made no complaint and no one lagged. Not even Frea and Folca, who were no longer young men. Elrohir led them past the other farms, their twinkling warm windows and the pale plumes of smoke from their hearths. He led them into the bare, dormant boles of Eryn Lasgalen’s trees. On he led them until the promise of dawn blushed the eastern horizon. Only then did he pause and make a bird call that Elladan promptly answered. Elrohir stole forward through the trees until he reached to his brother.
Elladan did not look away from his vigil. The farmhouse was dark, no light from its windows peeked forth. A small stable stood on the far side, closest to Esgaroth. The house stood twenty paces from the trees they sheltered in. The well stood in a straight line from the door, some ten paces from the house eaves. Elladan held up eight fingers to indicate how many he had detected inside the house. Hanasian flickered a hand sign to him and Elladan shook his head. There had been no sound or signal from the well. At that, Hanasian turned to his own people and gave out the command by hand signal. The others faded away to move into position before dawn arrived to illuminate the snowy farm properly.
In the well the darkness was absolute. It pressed upon her like a great barrow, outweighed only by the chill that emanated from the frozen earth around her. The rotting water had iced over. So had her clothing. It had been damp with ale, sweat and blood. Ice hung in her hair too. Rin had her knees drawn up to her chest. Her muscles screamed in fatigue from the constant shivering, the earlier beating and her attempt to escape this nightmare. Her jaw ached from the constant chattering of her teeth. She had not eaten nor drunk anything for a long time. Her thoughts were slowing, becoming muddy and dull. All she could do now was hang onto one thing and one thing alone. An idea. A thought. She must not go to sleep. She mustn’t. She had no idea why anymore. Only that she mustn’t. The icy material over her knees crunched as she pressed her brow against them. She mustn’t go to sleep. No…no…only it was so warm there. So warm…why mustn’t she go there? It made no sense. None at all… In fact, it was silly, because it was so warm there and so cold here.
They moved with the first proper rays of sunlight. Most moved for the farmhouse. Rowdy and Kholas were the first to enter the place. The sound of shattering glass as they bulled through the windows on the far side was the only signal the others needed. The door was pulled open and Frea, Folca, Stillwater and Slippery pressed in from the other side while Elladan and Elrohir waited with arrows ready should any flee from house. Three Rangers converged on the well, tossed the lid aside and shouted down into it. Only silence returned from the well, carried on a blast of frigid air.
Elrohir glanced to where the Rangers were crowded around the well, foreboding seeping through him.
”RIN! RIN! Hurry, rope, Mec! RIN!” Hanasian bellowed, voice echoing off the walls of the well shaft.
It was a sure sign that he was right to get out of the company. He had lost his edge. Maybe love caused that or maybe he just didn’t read signs as he should. How could he allow his wife to be taken again? Short of chaining her to himself, he couldn’t keep her safe. Self-doubt filled Hanasian faster than he could drain it off. He didn’t have the Company anymore, and so his whole being was focused on his love. Perhaps coming to Esgoroth was the wrong decision. Maybe they should have just headed west to their home and set about making it proper. Now, because of his lapse in leadership and thought, Rin was put in danger again. This was it. If she was alright after this, they would go west and not give a care to the world outside. He swore he would not let her out of his sight again. They would live happily together, not bothered by anyone.
It wasn’t long before a rope was brought, and it was secured to Hanasian as he worked his way into the well. He lowered himself slowly down, hoping he was not too late to save his wife and child. He found her slumped in the fetid, icy waters, cold to the touch, and removed the rope from himself to secured it around Rin. At his signal, the others above worked to pull her up. He watched her go, sending his enduring hope that she would survive and vowing that those responsible for this would die. Once again he had to let her go out of his sight and the rope did not fly back to fast enough. He scrambled to get out of the well and he saw that two men were being held by Kholas while Farbarad was restrained by Frea and Folca. A third man was walking out of the house with Stillwater and Rowdy, a slight grin on his face. He looked at Hanasian as he stepped forward. Elladan rested his bow and went to tend to Rin, who lay covered in cloaks. Elrohir kept his at the ready and trained on any potential target.
If anyone saw it coming, it was Farbarad. A blink of an eye was too long for the events that unfolded as the muffled silence of the snow-covered lands erupted into chaos. Hanasian ordered Farbarad to be released. As the hands of Frea and Folca relaxed their grip, Farbarad shook them away and considered moving against the third man. But what he saw only caused him to react with instinct. With a hand that moved so fast and sly, Silver Fox ripped himself from Rowdy’s grip and smashed Stillwater in the face with a fist. Before Rowdy could react, the man had Stillwater’s knife and slammed its hilt into Rowdy’s face. Elrohir let his arrow fly but it only sliced the neck of the swift-moving Silver Fox. The man had taken a swift step forward and sent his stolen dagger sailing right toward Rin where she lay. Elladan turned his head when his keen eye marked the blade’s flight. He lifted his hand up to knock it away but Farbarad jumped forth in front of the flying knife to shield Rin. He took it full on in the side between his ribs and his blood spilled in a crimson stain upon snow, Rin and Elladan as he crumpled to the ground. Reactions to this were swift and chaotic. Kholas slammed the heads of the two men he held together hard. One fell backwards dead as shards of his broken skull pierced his scalp and brain. The other spun away, but fell as the concussion caused him to lose balance. Mecarnil stopped his fall with a knife to his belly. He twisted and turning it hard and fast, and then pushed the man backwards off his blade so that he too fell and bled out in the snow. Hanasian lunged after Silver Fox but the sly Cardolanian rolled in the snow, regained his feet and ran for Eryn Lasgalen. Hanasian gave pursuit, his blade in hand and the two men had disappeared into the woods within moments. Kholas set out after them but Mecarnil signalled him to go with him to the right. Frea and Folca together ran off to the left of where Silver Fox and Hanasian had disappeared in the wood.
The chill wind sifted the falling snow all around in the gray skies. Hanasian followed the trail Silver Fox left; it was quite easy in the snow. Not only did he leave heavy footprints, his bleeding neck left a blood trail. Hanasian didn’t know what he would do when he caught up to the man, but his mind was filled with rage at what had been done to his wife by this man. Not thinking what took place at the farmhouse in those moments, Hanasian pressed on and gave no rest to the man he pursued.
Silver Fox dodged his pursuer and worked his way slowly to the right in the wood. Hanasian had little trouble following, for the crimson snow pointed the way. It was when the Silver Fox had to climb over a huge fallen tree that Hanasian caught up to him. Malagorn rested as he straddled the log. His strength departed with each drop of blood. The elf’s arrow had done more damage than had first appeared. His breath gave out clouds of silvery steam as he looked at the approaching Hanasian.
”You sully all who call themselves Arnorians,” Malagorn gasped.
Hanasian slowed but his determined demeanour did not alter. His knife in hand, Hanasian continued his approach towards the man and said, ”You, and those that think like you have failed. It ends here. Here and now!”
Silver Fox laughed, ”So you will kill me and you will think it will end? It will not. You know that. Another will take my place.”
Hanasian was nearly to the log and was about to grab the man and pull him down to finish it but instead Malagorn fell on his own. The loss of blood from the arrow from Elrohir’s bow had found its mark. It had taken time for the man to bleed out. Hanasian stood before him and watched the snow turn scarlett and pink, and fought the urge to stab him viciously. He stood over the man and cursed him. With that he hoped that now he and Rin would have peace. Rin! He had to get back to his beloved! He had sworn in the well he would never leave her side again, yet he found himself in the snowy woods alone. He turned just as a knife blade dug into his shoulder. It was aimed for his back behind his heart. Hanasian fell and rolled, pulled the knife out. A ranger’s knife of Cardolan! Now, it was he who was staining the snow. Hanasian wondered if he would see his wife again as a shadow crept over him.
”You stupid half-breed…” a voice said quietly. Hanasian tried to roll and see who stood over him. But he knew the voice. It went on…
”Not even that, really. Your Lossoth bastard blood speaks loudly of all that is wrong with Arthedain. You would have us go the way of Rhuadur and mingle, and mingle again. But aside from our great King, true pure Dunedain blood only pulses through ever so few, and the fewest, yet purist, are Cardolanion! You have sullied our rightful Queen you who call yourself Arthedainian. You are from a Lossoth-mingled line, and only half so. You should call yourself Rohirrim since you are half so. Now you mingle the blood of the Rohirrim into our line, and you think we would follow you? No, you will die here, and our Queen will be cleansed and will bear a child of true Cardolanion blood, and our people will continue!”
Though Hanasian heard the words, he could not bring himself to believe what was being said. He lay on the ground and stared up at the man that stood over him, he wheezed a response breathlessly, ”Mecarnil… we are brothers in arms! We rode the Paths of the Dead with our King! You know not what you say!”
“I know exactly what I say, ‘brother’. It has not been easy for me these long years. Yes, we served our King, and yes, I served you as my Captain in the Company. But you are no longer my Captain, and are no longer a Company. I regret it has come down to this, old friend, but Cardolan will again rise from the ashes of the destruction of men.”
Mecarnil raised his knife and sent it down hard toward Hanasian’s chest but he was knocked off balance when a log hit his head. The sound of the wood cracking on Mecarnil’s head was muffled in the snowy trees and Hanasian’s knife instead plunged into the chest of Mecarnil as he fell on top of him, the sound little more than a soft scrape. Standing over the two men was Kholas, his head bloodied down one side.
”If you are going to kill, then kill. Waste not time talking.” the Easterling said flatly.
Mecarnil fell to the side of Hanasian as he pushed him off. Hanasian stood and looked at Kholas, who stared at Mecarnil. Hanasian brished the man’s bloody hair from his swollen cheek, wrapped his arm around his neck and drew him close.
He whispered, ”This did not happen this way. He died in the pursuit of Silver Fox. He deserves to be remembered with honour.”
Kholas was confused; his head still rang from the clubbing he took from Mecarnil. He wasn’t sure what Hanasian was saying but the sound of footsteps brought the two to turn about. Frea and Folca approached through the trees and stopped when they saw the two bloodied men standing. Looking about, they saw the two dead men.
Folca noted the blood-stained snow and asked, ”What happened here Cap?”
Frea was not far behind his twin and also paused to study the scene. He looked at the two dead men and then to Hanasian and Kholas’s wounds. A silence followed, but Hanasian finally said, ”I’m not really sure what happened. My recollection after Silver Fox hit me with his knife and knocked the wind out of me seems to have blurred in my mind. I think they killed each other in the fight while I was down.”
Folca looked at Kholas, who was still dazed and unsure what to say. Folca asked, ”What do you know of this, Easterling?”
Kholas swallowed and said as his arm wiped the blood and sweat from his brow, ”I don’t know for certain... I was hit with a log or something from behind as I pursued. Mecarnil was not far behind me. I heard a scuffle and I turned to look, and everything went black. When I came to, I came over here to help Hanasian up out of the snow. It looks like the two men fought and killed each other while we both were down.”
Frea wiped Kholas’s head with some cloth, and he jumped away, ”Our Captain is wounded! See to him!”
Frea looked at Silver Fox, then at Mecarnil, then stood and looked at Hanasian and saw to his wound. Folca looked at Kholas, then at Hanasian, before saying, ”You all go. I will tend to our fallen.”
Frea paused as did Kholas and Hanasian. Frea said gruffly, ”Go! See about the others! And us go see Rin!”
The brothers looked at each other before departing, and in silence told each other it happened the way Hanasian said it happened… even if it was a load of lies.
The three set out back through the woods toward the farmhouse. Folca was noted the tracks. If their Captain said it happened a certain way, then it happened a certain way. Any sign to the contrary would soon be obscured in the falling snow. Right now, their concern was whether the others, and particularly Rosmarin and her unborn child. They returned to find the elf brothers had transferred those alive into the farmhouse for shelter. Elladan and Elrohir tended Rin, who was just now starting to stir as warmth returned to her limbs. They found Slippery tending Fabarad, who still barely lived despite the severity of his wound. Stillwater had a broken nose, and Rowdy had a cut on his face but both men were in no danger of perishing from their injuries. Hanasian fell to his knees beside Rin as she opened her eyes. She smiled shyly as if in a dream and Hanasian leaned over and kissed her forehead.
”I love you Rosmarin.”
Fatigue and the loss of blood finally took him at that and Hanasian fell to his side. He sank into a world of dreams. It was his turn to be tended. The sounds of voices sounded so far away, and Hanasian struggled to hang on to this world. He did not want to go to sleep… at least not before knowing Rin was alive and well. But the voices filled his head, and he faded into dream….
He was only a boy and he sat with his sister as his mother and father talked. Another young man was there; he recognized as his brother Hayna. But he left and his father and mother argued. Father was leaving, dressed for battle. He looked at him and said,
”You will understand one day.”
Then he turned back to his mother. She cried as he kissed her on the cheek. She did not kiss him back. He turned and walked out the door, and little Hanasian and Halcwyn wondered if they would ever see him again.
He opened an eye and saw the yellow of a blazing fire. They were still in the house and it was warm. He felt hot. He tried to move but couldn’t. It was then the most beautiful face came to him. Rin leaned over and kissed him long and slow.
The room in the old farmhouse was filled with the scent of wood-smoke as the fire worked at trying to keep the place warm. Hanasian woke up from his dream to find his shoulder wrapped tight and Kholas sitting there by the fire with his head bandaged. It looked like the available bedsheets had been sacrificed for the purpose. Farbarad was closest to the fire but he wasn’t awake. Both Stillwater and Rowdy had bandages on their noses and were sitting at a small table playing a card game. Where was Rin? Hanasian tried to get up but the pain in his shoulder went all the way through him and made it hard to breathe. He began to cough. Slippery came in, followed by Frea who said, ”You settle down there now Cap. As doc tells it, you took a severe blade hit that caught a bit of your lung.”
Hanasian managed to catch his breath but refused to lay back down. He asked, ”Doc? Where’s Doc? Where’s Rin?”
Folca arrived then and found Slippery was tending to Farbarad, but he quickly rounded her and Rowdy back out of the room. Folca said, ”We’ll only be a few moments.”
When it was only the four there, Frea said in a low voice to Hanasian, ”We prepared the body of Mecarnil and figured to bury him today. We were hoping you would wake for it.”
“How long have I been out?” Hanasian asked.
Folca answered, ”This is the second day. Didn’t miss much. Been a full blizzard out since the fight until this morning.”
“Where is Rosmarin?” Hanasian asked sternly.
Frea said, ”In the other room by the fire. She’s been sleeping a lot too. Worry not, she and the baby are safe. We’re more worried about you and Farbarad. It looks like you will live. Farbarad we’re not so sure. He lost a lot of blood. The sons of Elrond tended to him and you. I think you will be fine with rest. We hold hope Farbarad will make it.”
Hanasian leaned forward and motioned the three to draw close. He whispered, ”Who knows what here?”
“Just us.” Folca whispered in Rohirric before saying in Westron, ”We know that events moved beyond all reason. We pressured Kholas to tell us, which he did finally after we pointed out the many inconsistencies we noticed. We all agree it’s the best for everyone, and for the Company record.”
Frea and Kholas nodded, and Hanasian nodded as well. The conflict he felt within him it reminded him of the day in Khand nearly twenty years before. Decisions had to be made faster than there was time for thought. Now a trusted comrade in arms from the war and in Company campaigns had fallen. Hanasian resolved that he would bury the ill that erupted at the last and remember the good. It was what captains had to do. Mecarnil had proven himself a better man that the final madness that had consumed him
Slippery stuck her head in and said, ”I have to tend Farbarad. You will have to take your meet elsewhere.”
Kholas went over to sit by the fire while Frea and Folca stood up. Hanasian said to them, ”Help me up and take me to see my beloved wife.”
With one on each side, they walked Hanasian through the doorway to the kitchen where a blanket hung, separating where Rin rested from the rest of the room. Hanasian looked in on her and saw her peacefully sleeping. Hanasian said, ”I’m going to lay down here with Rin. Wake us when the service is ready.”
He got as comfortable as he could and buried his face into her hair as he held her close.
She ran on cool, soft grass that sprang under her bare feet and tickled them in such a way that it made her giggle. Ahead was a dappled array of sunlight that pooled here and there on the ground. Sunlight streamed over Loch as he streaked away ahead of her. He was older. His legs were longer. But sometimes he would let her catch up and they would tumble beneath the trees and laugh. She loved this game. She loved running through the trees and sunlit patches. She loved the feel of the grass under her feet, the warm summer air on her skin, the breeze in her hair that had tangled despite her mother’s care to brush it out earlier. There would be knots so ferocious that tugging them free would bring tears to her eyes no matter how Da and Loch teased her. She’d be sitting in Ma’s lap, giggling and squirming, eyes screwed shut come evening. She didn’t care. It was worth it.
Rin called ahead to her brother. His answer floated back to her, singsong high and taunting. If he were heading for the brook there would be trouble. They weren’t allowed there, not after last week. She hadn’t fallen in. Loch had pushed her in because he thought it was funny. It was, until their parents found out. Now they weren’t allowed near it, even though summer had made it all slow and shallow and the frogs could be seen hiding in the cool, sucking mud of the bed. Today would be a day that Loch would not let her catch him. He’d run right up to that brook and hop across it like he was a frog himself. Unfair as it was, she knew why. It was because she was growing and she was getting faster. She’d catch him, one day soon. She knew she would. She’d catch him good and all on her own and not because he let her.
But not this day. One of the nearby ferns reached out and lightly touched her shoulder. She blinked, confused and discovered it was a hand. A hand gently grasped her shoulder and shook it but it was not Loch’s hand, nor Ma’s nor Da’s.
”Shhh…Rin….Shhh….it’s me,” Frea said as his cousin’s wife flinched from his touch. Folca was stirring Hanasian to wake on the other side.
The confusion and fear on Rin’s face in that instant made his heart ache but once she had her bearings she hid it away again. He released her shoulder and she turned to where Hanasian lay.
”Doc…Doc no, not now. It’s time and you’re not yet strong enough,” Folca said and Hanasian managed to lift a hand and wrap it around her wrists.
”He’s right, my love,” Hanasian said and drew her hands up so that he could kiss her knuckles.
”Time for what?”
“Mecarnil,” Hanasian answered.
Understanding dawned in her face, chased by something else that she hid away. Daylight was failing, the blizzard had subsided in what was proven later to be a momentary respite. It was time to farewell a friend, one he would remember as a friend, a brother in arms. It had to be that way. By the time those able to attend had been girded against the cold, Elladan and Elrohir had returned.
Solemnly, they picked their way to the site prepared. It was under the eaves of Eryn Lasgalen, a clear view down to the lake and the twinkling lights of Esgaroth. Behind the forest rose the peaks of the Misty Mountains. Ahead rose the Lonely Mountain. Torches had been lit and thrust into the frozen ground as far as possible. Because the ground was frozen, and because the rites of Mecarnil’s people did not involve pagan pyres, the only option remaining was a cairn of stones.
Large rocks had been positioned around Mecarnil’s body already. Hanasian suspected it was the work of Elves. Certainly Elladan and Elrohir had been busy and likely it had been more than them. He could not see any of Thranduril’s folk now but that did not mean they were not there, watching. With Farbarad still unconscious, Hanasian realised the rites would fall to him. Rin stood silent, uncertain of what to do because she did not know such things. Mecarnil had made it one of his chief purposes to educate her, but his focus had been on matters of the court rather than funeral rites. She stood there eying the stones, thoughts hidden behind her eyes. Folca stood on one side of him, Rin the other and Frea next to her.
The cold was already leeching into his bones despite the measures taken to keep him warm. He did not know if he could say the words. There were many to speak and his lungs had not yet recovered. Nor was he certain what Mecarnil would make of a half-breed leading his final rites. But he could not think of that, would not think of that now. His grip on Rin’s forearm tightened and he drew a breath to begin. The action made him cough and Rin’s fixed stare on the stones shifted then to her husband.
Pits and stones…she hated them. All this death was her fault. Had she not gone to the aid of that man. Had she not crossed paths with the Black. Had she not stepped forward and remained just Rin, just a thief and a healer and Erían remained just a sad tale of a little girl lost all those years ago. Now Mecarnil was dead, Farbarad was dying, Loch was dead and Hanasian just might perish too. It was all her fault. What sort of healer brought such death? It was no wonder that Mecarnil was so bitterly disappointed in her. In under a year, she’d killed off half the Rangers that had survived her father’s ambitions. She just might wipe them all out. Loch was buried under stone and now Mecarnil would be too. She could sense the pain Hanasian was in. How was she to just stand there and ignore all of this? HOW?
Elladan and Elrohir sensed the difficulty Hanasian was having and began for them. In their years they had observed enough Dundedain funeral rites to know their form. As the rites were performed, those around slowly added stones to the cairn. While this happened, Hanasian sensed the pain within him begin to ease. He implicitly understood why this was but it was not the time or place to chastise his wife for it. She was healing him, no matter what anyone had to say about it. She got far enough that he was able to walk forward with her to the cairn. Rin bent and gathered up two stones from the pile at the foot of the structure. She passed one to Hanasian, the smallest so that he could find the strength to set it into place.
As he did so, he struggled to find the words of farewell. So many things jostled within him.
”Rest, old friend. Rest in honour and peace for your service has been long and true. I will never forget that, never forget you,” he ultimately said in Aduanic.
Rin understood none of this and Hanasian resolved that he would remedy that in the time they would now have for each other. So many things he could tell her about her people, her history, even if he were of such mingled descent himself. Rin set the final rock in place with a single phrase in Dunlendic.
”Forgive me,” she whispered, fingers lingering on the rock.
Hanasian found himself hoping that the rocks would not betray Mecarnil’s final moments. Her fingers left the stone and her expression was unchanged as she returned her hand to his arm and guided them both back. There was only one left now and he lay gripped in a battle that came of his unflinching loyalty.
With evening falling thick and fast and the wind beginning to lash them again, there was nothing left but to set the final rocks in place and seek the shelter of the farmhouse once again. By the time they had regained the warmth, Hanasian was lightheaded and his limbs shook with the strain. No sooner had he been guided to one of the few armchairs that had survived the attack did Rin move in again. Elrohir murmured for the need for caution and Elladan sucked in a gasp at what followed.
While not healers, they were the sons of a master healer and what they sensed was, strictly speaking impossible. Lienduril’s Quickening was not a mortal technique. It was not for mortals. Mortals never performed it. There were very good reasons for this. However, despite the adaptations made, there was no mistaking what Rin was doing. It should not have worked. It should have been catastrophic.
”No, enough!” Elladan burst out when he could not bear it any longer.
Rin removed her hands and Hanasian felt no stronger. He drew a breath to say something and then realised something. He could draw a breath without coughing. His eyes widened at that and Rin brushed her fingers along his jaw.
”What have you done?” he asked with a combination of concern and wonder.
”Remember our stowaway – Morcal?”
Hanasian nodded his assent, ”He proved that the rot and nonsense sprouted about Lienduril’s Quickening was precisely that. All it needed was a little tweaking, a bit of practice, some patience… But I can’t do anything about the blood you have lost, my love. That you will have to manage on your own. Rest, warmth, food. Don’t let yourself be gulled. It will take some time before your full strength not only returns but can be sustained.”
“This is madness,” Elrohir muttered.
”I’ve not lost one yet. If that makes me mad, then so be it,” Rin replied as she straightened to her height.
Before she had turned away Hanasian knew what she was about to do next. He also knew it would be easier to talk the sun down from the sky than dissuade her. The sons of Elrond had no such experience.
As Rin turned to deal with Farbarad, Elladan planted himself in her way with the pronouncement, ”I cannot permit this.”
“I do not recall asking your permission.”
“You cannot do this!”
“Can I not? I have just buried one Ranger sworn to my service. And now you would have me stand here and wait to bury the last Ranger of Cardolan? He will not last the night.”
“You do not know that.”
“He will not last the night and I will not fail him! I have one Ranger’s blood on my hands. I cannot bear another’s.”
An Elf and a woman of pure Dunedain descent in a contest of wills was a rare sight. Her expression was implacable and remorseless and Elladan’s attention slipped to the man in the armchair. Hanasian subtly shook his head at his friend.
”I cannot allow it,” Elladan persisted and at that Rin held her wrists forward towards him. The bruises left by others were still dark tattoos on her pale skin.
”Then bind me. Hand and foot. Make the knots tight for else I will find a way out. Then lock me somewhere, and watch the door and windows night and day without surcease. Do not open the door, not once. For if you do, I will find a way out. There is not a lock I cannot pick, a door or window I cannot dislodge. I can even find my way out through rooves if I must. I found my way out of that well and had they not beaten me senseless, I would have again. If you would stop me, then that is what you must do.”
She knew it was a cruel tactic. Elladan and Elrohir were both aware of the torment she had endured as a prisoner only days ago. She was being so very unkind and manipulative, but she could not countenance another death. Not Farbarad. Not after Loch and Mecarnil. No, not another. She was fighting for his life and there was not a thing she would not do for either. For had he not thrown his life down for hers? Did she not owe him at least this?
Stricken, Elladan had no answer. What she presented him with was a sickening choice. Around them the others were silent, frozen into place. Elladan dropped his eyes and only then did Rin move past him and continue on to where Farbarad lay. He felt her begin again, only this time drawing deeper. He shook his head in his dismay and caught Hanasian beckon him nearer.
”My friend, you cannot dissuade the tide,” Hanasian said, studying his wife’s back as she worked, ”She has been wielding this technique for some time during her service to the Black. It tires her, but no greater harm than that seems to arise from it. Indeed, more than some have been grateful for it.”
“What do you know of the Quickening?”
“Little,” Hanasian admitted, ”And you?”
Elladan made to answer and then paused to glance at his brother. Without knowing it, Hanasian may have made a point.
”I have but a little art, Hanasian. No more. Neither Elrohir or I are our father’s equal.”
“Might it be possible, then, that the only healer amongst our number knows something we do not?” Elrohir stated.
”Of course…but if it tires her when she is strong and well, what now will it bode for her, or her child? It is a marvel she has not lost it already and Farbarad’s wounds are grievous.”
“She is stronger than she seems. Tenacious, bloody minded, mule stubborn and fundamentally unable to do as she is told. But she is also a truly gifted Healer. I have seen it for myself and now I suspect you have too. See? I have not coughed once. More than all of that, I know my beloved will do nothing that would endanger our child. After all that she has endured, nothing could be so precious to her.”
Hanasian’s final words were intended as a warning for her and she marked it well even if she made no open response to it. There was so much damage to repair and she was not in the least certain that she could prevail for all of this talk of strength and gifts and impossible techniques. He was tired, weak, and vulnerable and what she was doing was demanding that he fight. If she drew so deeply on herself that she sacrificed the child she carried, then she would never forgive herself. Nor would Hanasian…or Farbarad for that matter. While Rin worked, Slippery kept things organised. The woman was inordinately attentive. Rowdy was watching too, but then he was always watching. Hanasian kept Elladan and Elrohir engaged with talk of future plans.
When Rin became aware of her surroundings again it was late. Men snored, even Rowdy. Slippery’s eyes were heavy. Hanasian was dozing in his armchair and she knew that once she gave in to her own fatigue it would own her entirely for many an hour to come. Outside the renewed blizzard howled balefully and the farmhouse groaned in its snapping teeth.
”Foolish, remarkable, impossible,” Elladan said.
”It may not yet be enough,” Rin replied, ”He has lost so much blood. I fear too much…so much blood for a realm that should never have been.”
“Will you rest? Please?”
For the life of her, she could not remember her answer. Nor could she remember cleaning up, getting to her feet and returning to their side of the kitchen blanket with Hanasian. She could not remember dreams. She could not remember a thing. Rin woke with a start at a sudden sound.
”Sorry,” Stillwater said from his position by the kitchen hearth. He had been stirring new life into the fire there.
Hanasian was still asleep and this, Rin thought, was a good thing.
”You’ll put it out that way,” Rin observed and Stillwater waved a hand at her.
”You get out of that blanket and it will mean both our hides. I never met anyone who openly provoked an Elf before.”
“Do what you’re told, lassie,” came a tired growl from a weary Ranger from the other side of the blanket.
At that, Rin smiled in relief and snuggled back under the blankets against Hanasian.
”Well I’ll be,” Stillwater exclaimed, stunned at the sight of an obedient Company Healer.
He managed to coax life out of the kitchen fire and went immediately to convey the tidings. Frea shook his head.
”Impossible,” he stated flatly.
Hanasian kept his eyes closed but could hear the banter go back and forth on the other side of the blanket. Rin settled back in against him and set her head upon his chest. He knew she listened for his heartbeat. He could feel their child cradled between them. He felt her draw a deep breath and sigh as she tightened her arms around him. He felt so languorous that he easily drifted back to sleep again. When he woke again the farmhouse was bright with midday light and the wind had abated. It was also very quiet and Rin was gone. He quelled initial alarm, roused himself and pulled the blanket aside. He found his wife there, peering curiously out the window along with several others. Farbarad was still asleep. Everyone else was pressed to one of two windows.
”What is going on?” Hanasian asked and at that his wife left the window and came to where he stood.
”There are Elves out there, talking,” Rin told him, ”I don’t know what it’s about.”
“Elladan and Elrohir are out there with them. Talking in Elvish,” Stillwater added, not peeling his eyes from the scene.
”Fancy that. Elves talking Elvish. What a shock,” Slippery muttered and by Hanasian's side Rin grinned at the woman’s sarcasm.
”They’re coming back!” Stillwater exclaimed and at that, those at the window scattered back around the farmhouse and strove to appear nonchalant.
Elladan wasted no time, ”Given events here, Thranduril has recapitulated. He’s prepared to offer sanctuary until such time as you can make your way West. We’d take you now, but Farbarad will need time before he can travel. So frankly, will you. It is too vulnerable and remote to remain here.”
“All of us? Thranduril would take all of us?” Hanasian inquired.
”Seems he’s not prepared to explain to his son how he came let the cousin of the High King perish right on his very borders without so much as the offer of temporary sanctuary. So, Esgaroth or Thranduril…which is it to be?”
It was, to say the least, a surprising decision to be presented with. Hanasian looked to his wife and found her looking at him, brow furrowed.
”What is it, love?” he asked for it may be that she sensed something important.
”Who is this Thranduril anyway? And if he’s so eager to help, where was he before? Sounds like a typical noble to me, bending this way or that according to the direction of the wind.”
Hanasian wasn’t entirely how to begin answering those questions and so he turned his attention back to the more immediate matter. Esgaroth or the elven realm of Thranduril. Esgaroth had already proven perilous. Thranduril’s realm was far the safer option, provided his wife did not ask the wrong question at the wrong time.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Thranduril's hospitality only extended so far. The Rangers of Arnor and the Gondorians were welcome and they were intrigued with Rin and the story that drifted in her wake. They would tolerate the Rohirrim as they were kin of the Northmen and allies of Gondor, but the Easterling Kholas was not welcome. Hanasian at first refused to go unless all of his party were allowed to go, but Kholas eased his concern.
"I will return to Esgoroth. You take refuge with the elves. It is best to keep eyes and ears in Lake Town. Besides, the pretty serving girl, Tarina, still favours me even though I was not completely honest"
"How do you know that?" Folca asked.
Kholas answered, "It was in the way she looked when we left. She didn't like my deception, but she was saddened to see us go. I will return, and if I'm right, I will enjoy my time there that much more."
Hanasian agreed, saying, "Yes, meeting a beautiful young woman can have that effect. You go, watch and listen, and we will meet again one day."
Kholas bowed and saluted, and turned to go. The rest of the party prepared to follow the Elven guards.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Videgavia and Berlas ran the Old Company in their own way. Vid sought to make his mark and so daily training was the first activity before a late breakfast. This rigid discipline was the source of constant grumbling but the grit of the men who had chosen to stay didn’t truly object. They just couldn’t say that. It was one of the jobs of soldiers to complain. A friendly competition sprang up between themselves, the Free Old Company commanded by Videgavia as they came to be called, and the Free Company of Rhun commanded by Khor. It kept both companies on a keen edge despite the constant chill weather that tried to dampen their spirits.
A small yet much needed trickle of Gondorian seafarers made the trek to serve the Old Company, seeing it as a calling by their King, and were swiftly put to work on the ship. Easterling soldiers who wanted a home in arms and did not join Legate Khirue’s Home Guard, were those who wanted to join the Old Company. Only a few were accepted and only then on a recommendation from one of the Old Company’s Easterling recruits. Khor accepted some into his Free Company of Rhun. While those who did not make the cut would have been welcomed in earlier days, the fact they were going to be taking ship to lands unknown meant their available room would be limited. Had they two seaworthy ships and the men to work them, larger companies would have been welcome.
In training the Rhun Company trained more as an army unit as it was mostly comprised of Easterling military soldiers. The Old Company trained more as a covert and marine force. The seafarers of Gondor joined the Old Company and would form the hands to man the ship. Khor’s Company would be the muscle should they succeed in landing on a far shore. Privately, Videgavia hoped Khor would be the one who would be looking for the fight should it be needed, for they will likely be restless having to spend endless days on a ship at sea. Though the numbers of men in each company were roughly the same, it will be the strength of the Company of Rhun that will hopefully get them out of any scraps they might encounter. Until the winter storms passed and the ship was deemed seaworthy, they trained.
On the ship, Donius worked below deck to repair some of the sealing that had deteriorated to a point of falling out. It was all he had been doing for some time now. Finishing a stretch near the bow, he drank some water and splashed some more on him to wipe away the grime and sweat. While it was chilly and damp outside, the same gray mist and drizzle day after day, in the confines of the ship’s hold it was quite stuffy and humid. As he rested, he watched his brother come down the old wooden ladder. His weight on the last rung caused it to give way and Daius stumbled to the bottom.
”Damn! This ship seems to be falling apart in front of our very eyes!”
“I agree with you, brother,” Donius said as the hard fall made a bit more old seal fall away. He went on, ”I don’t know how anybody expects us to get, let alone keep, this old girl seaworthy.”
Daius came over and handed his brother a small bottle. Donius uncorked it and winced as he smelled it.
“Not sure…” Daius answered as he shrugged.
”Khule found it and was delighted. Said it was a decent version of the harsh draught they would use in the war. Orcish in nature, but the Easterlings tamed it some. Still, you will warm up if you’re cold, or cool down if you’re hot. Whatever it is, it doesn’t go down too bad once you get past the smell.”
Donius shrugged and said, ”Bottoms up.”
He took a long swig off the bottle. After a bit of a cough, he rasped, ”It burns on the way down, but in a soothing way. Now, how are we going to get this ship to stay together? It wasn’t in such bad shape when we took possession of it.”
Daius took the bottle back and had his own swig. He went to say something but he had to pause for a moment while his voice came back.
”Remember that hulk we came back from Harad on? That comatose mage was doing something to the ship with his mind. It literally fell apart before we got to Pelargir.”
Donius nodded as he thought. He said, “Maybe the same thing here, only in reverse.”
Daius went on, ”Thinking they needed the mage and the young witch to keep it all together?”
Donius nodded and went back to work on sealing. Daius said, ”Little good working on it if that be the case, is there?”
Donius pressed some pitch into a crack between planks and tapped on the plank. He said, ”The wood is solid and not eaten. Very good wood this, even for the age of this ship. No, we can get her fixed up. Besides, would you rather we be outside drilling with the rest of the Company?”
Daius thought about it and nodded, ”Good point. Vid said we’re going to sail, so we best make it as seaworthy as we can. We’ll have to tell him of our suspicion though.”
“We will tonight.” Donius said as he worked the sealing harder. Daius went back topside to continue working on the masts.
The weeks passed and the fog and drizzle was ceaseless, except for when it would rain properly. The only way to know if there was a full moon was by the way the clouds glowed in a subtle faintness. Strong hands and some shipwrights from Pelargir arrived and set to work on the ship, intrigued by the tales of a Numenorean ship having been found. They got what they came for, and more. With the help of their knowledge of the craft, the old ship started to look and feel better.
On shore, daily drills and training would give way to materiel movement. The evenings were spent around their fires, or for the old crew, their building they had made into a bar. Some of the men had decided to open the bar to others who were in their company. WulgoF and Mulgov charged higher prices for the cheapest of ales and they were making a fair haul. They would have grown too comfortable had it not been for Videgavia’s consistent drills.
As the weeks passed, Anvikela grew more comfortable in their presence, and it seemed she had eyes for their Lieutenant. Berlas didn’t seem to mind her attention but thought it ill advised to get too close. All professionalism aside, he was concerned about his Captain. Vid was the first to really reach out to her and get her to come out of her shell. But Videgavia was not interested in anything further. He even encouraged Berlas somewhat. After a time, the men would comment about ‘his girl’ and Anvikela would slightly smile when she would hear that. If Berlas became a bit more protective of Anvikela, it was because she was their eyes and ears into this world they would try and get to when they set out.
And it wasn’t going to be too long before some fair weather and friendly seas would come.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The sun slanted between the bare boughs. Earth peeked between drifts of snow. Sun was rare still. Snow had relinquished her wintry empire to sleet, and sleet then to rain as winter passed. While it had not been easy to reach the sanctuary offered by Thranduril, the rewards of their efforts clearly showed. Farbarad’s recovery was near complete. Hanasian had regained his strength swiftly. Rowdy’s broken nose had largely resolved itself and Rin seemed to glow with renewed vitality and vigour. She had even been heard to laugh. Above all else, the care of Thranduril’s folk for the mortals sheltering in their midst, was evident in that silvery sound. It came only occasionally, but that it came at all spoke volumes. Rin had not been heard to laugh outright since the initial march from Minas Tirith.
In that rare sun strewn moment, Hanasian was on his knees and talking to his child while Rin laughed from above. They were not alone. Farbarad was perched nearby and Rowdy was somewhere close at hand too. The more Farbarad got to know the Gondorian, the more convinced he was that the man would make a fine addition. After all, they were missing a man after Mecarnil’s death and with a child to defend now…and he was only one Ranger. One Ranger, who sat at his relative ease watching a charge he had long considered dead flourish in the fullness of motherhood. She wore it well. Verawyn would have as well had she not Bereth and his politics to contend with. Rin was quite literally her mother’s image, except for when she was up to something. Verawyn had never worn so devious a smile as her daughter did. With the rebels dealt with, there was nothing left but a long and fruitful life. He’d finally made it through to the other side. He missed Mecarnil sorely for it. As proper and exacting as his fellow Ranger had been, at his heart Mecarnil had only wanted what Farbarad now saw. Safety, prosperity, good life and health.
As if she grasped the cant of his thoughts, Rin tipped her head back and laughed at whatever Hanasian said. The man had his hands on either side of her belly, fingers splayed, and he was smiling in that quiet and heartfelt way of his. A twinkle had returned to his eyes. Initially it had been difficult. Hanasian had not been able to tolerate his wife’s absence from his sight or hearing for even a moment. It underscored just how frightened Hanasian had been. In the immediate aftermath, there had been questions about the bruises on his wife. Farbarad recalled the dark, insidious stain at her wrists. Hanasian suggested that there was far worse. Yet, when questioned, all Rin would say was that those responsible were beyond mortal justice. Certainly she recovered strongly, particularly once Thranduril’s healers were able to take up the work for her. Now, clad in a green velvet gown fashioned in the elven style, no one would know what she had faced and survived. Not just with these rebels, but with the death of her brother and all the long years of desperate sorrow.
Movement off to one side drew Farbarad’s attention. Though they were well within Thranduril’s realm, he would never completely relax his guard again. He knew that just as he knew the sun would set this day and rise again the next. Elladan and Elrohir emerged from the forest. They lifted their hands to Hanasian and Rin, who paused in whatever game they were playing to study the elves, and continued on to where Farbarad lounged. Their faces were solemn. Farbarad knew that his time of reflection and relative good cheer was ending.
”They’ve fired the farm,” Elrohir said quietly, without preamble.
Farbarad frowned, ”Who has?”
“We do not know. Nor does Kholas,” Elladan supplied and Farbarad grunted at that, mind wheeling.
Firstly, the fact that they’d spoken to the Easterling confirmed they’d ventured as far as Esgaroth. That meant that the report to Bard had been made. If Kholas didn’t know, it meant that the Easterling hadn’t seen anything in Esgaroth and if Kholas hadn’t seen anything… But surely they had them all in hand? Surely!
“Arrows dipped in pitch and set alight. We found the arrowheads in the ruins. The heat marked the metal,” Elrohir answered.
Farbarad scratched at his jaw and weighed this up. Fired arrows meant that they struck from a distance. Uncertain as to their reception should they close and take more direct action? Why would they bother? Assuming it was yet more of these fools, what could they possibly have left to gain? How many were there? Farbarad’s attention slid back to Hanasian and Rin. They were deep in discussion again, earnest exchange of thoughts. Rin’s expression showed a candour rarely seen by others. As Hanasian made his reply he brushed a fall of sunlit pale hair back from her cheek. She leaned her cheek into his palm. How much should they know, he wondered? He was loathe to let such matters intrude on this precious time of peace. They had known so little of it since their paths crossed. And yet, to keep it from them both would be an unforgivable breach of trust.
”We should set out for Imladris as soon as we may. If they lay in wait for us, I would rather chance it while Rin is reasonably agile on her feet. If we wait…” Farbarad rumbled.
Rin was now some five months along and though she wore her pregnancy well, with the grace her mother had before her, she was unmistakeably pregnant. As the weeks passed, she would find it increasingly difficult to travel. The mountain passes would be all but impossible. They would slow, vulnerable…no, he could not chance it.
”There are some of Thranduril’s folk who have a mind to summer in Imladris. They would bolster our numbers, increase protection,” Elrohir stated.
”We’re all going too,” Farbarad returned, aware of the thoughts of the others.
Frea and Folca were intent on making Bree again. Secretly, though, Farbarad knew that neither man wanted to miss the chance to greet their cousin’s child. Stillwater and Slippery had no interest in returning to Gondor or Rhun. Something waited for them in Minas Tirith that neither were keen to encounter. As for Rowdy, well Farbarad had all but recruited him. He was good. He was very good. Quiet, discrete, attentive, and not in the least cowed by a certain Company Healer. Rowdy woul just batten down the hatches and let Rin storm around him in a way reminiscent of her foster brother. Loch would do the same thing, except he would have the temerity to grin at her which only fuelled her ire further.
”Then preparations are required,” Elladan said and the decision was made.
”I’d best tell them about this,” Farbarad said, and resolved to do exactly that tonight.
This is how it came to be that he sat with Hanasian and Elrond’s Sons in the glow of dinner’s aftermath. Rin was elsewhere, head close to Slippery’s. The two women were up to something. Slippery had that smile he had come to appreciate so well. Every so often there was chuckling, nodding of heads, grins. It was making Stillwater nervous. But it kept Rin preoccupied and that was a good thing. The last thing he needed was to cast a new shadow over her head. While he kept an eye on Rin, Elladan summarised their earlier discussion.
“Two weeks…if you think she can be ready,” Elrohir replied and at that Hanasian thought a moment before he nodded.
”She will be. She will ensure she is. Rin wants to go home, wherever that is. Aside from fatigue, she is hale and well.”
“Fatigue?” Farbarad inquired and heard the sharpness of his tone.
”It is to be expected. She is nurturing a child, Ranger. The child draws on her strength as proper. It is the way of things,” Elladan reassured him and Farbarad nodded.
Elrohir caught a smirk upon Hanasian’s face, ”Fatigue? Is that your excuse?”
“It is. Ask her…she finds the need to nap now. My wife naps.”
“Of course,” Elrohir murmured and Farbarad realised the Elf was being wicked.
For weeks now, neither Hanasian nor Rin could be found in the late afternoon. Hanasian might ascribe it to naps, but Elrohir’s gentle game had Farbarad wondering. Rin may well be fatigued, but what was Hanasian’s excuse? Her pregnancy made her glow. Did he really expect them to believe that all that happened was napping? Before or after? That was the question that Farbarad wanted to ask. Mecarnil’s memory and the fact that the man would have been scandalised, made him hold his tongue.
Hanasian told his wife of their plan to set out for Imladris in the coming weeks that very night as they readied for bed, but he said nothing of what had been discovered at the farm. She had only just started to sleep through the nights free of night terrors and he was not inclined to see that change. News that they would commence their long journey home made her eyes luminous with hope.
”Home,” she whispered reverently and he gathered her into the circle of his arms.
”Home, my love, as I promised. Our own. Four sturdy walls, a roof that does not leak. A garden too, for whatever it is we would grow…a warm hearth, a safe place. Ours. Our own. Never to wander again.”
“Home,” Rin repeated as if tasting the word and settled in against him.
That night, Rin dreamt of many things. As her child grew, her dreams became strange. No longer frightening, but vivid and fantastical. She dreamt of home as she knew it, the sing song voices weaving around Hanasian’s in a child’s song and the sound of waves. She dreamt of the only home she had known before this glimpse of the future. She dreamt of Loch that night and it was so profound that it woke her. Hanasian drew deep, steady breaths beside her. Loch’s presence was palpable. She could hear his voice. Sense him. So close that it ached. She dreamt that he had been sitting, watching the dying embers of a hearth in an unfamiliar and yet comforting room. There had been a carpet thrown over the flagstones of the floor. Curtains had been drawn over the window at his back, set into a deep sill. He had been seated on a couch, legs crossed at the ankle, boots caked with mud, and he had been smiling. Lopsided, but not devilish. A deeply happy, contented smile. The sort that came when all was good and right in his world. She could almost smell him. And yet, in this elven chamber there was only herself, her beloved and their child.
Rin considered waking Hanasian to tell him of this but decided against it. Instead, she lay down again and wrapped her arms around him. Loch was gone, a deep rift, torn away too soon, but her beloved was here beside her and they were going home. Each night Rin had the same dream. It varied only in one details. Sometimes Loch would glance up as if he looked in her direction and she would see his dark eyes gleamed with a heartfelt warmth. Two weeks passed and at last all was ready. Between their numbers and those venturing west for summer to Imladris, their numbers stood at a score. If anything or anyone lay in wait for them, they would come to rue their wicked plot.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Kholas found winter in Dale rather comfortable. He took up a job at the blacksmiths, and at night Tarina was there with him. He stayed away from her house but was there to comfort her when the old warrior veteran of the great war passed away.
All the while he remembered why he was there, and his card playing at the inn where Tarina worked provided a perfect vantage point to listen to the banter while making a little extra money on the side. Word from the east was slow in coming as the weather didn’t allow much trade. But as spring arrived, news of the Company came to the inn and he learned they were still in Rhun. Kholas faced a brief moment of indecision. He could travel back east and try and re-join the company before they left. But instead he decided to go west to try to find Hanasian and the others who had wintered with the elves. But what about Tarina? He had to make a decision and it would have to be tomorrow morning. He leaned his head into her hair as she slept next to him and gave her a kiss.
Preparation had gone on for some weeks for the day they would set out. Rowdy went forth with Frea to scout the way and each time they returned with news that the snows were still too deep. They did manage to make minor repairs along the track, filling in washouts with rocks and cutting away downed trees, but the high slopes were still in full winter. As the days passed, the weather warmed in the lowlands. With rain and sun came the rising waters of the rivers. Rowdy brought back word that he had met with elves from Imladris who sought out the sons of Elrond. Rin’s advancing state meant that as she grew she became further uncomfortab;e. News of the Elves on the trails made it clear to Hanasian that it was time to go. They would not be able to take a wagon and the horses would be used for supplies . One was made ready for Rin, though she little liked the idea and wanted walk like everyone else. Farbarad thankfully prevailed in a rare display of stubborness and so it was that Rin found herself riding at least most of the time.
It was sunny and warm the day they set out. Hanasian awaited word from Kholas, but he had not come. He considered his concerns for Rin and the difficult journey ahead, they set out feelings on the track just as Kholas called out.
Folca turned and saw Kholas and Tarina wading along in the wet snow, leading a horse with supply.
Hanasian grinned at this, ”You’re late! But with good reason I suspect.”
Kholas nodded and smiled. With eyes on Tarina, he said with a shrug, ”Her father died this winter. She dreamed of seeing the world, and so she settled his estate and refused to let me go without her.”
Hanasian shrugged too. This wasn’t a military company anymore. If Kholas and Tarina wished to join them on the trail west, it was a good thing.
The going went well the first day and they short camped by the track and set off early the next day. The sun’s warmth made the track a muddy mess beset with melting snow and feet and hooves. The light tracks of the elves that came east could still barely be seen and they managed many a mile the second day. The third day was not so pleasant. Thick cloud had settled around the Misty Mountains and the day was a dreary and damp gray. Also, the track became rougher. The limit of Rowdy and Frea’s scouting and repair had been reached. They would find the way harder from here. The evening saw rain fall and the party took refuge under a grove of oaks that had new leaves. While not yet full grown, the trees provided shelter from the wind that was welcome.
The next few days were slow and tedious. The climb was fraught with danger as the melting snow dropped slides here and there. While this slowed their progress, they were actually making fairly good time in the conditions. Yet the higher they went, the more they had to dig. There were few places to camp at night, and it was too dangerous to push on in the darkness. Once they crested the pass, they thought things would be easier as they descended. The trouble with that idea was the fact that the west side had considerably more snow over the winter. Though it was well on its way to melting, the track that was dug quickly became a channel for the frigid snowmelt. Still, they gained trees again after some days and once there they were able to rest longer.
It came as no surprise that of their number, Rosmarin found it the most difficult. She suffered pains on occasion as the rigours of the trail took their toll. It sent the men around her into earnest panic as they little liked the idea of having to deliver a child on a mountain trail. But it seemed it was only another way for her to toy with them. Rin remained in good spirits despite the conditions and hardships. It was a sunny day when they met up with the advance scouts of Imladris. They had made it!
“Come beloved!” Hanasian said as he helped her down from the horse.
Once down, Rin refused to get back into the saddle and threatened to box Farbarad’s ears if he pushed the matter. She was resolved to walk now to Imladris, where they would rest. Rin smiled in relief at being free of the saddle as she stretched her legs. They arrived under the escort of the Sons of Elrond, and here Kholas would be welcome. Both he and Tarina were in awe of the place, even though it had faded considerably from its days of glory and might.
”It will be good to lie down on something soft,” Rin said as she walked, ”If comfortable I will ever be again.”
Hanasian smiled and elected to say nothing. He instead squeezed her hand as they walked. It would be good to rest in a soft bed…
The hospitality of Imladris had diminished little even though there were ever fewer elves around. The baths were relaxing and the kitchen sent a fine feast to the table. The fresh honey mead went down well.
”Sure beats whatever it was Wulgof tried brewing in both Rhun and Harad,” Frea said sipping the cup and his brother agreed emphatically.
Rin pecked at her food and Hanasian kept her eating. The memories of the old crew came back to him and he found himself wondering what they were doing right now.
Meanwhile, far to the East, over the ocean and beyond the rift between worlds from where the Mariners and the Order Of the High Mage had come…
It was raining hard that morning when the city shook. Rumors of the destruction of the city exploded from tales once told of the tumult long ago that broke the world. Those tales were now remembered by few, yet now it seemed that the gods had reached once again to these lands and squeezed their hands around it. Like a fist arising from the ground, the lifting turned the majestic stones of the Mage Hall into no more than the broken rocks that they were shaped from so long ago. Inside the core remnants of the Order perished. The city now had few, for the tremors continued erratically making it unsafe. Most of the buildings were damaged or had fallen, and with each shake, more fell. Most who could had fled. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t were left. They squeezed out subsistence the best they could and cursed the days the wizards had come.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Spring unfurled into summer and as the seasons burgeoned so too did Rin. They had settled in swiftly, each in their own way, upon arrival at Imladris. The Last Homely House still retained some measure of its capacity to offer a weary, footsore traveller that which he most desired. For Hanasian, it was a return to his boyhood home of many years. He delighted in showing his wife all the many places dear to his heart, unfolding his treasured memories along the way. For Rin, Imladris was the place of her birth. It was where a significant part of her history resided as well. Records and possessions had been left there. However, for Rin it was different. She had no memories to breathe life into them for her.
Kholas was rarely seen outside of the company of Tarina. A quiet speculation had sprung up between the other men that if things progressed at their current rate, further travel might be ruled out by more immediate family concerns. Frea and Folca turned their attention to a small herd of horses. They soon had a plan that involved their transport to Rohan and onward sale and the two men were hip deep in negotiations with Elves to secure rights to the herd. Negotiations proceeded smoothly until the matter of saddles arose. Stillwater was content to do mostly nothing. Occasionally, Slippery goaded him into exercise and the man would puff and moan his way around a training yard until such time as Slippery decided she could not bear his complaints any longer.
No one was aware of what Rowdy did when he wasn’t on duty. Rin speculated that he had located a cave and hung from the ceiling upside down until such time as he was required. He was just so unnaturally quiet. He unnerved her. Farbarad thought this an excellent arrangement and not two weeks after arrival did she wake to find Rowdy standing outside the door to the apartments she shared with Hanasian. He said nothing when she emerged but she saw his little smile. She stared at him hard. It didn’t seem to make much difference. Rowdy wasn’t the sort of man to be overly perturbed by a Dunedain gaze. And that was that. When she brought the matter up with Hanasian, he nodded in approval.
”Excellent,” Hanasian pronounced, tankard of honeyed ale in one hand and a lazy smile playing over his lips at the evening table.
Rin opened her mouth to protest but her husband pounced, ”Now you can eat your meal yourself or I will arrange for your new Ranger to see to it for you.”
Had there not been Elves in the Great Hall, Rin would have thrown her meal at him. The thing was, she believed him. He would summon Rowdy. Frea and Folca were grinning over in the corner. Even Slippery was smiling and Slippery was supposed to be her friend. Rin pushed the food around her place, not particularly hungry. She had eaten already. There was more food here than she had ever seen in her life. So much food. How they could eat it all she had no idea. Loch, were he here, would have helped her. He had a prodigious capacity to eat. Pleading fatigue, not entirely untrue, Rin retired early. Rowdy was, of course, waiting outside to ensure she safely made it back to her quarters. Safely. In Imladris. The only thing she was in danger of here was a paper cut. There were so many books to read now that she had a reasonable grasp of Sindarin.
Back in the Great Hall, Frea leant back in his chair and expelled a long stream of bluish smoke.
”You know…I have to say that I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t twins…runs in the family,” the man drawled.
Folca chuckled, Farbarad groaned and Hanasian looked uncomfortably nervous all of a sudden.
”She barely eats enough for one, much less two,” Slippery replied with some concern.
”She is very much like her mother. Verawyn had that same delicate build, even with child,” Farbarad said.
”Twins,” Hanasian echoed, struggling to understand how he would manage two infants at the same time.
”One for each of you,” Folca said merrily and at that Stillwater began to laugh.
Once his booming laughter died down Elladan broached a different matter, ”We will have guests tomorrow. Men…from Cardolan.”
Any joviality faded and Farbarad demanded, ”Who?”
“The Prefect comes to report on progress. I do not think he is aware of your presence.”
“Is he alone?” Hanasian inquired and Elladan shook his head.
”He has brought a number of his men with him. Aragorn himself appointed this Prefect. Yet, if you consider him perilous…”
“Farbarad?” Hanasian inquired and the Ranger rubbed at his jaw.
”Aragorn took particular care with this appointment, and Rin was part of the process. Mec and I found no cause for concern with the Prefect. It’s not the Prefect that concerns me.”
“You wonder, as I do, at who may have found a place in his service,” Hanasian finished and Farbarad nodded.
”I can think of no better place to insert myself were I a rebel, as we saw in Rhun.”
”We can turn the others away,” Elladan said and Hanasian frowned.
”If you do that, you embroil yourself in the politics of Cardolan. Admitting some, denying others. No…we will simply ensure that they remain unaware of her presence here and she of theirs. I would risk no distress to her. Her time is so near.”
Cardolan’s Prefect arrived with eight men the following day. Hanasian arranged so that they could be observed from a distance. Farbarad saw no familiar faces among their number but cautioned that this, in itself, meant little. Rin found herself with not one but two attentive companions at any time. Her carefully established routine was turned onto its head and no one had any answers for the reason for this disturbance. Hanasian was rarely absent from her side no matter what she was doing. If Rowdy wasn’t with him, Farbarad or one of the twins was. Rin found she missed most of all the ability to wander Imladris’ many paths in the company of her own thoughts.
While Rin was cloistered securely, Cardolan’s Prefect proved himself a worthy appointment. His report indicated that the task of restoring the ancestral property bequeathed to Rin and Hanasian had largely concluded though some of the outlying buildings were still in construction. The main residence and chief functionary buildings had been repaired, the fields cleared and sowed and the forests tended. This was welcome news for Hanasian. He had been grappling with the matter of how he would go about repairing the buildings and provide shelter for his young family, at least four others he suspected would continue on with them.
Hanasian met with the Prefect himself three days after his arrival at Imladris. Farbarad met with the men who had accompanied the Prefect and, gradually, their suspicions faded but their wariness did not. Carefully, Hanasian discussed his plans to take up residence by early Autumn.
”Oh yes, Captain. All will be ready. King Elessar made it clear that this was to be so. May I be so bold as to inquire whether your lady wife will be joining you?” the Prefect inquired, believing that Rin was elsewhere entirely.
Hanasian hesitated, glanced at Farbarad who jerked his head in assent, ”Aye, and our child.”
The surprise on the Prefect’s face confirmed that the man was utterly unaware of Rin’s presence or her state.
”Congratulations, Captain. A son or daughter?”
“That remains to be seen,” Hanasian replied and the Prefect’s expression was one of understanding.
”Ah…yes…the King made it clear that there were certain elements that posed some risk. You are wise to ensure she is safely hidden from view. This only makes it more necessary for me to ask. Have you arrangements for security, Captain?”
“Why?” Hanasian inquired tersely.
”My arrival in Cardolan did not go unnoticed. I have been contacted by a number of….interested parties. Some are no more than curious. Others, however…I have ensured particular is taken with the defences of the property. I seek only to ensure that the necessary arrangements are in place, without a gap.”
Hanasian did not return to his quarters until quite late, but he did so reasonably assured that their home would be safe without being a prison or an army barracks. A place of peace for his children, the sanctuary he had promised his wife. The Prefect was a capable, perceptive man, of unquestionable loyalty to Elessar. As he slid under the light sheets beside his wife, Rin stirred. She did not sleep heavily now. She murmured something, a question by her tone. He smoothed her hair and kissed her cheek.
”Preparations my love, that is all. All is well. Now hush…and rest,” he assured her.
His dreams that night consisted of a winding trail beneath summer leaves towards the sea. It was warm. He could hear the ocean beckoning. He knew that just around the corner he would see his home. It stood on a rise, looking out at the sea and the coastal forest that carpeted the shore below. There was a garden, behind the house and sheltered from the coastal winds. He could hear Rin singing as she burnt dinner and the sound of their children at play. He smiled as he walked through his dreams, at ease and comfortable.
Rin woke to a hot day. Sunlight streamed through the windows and there was a dull ache in her back already. She had not slept well, again. A night’s unbroken sleep was a rare thing for her of late. Hanasian jested and called it training. He had left for the day; busy with something he would not tell her of. She extricated herself with some difficulty from the bedding. Getting dressed was its usual impossible challenge until Slippery arrived to rescue her.
”Hungry?” Slippery asked brightly, smiling so widely that Rin felt the sudden urge to slap her.
The thought made her blink in surprise at her own surliness and then she glanced down at where her feet had once been. They were still there, though she could not see them. She knew they were there because they had started to ache already too. Everything and everyone was starting early except for her. She was late, clumsy, cumbersome and ponderous. Rin heaved a sigh.
”I believe, Slippery, that if I only had a mirror I would at last be able to see an Oliphant.”
“Nonsense! Aside from this,” Slippery placed her hands on either side of Rin’s belly, ”You’re still the same…all legs and arms…Too much, if you ask me. You should eat more!”
Rin frowned at her belly and tried to imagine it any larger. She just couldn’t. She already felt as big as a house and had to take care with doorways and corners and stairs and chairs…the list got longer and longer as the months passed. Soon they’d have to suspend her from the ceiling, if only they could find rope sturdy enough for her weight. Slippery gave up and set herself to tying back her friend’s hair. It would be too hot and uncomfortable to leave it out today.
”Tell you what…after breakfast, we’ll go down to the pools.”
“I’m not allowed,” Rin grumbled, ”For reasons I am not permitted to know. I think I’m under house arrest and I haven’t even stolen anything…lately.”
“You, me and Tarina, if Kholas hasn’t stolen her away.”
“And a small army.”
“Rowdy and Frea will keep out of our way. You won’t even know they’re there. It’ll be fun. We could have a picnic even.”
They emerged to find Rowdy and Frea waiting.
”Don’t you look lovely today, Doc” Frea attempted and Rin favoured him with a sceptical scowl.
”Don’t try that on me, horseboy. I like it better when you’re taciturn. That, at least, is genuine.”
Frea glanced at Slippery, who grinned at Rin’s shoulder, and nodded. Now that he had a gauge of her mood, he and Rowdy would be attentive shadows, silent. Rowdy slipped ahead to scout and they found breakfast without sighting another soul. For some reason, this only soured Rin’s mood further.
”I’m not hungry anymore,” Rin said emphatically in the Great Hall and pushed her plate away. She’d eaten more than what she had once had to eat in two days but as far as Slippery was concerned it was not enough.
Slippery shook her head and waggled her finger back and forth, ”I’ll remember this come lunch.”
“I’m sure you will,” Rin replied and reached for the cup of cool water sweetened by summer berries.
Her fingers brushed something unexpected under the cup and she nearly dropped the cup. A quick adjustment and Rin found she held a small folded square of paper in the palm of her hand. Her mouth opened in surprise and then her eyes darted up to Slippery. Slippery was making the most of breakfast’s remains. Carefully, Rin unfolded the paper and swiftly read. When she had read it a third time, she crumpled it and dropped it down the bodice of her dress. Her thoughts stormed within her head as she sipped at the water.
The note explained much. There were strangers in Imladris. Strangers who knew about her. Men of Cardolan, and that explained a number of questions about the sudden change to her routine, where she was permitted to go and what was keeping Hanasian and Farbarad so preoccupied of late. It did nothing at all to improve her mood. Her frustration boiled over into a deeper anger, one that ran cold through her veins. However, Rin could not untangle what, precisely, she was so angry about. Was it the fact that Cardolan’s shadow had found her even here and now? Was it the fact that this had been hidden from her like she was a child? Was it the fear that it would dog the lives of her children through their days as well?
Tarina strode into the Great Hall looking fresh and light as gossamer. The young woman was clearly in love. She radiated with it.
”Finished, Doc?” Slippery asked at Tarina’s arrival.
Tarina glanced at the table and the half eaten plate in front of Rin, ”You’ve barely touched your breakfast!”
Rin actually heard something snap within her and she clamped her jaw viciously to prevent something flying out of her mouth.
”She’s a light eater…I think it has something to do with all those years spent making do with barely enough to sustain a sparrow,” Slippery said and Rin’s eyes narrowed because now they were talking about her like a child, as if she was not even there.
”But we’ll be here all day waiting for her to finish. Once she thinks you’re trying to make her eat, she refuses on principle. Don’t you, Rin?”
Both women looked at her expectantly. Rin’s jaw unlocked but she modified what she had been about to say and transformed it into Dunlendic so that it would, at the least, not be comprehensible.
”She doesn’t seem very happy.”
“She isn’t, but the pools will remedy that. Come on, grumpy, up and at ‘em. Let’s see if we can’t cool you down and take some of that weight off your back. I see you rubbing at it.”
The great indignity of it all was that she needed both Slippery’s and Tarina’s help to get to her feet. Once up, Rin decided that there was something she needed to do straight away.
”Go on without me. I’ll join you later, if my guards permit me,” Rin stated, fixing a dark glare on Frea and Folca both, ”I’ve something to do that cannot be delayed.”
”We’ll wait for you. How long do you think you’ll be?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Rin said with sarcastic breeziness, ”How long does it take to straighten out an errant husband and a Ranger?”
Slippery’s brows shot up, Frea swallowed hard and Tarina looked shocked. Rin plucked out the square of paper on which the names of four loyal Cardolan men entreated her for audience without the intolerable interference of Gondor’s vassals. She brandished this in the air.
”Where. Is. My. Husband? I’ll fix Farbarad’s wagon later. Let’s start with Hanasian. Where is he?”
“He’s busy,” Frea shot back, crossed his arms and spread his weight into a combative stance that Rin had seen him adopt many times before, in the days of the Company. She knew what it meant and she had not time for it.
”Oh, I am sure he is. Let me make one thing very clear to you, Frea. This is my mess to clean up. Cardolan is my problem. Mine! Now where is he?”
Frea’s lips thinned as he pressed them together.
”Right!” Rin snapped and strode out into the hall at some speed, both hands pressed to her aching back.
It was not easy for a heavily pregnant woman to walk quickly and Rin was soon panting with the effort.
”Slow down, Doc!” Slippery pleaded and grabbed the other woman’s elbow to halt her.
Rin rounded on her sharply and Slippery had to be fleet footed to avoid a collision with her belly.
”That’s not fair, using that thing as a weapon,” Slippery chided her friend.
”You knew. You all knew, except me and maybe Tarina. Don’t lecture me on fair, Slip. This was hidden from me.”
“To avoid causing you harm. Look at the state you're in, Rin! You’re nine months!”
“And one week. I can still count! And this Cardolan mess is my problem. One I knew I was walking into and one I resolved to settle. Me. How long have these men been here?”
“Only a few days. Rin…I know you’re not going to see eye to eye with us on this. All I am asking is that you slow down, calm down. The cat’s out of the bag now. There’s no stuffing it back, though I’d dearly like to know how you found out,” Slippery said and Rin passed her a crumpled wad of paper.
Slippery closed her hand around the paper and noted that Frea and Rowdy had caught up.
”Doc, you don’t look so good,” Rowdy said and Slippery agreed with the assessment.
Rin’s cheeks were flushed, the rest of her face pale, and she had both hands set to the small of her back to rub. Rin frowned.
”Well, if you’re going to come along on this field trip, Rowdy, you’d better find yourself a sterner constitution. Things are going to look a whole lot worse before I’m done with them,” Rin growled.
”Where are you going?” Frea demanded.
”I am going to find my husband, Frea. I’ll start with Elrohir’s study.”
Rin started off again at a slower rate and Slippery unfolded the paper and read it before she passed it to Frea and pursued her friend. Frea cursed and set off last of all. This was not good. Not. Good. Hanasian and Farbarad were going to hit the roof, once Rin was done with them. Not. Good.
Rin arrived at Elrohir’s study short of breath, flushed, with a dangerously smooth expression. She found both Sons of Elrond, the Prefect of Cardolan, and the two rangers she was searching for clustered around a table that was covered with maps and plans and deep in discussions. The sound of her laboured breathing in the doorway lifted their attention from the table. Aside from the smoothness of Rin’s expression, the icy blue glitter of her eyes spoke volumes to the depth of her anger. Slippery, Rowdy and Frea were at her back, clearly unhappy.
”My word…Princess…this is an unexpected pleasure!” the Prefect exclaimed, believing that Rin had just arrived.
Rin struggled to retain her composure and favoured the man with a long, silent gaze.
”I can see the road has been difficult, and no small wonder. ‘Tis a brave thing to venture forth even on the gentlest of roads at such a time.”
Farbarad cleared his throat as Rin stepped through the door and straightened. She had been leaning against it.
”My love, you have met the Prefect before…in Minas Tirith,” Hanasian said smoothly to broach the uncomfortable silence.
”Yes,” Rin said shortly, eyes locked on Hanasian now.
”Is there something we might assist you with,” Farbarad said from the table as Hanasian took his wife’s arm.
Rin’s eyes snapped to him and she lifted one pale brow. Farbarad watched her draw a deep breath and knew that whatever she was going to say would likely peel several layers of his hide away.
”Yes, there is as it so happens. I have met the Prefect. However, the matter of some four men-“ Rin’s reply was abbreviated by pain that shot up her spine like fire. Her eyes widened and Hanasian’s grip tightened on her arm.
”Oh, now?” she breathed shakily, ”This is important. Does it have to be now?”
“It would seem so,” Elladan said, ”And on this no amount of argument from you will make any difference and well you know it, healer. Hanasian, take her to your apartments. We will see to the necessary arrangements and quickly too, if Lady Rosmarin follows in her mother’s steps in this matter as well.”
At that, Farbarad’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
”What does that mean?” Rin asked worried as Hanasian carefully steered her about.
”Elladan’s right. It might be best to carry her,” Farbarad said as he reached the door.
“Was it that fast?” Hanasian inquired.
“Aye…and look at her.”
“How fast?” Rin demanded as the two Rangers lifted her from her feet.
”Never you mind, lassie,” Farbarad answered.
The Prefect soon found himself on his own, with his plans and maps, with the sound of the Crown Princess of Cardolan wailing a protest about how noone tells her anything any more through the hall outside Elrohir’s study. He considered the drawings below and nodded his satisfaction. It was well indeed that progress had been so far ahead of schedule. There were two remarkable things about what unfolded next.
The first was that it was fast. It was over in a matter of hours. Opinion was divided over whether this was a good thing. As there was little untoward about the birth, most agreed it was a good thing. The tension of waiting was unbearable. It was made worse by the second thing. There was no wailing. There were no cries or shouts. The silence had been a cause for concern initially. It had seen them bicker outside over who might venture in and Slippery ultimately declared she had no patience for their squeamishness. She returned with the assurance that all was well.
”You know Doc. She’s quiet,” Slippery said.
”It’s the quiet ones you have to watch,” Rowdy remarked.
”You would know,” Slippery retorted and the mood lightened.
After a while they a steady stream of cursing in any language Rin possessed begin. It turned out that she had learnt a great deal on her travels.
”What was that?” Tarina asked Kholas out where they all waited and the Easterling actually blushed.
He refused to translate which made the Rohirrim chuckle, because it seemed likely that she had said something in Kholas’ tongue similar to what she had said in Rohirric.
”If Hanasian is limping, we’ll know why,” Folca drawled and Rowdy grinned a rare smile.
By late afternoon the door was cracked open and Elrohir bid Farbarad to enter. The Ranger was gone several minutes and then returned, hoarse of voice and eyes bright.
“Not too loudly,” the Ranger instructed them and they carefully assembled just inside the doorway, suddenly bashful.
Hanasian and Rin only had eyes for their infant son. He lay sleeping, tightly swathed, across his mother’s chest. His parents looked exhausted but victorious. Rin was pale but alert and aware of her surroundings. She glanced up at those waiting by the door and smiled. There was such raw emotion there, something she rarely showed and the men shuffled their feet and cleared their throats. This drew Hanasian’s attention from his son to the others. Such astonished joy and pride radiated from him. His arm was still under Rin’s shoulders from where he had lent her strength in those final, wrenching moments. He knew she would not be able to remain propped up if he moved his arm. It had been so terrifying. He had not known what would happen even as his son emerged. It had been so fast that any complication would likely have taken Rin from him. He felt shellshocked now, so awash with emotion that he did not know what to do. A father. He was a father to a son.
”Congratulations,” Folca said earnestly as he crept forward to peer at his cousin’s son.
”You’re a braver man than I,” Frea said a moment later and he caught Rin’s tired smile.
”You both are,” he amended and bent forward to kiss the top of Rin’s head.
When they had all gone and there was just the three of them there, the setting sun caught in Hanasian’s hair. He had never looked fairer to Rin than that moment. He was in a chair by the window, his son in his arms. He had held him while Rin slept briefly. There was such a vulnerable expression on his face. He seemed so very large and powerful against the tiny infant he cradled with such gentle care. Hanasian caught her movement and looked up.
”Tears?” he asked for his wife had never shed them in all the time he had known her.
”Happy ones,” she whispered.
”He is sleeping,” Hanasian said, glancing back down at his son.
”I imagine it was quite an ordeal for him,” Rin said, ”What shall we call him?”
Hanasian shook his head uncertainly, ”Is there anyone you would name him for?”
Rin closed her eyes and knew that it was too soon to name him for Lochared.
”No, my love…not yet…perhaps in time, should we have another son.”
“Another? Already you plan another?” Hanasian’s lips quirked.
”You’ll have to catch me first. I’ll not soon forget this, husband,” she answered, mock growl.
”Oh, but you will. Women always do…we both know your earlier threats are but empty promises.”
“I meant them at the time.”
Hanasian’s smile went soul deep and he sobered and studied her face intently. Women, he concluded, were remarkable creatures and he was fortunate beyond all measure to have the one he now watched.
”Are you well, my love?” he inquired, aware that things could yet go awry.
She saw the fear in his expression and she nodded, ”I am, beloved. You’ve a few more years to contend with me yet ahead of you. Now, to the business of naming. You’re stalling.”
“Why do I have to name him?”
“Well, he’s your son and you’ve probably got something Elvish in mind.”
“You’ve demonstrated a reasonable facility with Sindarin this afternoon. Along with Aduanic, Haradian and the dialect of Rhun.”
“Yes, yes…but we can hardly name our son after a curse. He is your first born son, my love. This is yours. Take it.”
Hanasian nodded and glanced back to the infant in his arms. His. Take this he would.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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A son was born to Hanasian and Rosmarin, and though the title meant naught, he was called Ernil, or Prince, by the elves. Hanasian, however, had not considered what he might name his firstborn. His son slept beside his beloved. Rin dozed as well, still recovering from the demands of bringing him into the world. Hanasian’s thoughts circled until, at last, he had an answer. He looked down upon his son and bent to kiss them both.
”He will be called Hanavia Lochnard of the House Halvaris, if this name pleases my beloved,” Hanasian said and his son squirmed slightly, finding his thumb with his mouth.
Rin stirred at his voice and smiled as her eyes opened. Hanasian leaned over and kissed her again, as Hanavia struggled to find something to eat.
Hanasian said to Rin, ”I chose Hanavia as it is a name of old in my line. I wish him to carry the name of Lochnard in memory of your brother, and I feel he may have some of his demeanour. What do you say my love?”
Her smile as her eyes closed once more said it all, and Hanasian kissed her brow and let her and the baby sleep.
The days that followed proved hectic, and there was still the matter of the Prefect and his ministers to resolve. In the days that passed, Hanasian and Farbarad held them as they gathered information. On the other hand, Hanasian spoke with Rosmarin about what they wanted to know. He did his best to convince her to address them in a diplomatic manner that was unbefitting of his wife for she was nothing if not a direct woman. She remained uneasy with the secrecy of the weeks before, but ultimately she agreed with Hanasian. He was somewhat surprised when she announced that she would address them in the Hall of Fire the next morning. Yet she kept quiet as to what she would say.
Hanasian, before he went to sleep, kissed his sleeping wife on the forehead and rested assured that his wife would strive to be diplomatic and avoid mayhem. He took it as a good sign when Hanavia slept all the way through to first light for the first time. Farbarad on the other hand, didn’t sleep, for he was not nearly so sure. Mecarnil had always been the one to lead when it came to matters of politics and he missed the man now in particular.
The morning arrived bright and clear, with the scent of summer flowers in the air. Rosmarin was clad in a lovely silvery elven dress that fitted her well. Hanasian was in his best dress uniform, as was Farbarad, and Frea and Folca were in their Rohirrim martial finery. Kholas cleaned up well, and was in his leathers with the old Company crest. Tarina appeared in awe of everyone, even though she too was in a fine dress which she had made. She still blushed when she was referred to as Lady of Dale. Rowdy wore his silver chain mail, and the others wore their best Company attire. Slippery prowled about like the Black Cat she was. Notably missing were any of the Eldar save the official scribes. Even the Sons of Elrond were nowhere to be seen. Yet they were nearby and intent on watching this meeting from afar. The King’s Prefect and his ministers arrived in the hall dressed in their official attire.
Farbarad stood up and announced, ”The Lady Rosmarin of Cardolan arrives!”
She strode into the room, looking every inch the Queen of Cardolan, bearing her son in her arms. She walked through their assembly and once at the front passed Hanavia to Hanasian. He took his son in his arms and sat down with Farbarad. Rosmarin turned then and looked out upon the faces of all who had gathered. The Prefect had bowed, and wished to ask a question, but she cut him short. Farbarad shifted in his seat uncomfortably, ready for her customary direct approach to begin to permanently ruffle feathers. All Hanasian could do was hope for the best.
She said, ”It had come to my attention, albeit late, that the King’s Prefect and his ministers had arrived here with questions and concerns about the future of Cardolan and my role. Although I had thought all this was settled and put behind us in Pelargir and again in Minas Tirith, I have found it necessary to address lingering doubts that persist, for there has been some who have tried to bring about a free and independent Cardolan by violent means.
“These attempts have failed, and should any here today yet harbour a similar desire, I tell you now to set it aside once and for all. This is my official proclamation. As the Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor were united under one king in the days of Elendil, so to now are they united under King Elessar. There are no two kingdoms, or three, or four.
“This fragmentation has only caused grief, and now the division has come to an end. I have acceded all rights and claims as a rightful heir to Cardolan to the King of the West. His rule is supreme and is the final in all matters concerning Cardolan, and Arthedain, and Rhuadur, and Gondor and all its lands. He is your king, and mine.
“If by his will, he should allow a free and independent land under his realm, then it will by his decree alone. But all hereditary rights and claims that some insist remain mine by merit of birthright are forfeit, by my will and my choice and no other’s. This is the last that I will speak of this matter.
“Any and all concerns that may come forth should be brought to the representative of King Elessar, whose appointed representative of Cardolan is the Prefect. I remain what I have always been. I am not Erían but Rosmarin, a girl who faced with her brother a hard road in uncertain times. I reluctantly joined a company of mercenary soldiers when my brother deemed it best for us. The Company commander perceived my gift for healing and convinced me to become their physician.
“This commander is now my husband, the father of my first born son. I am the wife of a veteran Dunedain Ranger who rode the Paths of the Dead with King Elessar, founded and until recently commanded the Black Company of Arnor. I am the mother of Hanavia, a soldier and a healer’s son.
“And now, this matter is settled once more and on record in two places, one in the south in Gondor, and one by my own mouth in this hallowed chamber, recorded by the Scribes of Imladris. If there are any who still feel compelled to ascribe a rank and position that is no longer mine, they may serve be leaving my family and myself in peace. For my dreams are not so different to your own. I seek only a peaceful life in a land that once more prospers.
“May you all have a good morning.”
By the time Rin stepped back down, Hanavia was flailing impatiently in his father’s arms. She took her son back into her own embrace and he settled into the crook of one arm with a soft gurgle. She could not tell if it was one of relief or irritation. Like as not he was hungry. He frowned up at her as she placed her other arm upon Hanasian’s. The hall remained silent as they departed, walking once more through the throng. Hanasian flicked a signal to Farbarad that made it clear that the Ranger could deal with any questions.
As they walked through the doors, Hanasian whispered to his wife, ”Well said, my Love.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Wulgof went around to gather up the Company. So to did Khor gathered his men together. Except for the men skilled in sailing, and Donius and Daius, all the old crew were there. Videgavia arrived last of all to address them.
”Men of the Company and Khor’s Legion, it is now spring and while the weather has yet to break, it warms and the winds and tides will be right for our departure tomorrow morning. Though armed, and trained in matters of military skill, we go forth not as an invading force but as explorers. We may be gone for a long time, or we may return in short order. We set out, commissioned as a Free Company, to seek out the lands to the east. Now Anavikela had said that the way would not be easy to do, if it was even possible to do. But we will attempt it.
“Any man who does not wish not to depart these shores can resign and be freed of their commission. Is there any who wish this?”
He stood silent and waited. So did everyone else, to a man. After several moments, Videgavia continued.
”This will be your last day in Skhar. Get your affairs sorted and be ready to board at first light.”
Videgavia dismissed the men of the Company and Khor dismissed his men. They were free to mingle and it seemed many converged on the place the Company had called home for these long months. Mulgov was selling out his wares. Of course everyone knew that he had plenty stored aboard ship, but what he couldn’t take, he sold at bargain prices. It was a good party this night.
Lady Anavikela spent the evening in her room alone. She turned her mind toward home, and for a moment, it seemed she felt her sister and those she had left behind.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Hanasian considered his son. For the moment, Hanavia seemed contented in the main to have been returned to his mother’s arms. The child held his gaze solemnly, as if he read something of his father’s intention. Hanasian decided to risk it. Instead of steering Rin back to their apartments, he instead led her to the Great Hall.
”Where are we going?” Rosmarin asked.
”You will see.”
“Hanavia is hungry.”
“It will take but a moment.”
Rin fell quiet but took to frowning faintly at his side.
”I thought it went well,” she said a long moment later and Hanasian glanced down at her in askance for he had said as much even as they left.
Then he realised the thrust of her thoughts, ”My love, this is no chastisement. Be patient, dear heart.”
With all of Imladris’ guests corralled in the Hall of Fire, the Great Hall was empty. Anduril had been removed many years ago, but the histories of Elendil and Isildur still adorned the walls. Waves and tall ships. Tall men with grey eyes and stern faces. A looming Dark Lord in all his dread power. A gleaming shard held up in defiance. This place had fascinated him as a boy. It was part of his heritage, his history. But the figures that strode so proudly across the walls were his wife’s forebears. He led her to where they stood upon Middle Earth’s shore, narrowly escaped from the disaster that claimed Numenor. Their expressions were grim and sorrowful and yet hope was there too.
”Do you know who they are?” Hanasian asked her and Rin checked a sigh.
”It is written on the wall below.”
“Aye…but do you know who they are?”
Rin paused at his tone and considered the question with greater care than before. He watched her head tilt to one side. Hanavia seized up a strand of his mother’s hair, delighting in how his fingers opened and closed.
”Elendil and his son, Isildur,” Rin replied warily now.
Hanasian ran his knuckles down the side of her face. It had been the delicate structure of her face, the silvery blue of her eyes above high cheekbones, and her ability to heal that had first hinted at her true identity. A heritage that she shared so many generations later with the men she studied upon the wall.
”My love, do you recall Aragorn’s words in Pelargir of your inviolate blood?”
Hanasian turned her to face him. The soft light caught in the fabric of her gown and made it ripple against her like waves under moonlight.
”You are Rosmarin. You are my wife, mother to my son. You were the Company Healer of the Black Company, and reluctantly so at first. But you are also the descendant of Elendil. No-“ he set a finger against soft lips that even now parted to argue, ”It is as much a part of who you are as Hanavia now is. My darling…you have set aside your throne. All I say is this: do not deny your blood. It is nothing to be frightened of. If not for yourself, then for him. For it is his now too.”
“As is yours,” Rin insisted despite his finger.
”Yes…and I’ll not ask him to hide from it. Will you?”
Hanavia began to fret then, waving fists about between them and Rin wondered if the two of them had plotted this together somehow. When Hanasian framed it like that, there was only one possible answer.
”No, my love,” she said solemnly, eyes returning to the figures on the wall.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Prefect and his men did not linger overlong. They set out some three days later, much to the relief of Farbarad. He slid into an armchair with a weary sigh.
“Best to avoid them,” Rowdy offered and Farbarad scowled at the man.
”Yes, and where were you?”
Rowdy shrugged unapologetically, ”Avoiding them.”
With Hanavia now sleeping through and finding some sort of routine, thought began to be given to the next phase of the journey. Hanasian flatly refused to place his son and wife on the road until Hanavia was at least three months old. In this time, Slippery and Stillwater came to an agreement and sought Hanasian out.
”We won’t be any trouble, Cap,” Slippery assured him once Stillwater had finished speaking.
”I wager not, for it’ll be a fast horse back to Minas Tirith otherwise and that is precisely where you do not wish to go. Am I correct?”
“Yes,” Stillwater muttered.
”I can be an extra set of hands around the house…can never have too many when it comes to little ones. As for Stillwater…I’m sure you’ll find something useful for him to do. How about gardening?” Slippery inquired and released her prettiest, most charming smile.
”Gardening!” Stillwater protested and Hanasian was not in the least distracted by any of it.
”I’ll agree, on two conditions,” he said at length.
”Name them,” Slippery said.
”I want your real names…and I want the truth about what you’re hiding from.”
“But Company rules-“
“This is not the Company. This is my family. If you think I would take any risk, countenance any possible peril to my wife and child, you do not know me at all,” Hanasian pressed, his voice and expression steely.
Stillwater shuffled his weight and glanced at Slippery. Slippery chewed her lower lip, sighed and shrugged one shoulder. Stillwater let her do the talking in the main. When she was finished, he threw in one important fact.
”It was a misunderstanding. That’s all, Cap.”
“Indeed,” Hanasian said dryly, for he had heard the same said by a woman he loved dearly, ”Does Rosmarin know?”
“No,” said Stillwater emphatically.
”Yes…told her months ago,” Slippery admitted and Hanasian rubbed at his face. When it came to his wife and her secrets, she was more jealous with them than Smaug was with his treasure.
”Very well…but, at the first sign of trouble…”
“Fast horse. Minas Tirith. We’ll be on our best behaviour, won’t we Still?” Slippery said brightly and glance at Stillwater.
The man glowered at her. Hanasian waved them off and as they departed, Stillwater made it clear just how unimpressed he was with Slippery’s unauthorised confession.
”But it’s Rin,” Slippery pointed out.
”Exactly! She’s cousin of the High King! Of all the people you could talk to, her?”
Autumn came late that year. It meant that the nights remained mild and this was something to be grateful for. They took a steady path towards Bree. Farbarad and Rowdy, Stillwater and Slippery would accompany them onwards to where they were to settle within the ancient boundaries of Cardolan. Frea and Folca would strike south for Rohan. Kholas and Tarina had not yet decided where they would go. As soon as Bea set eyes on Hanavia nestled in Rin’s arms, the woman burst into tears.
”Oh the best rooms, make no mistake. We can’t have you bunking down anywhere else with a little one to tend to, now can we?”
“It’s just us this time, Mistress,” Hanasian said, ”No Black Company men will be riding in after us.”
“All the same…and they’re free. You see, I’ve been keeping them aside for there’s word that there’s a princess about in the north again. Yet to see her myself, and I suppose there’s small chance she’d bother with Bree, but all the same…all the same.”
“Quite right,” Rin said, staring hard at Frea whose mouth was already open.