Bree was, well, Bree. Nothing much ever seemed to change, except for some of the faces - maybe. The mix of men and Halflings was fairly unique to the land and the tales were always a bit larger than the truth there. Still the tales always seemed to be near the mark. The rumours of a princess were true, though they could not see her in their midst. It was a secret well kept by all who knew and their very presence only spoke of the return of the Black company and nothing further. Tales that the Company was far to the east did not prevail and it appeared everyone prepared themselves for the onslaught of Wulgof, Mulgov, and Khule. But the old Rohirrim and the younger Gondorians were all that came. Kholas drew some extra looks but most held that he was no more than an odd Dunlanding and they lost interest. Tarina enjoyed the attention on the back of her tales of Dale but this too faded after a while.
While the days passed, Hanasian and Rin certainly enjoyed the peace on offer. It had been Bree that had seen their relationship blossom. They walk their haunts from that earlier time, now with Hanavia, without care for the other developments that had emerged along with their love. The presence of young Dunedain wearing a brooch of the rayed star of old, inlaid with the White Tree and Stars of Gondor was of comfort. The King had made his presence felt and the lands breathed easier for it. Moreso, even, than the last time they were in town. Hanasian suspected Aragorn had done that apurpose upon discovering Cardolan’s heir lived still…and his colleagues of old that had attended their wedding were probably in it up to their ears also.
In truth, they lingered in Bree, reluctant to see the fellowship’s end. A cold morning rain put paid to that and they came to realise that it was time to depart before winter approached too near. They waited one more day in hopes that the next might see a clearing of the weather and grant them a little longer yet. That evening Hanasian called for a big feast. He produced a small chest filled with coin and it paid for a party for the town. Rin was, as a whole, astonished not only by the sheer wealth of it all but also that it happened to be in her husband’s possession without her being aware of it. She was a professional thief. It was a matter, therefore, of professional pride.
Rin asked Hanasian, ”Where did that come from?”
With a gleam in his eye, Hanasian smiled.
”Mulgov always does this. He stashes his gains from whatever his profiteering is in the particular area we were encamped, in hopes of one day retrieving it when he returns. Did you not notice that whenever we were somewhere we had been to before, he seemed to always have more than what his pay was?
“I realised his and sometimes I would note locations where he seemed to be secretive. I just happened to look in the wall of the room he stayed in before, and I found this! I am almost as sure he will not remember where he has hidden all his little stashes if and when he returns to Bree anyway, and if he should, will write it off as one that a local got lucky in finding. In this case, I’m the local.”
Rin appreciated this immensely. She chuckled, already thinking she may try and find some of his little stashes herself. Perhaps in Mithlond. He had been lingering around that old blacksmithy. Aye, should she ever venture back there she would have a careful look around. She kissed Hanasian soundly, which he returned in kind, and the pair of them wore conspiratorial grins. It was obvious that Hanasian had planned this well before the day. They went to their room and prepared for the night.
It was a starry night and a slight northerly breeze came down from the Evendim Hills. Inside the inn the fire was warm and the townsfolk were more than willing to venture to the Prancing Pony for free food and ale even if they had no idea what the celebration was all about. What it was about was the parting of old comrades in arms. Frea and Folca would set out south toward home. After a toast to the Old Crew, Hanasian had passed each of his cousins letters to give to his sister when they arrived in Rohan. Kholas and Tarina decided to linger together in Bree, at least for the while. The remainder were set to accompany Hanasian, Rin, and Hanavia west to their home. Strange, it was, for it was a home none of them had seen before. Farbarad, who had visited the site of the ancestral seat of Cardolan’s Princes decades ago as a much younger Ranger, recalled empty buildings fallen into disrepair and in danger of vanishing into the forest wilds entirely.
The banter that night was jolly and even little Hanavia didn’t seem to mind the noise. In this, Farbarad said, the child bore out well the namesake of his second name. Lochared would have been in his element that night, had he of been there. The talk went on long between Frea, Folca, Hanasian, and Rin. They recounted various exchanges, including her brother’s incident with Frea’s boots in the Shire after the wedding. The tension that had hung between Frea and Rin had evaporated on the march to Umbar and the sparring had become largely for sport than anything else. But this night, they shared laughter and memories and Frea abandoned his fondness for irritating his cousin’s wife.
The others drifted into talk and drinks with each other and with some of the townsfolk. The night was long when Rin bid Frea and Folca a good night. She bent to kiss her husband, who then rose to his feet to follow his wife and son.
”Hanavia sleeps already and I am weary. Stay and talk to your heart’s fill, for all I go in search of now is sleep.”
Hanasian kissed her once more and bestowed a softer, gentler version upon the brow of his son, asleep in her arms, ”I won’t be long, my love.”
Rin’s smile as she turned to go was a knowing one. She left two brothers and a cousin at a table where the ale jugs regularly happened by. The night, for them, would not end any time soon.
And right she was… there were rounds aplenty, and the food, though diminished, remained plentiful. The three were determined to close down the common room. They talked and laughed and argued about things great and small since their childhood. However, as the common room emptied and became quiet, Frea became serious.
”Don’t know what it will be like without battle to go to or come from. I don’t know what to think about that.”
“I know what to think about that,” Folca answered, ”We go home, we relax, and we go to the local inn and drink and talk, like we’re doing here now.”
Hanasian said, ”I am looking forward to going home. It will be nice not to have to think about strategy and tactics and the local politics and such.”
Frea drained his tankard and splashed the last on the table as he set it down hard, ”Yes and you will have the best home life a man could hope for, I’m sure. But won’t you miss it?
“I mean, Folca and I were both were pretty young our first tilt at the fords, and you not much more experienced but for some skirmishes in the north. But since then it has become a way of life. Sometimes I wish I would have stayed on and gone to the end…”
Folca jumped in, ”Oh yes? And serve under Videgavia? “
Frea returned, ”Yes. I know he is pretty much all business and too serious, but I miss him, and the others… Wulgof who we had battled, the big Haradian. Even Khule, even though he got all strange when we were in Skhar.”
“Well, it’s a long walk back now.” Hanasian said as he finished his ale.
”Me, I won’t miss it. I have enough visions in my head to keep it alive for me should that be what I desire. It wasn’t until I met Rin that I realized that I was not at peace. It’s been forty some years since I last tried and I think I have made peace with my demons. I hope you will too cousin.”
He saw Frea set his head down on his arms. He was battling the demons of his memories even now and his brother said, ”He will be well, Han. You go to bed. I have this.”
Hanasian gripped Folca’s forearm and went to find his comfort in the arms of his wife. The morning would come too soon.
And it was only hours before it did. They had prepared themselves for the ride west, and both Frea and Folca were looking thick as they prepared to part south. They all rode to the south gate, and with long farewells, Frea and Folca rode out south. Hanasian could not help but wonder when he would see them again. It seemed like an end of an era to him.
As they rode out of sight, Hanasian turned and said, ”Well, I think we should be going too.”
The party returned to the inn to collect their belongings. It was here that Kholas and Tarina would remain for a while.
”Fare thee well, Captain!” Kholas bade him. Hanasian waved and nodded. They made for the West Gate and rode out of town at an easy pace.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Aside from a few tense days and nights as they cut through the Barrow Downs, the remainder of the journey was uneventful. Rin recalled all too well just how perilious the stones were and this she steered well clear of them. All the same, Hanasian set Farbarad and Rowdy on the alerts should something unwholesome seek to lure her. The wights had been sent to infest the tombs of her forefathers and it was well known that bright, hot blood was a siren call to them. She slept uneasily those nights but that was the extent of it this time. Stillwater was a little disappointed, though he would not admit it. Hanavia was oblivious, blissfully so and everyone else envied him for it.
Once they had set the Barrow Downs to their backs and forded the river that marked the boundary of old between Arthedain and Cardolan, the days and nights were wholly unremarkable. Save for the inexorable turning of the seasons, for winter would press on them all to quickly, there was nothing to press them hard. Nor did they camp cold.
The skirted the northern tip of the Blue Mountains and after nearly a month since setting out from Bree, followed Farbarad at the last through the forest that stood thickly on the coastal plain. With the Blue Mountains at the east, the sea at the west, and the elvish enclaves still found at Harlond and Mithlond to the north, it was easy to see why this had once been the seat of Cardolan’s Princes. It was well defended in addition to being a gentle, rich land. Had it not been for the Great Plague, like as not this land would have harboured Dunedain of the Cardolan realm still.
Forest kings, once they had been called, and it was easy to see why. It was also easy to see why the powerful spirit Tom Bombadil had found some measure of kinship with the few survivors of Cardolan that had fled to shelter in the Old Forest. Rumour had it that there was no Ranger of the Dunedain more skilled in forestcraft than those of Cardolan had once been. It was a rumour few had ever thought to test as the sorrowful tale of the years had unfolded. As Hanasian watched Farbarad press ahead, he thought he saw some of the truth of that rumour.
It had been many years, over fifty, since Farbarad had last ventured here. At that time, he had discovered a wild forest largely untouched and untamed, shells of empty buildings that seemed in danger of being consumed entirely. The empty doors and dark windows had seemed mournful to him, as if the stones remembered those who had shaped them and long since fled or perished in that terrible sickness. Remembered and grieved. Now the forest seemed as thick and vital but it was, somehow, a little more restrained. He glanced more than once over his shoulder to where Rosmarin rode. She was quiet, wrapped in her thoughts. The sunlight dappled the trail and flickered over horses and riders both. It made her hair gleam when it found her and then swiftly fell away. Over fifty years ago, had any man suggested that one of Cardolan’s royal line would retake the seat of Cardolan’s Princes, he would have punched the man in his mouth. And now, here she was, riding quietly along behind him on a horse next to her husband.
Farbarad led them gradually westward and closer to the coast as he took them south. She liked this forest. It was the sort of forest that would have once provided a reasonably good existence in years gone by. Abundant shelter and water and game. The sort of place she and Loch would have gravitated to. Particularly had they know that the mountains contained no orcs. Mountains meant overhangs and caves, excellent for winter.
”Just a Dwarf or twenty to deal with,” Farbarad had said the night before, adding the twenty for good measure in case she got ideas.
Dwarves, she thought, easy enough. Keep out of their way, and don’t steal anything from them unless you know they won’t miss it until you are well clear and beyond their reach.
In time, she started to hear the sighing song of waves upon the shore. It was a sound she had heard for many long months, over a year. She’d first heard it in that glorious month in Ithilien, spent with Hanasian after their wedding. She’d heard the sea underneath the sound of her beloved teaching a child’s rhyme to children. She glanced down at Hanavia. He was nestled in a sling across her chest, little hands curled around folds of her shirt. He slept best when he could hear her heartbeat. Nearly five months old, with his father’s dark hair softly waving against his head and wintry blue eyes that Slippery had predicted would be the bane of every woman’s existence in the years to come.
”Yours as well, Rin. Just watch if he doesn’t turn those eyes loose on you the same way you do on everyone else. Only stands to reason he would, given he has your eyes. I’m looking forward to the day that happens,” Slippery had chuckled.
”Won’t make a lick of difference,” Rin had replied and Slippery had only laughed harder.
”Sounds like a wager to me,” she replied and so it was.
Rin found that aside from herself, everyone bet on Hanavia for they all knew through personal experience just how potent that blend of silver and blue could do when harnessed to its full potential. Her own brother had famously listed his sister’s eyes as their secret weapon.
”Charm? She doesn’t need a gentle tongue. All she has to do is look and they melt, fear or fascination. Was those eyes that earned her the money purses of Khule and Molguv when she was half dead of exposure, hunger and fever. Was those eyes that earned us a place in the Company she had robbed.”
“Hah! She spent most of that day unconscious,” Khule had replied and Loch grinned at him.
”Oh aye, and weren’t you all leaning in to see when she’d open them again. You especially, Molguv!”
And the Haradian had grinned, teeth white against the ink of his skin, unashamedly.
Home…they were coming home. Home was a place now. Before, for as long as she knew, it had been people. Loch, of course, and then Hanasian and the Company. Home was a place now, and people. It was a strange thing to understand for her. When at last Farbarad led them to their destination, it was difficult for her to prevent her jaw from hanging slack. Hanasian and the others swung down out of their saddles and strode to where the Prefect waited with a small group of men. Most of the men looked to have been working fields she could see to the east. They might lean on mattocks and hoes. They might not wear steel or leather. There was something about the way a fighting man held himself that was unmistakeable. She wasn’t fooled. She watched Hanasian and Farbarad exchange greetings with the Prefect while Rowdy nodded at some of his men.
Rowdy was a man of Gondor. It made absolutely no sense to her why he would want to sign on. She had the strong suspicion he had not joined the Black Company by happenstance alone. He had begun following her after that battle in Rhun, after the city where she first wondered about Rocks. Since that battle, he’d been following her about like a bad smell and it wasn’t because he harboured any sentiment for her. It was strictly business. Professional. While she sat on her horse, several things fell into place. Aragorn’s words on the trail from Rhun towards Esgaroth proved the key.
He had spoken of the need for certain precautions. She had voiced her protest at raising her family under siege but Aragorn had not relented. The saddle had creaked as he had leaned across it to drive his words home. He was king, his will in matters concerning the protection of his court and his family was not to be lightly set aside. She had fallen silent at the time, preoccupied with finding a way to argue without appearing to argue and then he had smiled at her sideways and told her matter was out of his hands already and in motion. Now, as she watched Rowdy, she realised just how true that had been. Rowdy looked back to where she still sat her horse and slowly inclined his head. Now she understood. She knew who he was, what he was. She eyed the fieldworkers a moment longer and then returned to her study of what was her home.
Stone, wood and slate. The principle residence sprawled across the gentle rise and fall of the ground as if it had sprung up from there. It was all one story, and it was huge, at least to her eyes. The land sharply dropped away for they stood on a bluff and the house perched along it. A balcony had been built out over it, cunning design holding it aloft, and stone stairs had been carved into wall of the bluff so that they could reach the shore and inlet below. There was a large garden at the rear of the house, protected from the salty ocean wind. The eaves were deep, more protection from the elements, and offered a cool place to sit in summer or a warm place in winter depending on the angle of the sun. Couches sat waiting already. A house, furniture…the wealth of it all astounded her. It was incomprehensible.
The house was sturdy, but it was not a keep. It could be a home. A very large home. It would take her and Hanasian time to fill it and as her thoughts turned Hanavia seemed to sense something of that and shifted against her in his sleep. She patted him gently.
”Not yet, little one,” she murmured.
There were other buildings scattered around between the trees. One was a stables, another a storehouse. One might make an excellent work area, and there appeared to be a barracks as well. Behind it all, sealing it off was the forest. She recalled the map Aragorn had showed to her. A stream marked the inner boundary, he had said. She knew forest hemmed that stream from the markings on the map. He had indicated that the forest would be cleared to restore fields and pastures that had once been established there of old. It would be there that the “fieldworkers” would live and spend most of their time.
Stillwater and Slippery were unloading horses. It made no sense to place them out in the barracks when the house was so very large. As for the pastures, Frea and Folca had been hatching a horse trading plan that might have use for such a space…and there was a way to generate an independent stream of income…one to be used to fund the clinic…yes…and as for the barracks…well what of the Black Company who grew weary of the road and had no home to return to, like her?
”You getting down?”
Slippery’s question cut across her thoughts. Hanasian and Farbarad had concluded their discussion with the Prefect and he was already on his way. The fieldworkers were returning to their fields. She hoped that they would be fieldworkers in truth as well as in appearance. Rowdy, Hanasian and Farbarad had vanished into the house to sweep it, presumably. The Prefect and his men would have seen to that already, but she knew by now that they’d not permit complacency to catch them unawares.
Rin slowly dismounted and started towards the house. It felt utterly surreal. Home. This was home. The building grew larger, solider, with each passing step. Inside, having completed their scan, the three men watched through the windows. Rin approached slowly, eyes a little wide, hands protectively settled over Hanavia. A little arm and then a leg stretched free of the sling. She reached the verandah and seemed to come to a standstill. She eyed the building like it might swallow her whole and, in that moment, her expression was unguarded. It was clear that she mystified.
”I reckon she might just stand there for the rest of the day and all through the night,” Rowdy said, thumbs hooked through his belt.
”Not if I have anything to do with it,” Hanasian rumbled fondly. He knew all too well how overwhelming this would be for a woman who had never known a home. If he was lightheaded with the generosity shown by Aragorn in restoring this building, Rin would be utterly amazed. It was not ornate. It was simple, clean…Numenor was here, elvish traces of design there…a solid, welcoming, safe haven of a place. A place Cardolan’s princes had wandered. Hanasian strode for the door. There matters he would need to take into his own hands if he was going to get her over the threshold. This was a woman who had relatively recently mastered beds and who would simply dig in and wait until she had figured this home business out for herself before she proceeded any further. He was not going to have her camp under the stars tonight.
As Hanasian strode out of the door, across the verandah, directly for his wife. Rowdy and Farbarad followed.
”Good enough?” Hanasian inquired and, eyes still wide and locked on the house, Rin nodded mutely.
Hanavia was squirming in his sling. He gurgled with delight as his father fetched him out. The little boy was all smiles. A happy soul, much like Lochared had been. He passed his son to Farbarad and Hanavia sank his little hands into the Ranger’s beard as he liked to do. Farbarad winced as Hanasian turned back to his wife and, in one smooth movement, swept her up and over his shoulder. She let out a squeak of surprise but that proved no delay and Hanasian was soon striding back for the door again. The thick oak door, carved by elven hands, but doughty all the same thunked solidly back into place. Farbarad passed Hanavia to Rowdy, disentangling his beard from the little boy’s curious hands with some care.
”Now what?” Rowdy asked, eyeing Hanavia warily. The little rascal was reaching for his beard already, fingers waggling.
”Now you’d better hope he don’t get hungry…because you know what happens then. It’ll be a while before we see those two, I should think.”
Farbarad’s grin was merciless as he walked back to assist the other two with the horses. Rowdy’s shout for Slippery was positively alarmed.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
The ship moved with speed to the southeast in the days after they set out from Skhar. The winds were favourable and the skies clear. They swiftly lost sight of the land they all knew and it was then that many of their number mourned their departure. It was too late of course. Every man had elected to forego their chance to remain on dry, familiar land. The sagging spirits did not come from the prospect of adventure in unknown places. Rather, soldiers who had in the main spent all their days on steady land found the seasickness of the relentlessly moving ocean troubled them greatly. By the third day most had recovered from it.
Hamoor took on the duty of navigation, with the instruments and star maps at his disposal, and he quickly had the ship striking mostly east. However the ocean wanted them to go south, and it appeared to resist any eastward path. Videgavia did not relent and ordered them to persist with their eastern course. He suggested a gentler route, for no Man could best an ocean's wild will, that took them southeast. Morcal enjoyed his duty of watch in the crows nest and the experienced sea hands of Gondor gladly let him have it. The day the storm blew in out of the east, these same experienced hands were well clear of the space below the crow's nest and the contents of Morcal's unfortunate stomach. Still, the younger Southron grimly persisted with his watch despite his profound discomfort.
A week passed and little headway was made into the east. The winds become contrary after the storm and the currents pushed them evermore south. If they kept on that route, Hamoor suspected they would run into the wild east shore of Far Harad, a prospect that was not even pleasing for the two Southrons in their number. Videgavia ordered them to turn about and try to make their way northwest. They spent the second week working their way back north and another week trying to ride what seemed like favourable winds, but the storms and weather ensured that they only pushed a little ways east.
Their lack of progress increasingly frustrated the Company's new captain and Videgavia had to weigh their options. After discussion with Khor and the Old Crew, Berlas suggested they bring in Hamoor, for the man had shown great skill in his attempts to navigate. While Wulgof went off to fetch him, Videgavia asked his resident engineers, the brothers Daius and Donius, to look into how the old ship was holding up. Their report was not encouraging, mostly a list of running issues that developed along the way. The Company assisted as they could, still there was no escaping the fact that the outlook for their voyage was grim. Videgavia stood silently for a time at the rail, his hand wrapped around his chin. He tugged at hairs of his beard.
He then took Berlas aside and asked him, "What of Lady Anvikela? How does she fare?"
"You should ask her." Berlas answered.
Videgavia scowled for it was a well-known fact that she had taking a liking to Berlas, and he seemed to have kept an eye on her in his turn. Still, she had not once emerged from the cabin room that was her quarters since boarding. On their voyage over, she and her sisters had spent their whole time in the one room. Perhaps, Videgavia ruminated, she felt she had to remain in her cabin. When he voiced this speculation aloud Berlas shrugged.
Videgavia thought a moment longer, then said, "You Wulgof, Mulgov, and I will pay Lady Anvikela a visit. Who, besides you, has attended the Lady?"
"Barika," Berlas answered, sending a signal that would bring the other two men to join them while Videgavia scratched at his beard again.
"Barik. Was one of the few Rohirrim that signed on with the Free Company," Berlas said as they started for her quarters.
Videgavia was silent for a few steps before he said, "But you said Barika."
"I did, yes," Berlas said, trying to suppress a grin.
Videgavia would have none of it. He stopped, turned about and glared at Berlas eye to eye, "What are you on about here?"
He looked at Wulgof and then to Molguv. Both men had been suspiciously silent upon arrival and they glanced at each other conspiratorially. Vid's temper began to fray and he demanded in a voice that was dark and gruff an explanation for the second time. Wulgof and Molguv's grins spread across their faces while Berlas took a cautionary backwards step and raised a hand.
"I'll try and explain Captain. One night at our bar in Skhar-"
"He's a poet!" Wulgof quipped, interrupting him. Mulgov gleefully added, "And he didn't even know it!"
Videgavia shut their laughter down quick, even before it got away from them, with a look that usually meant someone was bleeding or about to.
He said, "You both have been awful quiet of late. Let's keep it that way for a bit longer and shut up. I should know that when you lot are quiet that some sort of trouble is not too far behind. More fool me for enjoying the peace so much that I am reluctant to pursue it. Now, Berlas, will you tell me about Barik... Barika… whatever his name is that tends Lady Anvikela."
Berlas shrugged and said, "Well, maybe Wulgof would be better at telling you, since Hamoor brought this discovery to him first. But I'll get to the point…"
"Please do!" Videgavia growled, out of patience entirely with any prevarication.
Berlas swallowed and said, "Barik, the feisty little bowman that came east with the army of Rohan, who wielded a short broadsword in close combat with the axes of the Easterling rebels, is a woman."
Videgavia stared at Berlas a moment, then at the other two and then rolled his eyes.
"How did she manage to that get by you lot? No matter. Good with a sword, good with a bow, and can pass herself off as a man. She has talent. I want to talk to her."
"Well, we promised we wouldn't reveal her secret," Wulgof hurriedly said and Mulgov agreed with a nod.
Berlas cut in, "I didn't," and he shrugged when Mulgov and Wulgof looked set to argue, "I didn't know until we set sail. When confronted her about it I said I'd keep quiet if she tended the Lady. I also said the Cap would find out eventually."
"And so he has," came a voice behind them. Barika stood, looking every part the soldier that she was.
Videgavia turned about and nodded, "Yes. And I need to talk to you about the Lady Anvikela."
"And I was going to find you to tell you of some things I have observed," Barika offered and Videgavia stepped closer.
"Every time we have tried to sail east the Lady becomes agitated and frightened, as though she does not want to return. There is something affecting her."
Videgavia said to Mulgov, "You stand guard outside the Lady's door. Barika, Berlas, and I have some business with the Lady and we don't want to be bothered.
"You, Wulgof, go and tell Hamoor to steer the ship due east after a full calculation performed with a star reading and wind check."
Wulgov nodded and headed off. The rest went to the Anvikela 'squarters. Once there, Barika knocked and was admitted. Berlas stepped in, and then Videgavia after her.
He bowed slightly and said, "Pardon my intrusion Lady Anvikela, but there are some matters we need to discuss."
With a look of resignation, Anvikela showed them to a table where she had made tea. Videgavia wasted no time in asking hard questions.
"Why do you oppose us returning to your land?" Videgavia said and added "We need your help."
Lady Anvikela started to tear up and Videgavia inwardly steeled himself for he never liked it when women cried. It was one of the things he had appreciated about the former Company Healer. That had been a woman with a stomach and spine of steel. And a head too...by the by.
Anvikela said, "I want to go, I want to bring you to my land. But I fear what will become… what will be required of me, both upon my return, and also in passing the rift. I do not have the strength of the high born whom I served, or the high mages. Even if my sisters lived and breathed and were with me here, it would be a hard task for all three of us."
Tears ran down her cheeks as she sobbed. Videgavia did not relent, "Well, you must try with all you do have, and we will do what we can for you. Even now the creaking of this ship warns us. We are turning east and soon it will begin again."
She stared at her tea and Videgavia reached for her hand. Berlas took her other hand. Barika stood behind her.
Lady Anvikela swallowed hard, frowned at the table and said, "If we are turning, then there is little time. I will try… I will reach out east. I must go to the bow, for it is forefront of our eastward drive."
Videgavia looked at Berlas, and then to Barika. They stood, the Lady with them, and they hurried out just as the waves of a storm front started to rise. The Lady came to the bow. Barika secured a rope about her to prevent her from being washed away while the sky boiled overhead. It was a ferocious storm and the ship howled in agony beneath them.
Anvikela yelled out over the noise of the rising wind and thunder, "We approach the edge of the rift! May we pass safely!"
She stood tall and proud as the elements of wind, rain, and sea spray tore at her. Videgavia, Berlas, and Barika stood not to far back, and struglled to keep themselves upright. Donius stumbled forth, grabbed Videgavia and yelled though his words could barely be heard.
"What are we doing? This ship can't take this! She will break apart!"
Videgavia watched the woman in the bow of the screaming ship. He thought she had started to glow with a pale blue light but when he tried to concentrate on that it faded from sight. Still, something was happening! The hair on his arms stood on end. Wave after brutal wave slammed into the hull and there was a terrible sound as one of the masts cracked, unable to bear the twisting timbers and the sheering winds. Molguv grabbed a dangling line and pulled it taut with all of his prodigious strength, wishing Bear was there to help him as he strained. It was then that lightning streamed forth from the Lady's hands and disappeared into the clouds to the east. The clouds swallowed them whole and the percussive waves of impact made it seem like boulders and not waters pounded their ship. Still, Anvikela held on with her arms raised. It was too much and Molguv bellowed in sheer, naked fear as the main mast came crashing down with Morcal in the crows nest….
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The world was in a shambles. What power that had kept the few remaining lights of Numenor's glorious Sea Captains ablaze was now shattered. The land writhed in agony and the people who remained were suffering. The once grand city was no more than rubble. The only glimpse of its former glory was had in the pillars and arches still managed to stand. The Order had been destroyed; its downfall was absolute, here and in Middle Earth, though few there comprehended that at first. Every day, fewer went to the shore to watch for the return of their loved ones and enough days passed for what little hope there was to dwindle. It had been the power of the Order, and the strength of the Priestess, that had pushed open the way. As they realised the extent of the destruction, it seemed obvious that the rift was once more irrevocably sealed. Any who might have survived were as lost as if they had perished.
The Sisterhood of Knowledge that had arisen in the heart of the Order around the lost Priestess was set adrift. The link to their chosen sisters had been severed with the downfall of the Priestess. They knew her to be dead, just as they knew that one of the Wizards had perished. Where the other was they did not know. They could not now feel his power. They could not feel any power, save that of their own heartbeats. It was terrifying.
Though their sanctuary suffered cracks and a few fallen stones, the structures remained sturdy. So too were the walls around their grounds. The Sisterhood's elders, the Mothers, had no explanation as to why they alone in the city and the surrounding lands had suffered so little. They kept themselves sheltered away from the world outside their walls. Their Elite stood guard dutifully outside the walls and the fear of those who remained of the power that once dwelt there kept them safe from the few vagabonds that roamed the lands. It was the night of the bright stars, when the Mothers gathered. They called upon the Sisterhood to hold vigil for their departed Sisters in the west. Little did they know that one of their own reached out for them on that very night, caught in the grinding jaws of the rift.
The storm came upon them fast, and the lightning and rain that arrived with it fell hard upon them. The roof leaked and the sound of water dripping and pouring started to fill their sanctuary. It was then that lightning struck the high roof and caused it to collapse. The sisterhood nearly panicked at that, but the Mothers could feel the power building. Something was happening. It drew them to concentrate harder even as their sanctuary seemed to collapse around them. Maybe they were coming home…
Rubble everywhere. Dust too. In his eyes, grinding with every blink. There was a hot cinder smell in the air. Or maybe that of flint being struck? It was hard to tell with all the dust in his nose. He tried to wipe his eyes clear but that only made it worse. Trying to kick off a bit of rubble, he felt his leg pop.
"That's not good," he said to himself.
He tried to stand. The rubble that had coated him fell to the ground with a bang down as he stood. Squinting, he could see the building around him had collapsed inside. The outer walls and roof were largely intact but they appeared unsteady in the grey dusty light. His head pounded and his right arm felt numb. He looked down at his hand. He could see it was there still, caked with dirt and drying blood. His ears… he wasn't hearing much beyond a muffled sound that sounded like dripping water, as if from a stream from the Misty Mountains pouring forth its last of the snowmelt in the late days of summer. He squinted to look about and tried to clear the dust and dirt out of his eyes. He tried to move his right hand to wipe his face. It wouldn't move. So he tried his left hand again. It let go of the stone that he had been hanging onto and he started to topple over.
"Leg won't work either," he observed again to himself.
He propped himself against the stone and wiped his eyes with his finger. It still felt like he was grinding dirt and salt into them but vision started to clear once they started to water and flushed the debris from them. He blinked madly. Things were still a bit blurred and grey but the sound of the dripping water was growing louder. No, not actually getting louder, he realised. Rather it was the one constant sound present. His hearing was recovering. He again tried to take a step but found that to be too ambitious and had to again lean against the large chunk of stone. It used to be an inner wall. Sweat from his forehead and nose started to drip down on his leg and useless hand. Except it wasn't sweat, it was blood. His head was throbbing, and the sound of the water dripping became ever louder in his head, making it pound.
"Water…" he mumbled to himself, trying to focus his eyes in the direction he thought the sound was coming from.
He noticed a silvery glisten in the murk. He could see the stream of water falling down from the broken corner of the roof. He was quite thirsty. He resolved to attempt to walk again. He grabbed the large stone he had leaned against with his left hand and pulled himself along while he attempted to kick his legs to gain footholds in the rubble. It was ungainly, but he managed a step and found he could see and feel his legs. This was a good thing. Now, to see if they would continue to work. He still couldn't feel his right arm as it hung limply at his side. But he could now start to feel a tingling at his right shoulder. He tried to move his shoulder and he felt a snap and a pop, and pain shot down his arm and up his neck to his head. He staggered as his balance failed and he fell forward into the rubble.
"Ouch," he said, stared out across the broken ground in the direction of the water.
Despite the pain, he could now feel his right arm. His elbow tingled as if a thousand needles were being stuck into it. He moved his shoulder again and though it was painful, it didn't make any noise. He must have popped it back in. Still couldn't feel his hand or make his fingers work though. He struggled to get up, but thought crawling toward the water would be easier at this stage. He got close enough to feel the first cool droplets hit his face, and it felt good.
The remains of another wall stood next to him, and he grasped the broken top with his left hand and pulled himself up. He leant against it while his head spun and his balance struggled to return to him. Once it had he could see now the steady stream of water. He could hear also the steady rain outside that supplied the stream running off the roof. He resolved to take a step towards it and hope for the best. Once an incurable optimist, always an incurable optimist. That's what she had said to him over the years, shaking her head and sometimes scowling and sometimes smiling.
A stagger and a step, and then another, and Loch stood in the cool stream. Letting it splash over his head, he washed off the dirt and dust and some of the blood. He also found the source of the blood. A gash above his right eyebrow went up to his hairline in the middle of his forehead. Head wounds always bled bad. She had said that too. He splashed several handfuls of water splashed against his face and his eyes felt much better. They actually could focus now. He rubbed his right arm with his left hand and saw that his sleeve had been torn off to the shoulder. The darkness of his flesh told him that it was burned, but it didn't feel like he had burns. Most likely a flash burn? Yes, he did watch and listen to his sister when she talked about such matters. His disinterest at the time didn't mean he didn't learn anything. Still, try as he might, he couldn't move the fingers on his right arm. His hand was dead and even though he could now move his elbow. He let the water run down on it and tried to wash off the darkness.
"Remember Loch… what do you remember?" he wheezed to himself as his head throbbed. Slowly his memories organised themselves. He remembered the mission, and the room, and the witch!
"She hit me with a spell!" he exclaimed to himself. What a fool he was! Thinking he could kill a high mage with a knife! Rin would have his hide. But what happened after that? He could not remember.
"Water…" a meek voice said and Loch looked around to find its owner.
The voice! One of the attendants! Yes, the one who discovered him and locked him in the wardrobe! But he got out, and there had been two others that looked much like her when he struck. They were there, if only for a moment. Coming into the room. And the old man was there too, surely he was the Wizard! They were all in the room, and the old mage turned when he had sensed Loch's presence. But it was to late! Loch had struck! Completely surprising the witch! And surprise to the others! It was the reactions in that moment that set things alight.
The old mage cast a spell toward him, the girl he had met jumped toward him, the other girl threw herself toward the witch, and the third… what did she do? He could not remember. He saw his knife rake across the witch's throat, and then everything went white. Heat had enveloped him, and everything faded to black. He had no memory of anything until a few moments ago when he woke up here. Rationally, he had to be standing in whatever was left of the palace he and Runner had snuck into. His gut hinted at other, irrational things that he squelched down. He needed to get himself in order so he could continue to scout, and return to the Company with his report! And an explanation for his sister. She had specifically told him to be careful.
His mind fell toward duty to the Company, and he felt his head start spinning.
"Water…" a meek voice said again and he reaslied that it was a real voice and not something out of his head. She was here, somewhere. But where?
Again unsure if he was hearing things, he called out, "Where are you?"
There was only silence. Things were just not right. Things sounded wrong. Or at least in a different way. He snapped the fingers of his left hand by his left ear, and he could hear it well. He went to snap his fingers of his right hand by his right ear, but his hand just jerked and remained limp. He couldn't raise his hand to his head anyway. So he reached around with his left hand and snapped his fingers. A faint distant echo was all he heard, with most of the sound being heard in his left ear.
Loch shifted his stance and suddenly felt something stabbing him in the right foot. Looking down, he saw that the leg of his leather breeches were shredded and missing parts from the knee down, and he was missing his boot. The feeling was coming back to his right leg, and it was beginning to throb. He picked his foot up and found a shard of wood jammed into the bottom of it. Removing it made standing a bit easier. But he became dizzy again and lost his balance. He fell to the side, and nearly blacked out but for the cold flesh his left hand came to touch, and he jumped.
He pushed a broken door, the very one he hid behind and was closed into by the girl, aside and saw her. She lay there, staring at the sky through the hole in the roof, unmoving. Her dress was tattered and some of her exposed skin was dark with flash burns like his. He squatted down to take her hand, and he could see that she still took breath.
Her eyes blinked open again and she said, "Water…"
Loch found a broken jar in the rubble that would hold some water, and reached for the stream that fell from the broken roof. He brought it to her lips and she gulped it down. He helped her sit up and rested her against the door. His head throbbed and his vision was struggling to stay focused.
"You are alive Lochared of Dunland. As am I."
Loch looked at her and sat down beside her before he fell down unceremoniously, "What happened? Where are we?"
The wind pushed the water around, making its splashing change pitch, sending Loch's hearing into echoes. He could see in his mind that moment when she jumped toward him. He assumed in that instant it was to stop him from killing her charge. But in truth, she had moved to protect him. This girl chose to try and extend what shielding ability she had over him! It made no sense to him.
In that moment, everyone reacted. He was fading and everything started to sound far away, like in a dream you can't wake up from.
"I do not know what happened, but I know where we are. What I ask myself is when we are."
She took Loch's hand, and he seemed to return at the strangeness of her reply.
He said, "When we are? It's 44 years into the 4th age of Middle Earth."
"That may be so Lochared of Dunland, but this is not Middle Earth."
She gave him some of the water he had brought to her to drink. She reached out to let the stream of water splash on her palm and it splashed all over them both. She giggled like a girl and it made Loch remember younger days with Rin.
Something surfaced in his sluggish thoughts and Loch asked, "I need to know how you know my name and the land which I came?"
She answered, "You told me in my dream."
That too reminded him of Rin, as did his frustration with the mysteries that seemed to come from the girl's mouth every time she spoke. He looked at the side of her face and he could see now sadness and a mind in deep thought. The little girl of a moment ago had fled. Loch leaned back and sighed.
He said, "Well. It seems you know me but I have yet to meet you. May I ask your name?"
He had too many questions, especially with her responses. Maybe he could at least get her name. Then he could figure out the rest and then try and find Runner and the others, and get back to the Company and report to Hanasian. He will surely have questions of his own and will want Loch to recall details so he could record it all and Rin would be shoving him about in a bid to get him to lie down so she could tend him, all impatient and irritable.
As he tried to marshal his recollections into order, he felt awareness slipping from him.
The girl whispered to him,"You rest now Lochared of Dunland. You are hurt from our ordeal. I did my best to shield you from harm, now I will do my best to help you heal."
Just like Rin…only politer.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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When he came to he thought he was dead. Or blind. Maybe both. The initial panic that seized him faded, leaving a metallic aftertaste in his mouth and his limbs trembling like some newborn colt. Cold drops of water fell on him. His back was soaked and where the rain found his bare flesh it was needles. Thousands of them. Prickling him. It made him roll over. That was a mistake. Better the needles gouge his back than his face. Actually, better that he find shelter. Then Loch. The fool. This was his fault.
It took more effort than he was bargaining on to gain his feet. He peered blearily down, rain hammering on his skull like a drum. Boom. Boom. Boom. CRACK! Lightening! His brain felt like it was all pebbles, rattling around in a kettle. Bare feet were illuminated in the flare of bluewhite death. No boots. Damn. Those Company boots had been the best he’d ever had. Cover. He needed cover. Runner hunched against the decaying wall he had been laying against and decided to follow it until it lead him to a door or window or hole. Anything would do.
He found a gap in the masonry and fell through it. The night was inky. Things were moving in it. He didn’t know what. Only that they did and he didn’t want to meet them. His collected assortment of aches pains soon disabused Runner of any notion that he was dead. Of course, he couldn’t be so lucky. It was difficult to see in the murky night. He had no idea where specifically he was. He had no idea where Loch was. Given how his luck had panned out this far, it seemed likely that he’d be caught in the onslaught that he knew was brewing. The Black were massing to fall upon the Order in Skhar. Khor’s men would be in the fray as well. And here he was, disorientated, lost and bootless. Not even a dagger.
Killing a witch with a dagger. A fool’s errand if ever there was one. He hunkered down, squatting between his knees with his arms wrapped around himself for warmth. He was soaked through. Things were starting to hurt. A lot. What had his friend been thinking? Runner understood how important family was. He knew how much his friend cared for his sister even if she was a little frightening. So tall and pale and such a way of looking at someone as if she could see right into his thoughts. When he had first seen her, she was angry. She argued with men. One of the Black Company men, one of the scariest ones, shouted at her and she just argued back. But she had been kind to him and he had been overawed enough to forgive the way she mangled his language in a bid to communicate with him.
Yes, Runner supposed as he shivered miserably and the heavens rained down death from above, if he had a sister he’d protect her too. But this plan had been suicide. Loch had said he was a professional. This had all the professional precision and forethought of an amateur. As the young man of Rhun pondered just what he would do to even the score with his impetuous friend, he found thoughts of vengeance were keeping the chill at bay. In time, the storm without passed, though not with a whimper. Rather, it slammed a fist down and howled away. Out to sea, presumably.
The temptation to remain where he was assaulted Runner. He was tired. Everything hurt.
And he was angry with Loch.
But if he stayed where he was his muscles would seize up and he’d not be able to walk, much less return to the safety of his own lines before all hell broke loose. With a stifled moan, Runner began to stretch out his legs. The effort made his eyes water and so his sight was blurry when he thought he saw a shadow flit past the opening he had fell through earlier. Instinct made him freeze, not sitting and not standing. This in no way assisted his aching body. It was dark. A trick of the mind. No…again…a shadow…He could taste metal again.
He had grown up on tales of the Dark Years. Tales of nights such as these, where nightmares roamed, hunting for the unwary. Punishment sent for those who had failed the Dark Lord…or his pets, sporting at their hunt. He had sensed things moved in the storm. Powers. Was this what he now saw? The tales said that such creatures could smell a man’s blood if they were near enough…sense the heat of his body…hear his breathing, the movement of his lungs. The urge to swallow against his suddenly dry throat seized Runner and he fought it, straining to focus his attention on the gap and the night beyond.
Stars had already emerged, unveiled again. He paid them scant regard. There! A third time! It paused this time, hovered in the gap, questing for him. Horror bloomed in Runner’s gut. Still, to move was to die. As the shadow poured through the gap, Runner’s fading strength failed him outright and he fell back hard. His head bounced off the ground with a damp crack and tales and vengeance and aches and pains were not Runner’s concern any more. The shadow crouched at his side, poised, ready to strike.
The light changed. It was grey now, false dawn. It filtered through Runner’s eyelids and as soon as he realised this he realised that a ring of fire encircled his skull. A groan of misery was wrenched from his dry throat. He heard a scrabbling sound and desperately tried to open his eyes. They were gummed shut, gluey. Water splashed over his face, shocking him. His eyes flew open and his hands lifted to form a pathetic shield. It was all he had. He blinked the water from them, gasped in air and peered into the dim morning.
He expected to see a beast of nightmare. Slavering jaws, cruel teeth, beady little eyes crazed with dumb malice, misshapen form. Instead, he found a young woman was crouched beside him. She was not nearly as well kept as last he had seen her. Her gown was badly rent, her hair snarled and hanging in thick ropes. Dust coated her and she appeared to have burns that were mostly healing. Her head was tilted to one side. Dark eyes regarded him with some caution. Suddenly it occurred to Runner that his hands held up in a shield was faintly ridiculous. He lowered them.
Her head tilted the other way and then she lifted into view a broken jar of some sort. It sloshed with water.
He nodded and she held it to his mouth. As he drank, he never took his eyes from her. It was one of the attendants. She studied him critically and lowered it when she judged he had had enough.
”You can walk now. Not far, yes?” she asked him in heavily accented Westron.
Runner frowned. He wasn’t sure if he could sit up, much less walk anywhere. Even if he could, he wasn’t in the least convinced he wanted to go anywhere with her. Besides, the attack would have to be starting any moment now.
”Where are the others,” he instead asked and her head tilted again.
Runner realised with that nothing would be had from her and instead turned his efforts to more fruitful pursuits. The first attempt to sit up resulted in all of his recently drunk water returning to the world again. He blacked out shortly after that. He started awake and resumed his efforts. He was sweating by the time he managed to sit up and trembling again. At this rate he’d be an old man before he got his feet under him again. The girl had moved away but studied his progress curiously.
”Not far,” she assured him.
”That’s what you think,” he muttered in his own tongue.
He needed to find Loch and then they needed to light out of there, collect his squad and hightail it back to the Company to answer some pointy questions. A fool of a thing to do!
Runner was panting by the time he made the gap. Most of his pains had receeded to dull aches but his head was abysmal. He recalled a brief flash of pain from last night and concluded that he probably had concussion. That meant a trip to Loch’s sister…perhaps one of the medics. They weren’t nearly so…so…well they weren’t her. Everyone knew that if you weren’t Old Company or her Cats, well you kept your distance. They were possessive and not the sort of people to run afoul of. The girl flitted to the gap and through it, out into the morning. Dawn was not far off. He was surprised he hadn’t heard the bird calls of the advance squads yet. Things were quiet. Unnaturally still. Something was about to break. Aside from his head.
”Not far,” the girl said and gave him what was supposed to be an encouraging smile.
He ignored her and scanned the street. It looked like everything had been slapped about. Rubble, broken buildings, cracked stones. Furniture and scraps of clothing. Nothing lootable, he noticed. That made no sense at all. There was no way all the looting could have finished so quickly with all these buildings cracked open like over-ripe fruit.
”I know where your friend is. Lochared,” the girl said when it seemed unlikely that Runner would follow her.
When his wandering attention returned to her, she added brightly, ”I’ll take you to him!”
It was the oldest trick in the book, Runner thought. He’d be a fool to believe her. But, then, considering that he’d followed Loch on this disastrous idea of his, he was already a formidable fool. Then it occurred to him. She knew Loch’s name. That made no sense. Runner sighed and pushed out after her on wobbly legs. He expected she was leading him into a trap, but then where else did he have to go? When instead she lead him to another tumbled down building and his friend, Runner was pleasantly surprised. His face broke into a grin at the sight of Loch lying there. He had an arm thrown over his eyes and he was trying to sleep. The girl saw his expression and mirrored his smile.
A new surge of strength eddied through Runner and he made it to where Loch was laying with a quarter of the energy that he had needed to make if from his shelter to this one. The girl trailed along behind, pleased with herself. Time would be short, Runner knew, before the anvil fell and the ambush was sprung. He nudged Loch’s calf as he squatted down. Loch looked like he had been trampled and burned all at once. It would make no difference to him. He lifted his arm from his face, opened his eyes and peered up into Runner’s face.
”RUNNER!” Loch enthusiastically cried, or would have if his throat wasn’t so dry.
Instead it came out as a mangled croak. Still, he managed to sit himself up, which was a good thing. It would make it easier. Runner smiled at this thought.
”Am I pleased to see-“
Loch found it difficult to finish his next sentence. Not because of his dry throat. No. Rather, it was Runner’s fist colliding with his jaw that made conversation hard. No sooner had Runner swung at Loch did Loch instinctively swing back and that was that.
The girl’s smile dissolved into outright puzzlement as the two men scuffled about on the dusty floor, grunting and swearing at each other. They had managed only one swing each in their condition and were soon reduced to rolling about, wrestling with each other, half hearted strength and full blown anger. It was the strangest thing she had ever seen in all her life. Her years in the sanctuary had never prepared her for this. And she thought they were allies.
It took over ten minutes. She glanced down at the water she held still and thought that soon had both men howling popped into her head. Just as well they were not as ambulatory as usual, she thought as she hopped away with a now empty jug. Both men sat puffing as water dripped from their hair. Loch had a bloodied lip. Runner had a black eye. They glared at each other, arms resting on their bent knees. This, she thought, was going to be difficult.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The storm battered the ship and the rift nearly pulled it apart. Had not Lady Anvikela put everything she had into their push east, they would have surely broken apart and perished. As it stood, Only Morcal was known to have fallen but there were three missing, presumed lost overboard in the heavy sea. All were exhausted yet their dulled senses could not shield them from the awareness that something had changed. The air smelled different and this was noticeable despite the thick briny tang to it. The rain felt different too, no more than water now and stripped of its earlier malice. The tumultuous seas had quieted and all that confronted them was a mere heavy storm. Yet Lady Anvikela remained where she was, without rest, with her hands to the sky.
The seas did not begin to relent proper for another several hours and it was only when they had completely passed through that Lady Anvikela crumpled to the deck. Berlas and Barika tended her, for she had come out of her cabin unprepared. They covered her with a blanket for her dress had been rent by the ravages of the storm. Despite the fact that she was insensate, Videgavia bowed to her and thanked her as she was carried by to her quarters Berlas and Barika. So too did the rest of those who were present on deck.
Dhak stood and watched in silence, his thought ran deep. Somehow, she had managed it alone, without her sisters or the aid of a high mage. It seemed too easy. It was clear to Dhak that there was more at work here than what had appeared. Other powers were involved, ones he did not know and could not yet guess at. He would have to ponder this and all it meant. He found, however, that this realisation brought him satisfaction despite his fear. The work of the sisterhood had not been for naught. But what had they done? A new wild card, the Free Company, had been added to their deck and it had been quickly dealt out. Only time will tell where this would lead. As ever, Dhak wanted to play his hand in a way that kept him on the side that came out on top.
The storm had subsided to vast amounts of heavy rain. They were alive and the ship was still floating. Daius and Donius had their hands full. They had managed to recruit several of the soldiers who had a knack for this sort of work, and they were hard pressed in their efforts to keep the ship afloat. Their chief concern after that was the loss of the main mast and the damage caused but its topple. It took more than Morcal's life. It stole from them their ability to push themselves through the seas. They did what they could with what they had, and the current seemed to keep mostly to an easterly direction, but another disaster was discovered.
The rudder appeared to have been damaged. After drawing straws, it fell to Daius to go over the side. Holding his breath for long periods, he went under and examined the rudder. The salty water burned his eyes and the movement of the ship made staying close to the hull difficult. The ropes about him tensed and slacked with the roll of the water, pulling him this way and that like a cork on the end of a string. He found it hard to do anything other than look. On his third dive he located the problem. The rudder's wooden shaft had splintered under the force of the heaving water and jammed itself into the hull. The shaft was barely strong enough to work now and any further pressure could snap it entirely. This would cause them to lose steering altogether. It was clear to Daius. He knew what he had to do though the prospect was little appealing. He surfaced and clung to the ropes as the water slapped at him and the side of the ship.
He called up, "What is our heading now?"
A bit of commotion on deck as the question was relayed back to the bridge. Hamoor checked his records and found it no easy thing to answer. After some time and calculations, he said they were heading due east-southeast on a natural current. This was relayed to Daius who tapped his fingers together a few times before he dove under again. He manipulated the rudder to a straight position with his hands and surfaced. Another dive to remove the shard of wood and he returned to the surface again. He signalled that he was ready to be brought up and he was hoisted up to the deck. Videgavia met him with a water skin. Daius drank deeply and coughed. He had always hated swimming.
He said, "There's damage to the rudder gear and shaft. A shard from the shaft jammed the rudder, but it is free now. But the gear is quite stiff. I fear that if too much pressure is applied by the wheel, it could snap entirely."
Vid nodded, not surprised at the news. Donius piped in and said, "If another storm blows our way, there is a chance that this ship won't hold together to steer."
Videgavia nodded again and finally said, "We're here for now and we're still heading east. When we find land, we'll anchor and make repairs as needed. Now, I'm not sure how far we have to go, but Hamoor assures me from his best interpretation of the few charts we have of this eastern sea, it seems likely we will make land in three days. So everyone will need to make ready."
Donius and Daius didn't say anything further. The rest of their work party didn't either. They knew the ship had sailed its last voyage, if not on the sea, definitely crossing the rift. Vid knew too. He would worry about their return journey when the time came. He would have to find a new ship, rebuild this old one, and in either case, convince Lady Anvikela to return with them. Right now, he would carry on. Panic now would kill them faster than a sinking ship or another sudden storm. Eager for something familiar to set their minds to, the Free Company fell to preparations. Their plans were soon in place
The plan was for Khor's men to move forward and set up a perimeter around their beachhead. They had not planned on landing at a dock. As they neared land a dense fog enveloped them. From time to time they managed to sail free of it into small pockets of clarity. In these brief moments they sighted a city. To its north was a port. But as they came closer, they could see that destruction had arrived ahead of them. Berlas brought Lady Anvikela up from her quarters, followed by Barika. It was the first time she had emerged since the day they crossed the rift. She still looked fatigued, but she came to see her homeland. Wearing a purple hooded cloak, she peered out from the rails.
She whispered to herself, "It is as I thought."
Videgavia, heard her and asked, "What is m'lady? What has happened?"
She clasped her hands together and said in a soft voice to him, "The death of the High Priestess had caused the lands to break. We must be careful. Let them not find me."
Videgavia scratched at his bristly cheek and said, "You speak in riddles Lady Anvikela. Who seeks you?"
She did not answer but pointed north of the docks towards the hills inland. Upon one of them a silvery light shone out to the west, as if searching for something. Lady Anvikela whispered to those around her: Videgavia, Berlas, and Barika.
"Having tasted freedom in the outside world, they will seek for me to return. But I can not. I will be enslaved to their will once again. Before, I knew not of such things and I knew no differently. Now, I will know."
"But I thought you wanted to come back," Berlas said, puzzled.
Videgavia then said, "As others before have done, so too will it be for you m'Lady. Morcal, one of our lost, was a prisoner of ours once before he joined the Company. You have been as a prisoner, and then our guide.
"I will put forth your name as a new member, but it will have to be decided upon. Until then at least, you will have the same protection as any other member of the Free Company."
The Lady looked at him, realizing only in part what Videgavia had done. Berlas knew only too well. Barika did not fully understand, but knew it was important.
Videgavia looked at their expressions and said, "As long as I'm the Cap, we'll go by Han's rules. Same as the old Company. I've been lax on appointments and such, but as soon as we get settled here, I will rectify that. Now, Lady, you are our guide. We have Dhak, but I don't trust the man. Never have. So I will be depending on you greatly here."
Lady Anvikela looked at him and there was a softness in the glow of her eyes. The deep sadness that always loomed there seemed to have fallen back some.
She said, "I thank you Sir Videgavia of Rhovanion. I will do my best to repay your, and all the other's kindness. May it be that no ill will comes to you or your men here. But I doubt I will remain hidden long. I will watch for them, but to keep myself cloaked from their senses drains me. If I seem, or have seemed distant and cold, and tired all the time, it is because I try to shield myself from them."
Videgavia looked at Barika and no words passed, but she knew what her duty was. She would be her personal bodyguard. May her own senses not fail her.
They came slowly toward the docks at night, unlit. Khor's men stood ready and all eyes were on the shore. The plan was that Khor's men would go forth and set up a line of defence. They would clear the few buildings that still stood nearby, take high points and set a watch. This would be their ring of steel. Of the Company, Videgavia divided them up according to their tasks. Most of the sea hands would remain with the ship or nearby, on watch at all times. They had worked the hardest on the water, and deserved what Vid hoped would be a time of rest. Some of the engineering squad that Daius and Donius scraped together from the Company hands would remain with the ship and try and conduct repairs. Donius was given command of this group.
Daius, Flint, Birds, and the rest of their engineers would accompany the main force in hopes of finding useful materials and such. Wulgof and Mulgov would be a part of this crew, and Videgavia would command it. The main force, consisting of the bulk of the newer company, would help Khor with the perimeter, set up points further in to keep watch, and scout the immediate area around their line. Dhorgat and the other remaining men that was part of Runner's conscripts back in Rhun would form the core of their scouting party, commanded by Berlas. Attached to this group would be Khule, Hamoor, and Belegost. Barika would remain with the ship with Lady Anvikela. Their growing relationship benefited the Company, for the lady had grown fond of the little woman and their talks seemed to bring the woman that was behind the name Anvikela out. The Lady felt she found a friend in Barika.
While it was a conservative plan to begin with, it was one they could and would adjust as needed. They didn't want to attract too much attention. They tied off in silence. Those few people about scarcely noticed the new arrivals. Khor's men moved with such military precision that it was hard to tell they had been cooped up on a ship for many weeks. The shadows from an obscured moon had only moved a finger length before word came back that all was secured. The main Company started to fan out through the ruined city and the scouts moved quickly and headed north towards where the light had been sighted. When they got to a fork in the road, they split into two groups. Berlas took one up the coast while Khule took some up the east fork.
Silently the men moved through the muddy streets. Lanterns burned only sporadically, an air of neglect hung thick about the place. On occasion a dog could be heard barking in the distance, but they had somehow achieved complete surprise. It didn't look like anyone of any threat was here and those few who were did not look interested in a fight.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The water had for the most part stopped Loch and Runner's fighting. They both were weak but each wanted to get the last punch in and so set to again after they had regathered their breath. Except they had no force in them, none at all. They both collapsed in heavy breathing almost as soon after the second bout began and, after a few breaths, Loch started to laugh slightly. Runner too started to giggle.
"Oww," both men said in unision, for laughter was painful
Runner wheezed a whisper, "It was a fool thing to do ya know."
Loch was out of strength to even spar verbally, he just raised his hand and nodded. Runner, never out of questions, asked, "So what exactly happened, and what do we do now? Oh, and who is your friend here?"
"You… ask too many... questions. The lady will answer the last one if she sees fit to do so. As for the second, we should see about finding the others. Easier said than done though. I'm sure I have a broken leg, my right arm doesn't work quite right, and I'm missing a boot," Loch said.
Runner leant back to pick up both his feet and waved them at Loch, "Well I'm missing two boots. Best boots I ever had. They were a bit big for me, so likely why they didn't stay on. Now, you didn't answer my first question."
Loch grunted. He looked over at the girl who had sidled off to get more water after she saw the two men weren't going to kill each other. She looked over at him as if she knew he was looking at her, and she smiled.
Loch said, "I'm not entirely sure. I've been thinking and dreaming about it for a couple days now, trying to get the facts straight for my report for Hanasian. Just when I seem to have it straight, I get it jumbled and it comes together a bit differently next time. You must remember and give a report too, since we weren't together."
The girl returned, her smile vanished and a wary, serious expression in its place.
She asked them both, "You can walk, yes? We need to go from here. I find safe place where we hide. You get better there, hurry!"
The slight crunch of stone under a boot could be heard not far away. Runner and Loch helped each other to their feet, and Runner having two mostly good legs, walked Loch toward the arch where the girl had gone. They stumbled over the rubble, through the rear of the building they had sheltered in. She led them towards an opening that had once been a door to the back alley. Out into the rain they went. While the girl stepped out, Loch and Runner kind of clambered out as a three-legged two-headed man. She had them follow the alley along. They entered a small house at the end of stone walls that seemed for the most part untouched by the destruction. The only damage was the corner of the roof where part of the stone building next to it had fallen through. It allowed the rain n, but most of the rest of the house was dry, more or less. Loch and Runner collapsed on the floor in a tangled heap and they commented at the same time, "Ow."
They sorted themselves out and propped their backs up to a wall where they could see the single door. The girl stood before the door with her hands out. She brought them slowly together and stood that way for several moments. Finally she turned back to the men and located three discarded vessles to collect water in. She brought them over to where Loch and Runner sat. She handed them each one and squeezed herself in between them. Runner was going to drink but she stopped him, grabbing his wrist.
"Wait, yes?" she said as she looked hard into his eyes.
Runner tried to hold her gaze but found that he could not and turned away. She held her hand over the jar of water in Runner's hand, then did the same for Loch's and then hers.
"What are you doing?" Loch asked.
"Unseen," was all she said, and she lifted her jar of water.
Loch and Runner knew what that meant when drinking Mulgov's brew, and they hoisted their jars and tapped them together with the girl's.
"Bottoms Up!" Loch said as the two drank heartily of their water.
The girl seemed surprised at this strange ritual. These barbarians were so amusing. She smiled and drank slowly. It was surprisingly refreshing for water drained off a roof.
Runner asked her, "What is your name?"
"I've been asking her that question for days now. Each time, I seemed to pass out before it was answered," Loch said.
The girl smiled, considered surrendering her mystery to these two men.
She said, "As Loch knows, I am the third sister. He knows my name, a name I remembered from long ago as a little girl. It rings clear in my head. But I am not called that. For they gave us new names…"
She hesitated, as her face grew serious. She had let her defence slip and in that moment she felt her sister! She was coming home! Should she reach for her and help her? Or remain silent and unseen? Scared she would be discovered, she withdrew and tears spilled down her face. Loch and Runner drew closer.
Loch whispered in her ear, "Don't tell us if it hurts that much. I'll just call you Rose."
She wiped her eyes to correct him but instead hushed them as boots drew closer. She whispered, "Unseen, not unheard. Do not move, no."
The three sat huddled together, their eyes on the door. A man walked by, a second did too, peering in the door for a moment and looking around before moving on. The sound grew fainter and finally the girl moved.
She said, "It worked, yes!"
They had been indeed, unseen. Loch decided to drink the rest of the jar of water. Soon, the three were fast asleep.
The morning light came and Loch jumped awake. Runner was sound asleep, laying on his side to his right. Rose was nowhere to be seen. He worked his right hand and shoulder, and though it popped some, it didn't hurt like it had before. His leg still throbbed, but it too wasn't as bad as it has been. Loch knew he would likely have a limp for the rest of his life, for his foot didn't set straight. He could hear his sister even now telling him what needed to be done. He tried to turn it, but pain shot up his leg and side. He let it be. At least it wouldn't need amputating. He did manage to kick Runner in the bottom of his foot and he jumped awake.
"I'm watching… I'm …"
"Sleeping," Loch finished for him.
Runner blinked and said, "That was the hardest I slept in… I can't remember."
"Yes, me too. Must be because we were unseen," Loch replied.
Runner nodded before he glanced around and said, "I was supposed to be on watch. I was supposed to watch… Where's Rose? Why did you call her Rose?"
Loch shrugged, "I like the flower, and thought it would make a nice name. She is kind of that way…besides…."
Loch paused as if trying to remember something. Runner said, "Yeah, well watch for her thorns. She was one who was with that witch. Not sure I would trust her."
Loch sighed and said, "Part of my report that never seems to get mixed up is the fact she had made me well before anything happened. She locked me in a closet for safekeeping when her sister came looking for her. I can still see her eyes as she looked at me before she closed the doors.
"And here after I woke up she has been nothing but kind to me, and you. Looking out for us. No, I'm willing to give her my trust. Besides, we don't really have much of a choice."
'Well, where is she then?" Runner asked.
Loch answered, "She does that. Wanders off while I'm sleeping, always returns, usually with something. Now, about finding the others… I'm not sure we can. From what Rose has told me of the event that put us in this condition, it seems there was some sort of disruption…"
"Oh really? I hadn't noticed," Runner barked.
Loch smiled and suppressed a laugh, mainly because they made his ribs hurt. He countered, "No, I mean something beyond our knowledge. Though I woke up in that broken building, she says she was with me for months! Said I knew her name as we exchanged them when we were introduced at a gala dinner. Said we danced and walked in the moonlight by a lakeside. All sorts of stuff."
"Right, so the girl dreams of you. How is any of this relevant to our situation and our finding the Company?"
Loch slapped him in the chest with the back of his hand, saying, "Let me finish! In my report, I know that we were there at the same point at the same time, yet I wake up here as if I was only out for a few moments at the most, while she says we had been together for months and knows more about me than most."
In fact, more than anybody aside from Rin. Runner nodded and said, "It seemed a few moments for me too. How do you know you were out only a few moments?"
Loch swallowed and said, "Because after I came to, I was somewhere else, but still had the taste of Khule's stale jerky he gave us before we left. I had chewed a piece before moving in. If it was any amount of time, say days or weeks, let alone months, it would have long faded. What I'm saying is, how did this affect the rest of the Company? Where are they?"
"I don't know. I miss Dhorgat and the boys, and Khule. We need to try and find them," Runner said with an air of resignation, aware of what Loch was getting at.
Loch went on, "Well, we are still two Scouts of The Black Company! While we still live, we will gather information and report back. We need to find out exactly where we are, and yes, when we are. I think Rose will aid us in this."
The two sat and talked and made plans and talked strategy. It was well into the day when Loch began to worry properly. Rose had been gone since first light. He had never been awake this long without seeing her. He worked himself up to his feet and tried to walk. He stumbled but found that he could manage something approximate to walking if he located a crutch of some sort. Runner walked over to the door. Unsure if they should look out, they stood just inside and peered uncertainly at each other. Loch held up his hand to make a count, three fingers aloft. On three, they both stuck their heads out and peered around. There sitting on the ground against the outside wall was Rose, her knees drawn up to with her arms around them and her head face down resting on them.
"Rose?" Loch said as he walked along the wall to her. Runner came to the other side of her. She was wet and shivering, even if the rain had stopped and was replaced by a thick fog. She looked up at Loch, her eyes red and tired.
"Come inside! Try and stay warm!" Loch said as they helped her to her feet. She walked calmly as if she was blind and permitted them to lead her. They returned to the dry floor in the corner of the house where Loch threw an old cloth around her. She held it tight to herself.
After a moment she looked at him and said in a strained tired voice, "I have found my sister, but she has not found me. I helped her in her plight but she thought me a dream. She thinks I am dead, as our eldest sister is dead. But the others have now sensed me. For I have given myself to shield my sister. They have not sensed her. Have hope Lochnard of Dunland and the Runner of Rhun, for your friends are coming. For me, I have little to hope for."
Loch wiped the dirt from her face with his one good sleeve. He said, "Have hope Rose, for you are with the Black Company. We look out for our own."
He had more questions than answers. Who sensed her, and what did this mean? And right now at this point, he and Runner were the Company. That meant something important. To him, and to Runner.
"Have hope Rose, for you will again see your sister," and he his, for they were coming.
They spent the next three days moving from one place to another. Rose had withdrawn and said little in this time. She brightened when Loch talked directly to her. She tried to answer questions and keep them hidden, and they had managed to find some suitable clothing in a burned out shop. It was good to have boots again. The third night out, the fog thinned and a slight wind came from the west. The moon was bright when the clouds were not in the way. Rose sat staring out to the west.
She whispered to a sleeping Loch and Runner, "They have come."
She caressed Runner's cheek, and her eyes lingered as they gazed on Loch's sleeping moonlit face. She kissed him and whispered in his ear, "May we meet again, in dream and in reality."
And with that, she silently sped out of the door and down the alley. It wasn't long before shadowy figures moved in the night. Rose avoided them, but at a corner of a building the sight of armed men moving up along a roofline distracted her. Someone grabbed her from behind. A rag went into her mouth and a hood went over her head, and she was carried away.
The deployment of the Company went smoothly and it was a rare instance that all had gone according to plan. The perimeter was well secured, they had found some food and drink, and the city was well infiltrated by the Company. They had set their defensive web and could lie low in the daylight. After so long waiting, this night was theirs.
Dhorgat fell into the ditch and froze all movement. There were people coming. He could not see anyone and signed to Khule. Khule looked about but could not see much either. Damnable fog, Dhorgat thought, could use a bit of that moonlight right about now. Khule waved at the bowman that was with them. He signed for him to watch the road, and to shoot if he saw movement. The moon broke through the fog for just a moment. The arrow hissed and Dhorgat jumped. A shadowy man fell with the arrow lodged in his side and Dhorgat pulled the other man down into the ditch. The bound girl he was carrying fell atop them and they splashed in the water that ran through it. Dhorgat had knifed the man and pushed him down into the water. He grabbed the bound girl to keep her from drowning as she flailed about. He removed the hood that was over her head and then pulled out the rag from her mouth. He made quick work of the rope that tied her wrists too and signalled her to be quiet.
"I have hope, for I am with the Black Company," she whispered to herself.
Dhorgat heard her though. How did she know who they were? He thought to himself. She could see that the youth with her had the same sort of leather clothing that Loch had worn when she first saw him in the room. She stayed low and quiet, for more voices could be heard.
"Things are getting tight," Khule said softly as they marked their prey.
They hoped this was the last, for they did not have the numbers. They had to get Dhorgat back across the road. The men kept talking as they walked by. There were four of them. It was a good thing that thick fog had obscured the moon, for otherwise they might have seen the dead men. Dhorgat tapped the girl on the shoulder and they scrambled up the ditch and crossed the road.
"Who's this?" Khule asked.
Dhorgat answered, "She was with the man I took, bound and gagged. She knows we're the Black Company!"
Khule hesitated as he peered hard at the girl in the murky night. He then said, as he pushed them along, "You'd better be sure. She's coming with us and she'll have some questions to answer."
Rose went freely. She was not going to be taken back to the Sisters this night. The scouts had returned to the fork, and Berlas grumbled at Khule,"What took you so long? Daylight is coming and we're supposed to be back!"
"Ran into a little trouble that held us up," Khule answered.
Berlas looked at the girl as she walked by following Dhorgat.
"Great. Just great," Berlas mumbled to himself as he took up rearguard, another one.
They kept a steady pace, and were within their positions in the city before the sun rose too high and revealed them. It was the first time they had seen the sun since they were at the southernmost part of their journey on the sea. It would be a bright morning. What the day had in store was anyone's guess.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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”The Black is here,” Loch muttered, crouched behind a pile of debris.
Beside him, Runner grunted agreement. He was peering at the same thing Loch was A dead man. Well, not the man per se but the agency of his death. The fletching on the arrow was Black Company.
”Here and tetchy,” Loch continued because something had rattled the others enough to drop a man.
But what? It was just a street. No better or worse than any other dilapidated street. Gaping holes grinned where windows and doors should have stood. Blocks of masonry, pools of water that gleamed brightly in the sun now. Just a street in this forsaken place. What had startled the Black to drop a man here? And, where were they now? They’d been searching for Rose all morning and not seen a single soul. Not a mangy dog or a skinny chicken. Not even a rat. Nothing. The morning breeze played through the fletching.
”Perhaps we should go back, let things calm down, have a think,” Runner said, knowing that it was all useless. Still, someone had to be the voice of reason.
Loch resolutely pushed on, limping forward with his crutch determinedly. At this rate, they’d be shot by their own people. When he said as much a long while later, Loch waved it aside.
”We will at least have found them then,” he answered and then a lopsided grin creased his face, ”And if they’ve accidentally shot us, we might be able to buy enough sympathy to be let off for failing to report on time.”
“Failing to report? That’s what you’re worried about?” Runner incredulously asked.
”What else is there, then?”
“WHAT ELSE? HOW ABOUT AN UNAUTHORISED ASSASSINATION PLOT THAT FAILED, BREAKING COVER, DISOBEYING DIRECT ORDERS...“
Runner’s shout bounced off the ragged walls of buildings around them. The salty tang of the sea was thicker here. They were near the port. Loch just grinned at him, slid down the wall he had been leaning against. He stretched his legs out, folding the good one over his bad one, and crossed his arms behind his head. Galled at his lapse, Runner crouched. His shoulders were hunched and he breathed hard through clenched teeth. Loch’s eyes were closed. He looked for all the world as if he was napping in the sun.
”Are you taking a nap?” Runner tightly asked between his teeth.
“Now? We have not found Rose…nor the Black.”
“You’re just full of our failures. You’re mostly right, except on one count.”
“The Black are already locating us.”
“How do you know?”
Loch cracked open one eye and decided that discretion on this count would be the greater valour and he said nothing. Either the Black would respond to all of the noise or someone else would. He was an optimist. It would be the Black.
“Relax, Runner, you appear….perturbed.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Wulgof listened for a moment longer and then swung back to where Molguv stood. The Haradian had broken open the crate despite strict orders to leave it intact, and was disconsolately pawing through its contents. More force of habit than any preconceived plot to steal the good supplies before they found their way back to the Company. Since his cousin’s death, Molguv had not been himself. Not even the threat of Videgavia’s wrath brought him out of his shell.
”Vid told us to leave them alone,” Wulgof said and Molguv shrugged his shoulders.
”Salt. It’s just salt.”
While they had crates and crates of the stuff already, it wasn’t the point. Wulgof rubbed at the back of his neck and swung about as Belegost came trotting back in. The man glanced at Molguv’s half hearted pilfering and then peered at Wulgof.
”We should look into that.”
“I agree,” Wulgof said and then, over his shoulder, ”You coming, Molguv?”
The Haradian let his handful of salt drain away, ”What? Sure…if we have to…I suppose.”
He collected up the now ruined crate, set it on one broad shoulder and stumped towards where the other two men stood. A white trail of salt was left in his wake. Belegost’s brows rose and Wulgof shook his shaggy head. They followed the hulking, salty, Haradian, on the alert for any sign of trouble. That shouting had not come from thin air and, after the contact of the night before, the unnatural peace of the place had come to a definitive end. Still, block after block was deserted. A cat careened across the street behind them, screeching like a rabid child. This swung both Belegost and Wulgof about, hearts hammering at the sudden noise in the cloying stillness. Both men glanced at the other, swords at the ready to slay a cat. A cat. Berlas would die laughing. Belegost scowled at the thought, both men stepped back and collided with Molguv. The giant had come to a standstill on the corner, oblivious to them, staring ahead. Colour had leached from his face and it was a horrified mask. He thrust a fist into the crate on his shoulder and threw a handful of salt at whatever it was that had confronted him, panting hard in terror.
By the time the other two had gotten around the Haradian, two men were coughing in a cloud of salt.
”What was that for,” one protested. He had a black eye.
”It’s what you do when you see a ghost,” said the other, lisping through a swollen lip, ”Least, it is in Rhun. Guess it’s the same in Harad too.”
Wulgof felt as though he had been hit over the head. Of the three of them, Belegost was the first to recover. He scratched at his head, stowed his sword and then grinned at the two men seated on the ground against the wall, taking their ease.
”Hooo….do you have some questions to answer, scouts! That leg looks bad, Kid.”
“It’s nothing, ‘Gost. Not twisted….Rin’ll set it straight, though before or after she tans my hide I can’t say.”
Wulgof punched Molguv in the arm and then bent with Belegost to assist Loch up. Runner tagged along easily and Molguv trailed in their wake, another handful of salt at the ready in the event they really were ghosts.
Word reached camp before they did. Videgavia, Berlas and Khule strode out to meet them. Sure enough, Lochared and Runner were escorted back by a grinning Belegost, a baffled Wulgof and a dazed Molguv. Both looked worse for wear but very much alive. Videgavia waved them off in the direction of the two remaining medics.
”Where’s Rin?” Videgavia heard Loch ask as Bells and Sparks approached.
Videgavia rubbed at his jaw. ”Damn,” he muttered after a while and Berlas glanced at him and realised the man was thinking the same as him….of a woman, fair and pale, shattered by grief, bereft of everything, now forging her way in the belief that she was utterly alone, far to the west.
”She dreams…she sees…” Berlas offered and Videgavia wiped his hand over his face.
”Let us hope so,” he replied and started for where the medics were working. There was quite a crowd gathered already.
When at last he won through to where Runner and Loch were being tended, Loch had discovered some of the truth of what had happened. He was grim and had lost his cheer. His dark eyes were heavy.
”She thinks me dead,” he said as soon as he sighted Videgavia and the man nodded.
”She looked for you, Loch. Searched for days and nights, refused to leave the ruins, refused to believe you had perished.”
“Where is she now?”
“West…she went west with Hanasian. Your information concerning Rocks panned out.”
“The letter,” Loch guessed and Vid nodded.
”Wulgof delivered it up to her after…after the funeral, as you asked.”
“And the outcome?”
“We have not heard…and I think we would have ‘ere we sailed had things gone ill.”
Loch nodded, features tightening in pain as Sparks worked on his leg. In this silence, on the other side, Runner piped up.
”There were three women guarding the witch. One of them was with us. Have you seen her?”
“Her and her sister both. They are in camp. The third perished that night. It was nigh on ten months ago, though. We wintered there, set out mid summer and it took us months to reach this shore. What have you been doing here all that time?”
Runner and Loch glanced at each other and Berlas interceded,
”Another time, perhaps. When they have recovered somewhat?”
“Of course,” Videgavia relented and with that he withdrew.
The rest of the afternoon saw any lingering Old Company men or women about stop by to see with their own eyes the first two Black Company men to have returned from the dead. By sunset, Loch found himself in the company of Wulgof once more. Khule had joined the Dunlending and both perched on the slender wooden frame of the cot Loch had been installed in while his leg was being tended. The frame creaked under their weight as they passed a flask to and fro. Pleased and relieved as he was to see their faces, he could not shake the weight that was on his shoulders. His sister grieved him. Even now, far away, she grieved him. He knew what this meant, the enormity of it. She had been his world and he hers. And all of it had been taken away from her. The last time something like that had happened she had withdrawn into herself and not spoken for three terribly long years.
”Where’s Molguv?” Wulgof asked across him to where Khule sat.
The Easterling rolled his shoulders, ”Recovering. He took quite a fright today.”
Khule passed the flask to Loch and Loch found he had no appetite for it.
”Sure is good to see you, Kid,” Wulgof said, clearing his throat with emotion that crowded it.
”Kid…you sang of him as brother, if I recall correctly. That was what you sang, wasn’t it?” Khule prodded.
Wulgof grimaced, recalling the words of the funeral dirge all too clearly. Recalling the forlorn sound of another’s voice as it rose and sank through the traditional song. He tipped a mouthful of the flask’s contents back, some local firewater they had found here, and after a moment spat it out into the darkness. Molguv materialised and Wulgof, surprised, stammered a rare apology.
”Didn’t see you there,” he finished.
The large Haradian did not so much as pause or flick a glance at him. His eyes were locked on the man on the cot. He strode up, towering over him, staring hard. A hand balled up and thudded into Loch’s stomach. His breath wheezed out of him in a hard hush and he doubled over, gasping like a grounded fish.
”She grieved you hard!” Molguv grated at him.
Loch nodded, vision teared, and gasped, ”I know! I didn’t mean for it!”
“Hard!” Molguv snarled and wrapped a giant hand around Loch’s shoulder to wrench him back.
Frozen in one place, Wulgof and Khule stared at each other. Molguv studied Loch’s face. Whatever he saw there seemed to be enough.
”You will make it right,” he rumbled.
”Yes! As soon as we get back. Going straight there! Wherever she is,” Loch emphatically stated and Molguv nodded, released his shoulder and held his hand out for the flask.
”Where is she?” Loch asked as the Haradian tipped his head back for a long swig.
”Oh we know. Made it our business to. We’ve our own score to settle with the thief,” Wulgof said and Khule muttered something about how unholy it was to rob a man twice.
”Excellent….we already have our next mission in mind then,” said Runner from the neighbouring cot, ”Only there’s just one thing. What do we do now?”
“Drink little scout….more,” Molguv demanded, thrusting the flask at Runner’s face.
When the flask was lowered, Runner frowned and Molguv’s teeth shone in the darkness as he smiled, ”Now…. questions?”
Try as he might, Runner could not remember a single one of his many questions.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Their fatigue was such that the contents of Molguv's flask was soon taking its toll on their consciousness.
The men were cleared out being prodded by Two Bells' blade, "They need rest, not drunkenness. Now out!"
"Aw Doc, we just want to watch them, especially the Kid…" Mulgov said as the Dirty Three wanted to stay.
"No. I cannot make exception for you even if you are Old Company. Dhorgat and a half-dozen young Easterlings want to come in and linger by Runner as well. Can't have it, at least not today. Come back in the morning."
With assistance from Sparks, the two medics pushed Wulgof out. Khule went of his own accord after looking down the scalpel that Bells held.
Molguv finally nodded, "Just let me do one thing Doc."
Bells paused but kept his eyes on the unpredictable Haradian. Molguv dribbled salt around the cots that Loch and Runner occupied, then departed with one last look before the tent flap fell back into place.
"Had to kick them out?" Loch mumbled, his eyes closed.
"Yes. You need your rest and you've both a de-briefing with the Captain in the morning."
"Hanasian? He tried to teach me to write, you know," Loch muttered still with his eyes closed, and failed to add that Hanasian was not the first to attempt it. Not the first, but infinitely more patient than his sister… and far less amusing to tease as well.
Bells grinned, "Aye, sounds like him. Thought the recording of events accurately was important. It has its place. Did you write anything down?"
Loch sighed at the question and attempted to sit up. Bells prevented him from doing so.
"I had no time, nothing to write with, nothing to write on. But I swear, it's all in my head. I just have to be able to get it out. Hanasian won't be happy when he gets my report and there is nothing on it."
"Hanasian won't be getting your report. Captain Videgavia will."
Loch sighed again and whispered as sleep lured him into her webs, "Mmmm… yeah… I forgot. He's Captain now…. where is Rose? I would like to see her…"
Once the snoring started coming from both patients, it was all that Bells needed to hear, and he left them to their rest. Once the medic had sought his own bedroll, Wulgof, Khule, and Dhorgat slipped in and sat on the ground in the tent to watch the pair sleep. Mulgov had begged off, saying he had something else to attend to. In any case, there would not have been enough room for them all had the large man decided to return with them. They watched the two men sleep, but it wasn't long before these three watchers were asleep themselves and sprawled all over the floor, snoring as Loch and Runner were.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The command post was one of the few properly solid buildings about that also boasted a roof that was mostly intact. It was high enough to see over most of the rubble, and within Videgavia and Berlas were in deep discussion. The two men summoned Barika to report.
"Lady Anvikela knows that her sister is close, but she does not know we have her," Barika said.
Vid glanced at Berlas before he asked, "And the other girl?"
"She too knows her sister is close, but I don't think she knows we have her. She was quite distressed when Dhorgat found her. If anything she now seems more afraid of us giving her up to whomever she was being taken to."
Berlas cut in and said, "You can assure her that will not happen on our watch."
Berlas then considered his Captain and asked, "Do we risk a reunion?"
Vid scratched his cheek, a sure sign he was thinking about things. Indeed, there was much to consider and most of it strange, beyond their ken.
"I wish to speak to Loch and Runner first. Barika, you continue to talk to the girl and try to determine what exactly she is afraid of. It's possible we need to be wary of the same people who wish to take her captive. Also, get as much as you can of her days since the incident in Shkar. It will help.”
Videgavia held his chin for a moment before he again addressed Barika,
"Tell her that she is welcome among us and that we know where her sister is. I want her to find some reason to hope in us. We will need Lady Anvikela to get back home when we're finished here. If we have her with us as well, given how hard we know it to be to cross that rift, it can't hurt. Two of the three sisters is the best we can hope for, since the third is confirmed dead and now rests in Shkar. Maybe, aware of the freedom that is now theirs, they both will want to come back with us. We can only hope. Besides, it appears they fear whatever they know they left behind here. We need them, and they're our only helpful local guides in this strange place. I think it's in our best interests to keep the girls close with us and out of the hands of whoever or whatever they both fear. Hopefully by having them with us, we can make that work for us.”
“What about Dhak and his shadows?” Berlas asked. Videgavia frowned and said,
“Dhak has been less than helpful since we returned, and I didn’t ever really trust him anyway. But I do need to speak to Dhak. I want to hear what he has to say about all this. Berlas, I want you to speak to the Lady Anvikela. Barika, you go talk to this other girl. When you are done, you both get some rest. Then be here early and brief me before I talk to Loch and Runner."
"Right Cap," Berlas and Barika both said, heads full of their task before their bedrolls would find them. Videgavia chased them with one last request.
”If either of you see Dhak, send him to me.” A quick salute said they heard him.
The next morning came and Berlas and Barika both briefed Videgavia on their talks with the two girls, and Barika returned to have breakfast with Rose. Their tales were consistent, but Barika was finding Rose a wealth of information. She suggested, and the Captain agreed, that it would be best for her to spend more time with her this morning.
Now it was time to gain reports from the two lost scouts. They both arrived well rested but on edge. Berlas would speak with Runner while Videgavia would speak with Loch. It was clear that the two Company scouts were nervous and unsettled. Berlas left the Captains room with Runner to find another room to talk. Being separated made them both even more uneasy. For Loch, the questions Videgavia asked seemed to fuel the younger man's unease. From Loch's perspective, Videgavia was a far cry from the now easy, approachable captain that Hanasian had been. Yet, in other ways, the two Captains were the same.
Loch swallowed when Vid asked, "Do you have your summary for the Company annals?"
Loch glanced to one side and resisted to urge to tug at his beard. Still, his tone was one of apology, "I haven't written it down yet."
Videgavia waved it off, "Berlas and Belegost are the writers in this company, so I'm sure one of them will get what he needs from you when he speaks to you. Hanasian always thought it important to keep these records and I agree with him.
"Now, about your time away, there are a couple things I need to follow up on. Tell me all that you know from the time you were watching the temple in Shkar."
Loch swallowed, because this was the part that he really struggled with. He spoke of how he came to be in the house and how the girl he called now Rose had discovered him there. He told Vid how he was locked in the closet and not given up as an intruder, and the events after the Witch returned to her room. He paused, gathered his thoughts and continued on to the point that the three sisters returned to the room with the Wizard. It had been at moment he had perceived the need to act or risk discovery and failure. He paused a second time, as if in pain.
Loch finally said, "The knife stroke across her throat, it was quick and sure. Nobody had time to react, at east very much. Not the Witch, not the High Mage, or even the three girls. Still, each did something in that moment, and nothing any of the other expected."
Videgavia was furiously scratching this down, racing his speed with the recall of the scout. A third pause provided him with time to catch up.
A few moments passed before Vid said, "Go on Loch. What do you know when you moved on the witch?"
Loch swallowed and rubbed at his forehead, "This is where it all get a bit … distorted? I mean I know in my head what I know, but when I try and tell it, I become confused."
"Just relax and speak." Vid prompted.
Loch nodded, seeming reassured by his captain's demeanour.
"I felt her blood on my hand. It burned. Then air around me started to burn! I tried to move away from her, but I was thrown back by her final scream as if I had been picked up and tossed aside. I soon lost all grip on that room. I did see the girls and the Wizard as I fell back. Rose, the girl who found me in the ruins here, moved toward me.
One of the other girls threw herself against the wave of terrible power that came from the Witch. The other girl threw herself against the Wizard. He had seen me and was pointing. That is all I recall. I know or remember nothing until I awoke in the ruins near here. I have these wounds which I cannot explain, with Rose in the ruins with me."
It was a strange tale at the least and Videgavia reviewed it carefully with Loch to ensure he had the key details correct. Loch rounded it out by summarising the past week spent recuperating.
Puzzled, Vid asked, "You say that you are only aware of a few days, perhaps a week or so at most having passed since this incident in the house in Skhar. We talked to the girl you call Rose and she tells us-"
"Rose? You talked to her? Is she safe?" Loch pressed, his focus returning again.
Vid pressed on, "Aye Loch, she is well. We'll talk more about her later. I need you to listen now. She tells us that a few months passed from the time of the incident to now. She spoke of spending much of that time with you. You don't remember some festival dinner and dance with her? She does. She was very descriptive and, aside from the formal attire she said you wore, it fit you like a glove."
"No sir. I remember nothing except what I have told you," Loch said, lost in thought as he tried to remember anything further.
Loch was not a good liar. He was the most honest thief Videgavia had ever encountered, unlike his sister. At that moment, the man's brow was crumpled as he racked his shattered memories.
"I believe you Loch," Videgavia assured the scout, "The Company have spent well over a half a year since that day. Rose says it's been months and you say its been days. I have no reason to doubt any of you, but it is obvious that at the moment that you killed the witch, something happened that is beyond our understanding. Mecarnil's theory of other influences…perhaps that. I do not know.
"Whatever it was, it has affected you, Runner and this Rose most of all; presumably because you were so closest to the witch and wizard. It has affected others to a lesser degree. Lady Anvikela, was found in the rubble of the temple. So too was her sister, though she soon died of her injuries. Your assistance in understanding this is greatly appreciated."
Loch straightened in his chair, "I understand, sir."
Videgavia stood at that point, his mind already onto what would come next. Restless, because it would not be easy, he paced about and slapped a hand on Loch's shoulder before he continued.
"You have been away from us for a while and you've been sorely missed. Sadly, we have no way of getting word to your sister that you are indeed alive. It will be quite some time before we ever head west to our lands again, so all I can say is that I am sorry for that.
"All we found of yours in the ruins was a boot, a burned shirt sleeve, and the hilt of one of your daggers. Since you are still walking around with only one boot, you will be fitted with new gear. As soon as we get back to the western lands, you will be granted leave to go see your sister."
Loch blinked, eyes gleaming with the difficulty of it all. The urge to find her, tell her, was so strong that it made his joints ache. Still, he swallowed the lump in his throat and said, "Thank you sir."
Vid peered into the man's face, "Until then, I need you. I only have a hand full of the Old Crew left. The new recruits of Gondor and Rhun are quite capable and are dedicated as any, but you're old crew, and I need you to stay on top of it all.
"I'm depending on you, the man who made the split field decision to go in like you did. There is a fine line between boldness and recklessness and you have the skill to walk it. You be him. You did well, Loch."
Vid stood and returned to his chair. Loch was silent for a long while as he struggled with his composure. Over six months. It had been bad enough when he realised that Rin thought him dead for a week. Six months!
When Loch had marshalled his thoughts he asked, "Would it be possible to see Rose? She was greatly distressed when I last saw her."
Vid scratched his chin, "In due time, son. Before this day is done. Right now she is telling Barika all about these events."
Loch stood, "Barika? Who is Barika?"
"Much has happened in this company while you have been away. She is a member of this Company who has shown some rather remarkable skills, rather like your sister before her. She has been invaluable in working with Anvikela and now Rose seems to have taken a liking to her. You will meet Barika later today I believe, likely at evening meal. For now, you are dismissed Lochared. It’s the noon hour, and you still need rest. I suggest you get it before this evening."
Videgavia was pleased to see the old company salute from Loch as the scout departed and he returned it in kind. So few of them in the Company knew it. So few. Another Old Company man returned. A boon unlooked for from an operational perspective.
Loch stumbled over Runner on his way to where he thought his tent was. He too was ordered to get some rest. So much was confusing and bewildering. The two men were glad to see each other, a marked change from their last reunion.
Runner said, "That Berlas is a good inquisitor. He asked me more questions and wrote down more than my answer each time. But he said I did well and was glad to have me back. How did you fare?"
Loch looked about the men about them who were now Company. He didn't know any that he saw except for a few vague but familiar faces.
After a few steps he replied, "It went well. Cap took my verbal report and said I did well."
They walked to a tent that had their names hanging on it and found Runner's squad had already camped around them. It gave both scouts a warm sense of place and belonging in a much-changed Company. The rigours of reporting ensured they were soon wrapping themselves back in their bedrolls, spare rolls from the Company's supplies. Donius and Daius, Loch supposed. Rin had always said those two men were marvels and now he could really appreciate why she was so fond of the two men.
"I need rest, for I will meet… Rose… in the morning…" he muttered to himself, for Runner was already asleep. Loch drifted off into dream in moments. Sparks and Bells kept a close eye on the two and made sure nobody bothered them. The two slept through the afternoon, and only woke for their evening meal. Still drowsy, and after a check by Bells and Sparks, they again went back to their tents and fell into deep sleep. The two docs shared their notes, and decided that both should be cleared for duty tomorrow.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Barika had spent the rest of the day with Rose and found that Rose had quite a lot to say. She even filled in some of the gaps that Anvikela had refused to speak of about that day in Skhar. She remained steadfast in her account of the days and weeks that had followed. Rose told of a festival of lights that she had attended with Loch and how he had been forced to suddenly leave, as if someone had called him away. It was when he left that they woke up in the rubble. Barika suspected it was a dream that coincided with the time Loch was unconscious, but she couldn't be sure and knew she would not be the judge of the matter in any case. But Barika did decide that she would do something that she suspected Videgavia would likely not approve of, unwittingly following in the footsteps of the Company's first female member. She planned it for that night.
After reporting the Captain, she returned to find Rose sleeping.
"You wish to see Loch?" Barika askedwith a whisper.
"I would, very much, yes!" Rose answered.
"Put this cloak on. I will take you to him, but it will be in secret. We will have to return here shortly before this is discovered."
Rose nodded, pulled the cloak around her, hid her head in its hood. Barika peeked out the door of the tent, then tapped Rose. She looked once morebefore stepping out, and employed her stealth to move them quietly between the tents. Attempting this at night was foolish, it was crazy. Loch's tent was not far away and the two were quickly inside Loch’s tent unseen.
Barika whispered to Rose, "You have only a few moments. Let him know you are alive and well, and see that he is too."
With that Barika withdrew to watch by the tent door, confident that there was no harm in this and that it would only further install Barika in Rose's trust. She was already forming her rationale should they be discovered while Rose knelt on the ground next to Loch. She ran her fingers through his hair and took his hand but he did not stir. Rose became strangely still, a detail that Barika did not notice given her attention was on movement outside of the tent.
Loch reached for his sister in his sleep but clouds and fog assailed him, wrapped him, formed as certain a wall as stone might. It was sudden, but soft, as dreams can be, when Loch found himself side by side with Rose. They walked through a wide field of grass under a clear sky.
Rose whispered into his ear, "You wish to find you sister. I can help you. Come with me."
Loch was puzzled but took her hand. No sooner did he do that did it seem as though the field dropped away. It was dizzying, yet Rose held his hand fast. Then it started to speed past below their feet, blurring until the grass looked like the waters of a mountain rapid. Speeding, leaping, dancing waters of the spring melt, at home long ago, when he had delighted in playing by the stream and hunting frogs. For a long time it was like this until they came to a place that looked hauntingly familiar and not at precisely the same time to Loch.
"We're out west, by the elf port!" Loch said as he looked about. The tall white towers they had passed on their way to Mithlond were within sight.
Rose said nothing and suddenly he was standing and the ground was where it belonged, beneath his feet. In the tent, sweat beaded Rose's brow despite the chill of the day. She could sense Loch's search for his sister. She sensed him start, a sudden surge of excited relief. A shape, a woman…walking with a child in the distance. It was her. Had to be. He knew his sister better than he knew the back of his own hand. Still, he could not get any closer. He held tighter to Rose's hand and tugged her forward.
Oh how it burned! Rose had reached far and brought Loch along with her all that way. But now, she felt the push that was needed to find the other woman's dream. She was strong. So strong and guarded. It was so hard! Anvikela twisted and turned in her tent on the cot. She reached for her sister. Where was she? Was she the only one left? Surely…surely it could not be, else how could she have managed to get this Company of foreigners across the Rift.
Loch had a hold of Rose's hand and he strained towards the distant figure of a woman and child. Rose turned and saw her sister approach. Anvikela was frowning.
"You reach for the boy's sister, yet you reach not for me?"
"Please do not oppose me sister. Let me do this! My debt to this man is more than I can say!" Rose replied even as she tried to push Loch toward his sister.
Anvikela came to stand before them in the dreamscape, "You endanger us by doing this! They will know we are here!"
Rose pushed Loch hard to the side and into the dreams of the west proper before all her work could be undone. She said to her sister, "They already know we are here! It was this man's friends who saved me from being taken back! They know you are here too with the breaking of the rift, but you have shrouded yourself well enough to keep them finding you after you have returned."
Anvikela turned and fretted, then considered Loch now adrift in dreams not his own.
She said with an accusatory note, "This man is the one who brought all this to pass!"
"All the more reason to help him and his friends. They will protect us the best they can and that is something we both need... unless my sister, you wish to return to the Order's control."
Rose drew herself up with that and Anvikela turned away and stood in quiet thought. Loch was even now returning, looking for Rose, floundering. And, if Anvikela's senses bore true, the woman Rose attempted to lead him to had been the woman who had cared for her when she was first uncovered. Anvikela remembered her well. She had swept in to the midst of those frightening men, made the pain recede and shown remarkable, unexpected compassion. How she had barked at those other men too. So ferocious, in a way that would never be tolerated within the Order. And they had heeded her commands. As fearsome with them as she had been gentle with her. Rose reached for her sister and embraced her.
"Help me with this. He only wants to see and talk to his sister. She is the high born that they sought. She will be able to see and hear us. Let us take him to her!"
Lady Anvikela began to weep. She knew her younger sister was right just as she knew their elder sister would oppose them both. But she was dead and it had been this woman who had shown dignity and compassion even to her despite the fact she was beyond caring. With a nod, tears shining on her cheeks, Anvikela took up Rose's hand and Loch found himself suddenly surrounded their embrace.
Dreams are sometimes gentle, sometimes wild and usually beyond recall or comprehension upon awaking. It was a cold autumn night that such a dream came to Rosmarin. Hanasian was adrift in dream worlds of his own beside her when Rin saw Loch in the distance. The ache of that recognition that shocked through her was bone deep. That, and the fact that there appeared to be a woman on either of his arms, made her hesitate. The wind made the tall grasses dance around them. She remained still, still as the stones that stood around them. Barrow stones, stones that guarded the dead and not nearly well enough to keep the wights out. As soon as Loch saw her the women released him and he approached her. She did not know when such dreams would cease to be a torment. Not yet, it seemed. The shape of his jaw, the lopsided smile and the dark eyes that now leapt with such earnest relief at her.
"My sister! How I have missed you! I am sorry I did not return to you, but please rest assured that I live. I am far away in another land, but swear to return to see you. I owe a huge report to Hanasian. Rest easy Rosmarin! My friends have made this possible that I speak to you in dream, at least I think that is what they do, at great peril to themselves and others. I had to see you. Please remember this dream, Rin. Please! My beloved sister!"
Even the sound of his voice was just as she had remembered. She remained frozen. The urge to reach for him pounded through her. It seemed so real! Excruciating! The two women drew closer to him and took his arms again. Painful as it was to see him, the idea that he would go so soon was worse. She stepped towards him and distantly heard the sound of a child wailing. Hanavia was gone. He had been beside her but now he was gone. When Rin looked up, she found everything else was fading. Everything but the sound of a baby's cries. Rin woke with a shuddering start. It felt like she had surfaced from somewhere deep below the ocean that lay beyond their balcony.
Rin found Hanasian already out of bed, their son in his arms. Hanavia was quiet now but his sniffles said much.
"He woke suddenly but you were so deeply asleep, my love. I think he's well, but I suspect he is hungry."
Rin reached for Hanavia to comfort and fed him. The comfort given and comfort received for he was warm and real against her. It was a salve for the confrontation of her dream. In so many ways, her son was a salve for what had been lost. Of the two of them, he was certainly the greater healer.
Rin whispered to her son loud enough for Hanasian to hear from his chair in the corner of the room, "Hanavia Lochnard. I have seen your uncle and namesake this night! It was only a dream, and yet for all of that it seemed he was really here. With us. My mind may have come to terms, but my heart still speaks otherwise. How happy he would be to meet you, little one."
Hanasian rose from his chair at that and settled in at her back to rub shoulders he found knotted, "I too dreamt of Loch. Rapid images of him from the time he and you joined us," Hanasian paused, for those had been a memorable set of days in so many ways, "Much had happened, he said, and he wanted to take me east and tell me something at the end. Said he had a report to deliver. Hanavia woke me, so the dream ended. And yet, like yours, it seemed so real."
Rin drew a deep breath and let out a sigh, "I should not get any hope up that I will see him any time soon. That way lies madness. I know it. Yet, despite that, I confess I feel easier for the dream's lie that he lives still. What is worse, do you think? Madness or grief?"
"Hold it close and take what comfort you might from it," Hanasian answered, "I too felt in my dream that he lived though I cannot say why. Perhaps he does, somewhere far away from us. There were so many unanswered questions in Skhar. I confess that I have harboured a deep hope that somehow he was alive despite the apparent reality and need to record him as missing and assumed dead.
"Be open to the east my Love, for there may be powers in motion here that we know little, and it may be so that Loch has found his way into them. He may come to you again."
Rose and Loch ran fast through the grass. Anvikela followed not far behind. The dream was closing and they hurried back to their sleeping bodies.
In her tent, Anvikela started awake. She was sweaty and reached for the pot of water. She drank sloppily from it, spilling a fair amount as she drained it. She gasped and looked about, disorientation fading once she realised she was in her quarters. She lay back and closed her eyes. Her lot had been cast, and she concentrated on shielding herself and her sister from unfriendly eyes. Already they searched. Even if they knew the area to look, they did not yet have their whereabouts.
Rose jumped awake and released Loch's hand just as Barika stepped towards her, "Come Lady Rose, we must return!"
Rose stood and leaned over and kissed Loch on the cheek. She then turned and disappeared with Barika's aid for she was unsteady on her feet. They made it back to their tent unnoticed, for now.
Loch's dreams wandered strange and long paths, winding and twisting through the Black Company. He jumped awake when heard Videgavia yell, "Report Standardbearer!"
Loch's jumping and flailing awoke the men on the floor. Morning light had just begun to paint the sky a deep blue and chase off the stars. Videgavia straightened and eyed the men sprawled on the floor.
"You'd best get out of here before Doc returns," Videgavia suggested.
Each gave Loch and Runner a pat before they slipped out. Bells watched this procession from a nearby tent, a smile on his face and Sparks snoring hard on his cot behind him. Having friends spend the night was the best therapy they could get but what made Bells smile was the discovery that Sparks had a much more human side to him than previously thought. The men trooping out now had arrived during Sparks' watch in the night. The sound of the morning was now in full swing and the camp began to awake.
”Patrol, scout. I need your eyes and ears out there this morning. Some sort of organised force is moving during the night. Look in on Rose on your way past. I suspect she knows something of who they might be,” Videgavia said as Loch rolled untidily off the other side of the cot.
The captain eyed the man. He was brighter now, more alert, and was clearly chewing something over. Loch was the sort of man who could not conceal his thoughts. If he thought it, felt it, they all knew about it. Whatever it was, however, he remained tight lipped. Tight lipped and poorly equipped.
”Replace your gear before you go,” Vid added as Loch raked his hair out of his eyes.
At that moment he looked about as well dressed as he had been when their paths first crossed. All that was missing this time was the mud. No, Vid amended, slightly better. He had one boot this time. The captain turned and pushed out of the tent, Loch on his heels.
“Rose’s tent is that way, and supply is behind the command post,” Videgavia furnished and with that Loch was loping away.
There was so much that did not make sense. The discrepancy in recall. The gap in time. How was it that Loch had not starved if he was unconscious all that time? Mecarnil had his theories about the Valar back in Skhar. Videgavia turned these about. Valar involvement did not in the least come as a comfort to him. However this was not the most pressing knot of questions. What concerned him most was Dhak. The man had vanished the very night that Rose, as Loch called her, had been found. The first night they’d made any contact with an organised group that could pose some form of local resistance. Videgavia did not believe in coincidence. Not. At. All.
Loch being who he was, the first thing he did was fill his stomach. He didn’t realise just how hungry he was until he ate. His sister dominated his thoughts as he ate. Who had been that child by her side? Only young, dark hair like Hanasian and clear eyes like Rin, greyer than her own. The child had peered curiously up at him until he had faded away. Could it be hers? But…Vid said six months…Wulgof slid in across the table and snagged an apple.
”You coming with us, then?”
“Soon as I get some gear.”
“Good…we could use you out there,” Wulgof replied, or at least that is what Loch thought he said around a mouth full of apple.
“How long has it been?” Loch asked after a moment and Wulgof stopped chewing for an instant.
”Didn’t Vid tell you?” he asked cagily.
Loch knew that tone. Wulgof was being careful and he knew why. It was one of the rules of the Old Company. If the Captain thought you needed to know, you knew. Simple as that.
”I saw Rin last night. Spoke to her. Rose helped me…and another woman I do not know.”
Had it been anyone else, Wulgof would have denounced that statement as proof he was insane. However, Rin’s dreams were known to everyone in the Old Company. And this Avienkala had powers no one understood. Presumably so did her sister. It was all too complicated for him to make sense of. In any case, such eldritch things like this always led to trouble in his experience, and this was no exception. None of them would be here, having this conversation, if it hadn’t have been for inexplicable forces best left alone.
”When I saw her, there was a little boy with her. He held her hand. He…he looked like he was her son.”
Loch’s words intruded on Wulgof’s thoughts and turned them in another direction. Rin as anyone’s mother was utterly ludicrous. Maybe Loch wasn’t mad. Perhaps it had been a knock to his head. That could addle a man’s wits.
”The boy was at least two years old!”
“It hasn’t been two years,” Wulgof blurted out and then scowled because Loch always managed to pluck things from him he had not intended to give. He crossed his arms over his chest.
”Vid told me it had been over six months,” Loch said.
“It has been,” Wulgof answered, Loch heaved a frustrated sigh and stared at the crumbs on the table.
”It was autumn when that temple collapsed in Skhar…since then, we’ve had winter, spring, summer and we’re back to autumn.”
“A year,” Loch said, faintly shocked and Wulgof nodded.
”So it could be her son…only he would be a babe in arms still.”
“Aye,” Wulgof said, though it still felt odd to imagine either Rin or Hanasian as parents. Hanasian would always be their Captain to him and Rin was…well…Trouble, of the enjoyable kind. Certainly not mild enough to be anyone’s mother unless it was a bear cub. Perhaps one of those large hunting cats Molguv said lived in jungles of the far south.
While Wulgof tried to reconcile conflicting images, Loch reviewed the strange events of the night. The more he thought on it, the less likely it seemed to have really occurred. She had been so guarded and wary with him in a way she never, ever was.
”Come on then. Time to get you equipped. We haven’t got all day,” Wulgof bustled and Loch let himself be towed to his feet.
”I need to see Rose on my way out,” he muttered.
”What, your dreams not enough for you, eh Kid?” Wulgof jibed, elbowing him in a bid to lighten his mood.
”I just need to see that she’s well. Runner and I owe her a great deal...”
Wulgof ensured he went directly to the supply tent. There were more than few people eager to waylay the scout. After that he almost looked like himself. Next stop was Rose’s tent. Barika was standing outside and her expression was almost as suspicious as Wulgof’s.
”She in?” Loch asked and Barika nodded tersely. Loch ducked into the tent and left Wulgof outside with this woman.
Dunland and Rohan. The two studied each other covertly.
”What are you looking at?” Barika demanded.
Wulgof wondered if he should mention now that he knew what she had done last night or not. Maybe later…best to keep such chips up your sleeve with women like this. He sucked his teeth and redirected his attention to the camp around them. Barika did the same. No need to be on edge, after all. No one had seen. No harm had been caused. Why was that man smirking? No, none of her business. The less she had to do with the Dirty Three, the better.
”I am pleased you are well,” Loch said even though she looked tired.
”I hope to see my sister today,” Rose said, brightening at that.
”Rose…was…was last night…real?”
“What do you think, Loch?” she asked and Loch shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His head brushed the ceiling of the tent and he was freshly equipped. A solider again. A foreign solider with weapons and duties she was not sure she understood. She could only hope she had placed her trust wisely. And yet, if she looked past his gear to his face, she sensed she had. If only Avienkala could see that as well.
”Come on, Kid! Morning’s wasting! We’ve no time for rendezvous,” said one of the other men from outside the tent.
Loch ducked his head at her and offered her a smile, ”I think I should thank you, Rose. Whatever you did, it was a kindness. Yet another kindness. Thank you. If you need anything, you let me know. I’m not far away and these men…these men you can trust. I swear it.”
And with that he was gone. Barika ducked inside a moment later.
”Are you ready, Lady Rose?” Barika asked and Rose nodded, weary though she was because Avienkala needed her, now more than ever.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There was so much that did not make sense. More than usual, when it came to dreams like this. It had sat uneasily with her all through the day. As a result, she was distracted. She poured tea into the sugar bowl, mistaking it for a cup. She attempted to butter an egg, because it was next to the toast. She nearly missed the chair when she sat down in the kitchen for breakfast.
”Somebody move that knife, quickly,” Stillwater hissed and Slippery obligingly slid the knife away. Rin’s fingers brushed over the table near where it had been, eyes distant and expression inscrutable. Stillwater breathed a sigh of relief.
”That was close,” he whispered and Slippery applied her elbow to his ribs.
“Hmmm?” Rin answered, discovered there were people sitting across the table for the first time and realised that there was a frown on her face for a reason she could not quite place, ”What was that?”
“Leave her be,” Farbarad rumbled from down the end. He knew the look. Knew it well. Her mother had worn it in her own time, ”She’ll decide when she wants to say something on it, if at all. Isn’t that right, lassie?”
Rin was frowning at her plate but she nodded distractedly, ”Did someone call me prin-“
“Say, Rowdy, are you going to check the hives today. It’ll probably be the last chance before winter closes in,” Slippery cut in a little too brightly and darted a nervous glance at Rin.
The woman Slippery knew would pursue a point to the ends of the earth and beyond. However, Rin was back gazing into the distance again, fork balanced in her hand and forgotten. Hanasian grinned and snagged the piece of sausage that was on the tines.
”Going to help him, Slip? Try your hand at it a second time? I do wonder why you’re so eager to get and into the maw of those little yellow and black demons,” he said, well aware that Slippery was doing what anyone might do should Rin discover them using one of her titles – she was fleeing.
“Isn’t that what they say you should do? You know, fall off a horse…get back on again. Besides, I’ll be prepared this time. I’ll wear a veil,” Slippery replied, not at all prepared to own up that she was running away for good measure.
“What, and obscure your lovely features?” Stillwater teased.
Slippery balled her fist and sank it into his biceps, ”Aw, you noticed! After all these years! So sweet of you.”
She pushed her chair back and the legs scraped over the flagstones of the kitchen floor. That was the signal for everyone else to stand. Everyone did, except Rin, and headed off on their respective duties. Hanasian busied himself in the kitchen. He liked the routine of it. As he clattered about, tidying things away, Rin remained where she was. He wondered if she would notice if he removed the plate before her. Not so much as a flicker. He plucked the fork from her hand and she didn’t notice that either.
”Is something wrong my love?” he asked and of course she did not answer. He ran his hand across the line of her shoulders as he passed and she drew in a breath and blinked.
”Oh, they’ve gone,” she said softly.
”Aye, as has half the morning. Still thinking on last night?”
Rin shook her head slightly, ”No…that is done now.”
That was no lie. She’d figured it out. It wasn’t one of those dreams at all. Never before had her dreams spilled over to affect others and Hanasian had been clear that he had dreamt of Loch as well. The first anniversary of Loch’s death loomed. It was not far off now. She knew from the ache deep within at the thought of him that she grieved him still. It was from there that the dream had sprung. From grief. Nothing else. It was sheer chance that Hanasian had dreamt of him as well. Perhaps for the same reason she had. Hanasian intently studied her expression in a way only he could. She mustered a small smile for him to prevent him from worrying and he leaned in to kiss her brow.
”Well and good, dear heart,” he answered and watched her push back from the table.
He wasn’t fooled in the least, but right at the moment he needed set down all he could recall for Loch had spoken of much indeed. And, he’d need to keep a close eye on Rin. She might further sense something of the Company’s fortunes in that far land. He did not envy Videgavia his task, and if Rin just might prove a conduit through which counsel could be passed...
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
”Who is this third one!”
“I. Do. Not. Know!” Dhak’s voice bounced off the walls and the woman flinched as she glanced upwards, ”Two of the sisters were located, only one of which survived. The other, apparently is here. You are better qualified than I as to how that can be since all three of them set out with us! As for this third? I do not know! I do not know! Another sister, a fourth? Perhaps you were not thorough enough. Or a new comer, an ally. Surely they have them, for I can think of no other explanation for the youngest being suddenly here. Where is the other Wizard?”
He had been asking that for over a day now. The old woman made a warding gesture by habit.
”Not here! I know not where!” she whispered.
”So there is only you…as I thought,” Dhak wearily said.
Since that night he had been desperately trying to ascertain the strength of the survivors here. Had they been at full strength, their fortunes would be vastly different. All in all, it was far better than Dhak had hoped it might be. Provided that trust could be restored, much could be done now that the Order was no more. Restoring trust would be no small task…and then there was the missing Wizard. If the missing Wizard returned, all was endangered. They needed to find that Wizard. He needed to get back to the Company. How long had it been? Over a day? Heading into two? He pushed to his feet, swayed slightly.
”You should rest, Commander. Have you sought your family?”
Dhak's reply was gruff, ”I know where they are.”
He gestured in one of the worst hit areas, where so many of the Order had made their homes. It was, to a building, flattened. Shoulders slumped and head bowed, Dhak departed, his dusty boots crunching over the debris still scattered on the floor of the main sanctum. No sooner had he vanished did one of the younger sisters materialise. The older woman was not surprised. Old habits died hard. Like as not many of them had listened and it was so much easier now to overhear given the holes and cracks in their inner walls.
”What now, Mother?” she asked and the old woman sighed.
”We see what the night’s patrols have found us.”
“Not the sisters, Mother.”
“No, and that is the way it will remain for now. But they do not only look for sisters, or have you already devoured what food they found?” the old woman replied for such were the practicalities of life.
”Were we mistaken then? Are they not here?”
“Wherever they are is none of your concern! Such matters rest with your superiors.”
“Commander Dhak. I do not trust him.”
“How fortunate, then, that you are not one of our superiors, girl,” the woman snapped and that was that as far as discussion went.
Mother’s mind was not idle though. They needed those two sisters sorely and Dhak would be the key to them, she knew, if she could trust him. His counsel had been that it would be wiser to not have their small patrol find them, to cease searching for them entirely. It was a risk for they could slip through her fingers again. And yet, Dhak had warned that if they continued on this path and cornered the two girls they would face a far greater battle than winning their trust. This Company he spoke of was a dangerous force. One that could be useful when it came to rooting out that Wizard. A great deal, then, pivoted on the trustworthiness of Commander Dhak…a grieving man and a former officer of the Order turned rebel. Sworn now to a foreign ruler. And, what of this third woman? Certainly not one of them. Not a sister. The old blood ran so strongly through her. It had been but a glimpse but she could recall it still. How many of such women were there in this distant land? Dhak had been adamant that the woman he had knelt to was of unsurpassed royal descent and now this woman last night. One and the same?
His family…forever silenced. Their laughter and voices. His wife and sons. Gone. Dhak had struggled not to think of them, to push it from his thoughts for it would bury him and already things were strained. This Company did not trust him. Nor did Avienkala, though he could well understand why that was. He had feared that the reprisals of the Order would find them when he could not protect them. He had feared they would pay the price for his actions. They had, he sensed, though not in the way he had expected. Dhak’s eyes closed as he rounded the corner, despair lapped at his thoughts. There was a city to rebuild, a future undreamt of for those who had survived this, if he could somehow…
”HOLD!” boomed a voice in Westron and he rocked on his heels as his aching body struggled to comply. Dhak did not bother to open his eyes.
”Well now…Commander…I hope you’re in a mood to talk,” the man continued and Dhak could hear the scrape of weapons and boots.
He opened his eyes and was not surprised by the men he saw. Clearly the scout was on his feet and back on duty again. He had an arrow nocked and bow string taut against his cheek. The older Dunlending had a sword drawn, point partially raised and it was him that was doing the speaking. His habitually suspicious expression was in place. Dhak shrugged his shoulders.
”I’ll do my best,” he answered flatly.
The two men marched him smartly back to camp and directly to the command post. People paused as they passed through to stare. No one delayed them. Straight into the building, straight through the doors until Dhak found himself in a room with others. Videgavia and Berlas were there, along with three women. Two of the three, the sisters, stiffened in alarm.
”Found him wandering the streets,” Wulgof growled as the two officers studied him. Loch, meanwhile, had edged protectively towards the youngest of the sisters.
”With his eyes closed,” Loch added.
”You look weary, Commander. Perhaps you should sit,” Berlas suggested.
Sit. Stand? Did it matter any more? Dhak was not sure that it did. Still, a hand in the middle of his chest ensured he sat in the chair Wulgof dragged behind him.
”I’ve had about enough of this,” Videgavia growled, ”I’m sick of talking. I want answers. I want them now. I mean to have them!”
“He cannot be trusted!” Avienkala blurted, an accusatory finger jabbed at Dhak.
”No, but they can be,” he replied with a nod towards the Company men.
”That’s true,” her sister said.
”That’s beside the point. I agree with Lady Avienkala. He’s been missing for nearly two days. Vanishes the very night we found Rose,” Berlas said.
Dhak snorted at that. Rose. Is that what they were calling her now. Apt, he supposed, for roses had thorns and were not to be trifled with.
”I will explain,” Dhak said, ”And you will do as you see fit. The Order has been destroyed. Their quarter is utterly decimated. Not a single man survives.”
“Except for you!” Avienkala hissed.
”Except for me…and you and your sister, though you are not men. Indeed, you are not Order. Your sisters, those within the protection of your walls, survived as did a small number of their retainers. They have been seeking others beyond the walls for it is not safe outside of them. Which is how they found you…Rose.
“The other Wizard, the one that remained here, has vanished. No one know where.”
“Who are these women?” Berlas asked.
”Dangerous!” Avienkala stated.
”Yes, just like you. Just like your sister. And yet if they meant harm do you think we would have been permitted to dock here? Would they have let us through the rift? Would you be permitted to remain here, beyond their walls? Do they look for you now?”
That last was a risky ploy, for he did not know if the old woman had heeded his counsel. The two women turned from the others and drew together. Ultimately, it was ‘Rose’ who spoke.
”It’s true. They have stopped…for now.”
Videgavia was rubbing at his temples trying to put this all together, ”What do they want?”
“Freedom. They hope to build a future of freedom. They will need help, for freedom is a strange concept and there is much to repair. If I might be so bold…”
“By all means, Commander Dhak, for it appears boldness is your strong suit,” Berlas replied dryly.
”Meet with them, open ground of your choosing. Hear it from their own mouths. If they ask for aid, I suggest tracking down that missing Wizard for he has the power to undo all of this.”
“Wulgof, Loch, escort the Commander to his quarters. He is fatigued. See that he rests,” Videgavia ordered and the two men nodded.
Once the three men had departed, the Captain turned to the two women.
”If you mean to go through with this meeting, do so with caution,” Avienkala urged.
”I mean to, my lady, if we proceed at all. Your assistance will be of great import.”
“You shall have it, Captain, from myself and my sister.”
Barika escorted the two women away until, at last, Videgavia and Berlas were left in the room.
”Hours into his first patrol and already producing results. It’s good to have Loch back with us,” Berlas observed and Videgavia nodded.
”And yet, a headache already, though it’s not of their making.”
“What do you make of Dhak’s suggestion?”
“It could be good. It could be a trap. What’s new?”
“So, we proceed then? Meet with these women?” Berlas asked
“Aye… Black Company style. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
“So a meeting then, later today, to plan.”
Berlas was on his way before Videgavia could change his mind. Meetings meant talking. He hated talking. The Captain located his table, a rickety thing salvaged from the ruins, and installed himself at it. He collected up a quill and stared at his last journal entry. Where to begin? He hated writing almost as much as he hated talking.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
For the brief pass of time, mere moments, it took for her to travel from kitchen to the living room Rin had really believed she had it all sorted out. It was done. She strode through the living room. A glance flicked towards the curtains prompted her to note the need to pull them back. The heavy fabric kept the night’s chill out, but the room needed the sun during the day. She’d do it on her way back again. In fact, Rin almost made it through to the other side of the room before a startling realisation stopped her in her tracks. The curtains! Curtains! She swung about to stare at them. Why had she not seen it before? She closed on the window and rubbed her fingers over the fabric. It was thick, plush, soft…and she was a fool! A fool! She glanced around the rest of the room. Yes…it was this. This was it…only…that chair was little closer to the hearth…and the carpet on the flagstones was at a different angle….She recalled that dream from her time in Thranduril’s care as clearly now as it had been then. That had been a Dream! A Dream! Which meant that she was all wrong about last night.
Hanasian heard the sound of furniture being moved. Frowning, he set off to explore and found his wife determinedly shoving items about in the living room. He leant against the doorway as she wrestled with a table, a familiar furrow on her brow. Her eyes were grey, calculating and weighing things up. She forced the table where she wanted it, planted her fists on her hips and scanned the other items in the room. The chair, he observed, was her next victim. It wasn’t a small chair. It was a large, well stuffed, creature. Not easy for anyone to move on their own. Not him. Certainly not her. And yet, care was needed. He cleared his throat and she ignored him, shoulder planted against the arm of the chair. He had to admit she was a good deal stronger than her delicate features suggested and she had the most tenacious, bloody minded nature he had ever encountered. That chair would move, or she’d reduce it to fire wood. He was very fond of that chair.
”Would you like some assistance,” he asked, unwise though the question was.
”No,” came her reply, predictably gruff and notes of irritation. The chair was in grave peril.
”Might I ask why you’re arguing with the living room furniture?” he continued, trying his best to take a diplomatic approach. He really liked that chair. Rin straightened and wheeled about to face him. Her face was flushed and her jaw tightly clenched.
”What?” she asked in a perilously quiet voice, a brow lifted in a challenge.
Hanasian considered his options and found himself committed to his risky path in such a way he could not now surrender it. The urge to groan was strong and it took some effort to stifle it.
Instead, he said, ”I can only presume there’s a reason for moving this furniture about. You always have them, dear heart. You are the most reason-able person I know.”
He had attempted that last to inject some levity into the brooding storm. It fell flat on its face.
”Oh…I see how it is. If I want to move things about, I need to have a reason and inform you of it before I am granted permission. And here I was thinking this was my home as much it is yours. Well, I stand corrected and thank you very much for pointing out the error of my thinking! I shall-“
Rin had not finished by a long shot when he turned about and walked away, but he had stopped listening. He shook his head as he walked away, rueful smile on his face. He should have known better…that had been the equivalent of daubing himself in pig fat and prancing naked through a den of wolves whilst hoping none of them might take a swipe at him. Perhaps five heartbeats passed before he heard her return to re-organising the living room with her secret reasons and not the slightest intention of stopping despite what she had just hurled at him. What had he been thinking?
Rin permitted herself a brief grin at her success. It would be perhaps two hours before Hanasian ventured back her way again and in that time she would have things just as they needed to be for when Loch came. He would. She knew it. Somewhere in the corner of her mind a wail that she was mad sounded. She ignored that with well practiced ease. A person wasn’t insane until other people said so. Provided she kept her reasons to herself, she was safe. Now…that couch would be the next challenge.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was close to midday by the time he finally made it through. The journey from Minas Tirith to, what was it called now? Cardolan? The journey had been no more or less difficult than usual. The season didn’t help, certainly, but there was naught to be done about that. The High King had been clear and so he had pushed ahead. He knew that he would need to show his credentials on this side of the journey. She was of high royal rank, a senior member of the High Court. He would not be permitted in to see Prince Faramir or Imrahil without credentials and Princess Erían would be no different. Should be no different. Aside from the King’s children, she stood in line to inherit the Reunited Realms. He knew there had been trouble, foul conspiracies, but he also knew that this was all done now.
So, the King’s Rider was surprised by the level of security he encountered right at the last. He had informed Cardolan’s Prefect of his presence weeks ago and he knew the man was aware of his destination and movement through the land. What had appeared to be fields in preparation for winter’s blanket had turned out to be a thick security cordon. The workers were each of them accomplished operatives and he had faced a rather difficult task of assuring them of his identity and purpose. Still, his credentials were good and ultimately the men that had been tracking him proved useful for they could vouch for him given they were in the service of the Prefect.
After that, he had been permitted to continue on down a path that became little more than a trail through the forest. A casual observer would find it hard to believe that Cardolan’s royal family resided at the end of it. Two ruts, wagon axle width apart, curved through the forest. He spotted no further sentinels there, but his instinct told him that he was under their scrutiny all the same. Up and over a little stone bridge, the stream underneath already iced thinly over along the banks. Around another corner and the trees opened out and he realised he had arrived.
He wasn’t sure what he had expected. It wasn’t a castle or a keep or a tower, though it certainly was a mannish, stone structure. Smaller buildings were scattered about, functionary things. He could hear the fall of a hammer within a stable. Smoke curled from several chimneys in the main residence. No great walls or gates, he realised. That was why the men had been so thorough. They formed the wall, and someone else would likely serve as the gate. As his gaze swung about he realised the gate may even now be approaching. A woman, he noted, and she prowled directly at him, a hand resting on her hilt and the expression on her face remote and perilous. He swallowed, kept his hands in plain view, and remained in the saddle.
”Who might you be?” she demanded suspiciously. She had long dark hair, brown eyes that he supposed could be warm if she wanted them to and that moment she clearly did not. She was small but that meant nothing. She was not a woman to turn your back on. The rider sighed for he had hoped to be quit of all of this by now.
”High King Elessar has sent me. I have tidings and an item to bestow on Princ-“
He was not in the least prepared for what the woman did. She pulled him down, nearly out of the saddle and hissed in his ear, ”Are you mad? Not so loud!”
Her response certainly silenced him and she released him and glanced about. He had no choice but to dismount. It was that or fall ingloriously on his face on the ground. Hardly befitting. He drew himself up and attempted to dust his clothing off. Tired as he was, he squared his shoulders and considered the woman. She had stepped away from the horse to peer back at the trees. Whatever she saw there made her consider him anew. He realised then that she had fabric looped around her neck. Not a scarf, for it was too light and delicate. He filed it away under a growing list of odd things in this part of the Reunited Realm. She seized his biceps and pulled him unceremoniously towards the main residence.
The house was pleasantly warm. It wasn’t easy to get his bearings and it didn’t do to appear overly curious. Still, this was the famed seat of Cardolan’s Princes. Any student of Dunedain history, such as himself, would be curious. The woman hauled him through the wide kitchen and across the living room. Another woman was in there, muttering as she tugged on a heavy carpet.
She shot up to her full height at their entry and turned about to face them. This woman was much taller and had very pale hair. Like the smaller woman, she wasn’t pleased with his presence. Unlike the smaller woman, this one’s displeasure only made even more captivating.
”Who’s this,” she demanded, voice a husky growl and he found he was smiling despite himself. He opened his mouth to introduce himself but his captor got there first.
”King’s messenger,” she answered and for some reason that just made the other woman angrier. Oh, he really wanted to know her name! However, he was pulled from the room just as she narrowed her eyes.
”Who was she?” he asked his captor and she snorted at the question.
”One of the maids,” she replied dryly as he twisted about to catch a final glimpse at the maid.
The small woman pulled him relentlessly down the hall until at last they reached what appeared to be a cavernous study. Books lined the walls, carpets strewn across the floor, a mammoth table in two of the corners. Behind one was a man the messenger presumed was none other than the famed Captain Hanasian. A man of high regard and accounted a friend of the High King. The Ranger frowned faintly at the sight presented him and stood. The woman released his biceps and stepped to one side. True to form, the Captain took in his garb. Gondor’s crest was emblazoned across his chest. Underneath it was an arrow. Not a red one, but an arrow in silver. Hanasian glanced at the woman that had taken him captive.
”Is there a problem?” he asked pointedly and she crossed her arms and cocked one hip.
”Not yet there isn’t. But if he goes around tossing fancy titles about, I’m not going to clean up the mess,” she replied.
”Does she know?”
At that the Captain sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. The woman continued on, ”Don’t worry, the lads know too. They’ll collect and return her if she makes a run for it. Want me to bring her in here when they do?”
Hanasian nodded and with that the woman departed.
”My apologies,” Hanasian murmured, coming from around the desk, ”You must be tired. The road from Minas Tirith is a long one.”
“It is, Captain. But my lord was clear that certain measures were in place for good reason. This was not entirely unexpected.”
“I presume you are here to see my wife?”
“I am, Captain. I have been asked to convey a message and bestow an item into her keeping.”
“You may wish to sit. It could be a while. Something to eat or drink?”
“Thank you, Captain. Perhaps after I have executed my orders.”
“Well, as I said, it could be a while. She may have gotten the slip on them.”
In all, it took half an hour before anyone joined them in the study. In that time, the messenger had assuaged his thirst and was eyeing small round cakes with some interest. Hanasian had returned to his desk. He was deep in thought, setting something down on parchment. The titles on the shelves were intriguing. Historical works. Elvish books. Healing. Law. Ancestry. Plants. Anatomy. Rows and rows of black leather books without a title at all. The relative peace in the study was interrupted by the sound of a man struggling with something in the hall. Heavy breathing, scuffling boots and then a surprised oath. This made Hanasian set down his quill, rise and head to the door.
”Stones, lassie! There was no call for that!” a man protested and the messenger heard a woman say something in a strange language – possibly rohirric.
Then the Captain said something in kind, voice a low rumble. The messenger thought it best he stand and as he did so, the Captain returned with another Ranger and the maid he had seen earlier. She shot him a look that would fell a Corsair but that was the worst she could do. Hanasian had a firm hold of her wrist and the other Ranger, face flushed and amusement flickering faintly in his eyes, was pressed at her back. Still, she had her heels dug in and had the floor not been made of stone, the messenger thought she’d carve furrows in floorboards. The Ranger at her back kicked the study door closed for good measure.
”I trust the windows are locked,” he asked, Hanasian nodded and the woman growled something in a different strange language.
Once they had managed to get the maid far enough into the study, the Ranger set a hand on each of her shoulders and Hanasian turned back to face her.
”Now…I’m going to let you go now, dear heart, and you are going to demonstrate the nobility of your descent and treat with this man, sent by your own kin down a long road at an inhospitable time, with dignity.”
The maid’s eyes were locked with Hanasian. Maid? No, not at all! This was none other than Princess Erían! The woman had clearly put up a fight. Dirt marked the hem of her simple dress and slippers. So, she had taken flight just as Hanasian had said she would. Remarkable! The Ranger at her back had to be Farbarad. The man plucked a twig that had caught in her tousled hair. Grudgingly she nodded when it became apparent she had no choice and Hanasian released his wife’s wrist. Her eyes slid to the windows and Farbarad’s hands tightened a little. She sighed at that but then began to smooth the folds of her skirts as she gathered her composure. When her attention fell on him, the messenger was astonished at how swiftly she had assembled her thoughts. Her expression was smooth, chin slightly lifted as if challenging him to find some fault with her. And those eyes! They glittered as though she still wanted to pull him to pieces. Remarkable!
Hanasian could not help but grin at the slightly dazed expression on the messenger’s face. He settled back at his desk and surveyed the scene. She was really doing a number on this poor, hapless man and he recalled a line of similar men, starting with his own and ending with Dhak, who had be similarly beset.
”Rosmarin…as I have said once before, stop playing with your food,” he chided and at that, she glanced at her husband and the messenger drew a breath.
”Oh, if I must. What is this urgent business that intrudes upon my peace and quiet?”
“Is that what that was in the living room? Peace and Quiet?” inquired Farbarad dryly and the corners of her mouth twitched before they stilled again.
”Well?” she demanded, attention returning to the messenger.
Years of training kicked in and he reached for the item that had been carefully carried all this way in a pouch at his belt. She was wary as he drew forth a small bundle of black velvet. The fabric had a silvery sheen in the autumn light spilling through the windows. Locked, curse them! Aragorn’s messenger laid the little bundle in his upturned palm and with a glance at Farbarad, approached carefully carrying it before him. He extended his hand towards her and though he said nothing, his expression pleaded with her that she take it up. She did not want to and she did not know why. Still, she forced herself to collect it.
Something hard was within the soft, luxuriant folds. Curiosity tugged at her and she was easing back the material before she realised what she was doing. The messenger paused, watching long nimble fingers peel the protective layers away until it was revealed. Her breath caught in her throat and she was not the only one. In her hand was the most exquisite thing he had ever beheld. Seven brilliant diamonds curved in a bed of metal that could only be mithril. They formed an arch over a brooding sapphire fashioned into a rose. It too was couched in mithril and through cunning design, the two elements were joined together. It was worth a king’s ransom and her hand quivered, but not solely in the precious gems and metal. It’s worth lay chiefly in what it symbolised and this was where his message was needed.
The man took a step back and knelt, words memorised floating to the forefront of his mind.
”By this small token doth the High Court of the Reunited Realms of Middle Earth recognise the faithful service, sacrifice and diligence of Lochared, son of Dunland. Ever shall we stand in his debt.”
With these solemn words came silence. Hanasian stood and joined his wife. She stared at the emblem a long moment. Farbarad’s hands sank from her shoulders to her arms, a gesture of comfort now. The messenger stood and backed away. Hanasian curled her fingers around it and pressed a soft, gentle kiss to his wife’s cheek.
”Keep it for him, my love,” he whispered in Sindarin and she jerked her eyes up to meet his.
The messenger watched her search the Captain’s face, eyes roaming, and then a slow nod. He took that as his cue for the second message.
”There is more,” he said and three sets of eyes settled on him, ”High King Elessar Telcontar welcomes the tidings of the birth of your son, and acknowledges him as a Prince of Cardolan’s ancient line. Accordingly, Prince Hanavia Lochnard has been entered into the rolls as such. It is the court’s desire that they might meet Prince Hanavia at some later date, at such time as his parents deem suitable.”
Rin was frozen at this news, unable to ascertain if were good or ill. She looked up into Hanasian’s face and when he realised she was watching him he endeavoured to smile for her. He knew she was seeking reassurance.
”Well, my love, could you expect anything less? I daresay Hanavia may find more than one play mate amongst his cousins. Perhaps he might squire somewhere in the years ahead.”
“With respect, already there is speculation where he might,” the messenger added and Rin frowned at that so he amended, ”If that indeed is what his parents wish for him.”
“If the court means to instruct his parents what to wish for their son-“ Rin began, voice crystalline cold and the messenger shook his head.
”The court does not presume, your Highness!”
Her eyes flashed at that but, with a murmur from Hanasian, she relented and accepted what had been said. Rin’s eyes dropped to the emblem she yet held and then she drew a breath.
”My apologies…you must think me ungracious and uncouth,” she said, any loftiness vanished from her demeanour, and the messenger bowed to demonstrate no offense had been taken. His lord had instructed him most carefully on what to expect once certain matters were broached.
”Will you stay or must you return?” she asked next and with that she managed to surprise him anew.
One minute she had been ready to run into the wilds to avoid him, the next she had been willing to tear him to pieces to defend her child and now she was inviting him to stay! In the royal seat of Cardolan’s Princes. The historian in him was bouncing up and down excitedly like a child.
”Perhaps one night. My horse is weary,” he answered, for his time was not entirely his own, and he found that the only thing better than how she looked when irritable was her smile.
As it turned out, the messenger remained several nights and they sent him off with a fresh horse. He left with full saddle bags and many memories. Cardolan…a strange place indeed.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Once they had Dhak settled in a basement of a storehouse, Videgavia had given permission for Rose and Lady Anvikela to live together in a stately, well-guarded room in the building that Videgavia had taken as his command centre. Barika remained there as well, as did Berlas. The rest of the Old Company had taken the ground level, meaning anyone entering the building would have to pass that gauntlet first. While Wulgof, Mulgov, and Khule worked at getting all creature comforts available in place, to those unfamiliar with these men the gathering was a formidable one. All hard bitten warriors, impassive, coldly appraising, always armed. As far as comforts went, there was a notable gap. There was little to drink. A local sour drink did little to numb their senses, and it didn’t taste good to boot. Mulgov went to work on trying to remedy this problem, but the mood on the ground floor was all the more dour for this lack.
The two sisters had little time to rest and talk with each other since their reunion. Their thoughts had centred on the Sanctuary and those within it. The spectre of a return to imprisonment behind the thick walls loomed. Despite this, the promises made to them by the Company were not forgotten and with the day’s passing an evening to speak in peace was theirs. Peace, but not privacy, for Berlas and Barika both stood guard. They watched the sisters prepare the room to suit themselves. When this was done, the two women stood and regarded each other steadily. Their arms lifted from their sides and they clasped forearms, still gazing into the other’s eyes. A long moment passed before this embrace closed and they drew together. In a language of their own, the sisters whispered to each other.
Anvikela said, ”Beloved sister, it has been too long since I have seen you, and longer still since I could reveal myself so.”
Rose pressed a soft kiss to her sister’s cheek, ”This is freedom. We must cherish it, as we should those who have provided it to us.”
”Yes, I do. And yet I feel I betray the trust that was placed in us. This defies all that we have been taught.”
“Yes sister. We were taught not to feel. We were not permitted to feel. Despite that, did you not have feelings that you wished to express? There was no trust placed in us, only obligation.”
Anvikela considered this a moment before saying more.
”When the wizard, the high priestess, and our beloved sister died, I felt the release of the restraints that had surrounded us. It came to me that I was the eldest now, and so I had to control things as our sister had before me.
“I wished to return home as badly as I wanted to stay way. I am glad that I led these westerners here and have aided them. I have been re-united with you my dear sister. But now…. They wish to meet with the Mothers. This bodes ill. I know not what insights these westerners will draw from such an encounter.
“I feel lost, divided. I must go to help them and at the least shield their minds. They have no means of protection otherwise. I don’t know if I have the power to shield them and shield your presence.”
Rose cut in urgently, ”Embrace this freedom and live! Go with them and protect them. I will shield myself. I think I can do this.”
Anvikela smiled at her sister’s words and tightened her embrace, “We will stand united in this, sister. I suspect yours is the wisdom in this matter. You remain here, well guarded. If they find you, there will be many warriors to shield you.”
Rose kissed her sister again and drew back to hold her hands within her own, Anvikela on her cheek and then held her hands. She said, ”We should remain with the westerners. We must remain strong for their sake.”
Anvikela let her eyes slip briefly to where Berlas stood before she returned her gaze to her sister’s.
”We must work on our powers together. As one, we have proven we possess the abilities the High Wizard said we might. Together we will continue to grow, two instead of three, for our beloved sister who fell.”
Rose nodded, whispered, ”For our beloved sister. You know what we must do.”
Berlas and Barika watched intently as the two women spoke earnestly with each other. Barika seemed impassive but Berlas was ill at ease. His concern rose as the whispering continued, and yet he could sense no ill will seeping from the sisters. Groundless, baseless suspicion only, he knew, and yet such instincts had kept his skin intact more than once before. Were his eyes cheating him or did the air shimmer faintly, like a silvery nimbus, around the two women? He narrowed his eyes to get a better view and as soon as he did that, the effect disappated and left him standing there squinting at nothing like a benighted fool. The two women linked arms and approached him. Berlas braced himself for whatever was next.
It was Avienkala who spoke, ”As I offered earlier, we will aid you as we can. We have decided to accept the offers made to us by members of your Company. This sort of camaraderie is new to us, the feelings it stirs are strange. Still, we thank you for your generosity.
“But I warn you again, and my sister agrees. Meeting the Mothers will be dangerous!”
Berlas motioned Barika to fetch Videgavia and she set out promptly to get him, please to be away from the room in truth. Dwimmer-folk made her nervous, be they Elf or Mortal, like any decent man or woman of the Mark. In her absence, Berlas Cap should be talking to the girls. Barika set out promptly to get him. Meanwhile Berlas asked questions on what offer had been made to the two sisters. He learnt then that Loch had made the very offer to Rose that Videgavia had made to Anvikela. It was an offer that would be honoured. The Company rules in place under Videgavia’s captaincy were no different to those established by the Black’s first captain, Hanasian. The two sisters represented the Company’s best hope of returning home. They were easiest to protect within their ranks. Much easier. Provided they followed orders. Unlike the first woman they had taken into the number.
Videgavia arrived with a scant number of direct questions. The sisters appeared to answer well enough for his liking. It was done. The Company had two new members. As such, the sisters were permitted to venture into the areas of the city the Company ahd secured in the same way any other member was to venture out – in other words, never alone and never unarmed. They could also receive visitors, provided they were screened. The Company had learnt a great deal about members of rank or note from Rosmarin’s presence. In fact, they’d learnt faster than she had, but that was solely down to her refusal to engage in what she denounced as the bad habits of nobility. The two sisters were much as Rosmarin had been. While not of royal blood, they were of rank and they were precious indeed to the Black as it was through them that the Black would return home.
For that reason, Dhak and those few men that had defected with him back in Rhun were not permitted near the sisters. In the unlikely event that any local people emerged to seek the sisters, they would only be admitted if the sisters wished to see them. It was near impossible to understand the undercurrents of this strange place. Videgavia was resolved to permit the sisters to know who was fair or foul, for they had the experience the Black lacked and they have proven themselves trustworthy in ways Dhak had not. Yes, Dhak was a problem. The more he thought on it, the more of a problem Dhak became to Videgavia and the further away a solution appeared.
A day passed before Videgavia assembled the Old company, Khor and his second. The sisters were there as well, seated by Berlas and holding each other’s hand. It was their situation that Videgavia wished to discuss. He began:
”We’ve had an interesting time here. We have secured the docks down to the southern point through to Khor and his cadre of men. We hold all the high buildings still intact, meaning all available vantages within the city. There appears to be little by way of organized armies to oppose us. In fact, there are few inhabitants at all. We are not, however, an invading or occupying force.
“Loch and Runner have carried out long range patrols and we’ve learnt that most of the people surviving this cataclysm have gone far to the south or east, over mountains that lie there. We lack the number to press farther, but we have recruited a few locals who seem to welcome our presence to keep watch for us in the event that this exodus returns.”
Vidigavia coughed, for this was a lot of talking, and eased his dry throat with water. As he did so, he prepared himself for the next nugget of truth. This would be sour tidings indeed for many of those gathered around him.
”It will come as no surprise to you that our ship will never be seaworthy again. It barely limped to port. Until we secure other means, this place will be our home-”
“About that… We may have a solution,” Donius cut in and Videgavia shot a sharp glance at the man.
Donius bent to whisper furiously with Runner, before he pushed on, ”Our long range recon lads have found something that is of interest to us.”
Videgavia waited for the engineer to say more. When he didn’t, Videgavia pointedly cleared his throat and said, ”Would you like to enlighten us? Or does this require a private talk?”
Donius blinked, looked around at everyone gathered to be certain, and said, ”I think it concerns us all, so don’t see any harm in talking here.”
“Very well then. Please tell us,” Videgavia said, reigning his impatience in. This was potentially good news. A way home and someone else to do the talking.
Donius approached where Videgavia stood and addressed the group.
”Runner’s squad has found another ship. I’ve only managed a brief look at it thus far. It’s a fair ship, newer but smaller. It looks like it was never quite completed. Now we can up and move ourselves down south where this ship sits, but that will bring considerable attention to our movements. I’m thinking we can send a team down and maybe nudge it up here so we can get it ready in our secured port.”
This prompted waves of whispered speculation throughout the room. The sisters traded a look and Anvikela said something to Rose in their language. With Dhak and his men absent, there was no one to interpret what passed between them. Videgavia clapped his hands together to quell the quiet discussion.
”This is good news. Donius, is there any chance the ship won’t be there in say a week’s time, maybe two?”
“It doesn’t seem to have moved in quite some time,” Donius replied with a shrug.
Videgavia nodded, ”In that case, the Black has its long-term project.”
Smiles, fierce and bright, blossomed around the room. A way home. There’d be no shortage of willing hands for that project. But this was not all that concerned the Black Company and so Videgavia pressed on with more immediate concerns.
”Right now we need to deal with this Sisterhood. We’re unsure what they want, and Dhak has told us precious little. Loch has mapped out the terrain around their keep. We will be hard pressed to mount a watch around all sides with the people available to us. However, I will be sending a message to them in the hope of meeting with them. Maybe after that we will have some understanding of their intentions.”
“It will be a danger, to you and all of the Company,” Anvikela said clearly and Rose nodded beside her.
Videgavia answered, ”Very likely. That is why I am going. And you two ladies will accompany me.”
Rose looked concerned, ”We cannot… will not go inside the gates. If we do, we will be lost!”
“My sister is correct Captain. Inside the walls, their power is strong. Even remaining beyond the walls but near will tax our strength. My sister and I must prepare for whatever it is you wish to attempt.”
Videgavia nodded, aware that he now had a few options to weigh up.
”We won’t go in. We may not even get close. From all we have seen thus far, it appears this Sisterhood of yours has no desire or ability to disrupt us. We’ll wait until they reach out to us directly. When we do go, we will bring them food. In the mean time, you two ladies work together to prepare whatever it is you need to prepare. You’re part of this Company now, and we are going to need you both.”
The two sisters nodded and appeared pleased with this. Videgavia continued to consider his various paths. He wanted to send an expedition to the east but couldn’t risk it with the Sisterhood in their midst, dormant – for now. He needed to secure the southern approach so they could salvage this ship. It was obvious that the seamen would have to go, along with one or both Daius and Donius. His thoughts came together in a new configuration.
”A change in plan. We will send those who can bring the ship back here. Berlas will lead this party with several soldiers to keep a perimeter secure while the work is done. We will use Runner’s squad to keep in contact. Runner will go, Loch will stay. You two coordinate the messaging on either end. Anything happens, I want to know about it.
“Donius, you will be in charge of getting the work done. How long do you think it will take to get the ship up here?”
“I cannot say until I get a proper look inside the hull,” Donius replied, despite the fact he was already making calculations based on what little he had seen.
”Very well. The first message I get back will be an estimate on time. Take who you need and be ready to move tomorrow night.
“Berlas, take Khule and some of his men with you. Khor, we’ll keep you and your men in place here and the remaining Company will continue to maintain the cordon and watch.
"We’ll limit our patrols around the Keep, but with Avienkala and Rose onto that front, I doubt little will surprise from that front.
“That’s it. I’ve said more than enough for a week. If you’ve questions, bring them to me directly. Dismissed!”
The room buzzed with talk almost immediately. People either milled about or left for their own quarters. Barika escorted the two sisters to their room and sat outside to keep watch. The night passed calmly, the Company preoccupied with the tasks ahead. Dawn was a grey and misty affair. A morning storm pushed in from the sea and transformed the mist into a grey curtain of rain. The pervasive dust became mud that coated ground, gear, clothing and skin alike.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The clouds gathered around the hill. The beacons were dimmed and struggled against the murk to give off light. The Mother sat, shoulders bowed and head in her hands as the weather set in. This winter would be a cold one. Would it gnaw their bones too? An attendant Sister reluctantly approached the ageing woman. So many calamities sat on her too thin shoulders as it was. And yet, this was too important.
”We have a problem, Mother. The two sisters have joined in a bond. We do not control them. We can only hope now that Dhak succeeds in winning these westerners to our cause. Through them we may return to some control. The Sisters, doubt, Mother that this will come to pass.”
Control. The old woman heard the ghost of the Order whisper through the younger woman’s words. Control. Her face hidden by her hands, a mirthless smile lifted the corners of her mouth. How arrogant, how foolish to think survival lay now in the failed paths of the past. Could they ever change? She was one woman. Ever the Sisters would whisper, it seemed, of control.
“We must send word to the westerners. Commander Dhak was not the right choice for messenger,” the Sister said when it seemed that Mother would not answer her.
Behind her hands the old woman closed her eyes and let her silence drift on a few moments yet. When she spoke it, her voice was as thin as paper.
”Dhak was only one of our messengers. Others have been sent. Only time will tell. Patience, Sister, for time will not be controlled by our will alone.”
The old woman did not glance up from her hands. She heard the rustle of robes as the younger woman bowed, then the diminishing sound of footfall as she withdrew. The Mother sighed and let her mind drift anew. The fog that gathered without seemed to settle within her skull all the thicker with each passing hour.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The party heading for the ship slipped out in the darkness of that night. They found the abandoned ship was as they had left it; virtually un-manned except for the two men that had been left to walk its deck. At times, one of the men would go below and make some noise just to keep anyone close with curious ears something to hear. Khule pushed his perimeter out another block and secured all routes in. This was the limit of his manpower. The streets beyond their line became wider and the alleys numerous. He could keep the few blocks around the docks well enough, but he planned his withdrawal all the same should Videgavia choose to move or should some unknown force emerge from those wide streets and numerous alleys.
The weeks passed and the work Donius soon began to show. There was much to be done, as before. However, unlike their old ship, this one had not been battered by the sea. His estimate was that within the second month, they could set it out to sea and nurse it to the secured docks. Meanwhile things remained deserted. This did nothing to ease Khule’s habitual suspicion. His guards patrolled now and again in search of anything that might be of use. Little was to be found, but it kept them busy, sharp and fought indolence and boredom. When the time came that Donius decided to try and sail her, the last two messengers were sent to the docks to give Videgavia word. If all went well, they planed to arrive in two days.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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He really was paying attention. It was just that he had split his attention in two directions, at first. One was on the empty street in front of him. The other was far to the west. What sort of reception would he get when he showed up, alive. She’d be happy, but she didn’t like surprises. Of any sort. He’d have to pick his approach carefully. Preferably when she was empty handed. More likely to survive her initial reaction that way. With that sorted out, Loch’s divided thoughts turned in the direction of Rose. How had she done that? Was it real? Why did she say he had taken her dancing? He didn’t know how to dance! Just never had the time to learn, what with all demands of surviving as a homeless child with a sister to care for occupying his time. Mind you, dancing had always looked enjoyable. Rin certainly liked it. He had no idea where she picked it up from, but then she was always doing that. Dancing, reading, writing…she just learnt things he never seemed to have the time for. Maybe he’d learn…and take Rose dancing.
Loch felt a grin creep over his face that did not belong to a scout standing vigil. He swiftly put it away and let his eyes slide briefly to where Wulgof was hunkered down over his heels. The other man hadn’t noticed the lapse. Loch inwardly breathed a sigh of relief and reunited his divided attention on his duty. The street was still numbingly empty. Nothing to report. This was the dull side of service. It wasn’t all battles and secret missions, and exploding buildings. There was lots of waiting around, for hours and hours. Beside him, Wulgof was scratching down notes on a grubby piece of paper. He’d been ridiculously secretive about it. Loch could hear the sound of the other man writing and resisted the urge to sneak a peek. He couldn’t without taking his eyes off the watch and that would earn him a jab in the nose. Curiosity itched at him relentlessly.
”You know, I can’t hardly smell the mud anymore. I don’t know what Sparks is grumbling about,” Loch commented as he eyed a drying mud puddle some distance from the place they’d selected as their vantage.
”All that means is that you’re in sore need of a bath,” Wulgof muttered, grinning at the irony of one Dunlander saying that to another.
Loch scowled, ”You sound like my sister.”
That made Wulgof scowl in his own turn. No man wanted to be told he sounded like a woman. Particularly that woman. He turned his ire back to his list. It was near enough done. He thrust it at Loch.
”Here,” Wulgof grunted and stared out at the street as Loch looked down at his offered fist, ”Take it. I know you’ve been itching to see it.”
There was no point denying that, so Loch accepted the paper and inspected what was on it.
“A list,” Wulgof answered
Just as Loch opened his mouth to offer an incisive observation, Wulgof continued, ”Of all the things your sister stole from us.”
At that, Loch’s mouth snapped shut with an audible click and he considered the list anew. It was quite a list. Oh, she’d been busy. She’d even fingered Videgavia! The urge to laugh warred with a deep seated peverse pride and the instinct of self preservation. From Wulgof’s expression, it was no laughing matter at all.
”They’re all Old Company names,” Loch remarked.
”Lucky, lucky, us,” Wulgof bit off.
”But not everyone. Bear…Foldine…Frea and Folca are missing, as are others…”
“Everyone knows she has a soft spot for those first two, as for Frea and Folca…I don’t know why she let Frea off... He weren’t no nicer to her than I was…”
Loch blinked at Wulgof’s comment. It was clear that the man did not understand and when he said as much, Wulgof’s expression darkened. For all of that, he kept his attention out on the street where it belonged.
”Oh, I understand well enough, Kid. She’s a thief! A dirty, rotten, thief, through and though. Can’t help herself, and she picks on those she don’t much like. Anyone who ain’t sweet as honey, anyone she can’t wrap around her fingers, anyone she has a grudge with. Anyone-“
“That she wants an excuse to see again,” Loch cut in and Wulgof shook his head.
”Do you really think she’d not settle a grudge directly? Really?”
“It ain’t right!” Wulgof persisted and Loch sighed at that and glanced back at the list.
”No, probably not…but it’s the best way she knows to remember you by. I dare say she’d hope that you’d not just let her get away with it. She’d never admit that she wanted to see you again, never let you see that. The Old Company names missing are those that went west with Hanasian. I wager their packs are a little lighter for it as well.”
“And I say that’s garbage and lies. You’re just trying to defend her. Everyone knows she didn’t care for most of us, mostly for no other reason than the fact that we’re soldiers. Everyone. This is just her way of spitting in our eye, one last time. Why would she want to see us again?”
“Because she misses you. You’ve muscled your way in, carved out a space in her life, and she misses you. Simple as that.”
“Eh?” Wulgof asked, his attention swung back to consider the other scout.
Loch nodded and lifted one shoulder, ”She’ll never admit it, but I know it to be true.”
That rendered Wulgof speechless. He was still offended, angry…but…but if that were true. If she really would miss them…then-
”Sauron’s Balls! Where’d that come from?” Loch exclaimed and Wulgof flinched.
That turned out to be a waif of a child, perhaps seven years of age, clad in a tattered shroud and little else. The girl stood in the middle of the street, bare feet visible beneath the ragged hem of her rough garb. Her hair hung in matted strands and fell carelessly around her shoulders to her elbows. She merely stood and stared at them with eyes as dark as her hair and far too large for her face. Her appearance and the fact that it had happened without warning had Wulgof thinking she was some sort of apparition or mirage.
”Mirage? I thought they only happened in the desert,” Loch scoffed and as if in response to his words, the mirage swayed and collapsed in the street.
”Mirages certainly don’t pass out, do they?” Loch asked.
Wulgof was already rising to his feet and edging out into the open warily. He saw no trace of anyone on the roof or in the windows or doors.
”No, neither do apparitions,” Wulgof replied and together the two men approached the child.
The hubbub roused Videgavia from the seemingly endless procession of reports. He left his desk gladly, fingers cramped from writing, to see what it was about. He located the source of the disturbance and was unsurprised to find the two Dunlendings in the midst of it all. If there was trouble to be had, Dunlendings were rarely far away in his experience. Sparks was with them and appeared to have a large bundle of dun coloured rags in his arms. When a limp, small hand fell down between his elbow and torso, Videgavia realised with a start that the medic held a child! He was barking at those around him to clear some space and Wulgof and Loch were manhandling those away that did not move smartly enough.
”What’s this?” Videgavia asked, arriving as Sparks set the child down on some hastily folded blankets.
Loch and Wulgof glanced at each other an instant. Videgavia’s sharp eyes did not miss that look or a piece of paper that Loch had stuffed under his belt.
”It’s, ah…a child,” Wulgof started lamely and Videgavia’s eyes narrowed.
”A girl,” Sparks provided, ”Half starved.”
“Just walked up to us and collapsed. Not a word said,” Loch added fast.
”No messenger from Donius?”
At Videgavia’s question, Loch’s eyes widened and he spun about on his heel with an oath. Wulgof trudged off after him, grumbling all the way. With a shake of his head, Videgavia returned his attention to the girl. Sparks was a capable medic, but rarely had he displayed such care as he did now. He had uncorked a water skin and was trickling water into the child’s mouth.
”Her skin’s awfully slack,” he said as Bells hunkered down on the other side.
”Slowly then…she’ll not have the strength to swallow properly.”
“I’m not about to choke her,” Sparks snapped irritably.
”I was wondering when it would begin,” Berlas remarked at Videgavia’s shoulder. The Ithilien Ranger had just arrived and was studying the child with cool appraisal. When he was finished, he considered his captain with a grim expression.
”We can’t take them all, Cap. Bound to be hundreds of them about here, hiding until the desperation gets too sharp. We don’t have the supplies for all this city’s urchins. And who’s to say they are urchins? What if their parents come looking for them, angry about the foreign army holding their child captive?”
None of this was new to Videgavia. He was about to say so when Rose slipped through the press and uttered a name in surprise. At that, the girl’s eyes opened enough so that a thin, gleaming sliver could be glimpsed through her lashes. The girl managed a few garbled words, as best Videgavia could tell for she spoke the same language that Rose and Avienkala and Dhak did. Rose seemed utterly startled but collected herself well enough to turn to where Berlas and Videgavia stood.
”She’s a messenger. The messenger you’ve been waiting for,” Rose said and began to walk away.
”What do they want?” Videgavia called after her.
”I must go! We must prepare!” Rose called back, jogging now towards her room.
”Get that girl inside. I want her conscious and coherent,” Videgavia ordered and the two medics nodded.
That did not come to pass until dusk. This time Anvikela emerged and what Videgavia had been waiting for finally emerged.
”They wish to meet, neutral ground. Parley, as I think it is said in your tongue,” Anvikela said from her position on the side of the cot. The girl was hunkered down against her, under the woman’s arm. She refused to look any of the men in the eye.
“When best suits you, Captain,” Avienkela stated.
As it turned out, the time that best suited Videgavia was the time that Donius’ messengers arrived to say that the ship was some two days away from port. The messengers had expected to be joyously welcomed. He brought fine tidings indeed. Instead, they found that nearly everyone was somewhere else and he relayed his tidings without any of the jubilation to Loch. The scout eyed them from the large bucket of potatoes he was peeling. No one abandoned a post without consequences in Videgavia’s Company. Loch glanced over at Wulgof, who was wielding his knife with savage efficiency.
”Did you hear that?”
“I heard…we’re going home. About time too, since they took all the good food with them for that damn parley. Wish they took these potatoes with them.”
Loch sighed and dismissed the messengers for some rest. After the men had gone, Wulgof growled, ”This is all your sister’s fault. I wouldn’t of been so rattled as to make an amateur’s mistake were it not for her. Confounded woman!”
Loch grunted his agreement. Thousands of miles away, Rin still managed to get him into trouble.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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In the west of Rohan on the green fields northwest of the River Adorn, where its waters calmed from their rush from the White Mountains, there was a stately house. It was the estate of Forcwyn of Rohan, mother to Halcwyn and Hanasian. It was here that Forcwyn lived out her last years and now rested within its grounds, and it was here that Halcwyn made her home with her husband Enedoth, and their children. Enedoth and her sons had gone to Edoras to market some of their horses and Halcwyn had stayed to attend the horses. This is was not uncommon, for Halcwyn did not care over much for Edoras.
That night the moon shone on the quiet land and lent the fields a silvery sheen. Halcwyn lay sleeping as the moonlight wove through with the trees outside. The dappled silver light danced over her sleeping face as her dreams flowed.
”M’lady, youngest and dearest of my children. You who I knew the least! Word comes from your brother….”
“Father?” Halcwyn whispered in her sleep. The old Ranger appeared to her as she remembered him from long ago and she had been three years old. However, when she peered closer, she discovered he was older and rugged. As she watched, the vision faded and she glimpsed him dancing with her mother, much younger again.
His voice whispered, ”You need to see your brother.”
Halcwyn started awake and found she was breathing hard. Her skin felt damp and it was difficult to draw breath. She stood and crossed to the window. Beyond she could see the moonlight filtered by the trees. Her initial alarm began to recede. The coolness of the autumn night made her shiver. Halcwyn pulled on a robe and went out to the door of the house. She opened it to look up at the full moon properly. It softened, faded from view as passing clouds raced by. Snow would come soon.
”My brother…" she whispered, ”I have not heard from you in over a year. You were coming, but you were delayed. Where now has the King sent you?”
The wind tugged at the robe around her and tangled her hair about her face. Tears sprang up then and she turned and went back into her house. There were no answers to be had from the moon, as ever. Halcwyn tried unsuccessfully to sleep for the remainder of the night and, until dawn blushed the east, managed a fitful slumber at best. However, once the sun had arrived she fell into a deep sleep and was not awoken until she heard banging on the door to the house.
Fuddled and disorientated by sleep, she arose and went to it to find one of the men who worked on the estate standing there. Halrad ducked his cap off and held it in his hands before him
”M’lady, pardon my annoyance, but I worried when you did not come.”
“Be not alarmed, Halrad. I slept unevenly last night and no more than that,” Halcwyn answered and that didn’t seem to calm Halrad down in the least.
”Well, I hope you are ready to entertain a visitor, m’lady. There is a man here to see you. Asked for you by name,” Halrad said uncomfortably.
Halcwyn asked, ”It is likely about some horses. Are you sure he is not here to see Enedoth my husband?”
“No m’lady. He asked for you by name. And I doubt it has to do with horses. He is clad in worn black leathers and has a device on his vest I do not recognize. But he is fair haired as one of the Rohirrim, and wears our riding cloak.”
Halcwyn wrapped herself with her cloak and stepped outside to see for herself. This man Halred had spoken of stood by the fence that ran along the track to the house. He was feeding his horse a carrot, unconcerned. When he noticed Halcwyn’s approach with Halrad, the carrot was gone, his horse was happy and so he stood straight and tall as he thought he should. To Halcwyn he appeared to be a proud soldier and even as she neared the wind pushed his cloak aside and reveal the device Halrad had mentioned. She recognised it immediately as that of the Black Company and as she paused, the man bowed. She noted that he held a leather binding like that used by her brother Hanasian for his journals. A clutching fear gripped her and she found then that she knew what this man had come to say. He was here to report that Hanasian had perished. The man looked on with concern as the woman’s face went a chalky white.
”State your business to Lady Halcwyn of Westmarch. And be swift, for she is unwell,” Halrad said sharply, alarm and a loyal protectiveness rendering him unusually terse.
The man bowed slightly to Halrad in acknowledgement and turned to the lady who stood frozen, clutching her cloak closed against the wind.
”M’lady, I am Fordwine of Rohan. I come bearing news of your brother. Rest assured that when I last saw him, he was quite well!”
Halcwyn felt her head spin a little and released the breath she did not know she had been holding. She blinked, the sun now very bright. News she always had feared did not come today.
She stepped nearer to Fordwine and asked, ”You know my brother? Tell me, where might I find him?”
“I do not know for certain m’lady, for it has been some time since I have seen him. It was in the eastern lands of Rhun. I served for a time under his command of the Black Company when it rode east. I was wounded in battle there, but remained with the Company for a time. When I departed with the King’s men, unable to serve, Hanasian gave me some items to deliver to you personally.”
Fordwine held forward the leather binding that was filled with parchments. Halcwyn reached for them but pulled her hand back. Dark clouds were streaming, pushed and whipped by the wind.
She said, ”It is foolish to be standing out here in this wind and threatening rain. I have forgotten my hospitality. Will you come inside and take some tea and biscuits? You must be hungry after your long travels.”
Fordwine bowed and said, ”Yes, it has been a long road. It is not easy to get here through the mountains in summer, moreso now with the first snows on the high track from Westfold threatening.”
Halcwyn turned nodded and at that Halrad tended to Fordwine’s horse. The two started to walk back to the house and Halcwyn said, “You know that way? It is known by so few, and most of that few live here in Westmarch. My husband and sons travelled that way to Edoras to the grand fair. He will return by the Isen.”
Fordwine paused before the door, saying, ”Perhaps, then, it would be best if I remained here, outside.”
Halcwyn turned to look at him in confusion. After a moment, a smile grew and then a laugh. Such courtesy! From a soldier, and member of the Black Company. None of them were evil men, but so few of them were so well schooled in social conduct as this Fordwine was.
Still smiling, she said, ”Do not concern yourself with such matters, Fordwine of the Black Company. If your intentions were ill, no such consideration would have occurred to you. Our neighbours are no less than a league away and Halrad over there regularly takes his lunch with me. I only wish I had fresh biscuits to offer you, for the ones I have I baked a day ago.”
They went in and sat at a table that looked out over the field that reached to the river. The biscuits were a treat for Foldwine, and he said as much but did not wish to speak of what fare they had to sup on while on his long journeys with the Company. The tea he found to be hot and fragrant, as it should be.
Halcwyn said, ”So you had something my brother wished to have you give me? I would receive it now, if I may.”
Fordwine set his empty tea cup down and reached for the binding he had tucked back into his jerkin. He set it on the table before her and said, ”They are letters he had written to you while he was away. There were so few reliable opportunities to send them. Even in sending them with me, they took a long route, and were delayed. I needed time in Minas Tirith to fully recover and heal from my injuries. Have you received any letters from him recently?”
“I have, but not recently. I must go and find the last one, but I recall its thrust well enough. My brother had met a girl and he spoke of falling in love, of all things! I’ve written one or two for him since, but I do not know if he receives them. I send them to Bree, in the care of the Inn of the Prancing Pony.”
Halcwyn had a fond smile on her face as she brushed the leather with her hand and toyed with the leather binding.
Fordwine stood, ”I am certain, then, that you will discover much in these. I will leave you to read, for I must be away.”
Halcwyn stood and asked, ”Will you not stay and rest for a time?”
“No m’lady,” Fordwine demurred, ”If I ride now, I will reach the Isen by nightfall. I wish to see my home again in Westfold. I only stayed there a day on my way here.”
She thanked him for the news of Hanasian, even though it was many months old, and he thanked her for the biscuits and tea and went to find his horse. The creature was contentedly grazing at the grass that grew around the fence posts, having demolished already the few mouthfuls of hay that Halrad had set out for him. Fordwine found his mouth was not at all eager to be away, quite happy with things here at the estate. Still, he consented to having Fordwine in the saddle again for Fordwine was good to him and had, only recently, given him a sweet carrot. Fordwine lifted a hand in parting and, watching from the house, Halcwyn went back to her table and opened the binding.
Letters were stacked and sorted by date. She read through them, smiling on occasion, and frowning now and again. With her dream still in her mind, she considered his words as she went searching for the letters he had sent before. She also found a map he had made her of the lands west of the Misty Mountains, and she studied it closely. As she did, an urgent sense to see her brother grew within her.
Halcwyn spent the next days preparing for her journey. When Enedoth and the boys arrived, he questioned the wisdom of travelling so far with winter coming on. Autumn was nearly done.
”You have told me you never wished to travel north before, not since you returned here with your mother. Why do you wish to go now, when the rains and the icy winds from the north come?” Enedoth asked.
Halcwyn replied, ”I have word that he has settled in the north, west by the sea with a wife and now a child on the way. His child is likely born now. I want to see him! I want to meet his wife and child.”
“Then wait until spring after the snow melts and the rivers calm. Then we can take horses north. I hear a fair Midsummers market is at a town called Bree. We can sell and then go west,” Enedoth counselled, trying to calm her father’s restless spirit in her.
Halcwyn was silent and wished for a moment that she had left before Enedoth and her sons had returned. But she realized how foolish that would have been. She embraced him then nodded. They would journey north in the next year. A concession she had gotten from herself, and Enedoth. He never wanted to go to the market in Bree before.
She said, ”You are wise to point out my folly to go now alone to the north. I do not doubt my ability to make it to where I want, but I cannot leave you to tend to our sons and horses alone. I will write to my brother and send it to him in Bree. I am sure he, or someone he trusts, will be through to collect it. May he get it before we arrive next year.”
“I am sure word will find him,” Enedoth answered and wondered whether this wife and child had tempered the brother of his wife. Hanasian had seemed a little…unsettled, restless, as if he was troubled by dark memories that might claim him at a moment’s notice, to uncertain effect on those around him including the sister that loved him so.
They settled into their evening, and after dinner and the boys went to bed, Enedoth fell into a deep sleep in his wife’s embrace. Halcwyn slept a little at first, but awoke again in the night. The moon’s dappled light danced about through the window and she walked to the table where she had collected the parchments and map. She began to pen a letter to her brother in her unique flowing Tengwar script.
I hope this finds you, and finds you well. I received your letters a few days ago, delivered by a man named Fordwine who served with your Company in the east. It is only now that I know that you have married, taken this Rosmarin to wife and, more, that you had a child on the way. All going well, and judging by the dates of your letters, I presume that your child has now arrived and will be growing swiftly as ever they do.
Yet it was the night before Fordwine arrived that I had a dream. Father appeared to me and stirred my rebel spirit. When we spoke of such things with mother when we were young, I remember her instruction to remain vigilant and keep this spirit in check. Despite this, I was so close to riding out to find you on my own, leaving mother’s house and my sons and my husband behind. I fought to control it, and after three days, Enedoth returned with the boys from Edoras. He spoke simple wisdom to me and we now will be in Bree for the Midsummer market.
After, we will ride to where you live, if we should be able to find it. I wish to meet Rosmarin. Your letters are filled with the love you bear her. A remarkable thing, my brother, that you have found that which I had long hoped you might. I wish to see your child. I have your map, but little Haltheod likes to look at it and I have found it misplaced at times. It will be worth its weight in fine gold to guide us, for I have not travelled the Greenway in the years since mother brought us to Rohan. If you find yourself in Bree for Midsummer, or have someone there to guide us, it will be a blessing. I look forward to seeing you again dear brother, for it has been too many years. Our meeting will be far glader this time. I promise this.
Love to you dear brother,
Your little sister Halcwyn
She rested her pen and lay her head down on her arms upon the table. She was so tired and it will be so long before they set out. But knowing that some adventure was coming stirred her restless heart, and she smiled at that, rose and slipped back to bed. Too soon would the morning light come, and the boys always awoke early.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
The waiting was always the worst. Videgavia knew that some mastered the art of remaining calm, aloof and detatched during such periods. The best he had managed was to appear that way. Behind his eyes, while he waited, all the better alternatives he hadn’t thought of before jockeyed for his attention. This only happened when it was too late to take any of these alternatives up. He checked a sigh and glanced with some irritation at his surrounds. One final check. The men were in position and the supplies remained to his right, just behind him. A lot of supplies. This had better be worth it, he thought. Hungry men with weapons….this had better be worth it.
That thought made him glance to where Berlas and Barika stood. A small coterie of a men stood around Avienkala. Avienkala looked nervous as she stared at the thick, imposing walls. Well, not quite as imposing as once they had been, Videgavia supposed, given they were now riven with cracks. Still, the bronze gates were massive and impressive and, given the hinges that supported them, more than bronze.
The men of the Order that had been sent to Rhun had steel and iron. Their weapons were not crude or ineffectual. Nor were their methods. This Order had mounted a small invasion force comprised of ruthless and highly trained soldiers with sophisticated armour and weapons. They had used this to mount a vicious attack that fell on the Black Company Healer when it could not find its original target, the High King. Videgavia remembered that fearful, rain soaked day when the sky appeared to crack asunder and Rin toppled from the saddle with a sickening thud to thrash upon the ground as if she was being torn apart by wolves. The Black had only prevailed due to the defection of Khor and Dhak and the information they provided and Loch’s assault on the true power of the Order.
And here he was, with a formidable yet much smaller force, and food. Videgavia rolled his shoulders. Worst case scenario, they’d die here where they now stood. Best case, he had a lot of talking to do. Videgavia was unaware he was staring at Avienkala until she turned her attention to him. With a steady look, she inclined her head and then came the rumour of the gates that were more than just bronze opening. Leather creaked as men tightened their grip instinctively and took a deep breath. Videgavia flexed his fingers and felt the joints pop.
He watched a small procession issue from the gates. Seven figures, all robed and cowled in a rich brown, belted with copper. Their hands were concealed in the sleeves of their robes, clasped before them. Videgavia didn’t like hands he couldn’t see. Their heights varied from medium to very small. The robes were largely shapeless, but the build suggested women, or slender men. Mind you, Videgavia considered the Cats the most dangerous force within the Black. His idea, shaped by the Black’s first woman despite the fact that she outright denied any study in the black arts of assassination. Appearances meant little.
The procession kicked up dust. It had only stopped raining two days ago and already the dust was back. They waited beyond bow shot of the walls and all else was a stone crucible in various stages of decay. Videgavia did not believe it mere coincidence that the walls and the large domed building visible beyond it were mostly intact while the surrounding buildings were reduced to bare skeletons. There was power here. While Loch had managed to eliminate this High Priestess and the Wizard who kept her, it was clear to Videgavia that vast power yet remained to the Sisters. He realised his palms were itching. He wanted his knives. He really did not like hidden hands…or faces, and especially feet. Not at all.
The procession came to a stand still at a safe distance, though not safe from the archers he had in position.
”You received our message,” said a small voice, an old voice.
It’s owner proved to be the smallest of the seven, slightly bowed. Those in front of her moved carefully, slowly, to either side so that she could be seen. Vid clenched as the smallest removed her hands from her sleeves and lifted them to push back her hood. The first thing he saw was the telltale mark of age on her hands. The next thing he saw was hair that was iron grey, braided with copper and wound around her head, a seamed face and nestled in the midst of it, perched above a commanding patrician nose, were two fiercely gleaming dark eyes. The old woman let them rake over the men assembled in front of her until they rested on Avienkala.
”Welcome home, Sister,” she said and Avienkala seemed to sway.
”Mother,” she allowed with a gasp and the small woman gave a small, tight smile.
On instinct Videgavia spoke, ”We have come in good faith and all you see before you are members of my Company. If you assail one of us, you assail us all. I will consider it an act of aggression.”
The old woman began to laugh at that, mirthlessly and yet, for all of that, Avienkala drew in a deep breath and pressed her fingers to her brow. She seemed….eased.
”An act of aggression! You come unbidden, secretly, to a foreign land accoutred for war and you talk to me of aggression.”
“Have we sought to invade, to dominate? Have we whipped your people into rebellion? Have we attacked your rulers?”
“Rebellion? You have two of the three most powerful Sisters in your grasp, if not willingly then certainly as hostages. Rulers? Our Wizard and Priestess are slain and…and we never got within five hundred leagues of your King…but….ah….I see. We found another…one of the Old Blood, the royal line of Numenor fallen…one…dear to you. You brought…her, yes a woman… you brought her right to us. Is she with you now?”
Videgavia hissed at this and it was then that Avienkala spoke, ”Mind your thoughts!”
Behind him, Molguv bit off a Haradian curse about witches. The small woman tilted her head, her eyes refocussing now on Videgavia.
”Are you here to avenge this….aggression?”
Videgavia sorely wanted to say that this was so. He had been as worried and angry as any of the Old at the attack that targeted their Doc, excepting perhaps her husband and brother, but now he felt the bloody, vicious threads of rage tangling through him. The hot need for blood pounded at his temples. Boots scuffled as men fell deeper into the fighting stances and movement off to the side revealed the Cats were being stirred too. This, a small part of him noted, was odd. They were not here for revenge at all. In fact…
”HOLD! HOLD OR I’LL PUT YOU DOWN MYSELF,” Videgavia roared and it seemed to him that something suddenly vanished.
”No…Mother,” he said raggedly when he was confident someone wasn’t about to charge, or loose an arrow, ”We are not here for blood. We are here because you asked us to come…and we brought food because your messenger was starved.”
At a wave of his hand, Khule let the girl forward. She came wide eyed and stared at the warriors around her. When she set eyes on the old woman, she began to run. Videgavia was no one’s idea of an expert on children but he reckoned they did not run towards someone they were frightened of and, as a general rule, were not idiots. The girl ran straight to the old woman, wearing a tunic one of the Cats had given her belted with what appeared to rigging rope someone had scrounged up at the harbour. The old woman set what could only be an affectionate hand on the girl’s head before she tipped the child’s chin up. Then, with a brief word, she bid the girl to join the others behind her.
”We are because you wished to test us,” Videgavia guessed and at that the old woman smiled properly for the first time.
”This is true,” she admitted and then waved a papery hand at the walls behind her, ”Even if our intentions remained…military… we do not have the means to achieve them. We can barely keep our own walls and, as you have said, we can barely feed the mouths that remain to us. But to accept the aid of a viper would only hasten our demise and I, warrior, am charged with ensuring our survival.”
The old woman tilted her head again, ”Though, it remains to be seen if that aid remains to be had after the testing is done.”
At that, Videgavia gave the signal and, expressions ranging from wary to outright suspicious, the supplied were carted forward. He was not sure just what he thought or felt about this. Had they been manipulated? As ever, so little about this land and people was clear to him.
”Can not our Sisters also be returned to us?” the old woman pressed as this occurred.
”Your Sisters amongst us are there of their own volition. They stay or leave by their choice alone.”
The old woman considered him a long moment, smiled and then pulled up her hood.
”Fitting, then, that you should do the same,” she said from within the confines of her hood.
At that, the others turned about and the procession moved back to the gates. Just as Videgavia was wondering whether he’d have to send his men into their compound to ferry the supplies in, a small group of careworn men emerged from the gates. These, then, must be the too few to mount any campaign. They looked capable enough. Just too few. They eyed Videgavia’s men warily, collected the carts and started dragging them towards their walls.
As Videgavia led his forces back to camp, he replayed the exchange in his head. He was becoming reasonably assured that a larger force of a different disposition might achieve a great deal here. Exploration, mutual trade…another alliance for the Reunited Realm. Perhaps an exchange of….what…hostages…to ensure good faith? Just as that idea occurred to him, Videgavia recalled his distaste of politics, nation building and diplomacy and he shivered at what this campaign was turning him into. Political hostages? Word games with matronly witches? Exploratory expeditions to map and survey foreign lands? It all sounded distinctly like the sort of business he tried best to avoid. Hanasian had never said anything about this when speaking of the duties of captaincy, he mused. In his place, he’d keep it a secret too.
”Thank you, Captain,” Avienkala said earnestly, interrupting his reverie and making him cock a brow.
She explained, ”For not handing my sister and I over.”
Videgavia grunted at that, ”As I said before, you’re one of us now, better or worse. I’m not about to hand you over now even if that weren’t true. We’ve a voyage to prepare for and you’re needed.”
Avienkala graciously inclined her head and Videgavia was left with a familiar feeling that he probably could have been a little kinder or, at least a little less ruthlessly practical. Word games always left him floundering. He’d never had this problem with Rin. She never wanted the flowery stuff, had a powerful suspicion of it, never left him feeling like he was grasping after his own bootstraps. Speaking of which, when he got back, he really wanted to know how she managed to steal his bootstraps. Out of his boots, while he was wearing them. Despite his reputation for nasty knives and an unforgiving nature – or perhaps, he thought with a grin, because of it.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
”What is it?” Runner asked Loch as they stared east from the pass they found in the range of mountains.
”Don’t know,” Loch said, distracted as he lifted a shoulder in half a shrug, ”But I’m thinking it isn’t good for us, or the Company, or Rose and Anvikela. Thinking maybe Dhak or that cult of women at the abbey might like it, though. I’m just not sure.”
Runner slid around Loch and used his hand as a visor against the morning sun, ”We should start back west. We’ve been out a few days longer than we thought. Don’t want to go missing again.”
“We won’t go missing. We’re not moving in on a known sorceress this time. Besides, we aren’t due to meet Steps and Screetch’s squad until tomorrow at the fork,” replied Loch, squinting at the eastern horizon.
Runner took a drink from his water bag and said, ”Maybe not, but didn’t all the tales say there were two wizards? I think that is sorcery out there. Let’s go Loch. I don’t like it. It isn’t getting any closer, but we may be too close already.”
“Very well, my friend. I’ll heed you this time. Let’s go.”
The two slid down the steep track they followed to the high ridge, faces grim. They met up with the other three of their squad that had scouted north along the ridge at the bottom and managed to arrive at the fork before sunset. Steps and Screetch drifted in from the twilight, and the ten made a quick meal of dried fruit and meat before they attempted to sleep. They faced a three day trek back to the ruined city.
As the men settled in after their light meal, Screetch said in his nasally voice, ”You find anything? All we found was old tracks. Many people had gone east in the previous months.”
“Yes, us too,” Runner said.
Loch said, ”Except we saw a large cloud pushing up into the clear blue sky far to the east when we got to the ridge. Too far away to make out what it was, but it didn’t appear natural.”
Steps hunkered down, ”Aye, we saw a bit of that. Don’t like it, no.”
Loch lay back, arms crossed under his head and peered up at the night sky, ”No, and we’re off home… back to Company camp at first light. We’ll be pushing hard, so rest so that we are ready to move on the morrow. Runner has watch sorted. No one on watch gets lazy now.”
Loch sounded like an experienced leader of men, a warning implicit in his last statement without needing to belabour it, as he spoke to the young men around him. Most were Easterlings, part of Runner’s team and known to worship the Company for reasons all of their own that Berlas was little comforted by still. To them, Loch was Old Company and he had survived that catastrophe with one of their own. He commanded respect among them. The remaining men hailed from the contingent of Gondor army that had signed onto the Free Company prior to withdrawal from Rhun. While they certainly did not worship the Company, they too had a respect for Loch’s uncanny scouting ability. They enjoyed serving in his patrols. Loch was oblivious to the fact that they would jockey for position to join a patrol under him, wagering and trading places between the various Gondorian scouts. They respected and liked the man, and they knew him well enough by now to keep such things from him unless he became unbearably cocky.
Loch, however, felt no different at all. He was still a recent newcomer to the Company, an interloper they’d decided to take under their wing. He missed his sister and Hanasian, and Bear and Folca and Frea and Mecarnil and even Farbarad. That surprised him. Farbarad was an excellent Ranger, absolutely dedicated to his sister, but there was something wild about the man that made Loch uncomfortable. He found the Ranger unpredictable, unconventional. Rin would find his concern the source for much derision if she knew. He was hardly in any position to stand in judgement over the man’s manners. Neither of them were, having grown up wild themselves. Still, it was his sister this Ranger was charged with protecting. It was just as well steady, honourable Mecarnil was there to balance Farbarad out. Why, leave Farbarad and Rin together to their own devices… it just didn’t bear thinking about it. It would be funny, in the end, but the trouble those two would get up to… No, Mecarnil was Loch’s pick. All the same, he did miss Farbarad’s wolfish grin, the gleam in his eye, the wry humour.
The nights brought to Loch a recurring dream where he met everyone again at the Prancing Pony of Bree. It was no different this night. As he slept, he found himself there once again. The hustle and bustle of the inn seemed particularly frenetic this night. Loch sat alone with his pot of ale and considered pocketing the cheese for his sister. But, he remembered that Rin always arrived with Hanasian to devour the cheese herself so he didn’t. He looked around and saw faces that seemed familiar at first glance. When he looked closer he found they were strangers. He drained his ale and lifted his pot for another. A sweet, familiar voice sounded from behind him.
”You wish another?”
Loch spun around in his seat and shot to his feet.
”Rose?” he asked and she smiled.
”Yes? Do I know you?”
Loch’s smile faded as he looked about. He returned his eyes to young woman who was now staring at him, ”No… I think not. You just reminded me of someone I used to know long ago, far away east of here.”
The girl’s smile lingered as she studied Loch’s face. Bernard Butterbar came by and said, ”You aren’t paid to stand and gawk at the patrons. Go fetch the man another beer!”
Her smile vanished and she scurried away, not quick enough to be spared a slap to her rump from Bernard. Loch seized his wrist as the man made to depart and said in a low voice, ”You do that to her again, I will kill you.”
The force of his anger surprised him, but it felt…right. The two men stared into the other’s eyes. The innkeeper’s initial outrage had him considering ejecting this lout from his inn but it faded as he realised the man meant every word of his violent threat. He contented himself with shaking Loch’s grip from his arm and departed swiftly. A little dazed, Loch sat down heavily again only to be pulled into a crushing headlock that made his head spin almost immediately.
Mecarnil said, ”If you get us kicked out of here, we’ll have to be off to the Forsaken!”
Loch shook himself loose to sit up and face Mecarnil and discovered the man was heavily cloaked and cowled. Something about that startled him, though he knew not what, and he jumped up just in time to hit the tray of flagons the girl named Rose was carrying. He spilt them all over her. The noise of the tray and the pots clattering and smashing to the floor caused the place to unnaturally still silence. Bernard was there in a flash.
”What, can’t handle a jostle from a drunken Ranger? Don’t bother towelling off! Just get this cleaned up and get those ales replaced and served. You owe for the spilt ale and broken pots.”
The girl held back tears as she stooped to scrape the potshards onto the tray, Bernard hovering to scrutinise her every move. She stood and turned and Bernard slapped her on the rump again, all the while holding Loch’s eyes with his own.
”Go on then, kill me.”
Loch went for his knife but a bony hand grabbed his arm. Mecarnil’s voice sounded again, ”It’s not worth the trouble, Kid.”
Loch hesitated and the grave’s grip on his arm loosened. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end now. He stared at the cloaked figure and Bernard walked away, dismissively tossing a statement over his shoulder as he went, ”As I thought.”
Loch reached for the hood and pulled it back. A skull rocked back and fell to the ground, followed by the rest of the body as the bones collapsed in an untidy, unholy mess. All Loch held in hand was Mecarnil’s old tattered cloak.
The girl said from behind him, ”You’d best go.”
Loch turned and the sad, beer-soaked serving girl who spoke with Rose’s voice pointed at the door. Around her were old faces he knew.
She pleaded, ”Please! You must go!”
Morcal and Mecarnil’s hands reached for him with ghastly arms from beyond the grave, but she pushed Loch away from their grasp.
Loch hesitated just long enough to drop silver coins on the girl’s tray.
”For the beer I spilled on you, the trouble I caused.”
Something grabbed his shoulder from behind and Loch jumped with instinctual fear.
”Loch? Are you unwell? Been trying to wake you. It’s last watch - your watch.”
Loch discovered he was panting as he stared up into Runner’s concerned face in the night. A cold, clammy sweat painted his face and wiped at it, disorientated. Runner held out his water bag to Loch, and he swallowed several gulps. He then poured a little over his head. He felt as though he was starting to catch his breath.
”You sure you’re well?” Runner asked as he watched Loch stand and narrowly avoid falling over, ”I can take your watch. I won’t sleep anymore no how.”
“I’m well… I can stand watch. Was just had a bad dream,” Loch said blinking his eyes and inwardly wondering how his sister ever managed such terrible creatures over the years. These Dreams were truly awful!
Loch returned his attention to Runner as his decision was made, “And there will be no last watch. Get the men ready to move. We leave now. We need to make haste back.”
Runner peered at Loch’s face a moment but did nothing other than to nod an affirmative salute. It wasn’t long before they were making their way west down the track, back the way they had come. When the first light of dawn arrived they were far away from where they had camped. Loch had elected to take rearguard and though they made good time west, Loch lingered at a rise on the track to look back. There, he guessed about where they camped, a gray cloud hovered. There was no morning sunrise there. Whatever they had spotted in the distance to the east the day before had clearly sensed them as well. Had they of remained at camp as originally planned… Loch realised he was slathered in that cold sweat again and he swiped some of it from his brow as he hurried to catch up the men ahead. The sooner they got back to the Company camp, the better.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Videgavia stood on the hill in the early morning to study the abbey. It had become part of his routine. After awhile, Lady Anvikela joined him and the pair of them stood there, staring at the walls and the bronze gates and the cracked dome that rose behind.
Lady Anvikela broke the silence reluctantly, ”They grow stronger. I have felt it all the time we have been here, but I was unable to prevent it until my sister’s help arrived. She fell into a deep dream last night and I could not wake her. I cannot shield every man’s thoughts from them on my own. Yet they are able to shield their thoughts from me.
“I finally awakened my sister, though she was frightened and unwell. She was soaked…shivering…worried about Loch. Once she was able to concentrate and focus, she was able to assist me and we regained control. I fear that next time we may not be so fortunate.”
Videgavia nodded and considered what Anvikala had told him, uncertain if ever he would be able to make heads or tails of this sorcery and power. They had met the women of the abbey under parley only weeks ago. He still did not know what had been learned or gained in that. What had those women learnt of them? He suspected that the good will of the Company may have been taken advantage of. It was an uncomfortable thought for Videgavia. To lose so much in supplies and possibly expose them to further peril and to gain what? Time, perhaps? And where were Loch and his scouts? Why had he sent them out one last time? His rationale had seemed sound at the time: the messaging was routine, and he wanted to keep them sharp. Now they were overdue. Maybe today they will return.
Videgavia finally stirred himself to speak, ”My lady, it is fortunate that word has reached us that the ship sets out today. With favourable winds they should be here by night, early morning at worst. Do you think that you and Rose have the strength to get us through?”
“That is a mystery. We will only know when we try. It would be best if we set out unnoticed.” Anvikela thoughtfully said.
Videgavia nodded as turned his own thoughts about. Perhaps it would be best if they set out from where the ship is. Yes, farther away from this abbey and better able to conceal themselves as far as he could tell. They would have to move now. Videgavia looked around found Dorghat was nearby in the event his Captain had a message to run.
”You. Get this message to Donius now: Do not sail the ship up to the city. Repeat, do not sail it to the city. Sail as if you mean to, turn back and return to your dock. The company will meet you there in a day’s time.”
Dorghat frowned with the effort to commit the rapidly spoken message to memory but was handed a scroll written out by the Gondorian scribe Videgavia had taken on to keep his records. Now there had been an excellent command decision. Oh how he hated writing. Dorghat set out south with speed, his Captain’s expression proof for the importance the message he bore.
Videgavia was naturally not finished thinking and soon had his scribe write out a couple more messages. Dorghat’s second stood ready. Videgavia waved him over.
”I have to trust you to get word to all the Old Company, and to Khor. We have move swift and quiet. It must appear that we are staying put. Tell them to meet me at Dockbridge as the sun sets. Much will be discussed.”
The messenger nodded and took the hastily penned scrolls. He was gone in a blink of an eye and Anvikela had watched it all.
”You plan to move quickly and this is good. But I have my sister to manage. She in some ways has more power than I, and I cannot focus her mind to a task. She longs for your comrade, this Lochared of Dunland. When he is away from the camp she drifts in dream. Should he return, she will be better.”
Videgavia sighed, unsurprised having seen it, sensed it himself. It was one of the reasons he sent Loch off in command of a couple scouting squads. Now he was late. They all were. Videgavia held to the hope that this was only due to some routine thing such as Loch seeing something that required his attention. But there were no runners sent back with any word of their delay. If Loch was not heard from in two more days at the most, he and the men assigned to him on this mission, would have to be left behind.
Videgavia shuddered at the bitter, dark thought. How could he tell Rin that he had found her brother alive and well east of the sea, only to abandon him there? The idea made him ill. She’d never forgive him and he knew that for some reason that mattered almost as much as he’d not forgive himself. Loch had to make it back. Make it to the city before they had pulled out.
Videgavia quietly said to Anvikela, ”It may be your sister’s love for Loch in these hours that saves him from a doom I would have to put to him if he fails to return in time. All your accounts have it that the Abbey is reaching for some power. I can only assume it is this final remaining wizard. We have naught to battle him, aside from you and Rose.
“But I will not call upon you two ladies to this task. We will leave these shores and try to return west, and it is this that I ask you to assist us in. We did not come here to do battle with sorcerers. I do not wish to leave anybody behind in this strange place.”
Anvikela nodded, expression sorrowful, as she considered the journey back west. So much had happened, altered, since she last set out west. She had been a mere underling of much more powerful people. Sorcerers and Witch. And they had no real opposition to their departure to contend with. The entire will of the Abbey and the Order was with them then.
Now, she and her sister were expected to carry a ship of westerners back across the rift, with opposition? She wasn’t sure it could be done. The key lay with her sister, Rose. She would have to utter her name. And Loch would have to be by her side.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
”It’s hunting him!” Rose cried at her sister as soon as she entered the room.
Anvikela fell back against the door, startled. Rose clutched at her arms frantically, thick strands of wild hair stuck across her face.
”I can’t stop it! I can’t reach him!”
Rose clawed at her in desperation and it was a struggle to force her back so that Anvikela could try to soothe some reason into her.
”Together we might, if you focus,” she said and Rose snarled at that and spun away to clutch at her head.
She staggered, ”It’s no use! You’re not strong enough! It knows where we are!”
Anvikela shoved the flare of anger at her younger sister’s dismissal aside. It had a bitter sting for it was true. Of the three of them, Rose was the strongest though she hid it well indeed. In its place, a wild thought came to Anvikela.
”Not for long, Rose,” she said as the stern Captain’s earlier actions came to her.
Rose had spun back to face her and stared through the sweaty curtain of her hair.
”We need someone with a bond to him, Rose. Do you remember that woman?”
“His sister,” Rose whispered and Anvikela nodded. She had not known until Rose had said it but it made sense. Sister. Did that make Loch of similar high descent? No, no time to ponder that.
”Yes…we can reach her, and she can reach him…they cannot hunt quarry they cannot predict. Hurry…prepare yourself. This will be more difficult for neither will be sleeping. Their waking defences will be in place.”
“I am ready,” Rose insisted, suddenly preternaturally calm.
Anvikela suppressed a shudder. Sometimes her sister scared even her.
”Then let us begin.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There were five of them in total. Elves of Harlond, drawn of all things to a mortal child who crawled blithely around them in the afternoon sun. Hanavia, like the rest of the mortals with him, were carefully wrapped against the chill of the day. It did not snow so close to the coast and so far south of the Ice Bay, according to Hanasian, but it was icy all the same. The Elves, however, seem untroubled by the light afternoon breeze that raised a bright glow to the cheeks of the child in their midst. None of it made any sense to Rin. Oh, she could speak Sindarin now. The words made sense to her. The reason for this entire thing, however, did not. Rin was, as a result, quiet and still as she attempted to sort it all out. Hanasian and Farbarad were relaxed, calm, even pleased. Hanavia was delighted. He had a new toy to play with. It was a series of smooth, polished, wooden rings all of different weight and size and timbers. They interlocked and made a surprisingly pleasant melodious sound when shaken. Hanavia was vigourously shaking them as he wandered about as best he might. He was at the point where he could climb up things. Tables, chairs, people’s legs.
Rin was reasonably certain that Elves did not crawl up other Elves’ legs. Yet they were untroubled by Hanavia’s enthusiasm for climbing up for a better look at them. They would smile quietly down, perhaps stroke his hair softly and he would beam at him. A silent exchange of perfect understanding. It was mystifying and Rin shifted her weight from one foot to another. What was it about Hanavia that might appeal to Elves? Rin surreptitiously studied the Elves from beneath her lashes. They presented no overt threat. In fact, Elves had always been the source of much benefit in her experience. But they always had reasons, sometimes knowable and often times not. These Elves were strangers. Elladan and Elrohir had their reasons for being involved. Even Thranduril had. But what of these? Two women, three men. Or did Elves call their women and men differently? That question sent her off chasing through her learned words of Sindarin and the little bit of Quenyan that she had managed to acquire. Then the oddest thing happened. At least, odder than the encounter she was presently engaged in.
”Quickly! Come! Yes! Come! For your brother! You must! Hurry now?”
Rin blinked rapidly and glanced about. Had anyone else heard that? One of the Elvish women had crouched to play with Hanavia. Farbarad and Hanasian were steeped in discussion with the two Elvish males. The other Elvish woman was staring at her now and she smiled to soften any possible offense before redirecting her attention to her companion and Hanavia. Rin smoothed her hands over her woollen coat. Very strange indeed, but no harm done.
”She’s stuck! She will not budge. This will not work.”
Rin sucked in a breath and could not help herself. She glanced over her left shoulder, positive now that two women with strange accents stood nearby. Nothing but the stables and the ring of Rowdy’s hammer on that damn customised ring mail Farbarad had insisted upon. If he thought she was going to voluntarily wear that wretched stuff here, he had another thing coming. Of course, if he knew she was hearing voices, he’d not be so keen to have her pick up a sword again for training.
”Isn’t that right, Rin?” Hanasian said and Rin turned about.
”Oh…yes…of course,” she agreed. They all had pleasant, calm expressions on. What harm in agreeing with whatever had been said.
”Typical,” Farbarad muttered in Westron, ”I swear that woman changes her mind with each shift in the direction of the wind.”
Hanasian’s smile was lazy and broad. Rin opened her mouth to offer something against that and then reconsidered. She closed it with a sigh and resolved to pay closer attention next time.
”There! We have her now. Do not struggle! We mean you no harm! What should we call you?”
Rin’s jaw gaped. The bright wintry afternoon had given way to a densely fogged plain. She stared down and could not see her own feet. The voices swirled through the clouds. Women’s. The same two women that had not been there before, with the strange accents. Rin did not like this at all and it showed in her icy tone. Anger was always better than to display naked fear. Always. Fear meant vulnerability.
”WHERE AM I?” she demanded, not quite knowing why she bothered. Nothing these two disembodied voices might offer by way of answer could be trusted.
”Her brother calls her Rin,” said one formless voice.
”May we call you that, Rin?” the other asked.
”You can call me Thomas for all I care. Send me back! NOW! Or…or…I’ll do something…or I won’t…yes, that’s it. I won’t do whatever it is you want me to…wait…how do you know my brother?”
Again, another pointless question. When it came to dealing with disembodied voices on some unknown plane, she really went quite to pieces, Rin mused.
”We can take you to him. He will listen to you. If he does not, the sorcerer will find him. Or he will be left behind. Please?”
Something finally materialised into view. A woman, smaller, dusky skin and dark hair that was tousled. She was young, Rin saw. She seemed…familiar…though that made no sense at all.
”Who are you?” Rin asked, three pointless questions for three!
”I am called Rose.”
“That was not always your name. I know. I have more than one myself,” Rin guessed without knowing how.
The other woman smiled and nodded, ”Will you come? Lochared will listen to you.”
“You don’t seem to know him well. Lochard is dead, but when he was alive he made a fine career of ignoring the sage advise of his younger sister,” Rin answered and watched this Rose very carefully indeed.
The other woman tilted her head to one side and nodded, ”Yes, a test. I brought him to you, in a dream. He is not dead. I know this. You know this.”
“Am I dreaming now?” Rin asked.
”In a fashion. We waste time, though. Please. Will you come?”
“What would you have me say to him?”
What Rose said next had her undivided attention. If it was a trick, it was a risk worth taking. For Loch. Rin nodded.
”Be on with it then. I have guests…Elves of all things,” Rin said brusquely and Rose smiled for perhaps the first time. She had a very pretty smile.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
His feet ached. They had pushed hard and though they would need to travel through the night, they needed to stop for this break now. Loch dared not remove his boots. If he took them off now, he’d not get them back on again, and unhooked his water pouch from his belt. He also resolved not to close his gritty eyes for fear of not being able to open them again. Despite that, however, it seemed as if the brief respite barely passed before he heard Runner moving about to get them up again.
Loch groaned and attempted to peel open his eyes. He pushed himself to his feet and peered back the way they had come. No trace of that infernal cloud now, but it was dark and they stood little chance of seeing it. Running from a cloud. Wulgof would have a field day with this when he got a hold of it.
”No one says a word of this cloud,” he grated out, ”Leave it to me to report.”
And only to Vid, Loch resolved, closing his eyes to rub at them. One more night and they’d reach the city by dawn.
”Not that way, you great ox,” an ascerbic voice whispered and Loch shouted in surprise one name.
Nine men stared back at him in consternation and puzzlement and Loch could hear her laughing.
”Oh, that’ll be a good one. Can’t wait to hear that tale when you’re back. Listen and listen well. I have a Rose here, says she knows you. I think she likes you, Loch. Doesn’t say a lot for her taste, but there you have it. Rose and Anvikela, her sister though that Anvikela seems a twitchy sort.”
Loch snorted at that. She was right. Anvikela was nervous by nature. But, then, being buried alive in a collapsed building could do that to a person.
”Tell them hallo, from me,” he said and he heard or sensed Rin give an irritated sigh.
”What am I? Your personal courier. Tell them yourself. You need to make for Dockbridge. Whatever or wherever that is. Not the city. Dockbridge. Else they’ll ship with out you. And, brother dear, if you ignore my tidings as per usual and miss that boat, I will find you. Oh yes. I will. And when I do-“
Just like that, she was gone. A whirlwind suddenly vanished. Loch realised he was standing slack jawed with nine men nervously shuffling around him. He closed his mouth with a click and pointed at the coast.
”Change of plans, lads,” he said and without waiting to see if they’d follow, he set off for the coast. He did not bother instructing them to keep that quiet. Pointless to ask them to do that.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The first thing Rin noticed is that it was cold and bright. The breeze was back. It had tugged the fur lined hood of her coat back. She was back, sitting on the ground, and the conversation around her had stilled. Hanavia was peering at her and when she blinked, he grinned and rattled his new gift at her. There was an Elf woman at Rin’s shoulder. The first Rin knew of this was the sensation of her hand as it lifted away from Rin’s shoulder.
”Oh,” Rin uttered, not quite a squeak.
”Oh? Is that all you have to say?” Farbarad demanded irritably.
”There was no cause for alarm, Ranger,” said the Elf woman as she stood.
”Not the point,” Farbarad said.
Hanasian was crouched at her other side. He smiled deeply into her eyes and Rin nodded, sensing his need to confirm that she was indeed well. Insane as a rabid dog, certainly, but otherwise well. He grazed his knuckles down her cheek and then pulled her hood back into place.
”Much better,” he intoned, a deep rumble of relief, and guided her back to her feet and off the very cold ground she had found herself seated on.
”You can’t just go about behaving like that. It worries people. Pretending nothing happened, nothing is wrong, only makes it worse,” Farbarad continued, not to be mollified. Apparently, whatever had happened had truly rattled him. Hanasian had mentioned that the man became unruly when genuinely worried. It was a side of Farbarad Rin had never seen before. He had always been so unflappable, even when injured.
”If you’re looking for an explanation, I don’t have one for you,” Rin replied brusquely and then a bolt of inspiration came to her, ”And I think enough of a disturbance has been made for our guests.”
A leaf straight out of Mecarnil’s book of Proper Manners. Rin grinned, pleased with herself and Farbarad frowned. Where had this sudden concern for decorum come from? One minute she collapses to the ground like a sack of potatoes, stares fixedly at nothing at all, impervious to all questions or inquiries, eyes glazed and now she is rebuking him for making a scene!
Rin graciously inclined her head and, of all the outrageous things, curtsied. Properly!
”I seek pardon for any offense or concern I may have given,” she intoned contritely.
”Forgive me if this seems overbold,” one of the male Elves responded, ”But does this happen often?”
“First sign I’ve ever seen of voluntary manners,” Farbarad muttered. She’d been practising curtsies but when it came to keeping her defensive skills up she resisted him at every step!
”No,” Rin said smoothly, ignoring Farbarad and the urge to chuckle.
The Elf turned to his companions and the woman that had been at her shoulder shook her head, long midnight hair swaying with the movement in a hypnotic fashion.
”This is not uncommon,” she maintained and glanced at Rin before continuing, ”Particularly with the Edain, in the early phases.”
Rin’s enjoyment of Farbarad’s irritation evaporated with that. Early phases? Of what? Was she truly, really mad? As if she sensed Rin’s question, the Elf woman regarded her steadily with eyes that were still, calm, ancient as a starlit mere.
”You are with child.”
Oh no! That wasn’t it at all! Rin was shaking her head before she knew it.
”I do not think so.”
“It is true.”
“It can’t be.”
What sort of question was that? Rin’s cheeks flushed but she had a reasonable answer rapidly enough.
”I have a son. I know how such things are with me.”
“Ah,” the Elf woman said with a knowing smile, ”But this time, my lady, you have twins.”
There was silence at that. Rin felt lightheaded all of a sudden. When she looked to Hanasian, he looked a little pale. Probably just like her. To break the tension, one of the other male Elves spoke up.
”You are to be congratulated, Hanasian. Your lady’s grasp of Sindarin is strong indeed if she is able to argue so fluently.”
“Thank you. Another language for my dear wife to argue in was just what I was striving for,” Hanasian replied, recovering a little to find some way of smoothing over the current tension. Rin appeared genuinely flabbergasted. This was no secret she had known and kept to herself. He turned to the Elf that Rin had argued with and bowed.
”My thanks, fair lady, for these glad tidings. We are surprised, no more than that.”
“They are welcome, then?” the Elf woman inquired closely and Hanasian found his smile again.
”Indeed they are,” he replied and considered his wife, ”Are they not, my love?”
All Rin could say, still utterly startled, was a single word, ”Two!”
And that made Farbarad laugh so hard that he cried. Later on, it would occur to him that he now had a crown princess, her husband and regent, their son and now two others to keep safe…and Rowdy would need to adjust that mail he was making.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Dorghat ran as fast as he could in his oversized company leathers. He had shed his cloak before leaving; still the track was unforgiving despite having been travelled by many before him. It seemed the brambles reached out to slow him, forcing him to push on. Rain started to fall, ending the weeks of dryness they had enjoyed. He hurried, aware that the track would soon become treacherous, slippery muck and he would have to slow. The urgency of his mission spurred him on, and in time, the ship they would board loomed ahead.
”Are we ready to take this thing out on the sea?” Donius queried uncertainly.
Work continued around him and he had been considering sending a runner to Videgavia. They needed one more day – at lest!. But all bets were off when Dorghat arrived out of breath and passed the engineer the scroll.
”Damn,” Donius muttered.
There was some small measure of relief in the tidings that he would not have to sail the ship that very day. It simply was not ready, no matter how hard he pushed to have so that he could get it back to the main quay this day. Now the Company was coming to them, and soon it would seem. The testing of the ship would occur with everyone aboard. He would know the ship was ready if they made it west, apparently. He swallowed hard, recalling well the hard voyage east. May the Vala be with them, if they still had eyes for this world. It occurred to Donius eventually that Dorghat was waiting for a response to run back to Videgavia.
He said, ”Rest boy! Drink, and eat something. We have others, well rested, to run a message back. When you have recovered some, I’ll have a job for you.”
The prospect of working with shipwrights was one Dorghat could barely contain. Certainly sleep was not within his grasp. Still he gladly accepted the offer of food and drink and, with a full belly, was soon sound asleep where he had seated himself against a wall on shore.
”Let the boy sleep,” Donius said, ”When he wakes, he’ll work on the mast for us.”
There was faint chuckling to be had from the men within earshot. Dorghat’s arrival was soon forgotten, however, as they turned back to their work. True to his word, Donius sent another runner back to Videgavia.
In the city by the quay, Videgavia informed the gathered men of his Company and Khor’s of his plan to march on the Abbey itself. Only a small number, the Old Company and Khor himself so highly was he now esteemed, knew it to be a feint. Mistrust ran thickly between Videgavia and the women of the Abbey. Anvikela did not say if her former colleagues could read minds, but her warning during parley to guard their thoughts was enough to prompt Videgavia to assume they could. Fortune permitted them a moonless, overcast night and just as all seemed to be in readiness, Commander Khor surprised them all. Khule and Khor talked animatedly. Yet there was no changing his mind. Videgavia got word from Khule, and he wasted no time calling on Khor…
”What is this I’m hearing?” Videgavia demanded.
Khor replied, ”It’s simple really. You clearly require a diversion. I and those men that desire to remain with me will march on the Abbey in formation. We’ll be enough, I hope, to keep their attentions away from you. You should be able to slip away, and sail back west.”
Khor’s voice had been even and steady and Videgavia looked the Easterling directly in the eyes. There was no hesitation their either. Remarkable.
”You realise that there will likely be no leaving this place once the ship sails.”
“Yes, this has been considered. I have my reasons,” Khor replied, pausing to think one last time about it before he pushed on, ”I’m not going back. There is no place for me there now.
“If my brother were smart he’d remain with me too, along with some of his men. But his bond, his commitment to this Company of yours is too strong.”
“You could join as well. You, and your men. You would be welcome.”
Khor shook his head emphatically, ”I can’t join your Company. I can’t play Gondor’s pet soldier in my homeland. So I’ll stay here and take what comes. My men will stay with me because they want to, not because they are ordered to. And yes, they have been asked. Any of your men want to stay, they are welcomed into my command.”
Videgavia nodded slightly. He said, ”No, nobody who is of the Company wishes to stay, unless it’s Loch’s squad. There’s no word from them as yet. If they come in after we leave, they’ll be a great asset to your command – Lochared in particular. They’ll be a handful though, Lochared in particular. Tell them I ordered it or something. Either way, we slip out tonight.”
Khor straighted to his full height and saluted in the manner of his forebears. He said, ”And we march on the abbey at dawn.”
Rain, low cloud and mist.
Perfect weather to disappear in. It was the midnight hour when the first of the Company left. Daius with the engineers that he had kept there were the first. To set out. Molguv followed with the bulk of the Gondorians. Wulgof and a few men loaded up a wagon with supply, and left the key to their bunker with Khor. Khule was last to leave with his contingent of Easterlings. He gave one last search of the city perimeter for Loch, and to keep with routine of the day. Once this had completed, Khule stood before his brother with knitted brow.
”I admire you brother, but I doubt you and your two dozen men will stand a chance against such sorcery that surely comes.”
“We will do what we must, just as we always done. What come cannot be worse than serving the Eye. We will do well enough, and one day we may meet again. Or so I hope. Farewell brother,” Khor said.
With that, Khule gave the command to move out. Khor called his men to form up ranks. They had a walk to take this morning.
Donius saw them coming. Videgavia arrived shortly after Daius with the two sisters.
Donius sighed as he said, ”Welcome aboard my ladies. It still needs work, so please, for me, can you take it easy on her?”
Together Rose and Anvikela inclined their heads and they were shown to their cabin where they immediately began their preparations. Two hours after sunrise, they were ready to sail. Videgavia stood on the gangplank by the ship’s rail and looked about. It was then he heard that voice…
”Ho, Cap! You going somewhere?”
”Days late with no word,” Videgavia muttered to himself as he hurried back down the plank to meet the men.
Inwardly pleased that Loch had arrived with all men, outwardly he remained Captin and Loch and his men had been missing. And they had sent no word. The scount was simply too reckless at times, he thought as he watched Loch approach. He liked that. Reminded him of his younger self in ways. Still…
His words were the words of a Captain, not a young Dale Ranger, as Loch drew close, ”NO word? Have you any idea how close you were to being re-assigned to Commander Khor? Get your men aboard, and resting. As for you…I’ll have a report from you once we have set sail…unless you think it can’t wait.”
“Sail? Where?” Loch said, surprised. When they left, the Company was still entrenched in the city. Now they were off Loch kept talking,
“Aboard, not to be bothered. You will see her in time. Get your report done. I want it written too,” Videgavia said and ignored Loch’s groan, ”You are confined to quarters until it is finished. As for you, Runner, as his second you’ll work the kitchen for the evening meal. Report to Daius.”
Loch eyed Runner, considering already asking his friend to trade duties. He’d peel potatoes any day. Better than writing. He hated writing, more even than the Captain. He scout began walking, glum, until another question occurred to him.
”Where’s Khor and his men?”
“Covering our tails.”
The ship crept out into the fog silently. Not nearly so quiet was the sound of the marching boots of Khor’s infantry. Halting at the gates, Khor approached and looked in through the rusty iron bars of a small view port. There was no activity visible beyond and so he his men maintain their positions in formation. In time, a lone woman emerged from a tall door of the abbey. Khor stood at ease with his hands behind his back and watched her approach the gates. She took her time and he felt his jaw clench out of old habit. He loathed dawdling.
”You are not the Captain.”
“Nor am I of the Company,” he agreed stiffly at first, "That said m’lady, I think there is much we could discuss.”
The old lady said hurriedly, ”What would I discuss with you that I haven’t said to the Captain?”
Khor said, ”As I said, I do not serve under the Captain of the Company. You don’t know me. Still I think we could find some mutually beneficial ground on which to stand.”
The woman closed her eyes and after a moment, as if remembering something, and said ”I am to ask if you will join us for morning tea.”
Khor said, ”Kind of you. Still, I would have to leave my men here. It’s cold and foggy and misty. Soaks a soldier to the bone, makes him irritable. It would not be right to invite me in, but leave them here while I enjoyed your tea.”
Again the woman closed her eyes. She seemed irritated. After a moment, she said, ”Very well. You and your men are welcome. But this is a holy place. Your arms must remain in the parlour with one of your men and one of our servants.”
Khor nodded and said, ”As you say. The Sisters of the Abbey are wise, I think. My men and I agree to partake in your hospitality. We will conduct ourselves with restraint.”
Khor had considered the dangers, but thought it best to meet it head on. So too thought the Mothers of the Abbey. Neither side realized the danger they both placed themselves within.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Loch stared at the blank paper before him. It yawned, a blinding crevice that sought to suck him into its maw. The paper was thicker here, rougher. Rin liked paper. She had told him once how it was made. All excited about having seen it herself, she had come in that evening all flushed, eyes glowing, to explained the process to him. She had snuck into somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be, the way of their lives then, and instead of coming back with food or something that could be used to obtain food, she came back with this knowledge. And she had been late. And he had been worried. How old were they then? Fifteen, he recalled and she would have been twelve. Already showing signs of the woman she would transform into. He had worried a lot that year. They had not moved in safe circles then and the world, he knew, coveted beautiful things – and often shattered them in a bid to possess them.
He remembered shouting, all his pent up worry and his hunger and his anger boiling out of him. He could not remember what he had said, but it had been enough to wipe the glow of delight and fascination from his sister’s face. It had been replaced with that smooth mask and all of a sudden she was distant and remote, as his all his rage at their situation and the futility of all came rushing out in ugly, tangled, clotted words. The transformation in her manner had been more effective than a bucket of cold water or a slap. It was too late. The words could not be unspoken and she had withdrawn from him for days. It had been the last time she had come to him all abuzz with whatever she had learnt.
He stared at the flecks of whatever they used here to make paper and thought of her now. How on earth was he going to put this down on paper? He had not written anything for months. The letter he had penned to her had taken him some time. Writing was an effort, something he found uncomfortable. But, even if he was better at the act of writing, setting down into words that would not haunt his tracks in the Company was another challenge. Loch set his jaw, inked his quill and set to it. The letters were rough, but he wanted to rest. He wanted to see Rose.
quote:”We saw evide….signs that many others had passed on the trail. We divided to cover more ground. Then a….foul cloud descended. It hunted us, blocked all light. I knew it to be sorcery. We took evasive action, which delayed us…”
Loch paused, hand aching already, and squinted at the page. He had crossed out his attempt at the word evidence. All of it was true…but how was he to describe what happened next? A mysterious cloud. They saw signs of a great passage of people and then they had run like frightened boys from a cloud. And then, to make matters worse, his sister told him to change course. Except Rin was a long way away and thought him dead. And he was here, about to turn in the most absurd and poorly written report he imagine had been tendered in the history of reports. Rin was good at reports. She had completed them without trouble, always on time, never any corrections. Clear, concise, informative. Drawings, diagrams, maps. She had even written for that library or healing house in Minas Tirith. Maybe he would draw a map. That might be a good idea.
Loch set to once more and roughed out a map that approximated the ground they had covered. With a few markings, he was able to convey where they split, where they saw the sign of a great migration and where the cloud had first appeared. He leaned back in his chair, head canted to one side. Not as pretty as her drawings, but accurate enough. Now, what else? A sudden bolt of inspiration occurred to the scout.
At the bottom of the map, which conveniently occupied the majority of the page, he wrote,
quote:”No losses, no injuries.”
Very important, that. No injuries or losses. Good captains liked that. The sound of boots on the ladder below deck dragged Loch’s attention up in time to see Videgavia picking his way between the hammocks slung about towards him. Loch stood, ignoring the ache of his back, with paper in hand. He belatedly recalled that ink took time to dry and he glanced at his work. Sure enough, a great blur of ink where his thumb had grasped the paper. Videgavia ignored the scout’s sudden chagrin and plucked the parchment out of his hand.
”That was quick,” Videgavia commented as he scanned the report.
”Tired. Want to rest is all,” Loch replied and the other man grunted.
”What’s that supposed to be?” Videgavia asked, pointing at the blurred ink.
”My thumb,” Loch replied with a crooked grin that was not shared and so he corrected himself, ”Where we saw the…ah…cloud…Cap.”
Videgavia grunted again and Loch inwardly breathed a sigh of relief that he corrected himself and remembered to use Videgavia’s title. They liked that, captains. Wulgof’s advice was sage in this regard.
”What made you deviate your return course?”
“Huh,” Loch replied, distracted by the imminent prospect of rest…and Rose.
Videgavia tapped the blurred map, ”Your course changed on return. Why?”
Oh. That. Loch shifted his weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably and then he noticed something.
”What’s that sound?”
Videgavia scowled at his scout, in no mood for games, and then realised there was indeed a strange sound. It was dull to them where they stood below deck but there all the same. Loch’s report floated to the floor as Videgavia spun about and ran for the ladder to the deck. As he climbed to the surface, the sound became clearer and all the more unbearable. Loch was on his heels. On the deck, men staggered, hands pressed against their heads. By the mast were the two women, faces obscured by their hair, arms uplifted. An eerie chanting came from them but it seemed to make little difference. A soupy fog had enveloped their ship. Tendrils of it curled around men and fixtures on the deck. But what set their hair on end and teeth on edge was the sound.
The very water was screaming.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The thick fog made it nearly as dark as night once it overtook them yet the ship was mived west at a good speed with a hard gale in its sails. The deafening roar caused most of the men to grasp their ears. Echoes of deep, unfathomable mysteries spread about in dreams as each of the men fell to the decks. But the two sisters held together, a wellspring of light in the darkness that had swept around them. Fell voices could be heard in the deep, echoing darkly as though they came from a vast distance. Amidst it, a higher voice pushed back against the cloud, striving as if one against many. Lady Anvikela appeared to grow in height as she spoke strange words. At this, the strands of cloud retreated from most of the men, to draw itself up and meet the woman. It entangled Anvikela but avoided Rose who held her hand. A tendril had begun to wrap about Anvikela’s neck when Rose opened her eyes. She shivered and looked to where Loch lay on deck.
When a faint tendril of cloud brushed the side of his face, Rose thrust her free hand out and called out forcefully, ”Ila Phaedra tae ne!”
The ship groaned as it ploughed headlong into waves. They had come to the edge of the world already, Videgavia guessed, disorientated and confused as any of the men. He knew that he somehow had to keep the ship’s wheel steady so that they would not be thrown off course and back towards that sorcerous shore. He shoved his leg into the spokes of the wheel, the only way he knew, and grimly held on as his awareness blinked in and out, guttering like a candle in the wind. His next surge of consciousness revealed the cloud’s many fingers fell back from the women at the mast only to grow tall.
One tendril reached for Rose and she reached for it, will against will, so that it could not entangle her. Waves broke over the ship and the belly of the vessel shuddered as an echo from far below deepened. The cloud twisted and reared up only to fall upon them. Now Videgavia understood why the scouts had run.
The women raised their hands and said in loud voices woven in melodic harmony, ”Ila Phaedra n Anvikela tae ne HAE!”
There was a coruscating burst of lightening that singed the air and left a metallic aftertaste as the women lifted each an arm in unison. Once raised to their zenith, a second blinding white light exploded over the ship, followed by a tremendous shock wave that slammed into the vessel like a great hammer. Masts cracked and crossbeams broke. Timbers shrieked in seeming agony and men were thrown back like scattered leaves, thudding to the deck with that sickening sound. Caught by the wheel, Videgavia was twisted about but not dislodged and his mind was blackened outright.
Smoke wreathed the craft and water continued to pound and crash against it. Still the women remained standing amongst the fallen, hands held high. Their clothes were rent and torn and they bled from the shards of wood that had pierced the air like tiny missiles. The smoke drifted in ever diminishing banks until the wind banished it entirely and it was then that the women collapsed into a tangled heap. They had defeated the wizard, but only barely and it would be the last time. He was too far away, and he had received no aid from the Abbey. They had broken the rift and their ship was thrown through, but now they drifted carelessly. There was no one conscious on board and the ship’s masts and sails were ruined. They were adrift on the eastern sea of Middle Earth.
It was Loch who first came back to awareness. He hurt all over. It was all too familiar.
He mumbled to himself ”Not again…”
He couldn’t move at first, but when he opened an eye he looked on what appeared to carnage spread all about him. He managed to lift himself up on his hands and dragged himself to a piece of broken mast. Everyone was strewn about, unmoving. They appeared looked dead and the ship looked as if it was about to sink. In truth, it was only listing to port side slightly. Loch looked over to where Rose and Anvikela had been when last he saw them. All he saw now was a crumpled pile partially obscured by a piece of sailcloth. There was a slight white glow coming from them and the Loch heard a moan. It was Dorghat. He started coughing even as Loch crawled over to the younger man to sit him up. A chorus of moans and slurred words began to rise from all around. Loch clawed his way to standing and staggered over to where the women were. Berlas stood now too, shaking his head from side to side to clear it before he started for the women as wel. The two sisters lay entangled as if they were asleep. They both breathed and it seemed that their injuries were no more serious than cuts and splinters. Still, they would not wake.
So Berlas said, ”Leave them be for now. Keep their watch until I return. I need to see how we fare.”
Loch nodded and sat back down, relieved to have a task no more demanding than watching. Videgavia was on his feet with a bad limp by anyone’s measure. A door flew open and Donius stuck his head out.
Berlas turned at that, ”Report your status.”
”I have two dead down here and everyone else has at least minor injuries. Mostly cuts and wood shards and such. The ship holds tight for the most part, but I see we have no sails.”
Videgavia looked down on the sleeping women and then out over the calm seas where the sun was trying to shine.
”Smells like home. But where we wash up, and when, is anyone’s guess. Now, let’s put things to order and quickly, afore the weather turns again.”
Loch lay back, feeling elated at Videgavia’s words of him despite the fact that he brutally tired and his head pounded with a headache bad enough to worry his sister. He wished she were here now, because they could use a healer as well as medics, he reckoned. A hand crept into his at this thought and Loch opened his eyes to sfindee Rose looking at him.
”We are alive free Lochnard of Dunland? We have returned. We are free?”
“We are, but we have no way to sail the ship. It is badly damaged. And please, will you call me Loch?”
Rose squeezed his hand and said, ”You know my name now, but I like it when you call me Rose.”
“Your name? You never told me,” Loch replied.
Rose smiled and said, ”You will remember. In a dream, in a moment here or there. It will come.”
Dizziness rolled her eyes in her head. This was too much, too soon. She blinked.
”Now I must sleep. Regain my strength. You stay with me?”
Loch moved closer and said, ”I will. I have been ordered to keep watch on you and Anvikela. That I will do.”
“I like that Lochn… Loch. I will sleep well,” Rose said and closed her eyes.
Loch said, ”Don’t you want to stretch out, and your sister too?”
“We are entwined for we merged,” Rose said, eyes opening again.
She played with her sister’s hair with her fingers, ”We both must wake to remove ourselves from each other. My sister will sleep for a very long time. She is strong, but she worked hard to shield us.
“Now I too must rest. Thank you Loch for watching over us while we sleep. I and my sister will rest easier.”
Her eyes closed and she held on to Loch’s hand. In a few moments she was asleep, breathing deep. Loch was not far behind her.
Berlas found Videgavia sitting on an overturned crate, a harried looking Bells tending to his leg.
”Give me some good news Ber,” Videgavia said as his knee was being wrapped.
Berlas considered the options at his disposal and answered, ”The ship isn’t sinking. We managed to keep most of the food and water barrels intact.”
The long pause made Videgavia look up to ask, ”That’s it?”
“Most of us are alive. The majority only suffered from cuts and splinters and shards of wood in the more serious cases. Also, the seas are calm,” Berlas replied. That was it for the good news.
”Now give me the bad news.”
“We’ve three dead and three are missing, assumed they were thrown over the side when the explosion happened. But it could be that what happened to Loch and Runner back in Shkar happened to them. It’s anyone’s guess.
“We have no masts or sails, though Donius says he and Daius can rig something up that may give us a little bit of something to work with. The Old Crew are assembling work parties to clean up the mess.”
Videgavia nodded and said, ”Well, we aren’t going back. May the currents be in our favour and we wash up somewhere before our provisions run out. We’ll need strict rationing, commencing immediately. You will control that. Take who you need to help you.
“Be sure everybody gets some rest. We’ll have a Company meeting tonight and I want every man to report on what they remember. This event seems similar to the one at the house, so I want everyone’s accounts. And I want to see the women once they are both awake and in fit condition to report.”
Berlas nodded and left. No rest for him just yet, but he knew who he wanted to assist with the rationing. The Dirty Three were perfect. There was no one more cunning than those three…and perhaps a few of the Black Cats. There was no trouble yet, but it there was no telling how long they’d have to last out here, wherever they were. Best to get the worst of them, the meanest of them, on his side early – before water and food started to run perilously short.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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And to think she had been sceptical at first. Rin gazed down at the evidence the Elf had been right for all of the wrong reasons. Her belly softly swelled with the twins that had not been the cause for her dizzy spell. Initially overwhelmed and tempted to disregard the Elf's counsel, Rin had been disinclined to explain what had been its real cause. This was not entirely because of the difficulty of putting into words the strange events that had happened. Hanasian's response to the news had been revelatory. It was so very different than how it had been with news of Hanavia's impending arrival. Free of deadly conspiracies, the pall of grief and the weight of her secret, his reaction this time had been one of unmitigated delight and joy. She knew that Hanasian loved her, of course. Now it seemed that he treasured her all the more. He took great pains to ensure she knew this and it could still take her off guard.
Having spent so many years on her own, Rin was no fool. Her husband had given her all she had hoped for, no matter how vain and futile those hopes had seemed at the time. and she would have loved him as dearly had he given her nothing but himself. The prospect of two infants to handle at once was, she could admit, more than a little daunting, but she somehow felt that she could manage it with Hanasian by her side. Moreso, she found that she wanted this with each passing day. Now, spring had come early after a winter she had found surprisingly mild. It was possible that spending winter indoors, with clothes and food and warmth accounted for its sudden mildness. In any case, spring was here and her twins were growing and there was no doubt that the Elf had been correct.
In the late morning the tide receded from the little sandy inlet at the base of the cliffs their home perched atop. Rin was content to sit on the warm sand with her son. Hanavia was growing so fast he seemed to change day by day. Right now he was napping, curled up in her lap and thumb in his mouth. In a few months even that would not be possible. Hanasian stood in the surf, a fishing line in hand and his breeches rolled up to his knees. The breeze that bright morning tugged at his shirt and hair. He called something to Farbarad, who was some way down the shore, similarly fishing. Farbarad shook his head to whatever it was Hanasian had called at him. Behind both men, darting back and forth on the wet sand, was yet another Elvish gift with disturbingly large paws. It yipped at the waves, part challenge, part promise. The salty water made it's shaggy grey coat glisten in dark wiry coils. Hanasian named it a wolfhound. Rin named it an extra mouth to feed. But Hanavia would not be parted from it.
Honestly, these Elves and their gifts. A wolfhound! How large did they grow, she had asked with some concern and Farbarad had informed her that as a general rule they grew no larger than a small pony! As if that was to be some source of comfort for her. Dtill a puppy, it was already a font of never ending mischief that only she seemed to see. Everyone else, Hanasian included, turned a blind eye to the puppy's antics and mishaps. Rin suspected the hound knew what she thought of it. It took great delight in following her about, just watching with those limpid brown eyes, as if that alone was enough to melt her heart. Certainly it appeared adorable enough, bouncing about the little beach in exuberant delight, but she would not surrender her heart to it. Certainly it had only ever been unfailingly gentle with her son, but she would not be fooled.
"You're a hard woman," Rowdy had commented only last night. The pup was in the kitchen again, at the table, staring up hopefully at dinner with those big brown eyes.
Rin had snorted and rolled her own eyes, "Oh please…that? Oldest trick in the book!"
Then she had made her eyes very large and winsome. It was a knack every beggar child mastered early on. She trained them on Rowdy until he had squirmed in his chair.
"See?" she had said, blinking and looked back at her plate, her hold on the Gondorian Ranger released all of a sudden.
"Stones! Is there some sort of school that orphan children go to learn that?"
Rin had arched a brow, entertained a secretive smile and said, "You'd not believe me even if I told you the truth."
Still haunted, Rowdy had scowled at her, "Well, whatever the case it should be made illegal."
"Ah, a conscience then. That makes you the perfect mark," she had answered, all the while ignoring the pup staring up a the table as if he had not been fed only half an hour ago.
On the beach Rin leant back on the blanket and pulled her son to her. He loved to lay over her like this so that his dark head rested on her chest. The sun was warm, the susurrations of the waves hypnotic and soon she was dozing, not caring to push the damp bundle of fur that decided to settle in on one side of her. Damn extra mouth to feed. Damn Elves with their gifts. One of these days she was going to give them a gift. Oh yes. Perhaps an oliphaunt. That should be entertaining.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Things went smoothly at first, but rationing was never a welcome advent no matter how well disciplined the troops. Things were made all the more difficult by the growing awareness that they were marooned upon a floating wooden island in the middle of no one knew where - or even when and that was even worse. It was warm and getting warmer. It was tense and getting grimmer. Molguv leaned against the water casks, his tulwar out ostensibly for sharpening. Wulgof leaned over the shi['s rail and watched the water pass, arm dangling.
"Harad, eastern shore," Mulgov said, whetstone moving down the already wickedly sharp edge of his weapon.
"Rhun," Khule insisted quietly and Wulgof muttered something in Dunlendic, sick and tired of this debate, this ship, rations and the whole affair.
The makeshift sail that the two engineers had fashioned strove the best that they could. Simple fact was that cloaks patched together were not good for catching wind. But, more to the point, there had to be wind to catch. Despite the fact that there was no wind at all, they were still moving through the water. It made no sense. It was unnatural. What worried Wulgof more was the fact that neither of the women they had brought back with them understood how or why this had happened. Or what it might mean. Videgavia could sniff he air and say it smelled like home as much as the man cared to. Wulgof did not like this one bit. It stunk of dubious business and the Dunlender loathed such things. They never led to any good.
Movement off to one side drew Wulgof's attention from the water. Loch had emerged, without that Rose acting his personal shadow for once. He stood at the rail and lifted up a long, bronze tube that made things far away appear close. He used the device to scan the horizon, turning until Wulgof could see the glint of sunlight on the lens.
"A monster!" Loch exclaimed with a lop sided grin and then expertly adjusted the device, "Oh, no…it's Wulgof."
"Right first time, then, Kid," Molguv called back as Loch lowered the bronze tube and smiled outright.
The younger man was improperly happy. Happier than he had been when he had gotten his first proper meal at the Prancing Pony. This too was no good in Wulgof's books. Just as the Kid was really starting to show promise, Rose happened. Wulgof had been stewing over that all voyage, as soon as it became apparent. But just at this moment, something else was amiss. For starters, Loch had gone to the wrong side to look for land if they were really in the eastern sea like Vid had said they were. Secondly, instead of ambling over to trade more jibes, the scout tucked the metal tube under his arm and darted back below to report. Wulgof looked over to where Khule sat, tossing a dagger. The Easterling's eyes were thoughtfully narrowed, confirming that Khule saw it too. Little escaped that one. Something was clearly afoot.
Sure enough, a few moments later Videgavia and Berlas both hurried out onto the deck and went to the wrong side of the ship. Loch hung back as first Vid and then Berlas used the same tube to peer at the horizon. Berlas shook his head. Videgavia was tugging at his beard. Both turned back to Loch, who shrugged. He pointed at the slack sail. Then all three went back below decks again.
"What do you suppose that was all about?" Wulgof inquired and his two companions had nothing to say. Then one of those infernal women materialised seemingly from nowhere. Clad head to toe in black leather, the Cat smiled at them.
"We're not where we're supposed to be," she said, accent a strange lilt that made it hard to place.
Wulgof, unsettled by her sudden appearance, barked back at her, "And what makes you the expert then?"
The woman appraised him coolly, irritatingly prepossessed in the same way a certain absent healer could be. Then she smiled at him, as if enjoying his discomfiture.
"Such charm! I see now why she is so fond of you."
"Who is?" Wulgof asked with alarm.
The idea that another Cat was fond of him was even less soothing than the one that stood before him. She laughed quietly and sauntered off, hips swaying. If she had a tail, she'd be swishing it at him. Molguv chuckled and Wulgof favoured them both with a sour scowl when he realised that Khule was grinning at him as well.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was the sweet scent of fish cooking that woke her. Limbs thoroughly suffused with warmth, Rin opened her eyes to find that the two men had built a small fire and were cooking their catch over the flames. Hanavia sat in his father's lap, hanging off the masculine buzz of every word of the men about him. The giant dog in waiting sat on its haunches, tongue lolling as it eyed the sizzling fish so tantalizingly close.
"Watch that hound," Rin warned, familiar with the lustful expression on its shaggy, adorable puppy face. The hound eyed her as if disappointed. Damn thing was too clever for it's own good, she thought.
"The pup? That's what got your attention?" Farbarad said and Rin frowned at that and peered about the beach.
"Oh," she squeaked.
"And there we have it," Farbarad said with a grin as Rin sat up fully.
What had been open ocean now was not. A strange, battered looking vessel that had a distinct list to one side was moored beyond the waves and even now, a smaller boat was being rowed to shore. In it, jumping up and down ill advisedly, was a familiar outline that was shouting and waving his arms. Rin rubbed at her eyes. The others in the boat pulled the figure down hard when the boat began to rock dangerously from side to side.
"Oh!" Rin said a second time, thoughts slowly assembling.
Hanasian watched his wife carefully. She appeared genuinely surprised, but then she was an excellent actor and this morning trip to the shore had been all her idea.
"You didn't see this coming?" he asked her and, eyes on the boat that was drawing closer, she shook her head slowly from side to side. Even now the boat was cresting through the waves.
"Is it?" Rin did not dare finish the question.
"What do your eyes tell you," Hanasian asked settling down in a crouch at her back and wrapping his hands around her arms to gently squeeze.
"You dreamed of him. I know you did."
"Yes," she admitted, brow furrowed all the same.
The boat scraped over the sand and Loch burst from it at such a rate that he lost his footing and tumbled over the wet sand like seaweed. No matter. He was on his feet again without delay and pounded up the sand with one thought in mind. In this time, Rin stood and he realised that she was with child. That meant he should be careful. Still, he collected her in a wet, sandy, tight embrace that pulled her up off her feet. Behind him the others were getting out with far greater care and less haste than he had demonstrated. Loch, still laughing with sheer relief – for it had been over a year since he had seen her last – set her down as gently as he could.
Rin stared at him hard a moment, her eyes seeming to pierce him in the way that she could. He had no idea what she saw now when she looked at him, for he was not the brother, not the same as he had been when she last regarded him. Certainly she seemed different. She was…well she was someone's mother now. A little boy clung to his father watching intently with his mother's eyes. And he could teel that she was happy, bone deep. And, he realised with a start that she was scowling at him.
"OW!" he shouted when she slapped his chest, surprised more than anything, "What was that for?"
That question proved to be the wrong one, for she stuck him again. He hopped back warily, boots squelching, but she came after him.
"Rin! Hey, stop! That isn't fair! Ow! Rin, stop it!"
Of she did not and so there was nothing else to do but attempt to dodge. What else could a man do when attacked by his pregnant sister?
"OW! STOP IT! It's…it's not good for the baby," he tried when she landed another slap.
"Babies," she corrected him and slapped him again as he stared at her.
"More than one? OW! THAT'S ENOUGH!" his voice rose into a shout.
Rin crossed her arms, tilted her head and studied him.
"I suppose so," she allowed, and began to straighten out the simple dress she wore.
All of this had been witnessed by a beach full of men. Wulgof, he could see, had a grin from ear to ear.
"What was THAT for?" he asked, injured pride stinging worse than anything else.
"I specifically told you to be careful, did I not?"
"Well…yes…and I was!"
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"Careful, Lochared," Rin said crisply in a dangerously quiet voice, "Is not how I would describe launching an unauthorised, unplanned assassination attempt against a witch AND a wizard."
Loch swallowed and realised instinctually that telling her that he had done it for her would only make matters worse. Meanwhile, Molguv had spotted the fish.
"Only two, Cap?" he said and glanced back to where Khule and Wulgof stood watching all of this unfold, "Just as well I saved the best for last, then."
"What best! You said we were all out of anything decent yesterday morning," Wulgof called back.
"Salted pork," Khule said, "Barrels of the stuff vanished into thin air five days ago."
"WHAT? We was supposed to be protecting the rations! Vid will hang us by our heels from the nearest tree when he hears this!"
"I did protect them. Protected them so good we have something to eat here, now, at this reunion. Two fish will not go far…not with Doc in her current condition. Do you know nothing at all about women?"
And so they were back.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The banter kept a steady pace while the ship’s only rowboat busily shuttled back and forth. The final return saw Loch up to row and this would mean another departure from the sister so recently reunited with. She had a grip on his arm though and would not let him go. Hanasian walked over with Hanavia, who shyly watched all the strange people who had come from the ocean. Hanasian started to talk to Rin as Hanavia curiously looked up at Loch. The little boy and the larger little boy had an instinctual awareness that together, much amusement could be had.
”My dear, Loch is still of the Company, and he is Old Company to boot. Videgavia rostered him last on the boat. You must let him do his duty.”
Rin’s grip relaxed a fraction as Loch said, ”I’m only going to row out to the ship with Wulgof. There are still supplies to fetch. And, there is someone still on board I want you to meet.”
Rin frowned at this mysterious hint and released his wrist. Loch squatted down to Hanavia’s height and said, ”Would you like to go for a boat ride?”
Hanasian chuckled as Rin took her son’s small hand in her own, ”Absolutely not!”
Hanavia seemed somewhat crestfallen. He peered up at his father as Hanasian claimed his other hand.
”Maybe someday, but not this time.”
His mother swept him into her arms and he settled against her, peering at this new friend.
Rin felt buffeted by waves of conflicting emotion that made it difficult to keep her feet and her head on the crowded beach. She was as relieved as she was overjoyed to see Loch alive, and equally as inclined to throttle the fool for his earlier carelessness and disappearance. So much had changed and so much was the same. A catalogue was already running through her mind as he rowed towards the listing ship.
The most obvious change was his age. The years ran at their same steady pace and yet Loch seemed to have aged, or rather grown, so very swiftly in the year and half he had been gone. He was a boy no longer. Aside from being a man now, he was also a solider. He had been like a puppy for so long that to see him grow into his ‘paws’ was a surprise and one she would have to become accustomed to. While he seemed to have aged, evident particularly in the faint lines that were evident around his eyes now, he remained as he had ever been. Unpredictable, mischievous, capable of no small amount of trouble. How different might things have been for him had she of been there when he was injured, she wondered. When he looked at her, did he wonder at what he had sacrificed for her and resent it, just a little? What did he see now, with Hanavia and twins, she wondered. Something had changed there too. She just did not know what it was. She was so deep in thought that she had no idea of Wulgof’s approach until he spoke.
”Don’t worry Doc. He’ll be back. He didn’t have me with him last time.”
Rin found the comfort of that statement rather uncertain and it showed in her expression. Loch waved at Hanavia, who removed his fingers from his mouth to wave experimentally back, and set off with the other Dunlending. There was a glint to Wulgof’s eye that Rin had seen before, but both men headed back for the boat without any further antics at first. Some three yards away, Wulgof tossed something over his shoulder, as was his wont. Rin was braced for it. She knew how the man operated.
”He’ll be bringing back his gi… unh!”
Loch elbow caught the Dunlending square in the ribs, and he leaned in afterwards to whisper, ”Shut up man! She’s having a hard enough time with me as it is.”
He glanced back over his shoulder at his sister. She had one brow arched. Well, the damage was done, he mused as he straightened. There was a certain way to handle this, and having it roughly dumped upon her when she was already reeling was not it.
Molguv had taken it upon himself to tend to the fire and the two fish. Though no one had consulted the former Company Healer, the men had decided the fish would be Rin’s alone. With the fish set aside for Rin, whether she wanted them or not, that left the others with the salted pork. On the ship, salted pork had become almost a foul curse until Molguv had magicked it away. On the beach, while most remained heartily sick and tired of the stuff, it would do for now. That is, if it was brought ashore. It wasn’t long before Rowdy returned with the others and while the pickings for the feast seemed bland, hearts were light as old comrades found each other. The beach was adrift in laughter and the buzz of chatter as tales were exchanged, some real and most embroidered. Rin had drifted over to the two Company Medics and the trio had their heads together, thick as thieves, for a good while.
The rowboat returned in due course, with Lady Anvikela, Rose, Berlas, Barika, Cat, Runner, and Daius aboard with Loch and Wulgof. A second boat was tethered to it, filled with provision. Mulguv saw as it neared that the salted pork barrels were part of the load. Videgavia saw this too and turned his dark eyes to the Haradian by the fire. If had been none other than Mulguv who had reported some days again that the pork was all gone condemned them to a diet of rice for days. As more and more people realised that there was salted pork being brought back to shore, the mood on the beach darkened. The Haradian was compelled at that point to explain that it wasn’t ‘decent’ anymore, but could be redeemed if they threw it over a proper fire.
”I did it so we didn’t all get belly rot!”
“What difference will a fire make now, then?” Videgavia demanded.
”We’ll smoke it good and proper,” Molguv replied, licking his lips anxiously as a beach full of hungry, armed veterans forced to live on rice alone for several days eyed him hard. Fortunately for the Haradian, the approach of the boat brought a diversion.
As the boat drew nearer it became apparent that someone was in the back of the provision boat, feverishly bucketing out water to prevent it from sinking. The prospect of losing the only meat they had a second time was too much to bear. Boots were being kicked off and weaponry shed as individuals headed into the water to guide the food ashore, ignoring the larger boat and its human cargo because it wasn’t edible and it wasn’t in danger of drowning.
”You’d better hope this smoking idea works,” Videgavia warned, ”Else you’ll have a beach of hungry, angry and wet soldiers to contend with.”
Molguv swallowed and squinted down at the fire. Meanwhile, the two boats were safely brought to shore, people and supplies alike. There was no shortage of hands to unload the smaller boat. No one wanted the pork to disappear a second time. Before long, the barrels were broken over and Molguv was hopping around the fire to smoke the pork, while others sniffed tentatively at the meat.
While most of the beach went into a frenzy of activity, Rin took the opportunity to consider her brother as he brought the row boat in. Loch stepped ashore and turned to take Lady Anvikela’s hand as she set foot upon the western shore of Middle Earth for the first time. Quite the gentleman, Rin mused, recognizing the woman from her last days in Skhar. Anvikela was well healed, a stark transformation from the desperately injured and terrified girl Rin had last beheld. That brought a sense of deep satisfaction that she knew, with a glance to Bells, the other medic who had assisted her felt also. Berlas took her arm in his and escorted her from the wet sand and at this Rin’s lips curved into a small smile.
Loch then turned to help a second woman out of the boat, younger than Anvikela. Rin watched as the girl stood and held her arms out for Loch. She seemed strangely familiar to Rin though she had never met this woman before. Loch carefully lifted her as her arms reached around Loch’s neck and shoulders, and he carried her up the beach before setting her down on her feet. Then, if that was not enough, a light kiss! Rin’s brows lifted briefly. Well, well, well she mused, mind whirring. The others in the boat were left to make their own way to shore. No such tender care or ministrations for them. A wry smile found Rin as she watched one of her Cats and a Rohirrim, no a woman she amended after closer inspection, scamper to shore. No gallant escorts for them, but the women needed them not. The men strolled along after them and Rin spotted Runner. That was a welcome sight indeed.
Rin’s attention flicked back to her brother. He walked arm in arm with this unknown girl, rather like Berlas did with Anvikela. Something tugged at Rin’s thoughts and she felt her brow furrow lightly. How could this one be familiar? One of her hands had drifted to the soft swell of her stomach, a habit of hers when she was deep in thought. Then, like a veritable clap of thunder, she had it! It was the girl from that strange dream on that strange day with those Elves. No sooner had it occurred to her did the idea float away again, slippery and elusive. Was it, she wondered, her certainty of a moment again now fading almost as quickly. Whoever she was, Loch had a glow to him as they drew near.
Loch could make nothing of his sister’s expression as he approached. It was as inscrutable as ever, but thoughts flickered and flashed in eyes that were a silvery blue in the bright sun of the day. Eyes that missed very little, he knew from experience.
His throat was dry as he leant to whisper to Rose, ”There is someone I want you to meet first.”
Stones, was this how Rin had felt when he had teased her on that road from Bree to Mithlond? It had all seemed so light hearted then, but his heart was thudding now. She had seemed to take it in her stride, but was this what had really churned beneath her calm exterior? He glanced to Rose and found she was smiling as she looked at Rin. Smiling! Women, Loch concluded, made little sense.
Rose’s smile, she hoped, might trigger a memory though memories of such things can be ephemeral as she well knew. The other woman was tall in the daylight of this unfamiliar place, as tall as she had been in that shrouded plane they had first met upon. In such planes, it was the stuff of people, rather than their appearance that took dominance. The woman she smiled at had demonstrated a strength of will and spirit that had been remarkable. Now Rose could see her in reality, she saw some of that shine through. The woman kept much of it hidden. The wind whipped the woman’s skirts and hair. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. In this she was kindred with the man at her side.
“Rose, this is my sister Rosmarin, who I have spoken of much before. Rin, Rose saved my life,” Loch said, hoping neither woman noticed the wobble in his voice as they took the other’s measure in the way only women can.
Rose curtseyed and bowed her head, ”It is my honour to finally meet you, Rosmarin of Cardolan. Both Loch and my sister Anvikela have spoken of you.”
Rin felt her stomach clench. Cardolan? And while she expected Loch to speak of her, the fact that Anvikela had as well was more than passing curious. Anvikela would be hard pressed to remember her, given the state she had been in when Rin had attended her. Loch was staring at her hard, unspoken plea in his dark eyes. Rin dropped a curtsy as deep as Rose’s had been
”It is an honour to meet you. It is good to see your sister again too.”
Rin had nearly offered condolences on the passing of her other sister as well, but managed stopped herself. It remained to be seen just what the true nature of this relationship with Loch was, Rin mused. It had been Loch’s actions that had led to the third sister’s death. Despite her wariness, and the jar of discovering that Loch’s affection was now shared with another she barely knew, Rin found it within her to smile. She did it for her brother, who looked about ready to turn himself inside out.
”Welcome to our land, and our home. Hanasian and I both hope that you will find peace and rest here.”
Peace and rest! Oh thank the heavens! Loch smiled at these words and felt some of the tension in his shoulders melt away. It had really been a long time since he was able to relax. Yet, he was Company. He looked about the beach and the tall cliffs above. He eyed the house and the ways up to it.
”It’s a beautiful place you and the Cap have! It is so good to see you again, and to see you so happy and…safe.”
Rin resisted dual urges. It would have been so easy that he could have seen such welcome sights much earlier if he had not been such a fool. It would have been easier to slap him again, because he never listened. However, with Rose there, Rin did something she thought she would never ever do. Loch glanced down to find Rin had curtseyed to him and almost rocked back a few careful steps just to be on the safe side.
”It is good to see you happy too my brother. Come, let us join the others.”
In this time, Hanasian and Videgavia had walked away from the others to have a discussion.
Vid said, ”I know you’re not Company Captain anymore, but it seems to me that you are in spirit. So I will give to you all my logs and reports and all for you to go over. It might be that you will want to include the scribblings of me an the others in your Company Annals. I found it hard to write, so Berlas did most of it.”
Hanasian answered, ”You need not report to me, and the way I understand your new commission, you don’t have to report to the King either. I expect he will however expect some word on the mission you undertook for him to see what lay beyond the Eastern Sea and you’ll have your chance. He will be attending the Midsummer Market and Festival in Bree, as we will. Until then, enjoy some down time here.”
“It’s early Spring here, at best…I think,” Videgavia demurred, with a faintly confused frown.
”Aye,” Hanasian confirmed and glanced over to where his wife was meeting her brother’s intended, ”It is…but we’ve more than enough space for your Company above. You’ll need time to recover, restock and provision. And, in any case, this is something Rin has her heart set on.”
“That so?” Videgavia inquired, curious as to how this could be the case given they had shown up quite unexpectedly.
”It is. You ask me, she’s had it brewing since she first received word of the property. Between providing a safe northern staging point for the Company, and adjusting most of the pastures to my cousins for a tidy sum, she’s got nearly every foot of land earmarked for one purpose or another. You want to be the one to throw a spoke in her many wheels, Vid?”
Videgavia twisted about to consider Hanasian’s wife a moment. The reason his hide was still in one piece was his knack to select the winnable fights. Videgavia straightened, something tugging at the corners of his mouth like he almost just might smile.
“I suppose we should re-join the feast. We both should give a few words,” Videgavia said and Hanasian grinned, the matter decided.
”I’ll let you do most of it, for you are in command of a Free Company,” Hanasian said, and decided that he rather liked retirement.
As the sun moved west a gentle light came off the ocean. The talk was mostly joyous but each party noted certain people were missing. The tales of Morcal and Mecarnil’s deaths were told and re-told, and also that of Khor and his small cadre of men who had volunteered to stay behind in the eastern lands as rearguard. One could tell when the sadder events came up as the loudness of the talking would lessen. For hours this went on, until Videgavia stood on a barrel and drew their attention.
”Listen up! Company and others, just a few matters to attend to! Free Company, we will set camp in a field that Hanasian says is fallow up yonder. There is water, shelter, game to spare and the borders are well watched, though I daresay we might find ways to add to that while we are here, if we’ve leave to. Weather should be kind so we will be in good order. Also, we will have some time to rest and relax here. Duties will be minimal, for this has been a hard won respite. While we friends and comrades enjoying our time in the sun now, we remember those who have fallen and cannot join with us.
“Now I turn this barrel over to Captain Hanasian, who has something of his own to say.”
Hanasian shuffled forth to applause led by his beloved Rin. Hanavia was nestled in his uncle’s arms and, with attention keenly focused on his mother, the little boy was clapping as hard as he could just like her, cheeks flushed. Rin lent in to still his little hands, gathering them up to kiss his fingers and making him squirm with amused delight, a soft smile flickering on her face. Unable to discern who doted on whom more, Hanasian peeled his eyes from his family to the wider assembly on the beach.
”I’ve little to add, really. Your appearance off our shore was quite the surprise to all of us here, Rin and I included. A joy unlooked for when we awoke this morning. It would be our honour if you all choose to accompany us to Bree for the Midsummer Festival. Until then you are our welcome guests. Now, enjoy! Farbarad is bringing some of the best wine and a keg of ale down. And … allow me confer with my wife about something.”
He hopped down and stepped over to Rin, who had reclaimed a squirming son that she held out to him. Hanasian whispered past Hanavia to her, ”Should I have Rowdy bring down that chest of your where you are storing all those item you borrowed from some of these men?”
Rin realised then that the beach was filled with chickens that had come home to roost. Beside her, Loch quietly chuckled.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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”Oh, I don’t think that’s such a good idea, my dear,” she replied, ignoring Loch’s chuckling beside her.
”And why is that?” Hanasian inquired in such a way that Rin knew to take care with.
”It’s heavy…and it makes no sense to drag it down here. Better that we sort it out once everyone is up top. Doesn’t it?”
Hanasian studied his wife. She had her most winsome smile on. Still, she also had a good point. So he took his son with him back to the barrel and, once atop, hoisted Hanavia onto his shoulder.
”All settled then. By the by, this here is my son Hanavia! And soon he will be joined by brothers or sisters, or one of each!”
There were raucous shouts of congratulations and approval, male voices echoing over the beach. It was always the same. Men clapped themselves on the back as if the achievement was theirs alone. Rin rolled her eyes at the display, no small sense of relief at having dodged the executioner’s block this time. Pleased to be well out of the limelight, she gave no response to some of the bawdier shouts about retirement and spare time. Still chuckling, Loch strode forward to claim the barrel once Hanasian had climbed down and in a while, things had died down enough to hear him.
He started with a list of names, all of them Old Company names, and a sum of money for each.
”What’s that supposed to mean, Kid?” Wulgof shouted over the others.
”Well some wagered one. Some wagered two. Some wagered three…but I wagered four…and the odds are swinging my way!” he shouted back, grinning.
”It’s rigged! They’re in on it together! He’s her brother!” Wulgof shouted back, anything to discredit the wedding day wager and his likely chance of having to pay up.
Loch tipped his head back and laughed as debate broke out on the beach.
”What are they doing?” came the quiet question.
Rin glanced and found Rose stood beside her with her sister.
Rin shook her head, ”Boys being boorish, of course.”
Despite her words, however, there was a fondness there of the exasperated sort. Rose and Anvikela watched the debate unfold as men approached Hanasian to clap him stoutly on the back. Rose turned to ask Loch’s sister another question only find the woman had slipped away. She turned just in time to see her swallowed up by the ferocious women that the others called Cats. Even Loch was wary of them. Right now, they didn’t look anything other than pleased. Rin was right in the middle of them and there was soon raucous feminine laughter.
”There is much we do not understand here,” Rose said in their own language and beside her Anvikela nodded.
”Can you feel the power of her blood,” Anvikela asked, a touch breathless and Rose could understand why. It was so very strong, palpable, and they were so very close now. She was like a lodestone to their senses, a bright burning star. The Company had always shown respect to her and Anvikela. They way these burly men were with Loch’s sister was something else again. Perhaps they sensed in some dim way what was obvious to her senses.
”And yet no such thing from her brother. It is curious, no?” Anvikela continued and this broke across Rose’s thoughts like a bucket of cold water to her face. Anvikela was, of course, correct. It was obvious. And yet, why was this so? Brother and sister…did they not share the same blood. Rose frowned as she studied Loch. He was off the barrel now and enjoying a ripping argument with some of his fellows.
”I do not love him for his blood,” Rose eventually said, looking with some force at her sister. Anvikela dropped her eyes.
”Of course,” she murmured and let the matter rest - for now.
Though the day had been warm, it was still early spring and daylight hours were short. The tide would rise and there would not be enough sand for them all to stand on. The stairs etched into the cliffs were narrow. Only one at a time could ascend or descend them. With time and tide turning, and with gear and a good number of men and women to fetch to safety, they started to venture their way up the cliffs.
Once atop the cliffs, Videgavia let off a low whistle at what he saw. He glanced at Hanasian, nearby.
”Oh, well done, Cap. Not bad at all! How’d you manage all this?”
“The generosity of the High King,” Hanasian said and then looked over to where his wife stood, directing traffice, ”And Rin’s birthright. This is the ancient seat of Cardolan’s Princes, Vid.”
“Doesn’t that draw certain fools like bees to honey?”
“We’ve had one venture by, and he proved to be no more than a curious local drawn by rumour.”
“Only one?” Videgavia remarked and Hanasian nodded, expression clouding as he recalled events in Esgaroth. They had been dark times. Mecarnil’s betrayal. Farbarad’s brush with death. His own. Rin lying pale and near frozen, beaten, at the bottom of that fetid well. He looked down to the boy he held in his arms. He had feared his child and wife both lost. Instead, his son slept in his arms and his wife was busy pushing men about like she was herding cattle.
”Matters in Esgaroth were…definitive.”
“You think there’s an end to it, then?”
“Oh no,” Hanasian said with a shake of his head, ”Never that. Aragorn has gone to some length to secure the borders of this particular tract of land. Beware the farmers in the outer fields. The Prefect continues to advance order and safety within the lands, making it harder and harder for such brigands to flourish. But I will never risk the lives of those I love on the assumption that they are safe.”
There was a haunted quality to Hanasian’s voice that Videgavia marked well.
”Esgaroth was bad?”
“Aye,” Hanasian replied and seemed to stir himself, ”And yet here we stand today.”
And that was an end to the topic for the time being.
The house was large enough to accommodate some, the remaining restored buildings and land between was more than enough to comfortably accommodate the rest of the Free Company. Anvikela and Rose were accommodated in the house. Videgavia and Berlas elected to take one of the unoccupied buildings to keep a weather eye on the camp. The Dirty Three, along with a rather forlorn Scout now bereft of his rosy shadow took a smaller building. While camp was set up, tables were pulled out of the house and under the trees outside. Seats appeared as well, many of them fashioned from unusual items but serviceable all the same. The celebration that had started on the beach below continued long into the night atop the cliffs, all the while the percussive boom of the ocean sounding.
The next day preparations were made to secure additional supplies. Hunting, fishing and foraging parties on the one hand and trading sorties on the other set out. While the larder was well stocked, it would not be long before it started to empty with so many to hand. There were other preparations as well, including security arrangements. There were routines and pass signals and these were handed only to the Old Company. If Hanasian would take no risk, neither would Videgavia. While Farbarad gave the briefing, Hanavia’s delighted shriek as he played outside could be heard. There was no better punctuation than that. The house became a busy place, filled with people and voices. Sometimes, if the weather was fair, they would gather for meals outside. Other times, some would happen by on the odd chance of snaring something from the kitchen. That didn’t happen so much when they knew Rin had been baking.
”You know, I never cease to be amazed at how something that looks so good can taste so – so-“
“Foul?” Khule supplied and Wulgof grunted, choking down the last of the little pies he had snatched from the kitchen. He had broken out in a sweat.
”And yet, you still ate four!”
“A man’s hungry,” Wulgof murmured, wiping his brow as Loch sauntered by on his way to the house.
”Steer clear of the pies, Kid,” Khule warned and this brought the scout over.
There were a few crumbs on the plate and he licked the tip of one finger, pressed it to the plate and sampled the pastry. Loch’s eyes tightened but he resisted the urge to spit the crumbs out by a narrow margin.
”Salt instead of sugar, is my guess.”
“Don’t care to know why they taste so awful,” Wulgof muttered, licking the crumbs off his lips and regretting it instantly, ”That sister of yours, she does this apurpose.”
“Oh?” Loch inquired, not entirely inclined to disagree with Wulfgof. Baking pastries that tasted bad but looked enticing enough to lure her favourite Dunlending was just the sort of thing his sister would do.
”She held her own around the fire out in the field, as I remember.”
Loch lifted a shoulder at that and then bent in so that his head hung between Khule’s and Wulgof’s.
”You know what I think?” he began conspiratorially, ”Rin has form when it comes to avoiding things she finds unpleasant or tiresome by doing them so poorly that someone else will take over.”
“Does it work?” Wulgof asked, eyes gleaming at this new idea.
”You tell me. Will you be asking her to bake you a pie any time soon?”
Wulgof’s shudder said it all.
”Genius,” he whispered once he recovered. Loch clapped him on the back and continued on for the house.
Khule however, was not in the least fooled. Loch’s walk was a cocky strut, like he had gotten away with something. He and his sister were usually up to their necks in something together. Such as pulling a stunt on Wulgof.
Loch shouldered the kitchen door open to find his sister grinning.
”Well?” she asked, eyes dancing with mirth.
”He ate all four of them!”
Rin slapped the table hard, doubled over with laughter and Loch wiped tears from his eyes. He glanced away to look out a window and saw that Wulgof was striding towards the house. This made him hiss.
Rin swore, turned away from the door and began poking at whatever was bubbling on the stove. The heat would explain the flush of her cheeks. Loch darted to the sink and pumped enough water to splash over his face. Wulgof entered the kitchen to find the scout dripping with water and his sister up to more at the stove. Loch stared at him, water dripping from his hair.
”Ah….just….washing out my….um….face?”
Wulgof could understand, having eaten a whole four of those forsaken pies. He nodded as much as Rin turned about. Her face fell at the sight of him, cheeks flushed and eyes bright. She almost looked like she might burst into tears, if he had to guess. And he’d have to, having never seen her shed a tear in their time together.
”Something….wrong?” she asked, voice wobbling.
Wulgof shook his head, dumbfounded. How did she do it? How was it possible she was this fine an actor? He pushed past the end of the kitchen table and gently collected up her hand to bow over it. Rin, stunned, stared agog at her brother and found him similarly boggled.
”I-“ she began as Wulgof rose and took in her wide eyed expression.
”I just wanted to say, to you, that you’re nothing but a genius! Brilliant! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier! All those years, spent doing dross chores like a night blinded fool. Brilliant! From now on, I will only show you the respect you deserve.”
That sounded to Rin like an out and out threat.
”Does…does that mean you liked the pies?”
“Liked them? Liked them!” Wulgof glanced over to Loch and shook his head, ”Loved them, Doc. Adored them. Brilliant! You’re a genius!”
He let go of her hand, bowed again and headed back out of the kitchen door, muttering about all the years he wasted. Once she was certain he was not about to come back, or one of the other Dirty Three lay in wait somewhere else, she whispered to Loch.
”What was that?”
“I do not know,” Loch answered, bewildered, ”But I ain’t ever seen him so…”
“Reverent,” Loch said.
Rin rubbed at her forehead, ”You know, I don’t know what’s more frightening.”
A week passed before a select few shared the evening meal in the kitchen. Videgavia, Berlas and Loch joined Hanasian and his household and their two guests. The table was well and truly full and the talk was light hearted and jovial. Rin had Hanavia in her lap and, between bouncing the child up and down to keep him entertained, she was encouraging him to try different things to eat from her plate. That there was something left on her plate did not escape her brother’s attention from across the table.
”You should eat more, Rin,” he chided and Rin checked an impatient sigh and muttered something in Dunlendic that made her brother’s ears red.
”But…twins,” Loch pressed, not to be brushed aside by his sister’s response.
”That she’s managing to eat anything is a remarkable improvement,” Hanasian replied, familiar with just how dim a view Rin had taken of being ordered when carrying Hanavia. Rose, seated next to Loch, placed a hand on his forearm.
”Couldn’t keep a thing down…not the entire road from Rhun to Dale, as I remember it. I can’t believe we missed it, looking back now,” Farbarad mused and Rin shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
”Don’t know how she managed to keep a-saddle. Those were long, cold days,” Rowdy added and Rin decided right then that enough was enough.
”Well I did manage it. And a whole lot more besides. I’m not made of glass! I wasn’t dying. I was only pregnant. Happens every damn day! All over the place!”
Her eyes flashed and her words were steel. Hanavia paused and craned his head up to peer at his mother. There was silence around the table. Hanasian saw her jaw lock a moment.
”If you’ll excuse me, I must tend to my son,” she declared, stood and stalked out of the kitchen with Hanavia tucked under one arm.
”Glad to see some things haven’t changed,” Videgavia said into the quiet kitchen and Berlas grinned all of a sudden.
”Beg to differ, Cap. She’s positively diplomatic now. Wonders will never cease, far as I am concerned,” Berlas said.
”How’d you figure?" Farbarad asked, scratching his jaw.
”None of us are bleeding,” Berlas said and there was general, if discrete, amusement at that.
”Well, there were children present,” Loch pointed out to additional laughter.
However, once the amusement had passed, Hanasian spoke up.
”Last time things were…difficult. We were protective.”
“Rightly so, considering,” Farbarad pointedly interjected.
”We were over protective,” Slippery said, ”Telling her where she could go and not go, what to eat, how much to eat, what to drink and what not to drink, when to sleep, when to wake, who she could talk to.”
“Weren’t that bad, was it?” Rowdy asked and Hanasian nodded.
”Even what to wear,” he said, ”Given all that had happened, she did her level best to be…tolerant. If Hanavia hadn’t of come along when he did, I think she just might have begun picking us off. Me first of all. I was probably the worst. Saw it as necessary at the time. Didn’t see the cost, least not straight away. Now, I’m not so sure.”
“We can do it different this time,” Farbarad said, clearly uncertain of how to go about that.
”Aye…with Vid’s help. Berlas too,” Hanasian said, gaze shifting to the two men in question.
”Happy to…however we may,” Videgavia said, confused.
”Have a quiet word, Old Company and Cats in particular. They’re getting…protective,” Slippery suggested.
Videgavia leaned back in his chair and stroked his beard, ”Aye, can see as how that might happen. They’re a possessive lot. Thought I might lose more than a few to follow you west, truth be told, when our paths split. Consider it done. We’re guests in your home, Cap, and we’ll behave like it or be on our way.”
“Appreciate it, Vid.”
“You too, Kid,” Videgavia pressed, leaning out to eye Loch down the table. The scout sighed and nodded unhappily.
”Didn’t realise,” he mumbled and Rose squeezed his arm a moment before he looked up and across at his brother-in-law.
”Was bad then,” Loch asked and Hanasian nodded, aware that Loch referred to Esgaroth.
”Think I want to know about it.”
“I’m not sure-“
“Think I do, with respect, Cap. Left her to face it, though I didn’t mean to. Reckon I ought to know. She’s my sister.”
Hanasian sighed and pushed back from the table, ”This is not a tale for the table. If you’d hear it, then you’ll hear it elsewhere.”
Hanasian rose and pulled the kitchen door ajar. The cool air of the night was swift to penetrate the cozy warmth of the kitchen.
”Why out there?” Loch asked, on his feet already.
”The tale is dark…and its memory stains this house and those within it already,” Hanasian said sadly, ”And like as not you’re not the only one who wants to know. Rather tell it once, if I must at all.”
In silence then, the others followed him out into the night and somehow, by means known only to the inner circle of the Company, a gathering of Old Company and Cats pressed close. Hanasian was an excellent archivist and he told the tale as well as any might. While they knew that Mecarnil had fallen, the rest of it was a revelation. Hanasian kept the true circumstances of Mecarnil’s death to himself, for the tale was grim enough. The ocean on this night sounded like the drums of doom, crashing to shore under the full moon. Between the waves, the dark mutterings of those listening, swearing, growling, the creak of hands tightening on hilts created a nightly music befitting Hanasian’s tale. Throughout it all, Loch remained silent. He dared not make a sound, for it he released that then the building rage that pressed at his restraint might also slip out.
”They’re all dead, though. Every last mongrel?” Mulgov snarled, teeth white in the night as he bared them.
”Aye,” Hanasian flatly said, turned and walked back inside, desperate to fill his senses with the warmth and safety of the home they had created in the wake of such peril.
The group disbanded, breaking into smaller groups. Khule was deep in conversation with Molguv and Wulgof. It had something to do with Hanasian’s cousins, Frea and Folca, Videgavia noted. Most were in silence, little say in the aftermath of that. He understood now just why Hanasian had hesitated before. Videgavia stared at the house, the light that slipped out. He understood much, including what an astonishing degree of trust Hanasian and Rin had shown in opening them home to them. Many of the faces in the Company would be unfamiliar to them both. He understood the precautions, their necessity, he understood the discussion around the table tonight. Berlas and Loch stood in the darkness with him. Loch’s fists were clenched and Berlas was deep in thought.
”Should we have gone east?" Videgavia asked, bracing himself for the answer.
”We did, Cap. And here we all stand. Had we all of descended upon Dale, who could know what things would look like now,” Berlas said and with that turned away for his own solitude.
Videgavia let Berlas’ response circle about and settle in. Like as not he was correct. But still…it had come so close to ruin…and what had been done to their Healer…He realised Loch was still standing that.
”Kid?” he ventured softly, recalling just how things ran with the scout when it came to his sister. Loch shuddered and rocked forward, pushing each step as if he were wading against the tide. He entered the house and Videgavia considered following him a long moment before, with difficulty, he decided that this was a matter for family.
”Where is she?” Loch asked, voice hoarse, of Hanasian. His brother in law considered him a long moment. Not quite over the edge yet, he concluded, but close.
”She likes to sit out on the balcony. The sound of the ocean, the open sky…finds it…soothing.”
Loch nodded at that and began to move in that direction but Hanasian was not yet done, ”Have a care with her, Loch.”
Loch lowered his head, recalling all too clearly just what Hanasian was referring to. Then he continued on. Sure enough, she was sitting out there. She had her back to the house and was staring off at the western horizon. The wind was stiff enough to cancel out the sound of his approach. The moon created a luminous road that stretched towards the shore. It was truly a stupendous sight, but all he saw was his sister. She had taken a cloak to wrap around her and she held her son to her. Hanavia was curled in her lap, a bundle barely discernable, soundly asleep.
Shame and guilt, sorrow and rage warred within him. He had left her to face what she had knowing full well of the traitor in their ranks. And, while she sat here alive and hale, he knew what she had endured. He had not seen the bruises and marks this time, but he remembered a day many years ago when he had. The same mistake, the same outcome. He had sworn never to do that again, never to leave her, no matter what. And yet he had. The self loathing was excruciating. She had been a child then, barely six, and had he not returned to check on her she might not have lived. He had found her not well cared for in the house but chained, beaten black and blue, naked as the dogs chained with her. Shivering in the cold. Eyes empty and dead. He had run with her, pulling the stake up from the cold muck and unthreading her chain. The dogs, so broken, had not even moved. The chain had dragged on the ground after him. He had run like the wind, convinced they would come after him. Run to that old woman’s shack.
A witch, they all said, and yet she opened the door and pulled him inside. It took a long time for things to improve. All the while he had not known if she might die or if the witch might eat them like they all said she did down in the village below. Or if that husband and wife, with the kind eyes and wicked hearts, might finally find them. He had made promises and bargains with everyone and everything he could think of. One of them had been to never leave her again. She had never spoken of that nightmare, not even when she found her voice again some two years later. He had hoped that perhaps she did not remember. It happened sometimes, when things were too terrible to bear.
Loch swayed, caught betwixt past and present. Watching, Hanasian saw the younger man sink to his knees on the cold stone and lower his head onto his sister’s leg. He saw Rin lift a hand and placed it on his head, and he saw Loch’s shoulders shudder.
”I’m sorry,” Loch gasped into the cloak Rin was shrouded in.
”Shhhhhh,” she murmured and he lifted his face to look into her own, ”Come, sit beside me brother.”
Loch pulled himself up and settled in next to her as bidden. Rin shifted Hanavia to his lap and, rather than have her send her only warmth with her son, Loch stripped his own jacket off and wrapped it around his nephew. Hanasian watched as his wife leant her head against her brother’s shoulder. A hand touched his own and he realised that Rose observed this as well.
”Thank you,” she whispered, eyes on the balcony, ”It is better he knows.”
“Do you think so?”
A pause and then she glanced up into his face, ”Yes.”
With that, then, Hanasian left Rose to watch. It was some time before he felt Rin settle into the bed beside him. She was not alone. Hanavia murmured as he nestled against his mother and his mother nestled against his father. Safe, warm, whole. With this now, he could rest, and Hanasian was soon fast asleep again in deep realms beyond dream or recollections.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
With the Company assembled, Videgavia feared that some, particularly the usual suspects of the Old Company, would grow restless. Hanasian sent Rowdy to Bree so as to check for news and generally get a sense of how Bree appeared. There would be a lot of preparation required for the Midsummer Festival. Videgavia decided it wise to send along with Hanasian's men some of his own Company. Hanasian readily agreed, likely not wanting too many of them gathered around his house. While many of the new Company were sent to posts around the lands, Rowdy was accompanied by Berlas and Wulgof on his venture to Bree. It was Videgavia's hope that Berlas would keep things (Wulgof) quiet, in a low key. Mulgov wanted to go as well but was vague as to why that was when questioned. He was not about to advertise that he had stashed a certain number of hidden goods in the town on his last venture there. Videgavia was no fool, however, and it was this quality that had made him an excellent commander of the Company. He had other duties for the big Haradian on the day the three men left for Bree.
Spring in Bree meant rain. Winter was little different, except it did not rain all of the time. When it wasn't raining in winter, it was only cloudy and foggy; unless it was clear, which usually only happened at night, at which point everything freezes. The good thing about this spring was it was raining and ever so slightly warmer than winter. Kholas continued to pound out the yoke he was making for a local's wagon. Business had been good through the wet winter, the ruts in the roads breaking axles and wheels and the like. It had come as a revelation to the Easterling that his iron working skills would come in use here in the West.
He had remained in Bree when those that had left the Company in Rhun and travelled through Dale had split and gone their own ways at the close of summer last year. He was comfortable here and had found a niche to settle into. His skill with iron had seen him rise faster than anyone had expected, himself most of all, to become one of the lead blacksmiths in Bree. His skill in fixing broken things was unquestionable, and credit where credit was due as far as the local residents of Bree were concerned. Some remained wary, but that would take time, Kholas supposed. Bree had seen him prosper and it had been kind to Tarina as well. the barmaid he had come to know in Esgoroth had easily found a place at the Prancing Pony.
For all of this, Kholas still considered himself part of the Company, and by extension so too did Tarina. While he knew the Black Company of Arnor had disbanded in Rhun, Kholas still sensed in his heart that they were very much alive. From time to time he thought of what his life might have been like had he stayed in the east and joined with Videgavia's Company like so many had. Something had pulled him West, no matter how he wondered about life in the East. He would never have met Tarina had he not come West with Hanasian. That was no small thing. So, Kholas was ultimately happy in Bree. For all of that, however, he was a man of Rhun and a veteran of the Black Company. Thus, Kholas remained as alert and watchful as ever he had been, blacksmith or no, as if he were still on watch for the Company.
His work at the smith saw his path cross with townsfolk and travellers alike and there was all sorts of useful things learnt in the talk that happened while they waited. For her part, appetite whetted from Esgaroth and the events she had been privy to there, Tarina kept her ears open as she worked at the Prancing Pony. Hers was a special skill. Tarins could pick out voices and track a conversation in the general din of an inn's common room. While the inn she worked at in Esgoroth had its fair share of tales and characters pass through, it was nowhere near as many as this great crossroads of the West had.
In the main, Tarina and Kholas heard little of any note and it was mostly forgettable. However, every now and anon a nugget of news or information that was notable and worthy of further consideration emerged. Between them, little was missed. The Prancing Pony was a place Hanasian had used to send and receive messages for many years. The nuggets of worth were sent onto him by Kholas and Tarina as they came to hand. Hanasian made full use of this arrangement in a way he knew would largely elude his wife. He had assumed control over who and when people were sent to Bree, ostensibly to see to household matters, settling of accounts, provisions and the like, not long after they had settled into their home.
Rin, initially curious and then sceptical, soon decided that if her husband wanted to busy himself with such things, well and good. Sometimes, she would lurk around his desk. He ensured that all she found were accounts, things she soon set aside before she returned to her own work or saw to her son's needs. Thus, Hanasian would send one or another off to Bree and whoever was sent always stayed at the Prancing Pony (Rin thought it was the only inn in town). Over lunch, Tarina or Kholas would exchange news. It happened at least every two or three weeks, for Hanasian was not prepared to be taken unawares ever again. Of late Tarina had taken to looking up every time someone walked into the inn. Kholas had taken to asking Tarina about the day's arrivals. It had been over a month since any word was had or sent to Hanasian. The only rumours in Bree concerned the coming summer, the festival, and the market was coming to life.
These rumours were thick with anticipation. Some said that the King would bring his summer court to the north, to Fornost, this year and, if this were so, he would surely pass by Bree. Needless to say, this fuelled the expectation that this year's festival would be a great and memorable affair. Kholas found, however that his concerns grew. He considered that his concerns may be entirely unfounded. Certainly, he had no basis for them that he could discern aside from this heaviness, like a knot, in his thoughts. It never hurt to be careful and alert, he told himself. That way trouble could be avoided, for himself, for Hanasian and his family. Yes, caution was always best.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Halrad rode all night in his bid to reach Bree by morning. He had misjudged the difficulty of the ride and the time it would take in the spring months. Had he not fallen asleep trying to push the day before, he would still have a little dried fruit. But the birds had made off with what was left. He didn't want to sleep out in rain another night either. Lady Halcwyn had trusted him to go quickly, so that be might swiftly return with word of her brother, Hanasian. She remained greatly troubled by her dream. Halrad, faithful servant, wished to settle her fears, even if it meant riding the many leagues to Bree and back.
The gate was in sight now and he pushed onward. The morning watch saw only a blonde man on horseback, both of them having covered too much distance with too little sleep. They asked few question of this man from Rohan who made for the Prancing Pony. Men such as this were not common even in these days, but not rare either. He was glad to arrive. Dinner would be most welcome and breakfast the next morning. Afterwards he would have to get his horse re-shod, for the ride back south would be just as hard and it would not do to throw a shoe on the way.
Tarina spotted Halrad as soon as the door opened. She quickly took him to be a traveller from up the Greenway, from Rohan. As he stood blinking and looking about the common room, Tarina set the tankards she was carrying down on the table before the men who asked for them. She walked around the tables so she came by the door and paused before Halrad.
"Welcome, Traveller, to the Prancing Pony. There are few seats this soggy night. If you be alone, there is one small table by the hearth that will feel good after long hours spent in this cold rain."
"My thanks, lady. I will sit there. If that is stew I smell on the hob, I would have a fair bowl of, it if I might," Halrad replied, eyed Tarina a moment then looked over to the empty chair by the barrel that served as a table.
Tarina said, "Aye, the stew is a good one tonight. Would you like hot tea or fine ale to go with it?"
Busy studying faces within, it was a moment before Halrad answered.
"Ah, both if I can. Tea to warm myself at first, Then an ale to have with the stew. Are there any rooms left for hire?"
"There is one left. It is yours if you give me a name."
Halrad turned his gaze back to Tarina. He pondered giving his name and asking her a question or two, but elected to wait on his questions. How a woman of Dale had come to work in Bree was not his concern. To his assessment, this maid of the Prancing Pony seemed sincere.
"I am Halrad of Westmarch m'Lady," he said with due courtesy.
Tarina smiled. Not many barmaids are referred to as such.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Halrad of Westmarch. I am Tarina of Esgoroth, and should you require anything further, you have only to ask it of me."
He watched her depart to see to arrangements for his meal and his lodging a few moments before he turned for his chair by the hearth. He would certainly be asking more questions of her after he had eaten.
Halrad found the food and the tankard of ale was quite fulfilling and the chill that had settled into his bones earlier that day was finally ebbing away. The hearth was comfortably warm and he ordered a second tankard. As Tarina brought it to him, Halrad noted that an Easterling came in to the inn. This was entirely unexpected. What were Easterlings doing in Bree? He watched him closely, even after the other man met his eyes briefly.
Halrad thought from the set of the Easterling's shoulders and general appearance that that man had spent a hard day at work. Likely a smithy. Tiring and thirsty work, that. The barmaid greeted the Easterling with a kiss, another surprise that, and handed the Easterling the tankard that she had been bringing to him. The Easterling took a seat at a table near the far end of the bar.
Happy to be seated and an ale in hand, Kholas looked back at the table by the hearth with the newcomer. By chance, he caught the man studying Tarina as she cleared tankards and filled new ones. While he had yet to speak in any real way with Tarina, Kholas knew that she thought this traveller interesting. Tarina set out with full tankards, setting them down on tables as she threaded her way across the inn. Kholas stood and followed a few paces behind as she made for the traveller's table. She set the tankard down with a polite smile.
Kholas paused at a nearby table to speak with a local man about the condition of the wagon wheel the man had brought in to the smithy earlier that day. As he did so, he overheard the traveller thank Tarina for the ale.
"Thank you m'Lady."
No wonder Tarina thought the man interesting, Kholas noted, as he told the man that his wheel would be ready to collect in the morning.
Halrad decided it was time for some questions. As Tarina turned to depart, he began.
"My pardon m'Lady. I can see this is a busy night and do not wish to delay you overmuch. I wondered if you might know whether one named Hanasian been here?"
It took all Tarina's skill to not appear startled by the question. She turned it as best she could, and put on her best vaguely thoughtful face.
"Hmm… can't say I've served anyone with that name here. But then, many come and go here nameless to me."
"My pardon for pressing. I seek this man on behalf of another who could not journey north," Halrad said and sipped at his fresh ale so as not to seem overly eager.
Tarina answered, "I will keep an ear open for that name. Will you be staying here long?"
"Maybe a week at most."
Tarina nodded and started off to the bar where a fresh tray of tankards awaited her. She eyed Kholas as she passed and he nodded, for he had kept an ear to her conversation with the traveller. Halrad did not notice anything, but he did spot Kholas as she walked by him. Kholas finished his conversation and stepped over to Halrad's table. Halrad looked up at the Easterling and stood , uncertain what to make of this.
Kholas began companionably, "I'm going to buy you an ale!"
Halrad, taken aback, answered warily, "Why would you buy me a beer? You don't even know me. In any case, I can afford my own ale as and when I choose."
Tarina saw that Kholas' smile was starting to strain. She swiftly dealt out the ales on her patter and hurried out to collect the empty tankards so that she could come to the table where Halrad and Kholas stared at each other.
"Whatever it will be boys, it won't be trouble, if you take my meaning."
Kholas said, "No trouble. I just wanted to buy this traveller a beer. To buy someone I know a beer means some. To buy the weary traveller new into town a beer means more. You are free to decline the offer my friend. There is no harm in doing so."
Halrad pondered the Easterling's words and tried to uncover what ever it was the man was trying to say. He concluded that he had let old prejudices fog his tired mind. In truth, there was no reason to be defensive. He wished no trouble, and he could use another ale. Better still if he didn't have to pay for it.
He said, "By all means, I will accept your offer. I'm only halfway through this bowl of stew, and yet now nearly two ales are gone."
Tarina breathed relieved sigh thatthis encounter would not require her skills to diffuse it. All she needed to do was to quickly return with a couple tankards.
While the two men conversed lightly over their beers, Tarina saw yet more travellers arrive. These, however, were not newcomers. Over a month late, she was pleased to see Rowdy there and he seemed to be comfortable with the two others that had arrived with him. Companions, she concluded, and made certain to alert the men once they were at their table of Kholas' new found friend and his questions at the table by the hearth.
The long ride, his full belly and a couple of ales too many all conspired to make Halrad desperately tired. He pled off from his new Easterling friend, the blacksmith, and made his way to his room grateful to have secured the last bed at the Prancing Pony for night. All he could think off was the welcome soft embrace of warm bedding. He passed down a hall lined with doors at regular spaces, counting them so that he might know which one hid his precious bed. Imagine, then, Halrad's surprise when a burly ageing man of Dunland burst out of door, grappled with him. The man succeeded in knocking Halrad's head on the doorframe and Halrad was out cold before he was dragged in, laid on the floor and the door firmly closed.
In the room, staring down at the unconscious man on the floor, one man sighed irritably.
"Dammit Wulgof! I said to be gentle! How can we talk to him when he's in this state?"
"Sorry," Wulgof muttered, "It was only a little tap. An accident. Wouldn't have happened if he didn't squirm."
Rowdy said nothing as he watched the door, waiting for someone to burst in or the alarm to sound should someone have seen what had happened in the door. The quiet man shook his head.
Berlas told Wulgof, "Go downstairs, have a beer. I don't want you here when he come to."
Wulgof grinned suddently and slipped through the door, pleased that his accident had gotten him out for a beer before the bar closed.
As he left, Berlas added in a low voice, "You hit anyone down there, and I'll be gentle with you."
Had there of been anything brewing the hall, Wulgof would have run straight into it. As he had not, Rowdy gave up his watch of the door to ensure that he was on hand with water when the unconscious man woke a short while later. Halrad, naturally, did not accept the water from him and instead stared around the room.
Berlas raked a hand through his hair and began.
"My apologies for your welcome to our room. We heard you asking after someone who we know."
Rowdy straightened and, with a glance at Berlas, ensure he moved well away from the man on the floor. Berlas followed suit so as to make it clear they were not about to do him harm.
Halrad sat up slowly as they backed off, rubbed his bruised cheekbone, "Do you know Hanasian? Is he here?"
"Might be. What is your business with him?"
"I come with word from his sister Halcwyn. She will be here for the Midsummer Festival. She had sent a letter, but wished word be brought as well."
Berlas and Rowdy looked at each other as it dawned upon them that Wulgof had assaulted, accidentally, a member of Hanasian's sister's household. Halrad pulled out a more recent letter written in Halcwyn's script and held it out to Berlas.
Halrad went on, "I see the device you wear at your neck. You are a man of honour, one who served with Hanasian. A man wearing such a device came to the house of Lady Halcwyn bearing many letters from her brother, so I entrust this to you to give to Hanasian. His sister desires greatly to see him once again. She hopes that she might do so at the Midsummer Festival."
Berlas took the letter, imaging the scowl on Videgavia's face when the details of this encounter were reported. As for Hanasian….some things were best not imagined, Berlas concluded.
"We hope that can be. The festival is why we are here now," Berlas said cautiously, glancing at Rowdy to confirm that the usual caution concerning Cardolan was to be observed.
Halrad nodded and asked, "Then Hanasian will be here to meet Lady Halcwyn on her arrival?"
"You may tell Lady Halcwyn that if she makes the journey to Bree, her brother will meet her," Berlas said as Rowdy went to crack the door and peek out.
Berlas added, "My apologies again for the rude manner of our greeting. You have travelled far and it would appear your task is now completed. Go, now, and rest. Your mistress has been faithfully served."
Halrad nodded, carefully for his head pounded, and found himself met at the door by the quiet man who had not spoken a word. He had intense eyes, that seemed to scrutinise everything and he wore no device at all that Halrad could discern.
"Until we meet again," this strange man said, voice almost a whisper.
The next morning, Halrad arose with a headache. He headed out the door of his room to get some breakfast, and he passed the door where he had been grabbed the night before.
He peered in to the find the two men, the courteous one and the strange one, were not there. Instead, a maid was cleaning. It was not Tarina.
He asked her, "Have the men who had this room last night already gone?"
The maid replied, "Yes, they left early before the sunrise."
"Ah… I see. I am sorry for troubling you."
Halrad continued on down to the common room for his breakfast. There he espied Berlas, who gave him a wave as he went out the door.
Outside, Berlas gave the letter to Rowdy in the knowledge that the man would ride swiftly to bring it to Hanasian. They had agreed it would be best to get word back as soon as they could. Also, Berlas wanted Wulgof out of Bree quickly, before any more "accidents" could happen
As he sat in the common room on a damp afternoon, Halrad found he had a visitor. It was the courteous Berlas, and the man had a message for him this time.
"Your tidings have been delivered, and Hanasian will await his sister, Lady Halcwyn. Take word to her now, and beware. Roads are safer than once they were, but not enough to be carefree."
Halrad settled his account at the inn that afternoon and began his way south that very day. The weeks passed and the rain persisted. Halrad was glad to reach warmer climes to the south, but the approach to Tharbad was rough as the river was running high. Still, he welcomed the hours spent in those final days, dry in his saddle. It was a good feeling. The tidings he brought with him to his mistress pleased her well. Indeed, the Lady was overjoyed, and soon all efforts were turned to travelling north for the festival.
Berlas remained in Bree, and more and more of the company being sent in threes and fours each week. Rowdy had finally selected accommodations that met his exacting requirements. He had obtained the use of a house, and how he had done so without dropping names Berlas did not know. Berlas, for his part, saw to the accommodations for the Company. Between them, they saw that all was secured before the King's men arrived. Their sighting on the Greenway saw Bree abuzz proper with the coming of the King, the Queen and his Summer Court. When the sun did break free of the watery hold the season, spring exploded forth in all its sudden glory. It seemed as though the land itself knew that this would be a special year.
The week before Midsummers Day saw merchants, travellers, traders and families stream into Bree. Tents were pitched, for there were not enough rooves for all that came. The markets were brisk with the business this brought to Bree and so, while hectic, the townspeople of Bree were well pleased indeed. Berlas kept his Company discreet, and allowed the Kings Guard show their presence. They were good at that, polished helms and armour and black cloaks flapping behind him as they went about the King's business. Still, these were formidable men and they were fully aware that the Company was about. It was then that Berlas appreciated why Rowdy played the Cardolan cards so tightly to his chest. No one, not the King and not Rin or Hanasian, wanted the rumour that Cardolan had come to the Summer Court and the Midsummer Festival with its own private army to add to the rumours that swirled through the town about nobles. Only a handful had started about Cardolan.
Satisfied all was relatively in order, Rowdy went south and met with Wulgof to watch the road coming up to Andrath. As the men noted a party from Rohan came from the south, they also noted a party approached from the west. A single pennant of blue, with a silver rose, floated on the air. It was the only sign that the western party flew but it was enough for Rowdy to identify them. He grinned at the argument Farbarad had clearly won with Rin over that pennant. How he had managed to keep it aloft was another victory entirely.
Hanasian and Rin, along with the rest of the Company that had not already travelled to Bree, rode behind Farbarad in the lead. Videgavia himself mounted the rearguard, dark eyes flashing. Mulgov drove a wagon filled with goods for trade, carefully watched by Cat. It was supposed to be occupied by a rather pregnant Rin, but she stubbornly sat a horse. There, Rowdy concluded, lay the trade. If she wanted out of the wagon, and oh how she hated sitting about in a wagon for hours with nothing to do, then the pennant. Farbarad looked distinctly pleased with himself.
The two parties sighted each other and Farbarad rode towards Halrad.
Farbarad called out, "Fair greetings to you and all in the caravan! Does the Lady Halcwyn ride with you?"
Halrad, unfamiliar with Cardolan's device called back, "Who hails us from the west?"
The two men met each other between the parties and Farbarad answered in a low voice, "Her brother, Captain Hanasian, and his family."
Before Halrad could answer, however, two other riders approached each other.
It was a strange feeling that came over Halcwyn as she rode toward the shadowy figures on horses. Yet though the years had passed, she knew which one was her brother. She noted the others, but rode straight for Hanasian. It had been so long since they had seen each other and the letters were erratic in their delivery if not in writing. The younger children of Halasian reunited once again.
Hanasian smiled as he saw his sister ride strike out. He said to Rin in a low voice, ”Behold, My sister approaches.”
They kept a pace over the grass and Hanasian spoke to Rin as the distance closed.
”One of the things I have admired about you and Loch is you had each other through your hard lives. We only shared our younger days in Rivendell. It’s only been short visits and many letters since. It was always said by the elves that I was our father tempered with our mother’s stoic demeanour. And Halcwyn was our mother with a bit of our father’s fire keeping her spirit simmering.
"I only wished we both could have known our older brother Hayna. The little I have learned, from our mother and those who knew him, was that he was aflame like our father, but had a fair conscience. Yet was bitter at our father for never being home. I only met him per chance once, the day we landed the Corsair ships near Minas Tirith. We met in battle against the Easterlings before the city. Few words we spoke, but we traded smiles when we spoke in brief of our mother. He was killed later that day, and I buried my brother in honour with the fallen of Gondor. Now my beloved, you will meet my sister.”
Hanasian spoke long, for he was nervous. He hoped the two women would like each other. But as the distance steadily closed, Hanasian found he could not wait.
”I ask your pardon my love for riding ahead. I must go forth and meet my sister.”
Rin smiled and nodded, mindful about how it would be if she and Loch had not seen each other in such a long time. She didn’t wish to recall that short time she thought Loch dead. Had Halcwyn ever think that Hanasian had perished?
She said, ”Go on, my love, I will catch up soon enough.”
Hanasian smiled and blew a kiss to his wife, then turned and sped away toward the woman who was riding now in full gallop toward them.
The two came close and turned their horses. As they slowed, both dismounted and they embraced. Words were not spoken for some time as they held to each other.
Finally, Hanasian said, ”You are looking well my sister!”
“As are you my brother!” Halcwyn said. She kissed his brow and added, ”You look genuinely happy! I remember the last time you had visited, you were grim. I long to meet Lady Rosmarin, for she has lit a fire in your eyes.”
Hanasian held Halcwyn’s shoulders and said, "She approaches even now with our party. She is with child, and so rides carefully. Tonight we will feast before the Andrath, for this is a joyous time. Tomorrow we will ride forth to Bree. I do not believe you and I have ever been there together or even separately at the same time.”
They embraced again and as the sound of hooves grew louder, both from the east and the west, Halcwyn said, ”Behold, our households approach, and will mingle and learn of each other.”
Hanasian smiled, and said,
”I must warn you sister, that those who ride with me are many of my former Company, and they are diverse from the many races of men, many who had opposed each other on the field in wars now past. There are also two sisters who hail from across the eastern sea. May you enjoy their company in the coming days. Sadly, there are no Elves among our company. The sons of Elrond and some who ride with them are still about, but they too have become scarce.”
Hanasian stepped forth as Rin rode up. He could see from her carefully schooled expression that Rin was her usual, careful self around people she did not know. He helped her down from her horse with the words, ”Beloved Rosmarin, meet my beloved sister, Halcwyn.”
All he could do now was hope that the two most strong willed women he had ever encountered took a liking to one another.
[ 03-23-2013, 11:03 AM: Message edited by: Snöwdog ]
From: In the Shadows of Annuminas | Registered: Aug 2000
| IP: Logged |
At first all Halcwyn saw of her brother's wife was the horse she arrived on. It was a tall, white gelding with a deep wide chest and long, strong legs. It was the sort of horse that would have Enedoth bouncing on his heels and darting about to run his hands down fetlocks and over withers. It was a beautiful creature that Halcwyn thought could prove as deadly as it was lovely. The sort of horse a woman who had served in a military unit might possess. The gelding eyed Halcwyn frankly, ears flipping and nostrils flaring. Evidently it decided she posed no particular harm and so it stopped in place so that its mistress could dismount.
Her brother was clearly excited. He had introduced his wife to her even as he was helping his wife out of her saddle. Hanasian was a tall man, broad of shoulder. For a moment, all Halcwyn could see was his back, the gelding, and hair that gleamed like a pale river of gold under the summer sky. Long strands lifted on the breeze as she was assisted down. As she waited, all her brother had written of this woman ran through Halcwyn's mind.
A Dunedain woman, lost nearly all her life, discovered wandering Tharbad with her foster brother. A gifted healer, a brave and true heart. Hanasian had described her as beautiful, but Halcwyn knew that men in love often did that. Enedoth even described her as beautiful when Halcwyn knew full well that was not true. Hanasian stepped away and the woman that had filled her brother with such life and warmth was finally revealed.
Hanasian's wife was tall, certainly taller than her. Perhaps as tall as Enedoth, even. She clearly was with child. Hair fell in a river that spilled down her back and over one shoulder. But it was her face that Halcwyn found the most remarkable. Pale skin, luminous, stretched over delicately balanced bones. Eyes, a searing blue coupled with a simmering grey perched like large pools atop high cheeks. A quick wit within leaped beneath pale brows that arched overhead.
Hanasian's wife's expression was difficult to read. Halcwyn sensed that the other woman was waiting and then movement caught her eyes. She glanced down to find long, agile fingers were fidgeting with skirts. Healer's fingers. Then it occurred to Halcwyn that the woman standing warily before her was a direct descendant from Elendil! Halcwyn's eyes darted up in sudden surprise and consternation. Where had she placed her manners? This was a woman of royal rank, second in descent only to the High King and his direct heirs.
The other woman's eyes widened a fraction and then darted away.
"Ah! Plea-" Halcwyn began but broke off in utter surprise.
She had been about to ask for this woman's pardon as she gathered her skirts to curtsy as proper when the woman she was to curtsy to fell into one herself. Just how she managed to get down so smoothly in her current condition Halcwyn could not fathom. Hanasian's wife head was dutifully bowed and Halcwyn looked over to her brother. Hanasian simply shrugged.
"It is my great pleasure to meet you, Lady Halcwyn. My husband has spoken of you often. News of your impending arrival brought him great joy."
Oh that voice! Lower than was a woman's wont. The sort of voice that could soothe a troubled mind, a sorely injured patient. Certainly a voice that could beguile.
"I have longed to meet you, Lady Rosmarin," Halcwyn replied and at this the woman's head lifted and her eyes met Halcwyn's full on.
Halcwyn had not been prepared for the full weight of a Dunedain gaze. This woman could look straight through someone, and that will! It was not silver in her eyes but steel, elven forged steel! It all made sense now. How indeed could her brother resist. Her wild, wandering, grim brother would have been drawn before he even realised it.
"Thank you. You are kind to say that," Rosmarin said to her and lowered her head to slowly rise back to her full height.
As she came to stand, Halcwyn took a steadying breath. She had no idea what to say next, what to do. Her mind jumped and she noticed that Hanasian's wife rubbed at her lower back as discretely as possible. All of a sudden, this was just another mortal woman, flesh and blood and bone, and aside from a love of the man who hovered nearby watching intently, they shared something. The joy and wonder and pain of carrying a child.
With the introductions seen to, Hanasian steered them back to where others were gathering. Halcwyn enjoyed watching her husband as beset as she had been upon first making Rosmarin's acquaintance. As for her three sons, the elder two seemed as bashful as their father but her youngest took to his new aunt like a bee to honey and commenced following her about through the afternoon as the feast was prepared. As the evening unfolded and the feast began, Halcwyn found herself surrounded by men and woman who were, as Hanasian had said, a strange collection. Enedoth was not entirely sure what to make of them and so he tried to keep to himself. A younger man, who appeared to be Dunlendish, had other designs. He sat himself down next to Enedoth and persistently tried to engage him in conversation.
He had a lop sided grin, an easy manner, and the widest shoulders Halcywn had ever seen. Enedoth would not be drawn but this did not seem to put a dint in the younger man's enthusiasm. Halcwyn remained close to her brother and Hanasian identified the various members of his party for her, one by one. Their names were familiar to her. Hanasian had written of these men for many years. She had imagined them all to be dark, grim, hard bitten men and now that she saw them, she knew it to be true. And through their midst wandered Hanasian's wife. Rosmarin did not seem to sit down for longer than five minutes.
"Is she always so restless?" Halcwyn inquired.
"Always…but it is when she is quiet that it is wise to worry."
Much later in the evening, Halcwyn turned to her brother and said, "You have done me a disservice, Hanasian."
"Your letters describe your wife as something of a wild, knock about creature, and yet she has been unfailing polite, well mannered, utterly civilised noblewoman. Even your remorseless men do not fail to treat her with respect and regard."
"She has been studying," Hanasian replied mildly and did not add that the reason his former Company treated Rosmarin so well was on account of a healthy dose of fear of what might happen if they did not. If they did not fear Rosmarin, they feared Videgavia, Berlas, Molguv, Wulof, Khule, Lochared, Farbarad, Rowdy and most certainly their former Captain. And then there were the Cats to deal with.
But it was not as simple as that. They treated Rosmarin with deference because of what she was to them. She would always be their Doc, the one who would risk her life and limb to save theirs. She had fought in the thick of things, shared their hardships. She was theirs as much as they were hers.
"Studying?" Halcwyn asked and her brother blinked, pulled back from his thoughts.
"Yes, my wife is determined to make a good impression on you, sister. Once she has resolved on something…"
"Yes, I think I can see that. Do you miss your wandering days, the open horizon, brother?"
"I do, more keenly at some times than others," Hanasian admitted and leant back so that he was propped on one elbow. Some distance away, on the edge of the light cast by the fire, Rin slowly swayed by. She had their son held to her. Hanavia was nestled in against his mother, and his mother was dancing slowly with him, humming softly. Hanasian could see the little boy's smile.
"But I find I miss their faces, their voices, even more," he finished.
Halcwyn saw her youngest son, up far past his bed time with all the excitement, tug on the skirt of his newest aunt. His fair hair gleamed in the fire's glow as he tipped his head up with a silent plea to join in. Rin smiled down, held out a hand and he settled his into her long fingered grip. Then off the trio danced, slowly picking a path through the strange men and women, untroubled by those they passed.
Halcwyn remained up with her brother late, long past the time that Enedoth went with her sons to seek their rest. Most of the camp had settled in for the night. In the quietness, brother and sister spoke long. As sleep settled over the camp, Halcwyn noted that no small number of men maintained a vigilant watch. When she asked Hanasian about this, his face took on a shadow again.
"It is necessary," he said.
"Do you fear old opponents would seek you out?"
"Possibly…but rather we know that there are those who would seek out my wife and son for nothing more than the blood in their veins. It is that we must guard against, for the rest of our days."
Halcwyn shivered to hear the darkness, the quiet rage, in her brother's voice. Here, then, was her father's son. Halasian was still there, lurking, and any who sought to attack Hanasian's family would discover it to their woe.
"How do you know this?" she asked quietly and her brother closed his eyes a moment.
"Because it has happened, twice before. The back alleys of Minas Tirith ran red in the weeks prior to our wedding," Hanasian wiped a hand over his face, "She has been hunted, Halcwyn, nearly all of her life by foe and ally alike."
Hanasian took a deep breath, his thoughts turning to what likely awaited at Bree. Were it just a festival, then they could attend like any other. But it was was not just a festival. It was a Summer Court. The King and Queen were coming, with all their southern lords and ladies. Any loyal vassal was expected to attend. He'd had only a limited discussion of this with his wife. Rin had not been inclined to speak overmuch of the Summer Court. While much of the formal activities would be undertaken by Cardolan's Prefect, Rin would be expected to appear as well, openly. When he had said enough, Rin had responded with a tart observation on how the prices Bree's apothecary charges for various supplies would quadruple as a result and that had been an end to it.
Upon setting out, Rin had gone through everything packed and had removed anything remotely resembling Cardolan. If Hanavia had suddenly developed a case of an upset stomach, she would have found everything. He thought she was mostly unaware of the various preparations made in Bree by Rowdy and Berlas and this was a good thing. But they could not skulk into Bree. They had to arrive, properly. That had resulted in frantic clandestine preparations on the road itself. No easy feat given that Rin had a knack for ferreting out secrets.
"I am sorry," Halcwyn said softly and Hanasian shook his head to clear it.
"You may yet see that wild, untempered creature, in the coming days sister."
With the reunion and the brief respite running its course, the time came to finish their journey to Bree. Halcwyn and her family were easily absorbed into the retinue that accompanied Hanasian and his wife. Rin, so determined to forge at least one good impression, did everything she possibly could. As a result, Halcwyn proved the perfect way to occupy Rin while final preparations for their arrival were completed. As Rin had found all the various official tokens of Cardolan and removed them, it came down to improvisation. Two Bells had always been a potions man. He had been working away on a liquid that turned things blue. Over the course of spring, Farbarad had been feeding the man a steady supply of roses to experiment on. There were a lot of roses around the house, planted by the original inhabitants when the principality had first been established there.
At first the roses had melted, then they went a horrid black colour. With perseverance, Bells finally produced a blue and so, when the wagon had been packed it included a number of barrels of "tanning solution". In Rin's inspection, she had cracked each lid, caught the pungent odour of Bell's solution and decided they were indeed barrels of tanning solution. Thus, Farbarad's blue roses had survived. Once blue, they had to be dried. Once dried, they had to be woven into various garlands. A certain number for key horses, given Rin had found the livery and discarded it, and one for Rin herself since she had turfed out any circlet or diadem as well. The problem was, the blue roses were in excellent condition for horses. However, once fashioned into a smaller garland they just looked wrong.
When Bells was asked if he could concoct a potion on the spot to turn roses silver, the young medic threw up his arms and stormed off in disgust, muttering about the abuse, misuse and general lack of appreciation for his alchemical genius. In any case, they had no fresh roses left.
"I'll see what I can do," Slippery said.
The night before their final departure for Bree, Halcwyn had summoned her brother, his wife and son to a dinner in her own camp. With Rin safely out of the way, Farbarad and Rowdy saw to the final preparations. The small pennant on the standard Loch bore was replaced with a proper flag,
"Where did you hide that?" Loch remarked as Farbarad attached it to the standard pole Loch kept in his tent.
"I've been wearing it," Farbarad said and Loch's nose wrinkled, because the days had been hot of late.
"No one will be sniffing it," the Ranger said when he caught Loch's expression.
"Except for me," he replied glumly.
The small black velvet pouch that held his medal sat on his bedroll nearby, along with his recently cleaned and polished uniform.
Farbarad eyed it a moment and then grinned at him, "That's why you're Cardolan's first hero, Kid. Broad shoulders!"
With the flag fastened and a hearty slap to Loch's shoulders, Farabarad turned to leave the tent. The flaps had only just closed after the Ranger when Loch heard his next instructions.
"Make sure you knot your weapons harness too."
"What?" Loch exclaimed and outside the Ranger sighed.
"You can't bear the Standard, openly armed and accoutred for war, into a convening court unless you are either fighting a war or want to fight a war for or against that court. Are you, or do you?"
"I suppose not."
"Then start wrapping, Kid. Use blue cord."
Farabard was not so helpful as to mention where blue cord might be found in this camp. Or how exactly the peace knots were supposed to go. Loch bounced from person to person, increasingly convinced the Ranger had put him up to a fool's errand, until he encountered Rowdy. The quiet man looked him up and down and shook his head.
"Of course you don't know," he said and Loch bridled.
"Why would I, exactly?"
"Not because I knew where to find blue cord and how to tie it into KNOTS!"
Loch found that it was difficult to appear angry with someone when he was following them about like a lost puppy. Rowdy made certain that Loch could not see his grin. With cord in hand, Rowdy led Loch back to his own tent, stepped inside and sighed heavily.
"Of course you don't have a sword," Rowdy said as he eyed Loch's weapon harness.
"I did…once," Loch remarked.
"Where is it now?"
Loch shrugged and grinned unevenly, "If I had to guess, I?d say it's hanging over some man's table in that place, that town in Rhun. What was it's name?"
"That's the one. Anyway, axes are much better, far more effective. And these, my friend, are dwarven forged. I just lengthened the handles."
"I've seen dwarf blades, Kid."
"You're looking at a pair right now!"
Oh they were good, Rowdy concluded. Excellently made, superb quality…but Mannish. Still, he had to find a way to peace knot axes and getting into an argument with the scout was not going to assist.
"Bring your 'dwarf' axes here, then."
"Farbarad said to do the whole harness."
"And we will, but we'll start with the weapons first. It's how it is done. Why am I explaining this to you?"
"Because I have an honest face?"
Rowdy snorted at that and set to work.
It was late when they finished and later still when Hanasian and his family returned to their side of camp. Rin was fatigued by her efforts to present a good impression and the weariness that accompanied pregnancy. As a result, she was soon tucked beneath the covers with their son. Hanasian ducked out of the tent and found Farbarad waiting.
"Aye," the Ranger said and Hanasian returned for the last relatively peaceful night they would have for a short while.
Despite his role in events, Loch slept soundly until dawn. He would have slept longer were it not for Rose. She stole into his tent and he woke to the sight of her lovely face suspended over his own. The woman he would marry, he thought. He knew it now. That part, at least. How to go about it, what to do afterward, all of that remained a mystery, but this was the woman he would marry. If she'd have him. Of course she would, wouldn't she? He smiled up at her as winsomely as he could.
"Rose," he croaked, throat dry, and she leaned up and away.
"Hurry Loch, you have an important job to do today," she said and with a wink, she was gone from his tent.
Loch rolled himself out of bed, stuffed himself into a more formal uniform and grappled with his knotted weapons harness. He gave an axe handle an exploratory tug and discovered that if he wanted to draw a weapon, he'd probably lose his pants. A good thing to know. Once that battle had been fought, he collected the standard and knocked his tent down onto himself. Outside, he could hear his sister laughing with Wulgof and Molguv. Of course, not one of them helped him free himself of the tent and so it took some time to fight his way clear of it. Loch emerged, once carefully finger combed hair now rumpled, out of breath, and missing the standard. He shouted a particularly obscene Dunlendic phrase that made his sister and Wulgof double over in more laughter. Tears were running down their faces and Rin was finding it hard to breathe. Good old, kind, unctuous Mulgov assisted her to the ground so she could catch her breath without falling over.
Well, Loch thought with a scowl, he'd sort her out later. Perhaps when Hanasian's sister was around, little miss make a good impression. His eyes narrowed as she laughed. And she'd be laughing on the other side of her face when she saw that standard, and the horses. He let her chortle and gasp away, seated on the ground between Wulgof and Molguv, and went in search of the standard. It was not easy to find. He mistook a tent pole for it and this only set Rin off again. Loch threw the tent pole away with some force, unaware of how that forced Hanasian's brother-in-law, Enedoth, to duck, and dove back into his ruined tent. This time, he had more luck. Rin had her arms wrapped about her growing belly and the twins within when he finally plucked the standard free.
Loch planted the butt of the pole on the ground and shook off the slightly dusty flag. There was an early morning breeze that caught the blue velvet and made it ripple lazily. Then there was the unmistakeable silver glint of the rose upon that blue field. Loch's grin was pure triumph as Rin seemed to choke on her own tongue. At that point, one of the Cats led a blue garlanded white horse by. Her gelding! It was not easy for Rin to get to her feet nowadays, but she found Molguv served many uses and she used him to climb her way up, amusement wiped clean from her face.
"Where did you get THAT?" she hissed, stabbing a finger at the offending flag.
"Where do you think, sister of good cheer?" Loch replied.
"Take it down."
"Oh, no, you're right. Not can't…won't."
Molguv recognised the tone in Rin's voice and managed to secure an arm just as she surged forward. She weighed more than he was expecting and she was angry, and so the Haradian found himself hopping forward, towed by the woman he meant to restrain and forcing Wulgof to grab at his belt. His heels scrabbled in the ground for purchase enough to heft Molguv and Rin back.
"Not me, you idiot, HER!" the Haradian barked at Wulgof.
"What's going on here?" Videgavia asked.
Rin, bristling, turned her full ire on the Daleman, "Make him take that thing down! Now!"
"Yes! Order him!"
"He's not carrying it on my orders," Videgavia said reasonably, "Whose orders are you carrying it on, Scout?"
"Farbarad's," Loch reported dutifully.
"RIGHT," Rin snapped, wheeled around and went off in search of the Ranger like an unholy storm sent straight from Osse.
"If I were you, Kid, I'd get myself on a horse before she gets back," Videgavia said, watching her stalk through the camp in search of Farbarad.
Loch did not wait to be told twice. He was not sure what happened, or if his sister found Farbarad. All he knew was that the flag remained aloft on his Standard and Rin seemed to be fuming in her saddle every time he glanced in her direction. In the period between her furious departure and now, someone had managed to get her into a rather formal dress, and then into a side saddle which she loathed with singular fervour, and had dropped a garland of white flowers and ribbons around her head. Beneath those soft blooms, his sister silently glowered her way through the morning.
Loch remained some distance back from his sister, a safe distance, watching Halcwyn discover an entirely different side to her brother's wife. Rin had no interest at all in good impressions, conversation, good humour or general pleasantries. She was not rude, just quiet, eyes fixed directly ahead and locked in that spot right between Farbarad's shoulder blades. It was just past mid afternoon when the call came for him to come to the front. It didn't make to sense to Loch. He was a scout, and by his bearings they had not yet made Bree. However, as he reached the rise, he saw that Bree had reached them, in a fashion.
The sight was one that had surpassed Rin's seething anger and Loch could understand why. It was quite a thing to see. He looked to where his sister sat, staring down at those below. She had the expressionless mask she wore when frightened in place. Loch's arrival and the flag ensured that the attention of those below were captured. Suddenly Loch was glad for Rowdy's men arrayed about them like a reassuring blanket. The "farm hands" had emerged that morning without their rural garb and unlike his harness, their simple weapons were quite unknotted. Loch suspected these men would be needed to run the gauntlet below.
Tents, some of them gaily coloured, carpeted the land. Temporary yards teeming with various stock had been erected. Small hordes of children ran between the tents. It had been those children that had spotted the flag and now called excitedly below. This had alerted their parents and Loch could see the press gathering as people moved forward. It was easily a mile to Bree. Penned in by the tents and the people. It was a nightmare in terms of possible attack.
Loch's eyes scanned the people below. Up on horses, pressed together…Loch suppressed a shudder. This was supposed to be a festival. He turned back to find Rose. She and her sister had been gathered into the heavily protected knot that had formed up. Halcwyn looked understandably nervous and Enedoth was not well pleased. Loch looked back to his sister. Her eyes flickered from the crowd to the flag and then to those who were about, no doubt looking for someway to slip out and flee. Videgavia shifted into one particular escape path that she spotted. Loch thought the man had a surprisingly compassionate expression as Rin turned her eyes back to the front. That expression faded and Vid was all dour, dangerous and dark once more.
The sound of the crowd below that carried up to them was a one that Hanavia decided that he did not like at all. That caused a short delay as he was transferred to his mother. The little boy clung ferociously to her and buried his face into her neck. Rin looped her reins around one arm to retain as much control over her mount as she could and Hanasian pressed his horse closer to the side that Hanavia clung tenaciously to. It was time to be off. They had to move, through this press of people drawn by the spectacle of the Summer Court and Midsummer Festival.
Loch set a careful pace in the lead, Farbarad behind him. His senses were singing as they closed and the urge to draw a weapon as a precaution was nearly overpowering. Children had winnowed their way forward and they gazed up at him and his horse with wide eyes. As he rode, he could hear the whispers. Who was it? A southern noble house? And then he heard a voice cry, "Cardolan! It's Cardolan! It's her! She's real!"
This only whetted the crowd's appetite further. Loch strove to keep the Standard tall and proud. He lifted his chin, kept his shoulders square and his spine straight. And he watched faces. At some point, someone threw something and he found his hand reaching for an inaccessible weapon even as he realised it was a flower. More flowers followed, most thrown onto the ground but some annoyingly tossed at people. Loch had to duck to avoid having a flower stem spear into an eye. They knotted weapons, but flowers could be deadly, he thought. Where were the peace knots for those, then?
The noise of the voices was the worst, though. So many things were called out. Once someone called out Rin's name, chanting began. Then an argument over what her name was. Scuffling followed and the narrow way they moved through threatened to collapse. Loch's mouth was dry as week old ashes by then but he caught movement amongst the crowd and the way was cleared. He thought he saw what he was certain was a Ranger of the North but the glimpse was too fleeting and he could not tarry to confirm. By the time they reached Bree proper, Loch's skull was pounding with tension, and he was ready to tug his weapons free no matter what happened to his breeches.
Word had spread to the townsfolk ahead of them. Bree had once been part of Cardolan. After a year of rumour and speculation, they were finally going to see her! Loch felt palpable relief when he saw the polished helms and bright armour of the King's formal guard positioned at the gates. He had to take care that the standard did not droop as a result. As he checked its position, he caught sight of Runner. His friend acknowledged him with a flick of his fingers.
"Our Princess!" someone called from the throng.
"She's a Queen!" someone shouted back, outraged.
"She stepped aside, and she ain't wearing no crown!"
It was time to move again, before things got worse, Loch thought. Evidently the King's Shiny Guard, as Loch now thought of them, had reached the same conclusion. Loch had no idea how the men knew where to take them. Rowdy said that he and Berlas had kept their selected location quiet. But, then, Loch supposed that men like the Shiny Guard knew things like that. Personally, he was relieved that they did, because he had not the faintest clue and the prospect of him leading them round and round Bree had loomed very large indeed at the Gates.
As they were led through Bree, Loch saw the banners of other nobles unfurled from high windows so that they ran down the front of buildings. Stag and Bear were here already, and he felt a nervous twist in his gut because Stag and Bear had been trouble in Pelargir. Loch concluded that the arrival of these nobles earlier must have whetted the appetite of the townsfolk for pomp and ceremony. He saw the ship of Dol Amroth and the golden tree of Ithilien and a great many others as the King's Shiny Guard led them unerringly to a large house. He wondered, then, for the first time if the timing of when you arrived meant anything. If so, what did their timing mean for his sister and her timing for them? It was a painful question, Loch discovered. Thinking about it only made his head hurt worse than it already did.
The King's Guard took their leave and turned back for the gate and the throngs there. Loch didn't envy them their task. Meanwhile, the rest of the people that had travelled with them, and one wagon, clattered into the yard and soon it was a press of horses, people and gear. Rowdy quickly had his "farm hands" deployed around the property and Farbarad had already taken to the house to sweep it for himself. No one took umbrage at that. Berlas had been maintaining security for weeks but everyone knew what Farbarad was like when it came to the safety of his charges. Once inspection had been done, they were whisked inside in a flash, their horses seen to by men Berlas had detailed for the task.
It took Loch some time to get inside himself. He had a Standard to sort out. The flag had to be removed from the pole. It couldn't touch the ground, or some such nonsense, and so that was a feat in itself. Loch had just managed to unhitch it without dropping the flag or the pole on his feet when Farbarad emerged and relieved him of the flag. He studied it a moment, because it certainly wasn't folded the way it was supposed to be.
"You've a lot to learn," Farbarad said.
"And who says I want to? Not like I have plans to follow in your steps, Ranger. I have my own life to lead," he responded.
Farbarad tapped Loch's chest near the pin he wore. With that tap, Farbarad walked back into the house with the flag. Loch started after the Ranger for a moment and then shrugged. He stowed the pole in the stables but did not tarry to exchange greetings with his fellow Company men seeing to the horses. Rose was inside and if he was feeling jostled and overwhelmed, then he shuddered to think how Rose may be.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
The thunderstorm that blew in with night wasn’t particularly surprising. It seemed, somehow, fitting given the tension of the day. The lightening coruscated the sky and leached colour from the house and the faces within with each crackling lick. Halcwyn steeled herself not to startle as she carried a tray laden with tea, crockery and food into the drawing room. She had only just managed to set it down on the table when a great thunderous crack seemed to sound right over the house itself. Hanavia wailed in naked fear, clutched at his mother where they sat in the corner. Rin rocked back and forth and tried to soothe him but she was far from calm herself. Her son sensed his mother’s tension. Halcwyn set herself to pouring out tea into cups.
”Tea,” she asked Rin and had to repeat herself.
”Oh…sorry…yes, I think…”
“Do you take milk?”
But Rin was off in her own world again and this time Slippery had to answer.
”She doesn’t take milk, but she will take honey. Here, let me while you see to the others.”
“Is she…” Halcwyn trailed off, not sure how to ask it.
”She’s come through worse than this,” Slippery replied as she drizzled a large helping of honey into a cup of dark, steaming tea.
”Worse?” Halcwyn asked, horrified at the idea that anything could be worse than being trapped in a half mad, chanting mob, surrounded on all sides, with a helpless child to defend and carrying two more within.
”Aye,” Slippery replied and tapped the spoon she had used on the side of the cup three times. This made Rin blink, her eyes focused and she looked around the room.
Slippery held out the tea cup to her, ”Tea, Doc. Hungry?”
Rin took the tea but shook her head at the question. Halcwyn frowned.
”Good grief! She must eat something, surely!”
“Good luck trying to force it down her. Why do you think I put so much honey in her tea?” Slippery said.
Halcwyn absorbed this and considered the small Gondorian woman. She had never met a woman quite like the capable Slippery.
”You and Rosmarin are friends,” Halcwyn guessed and Slippery nodded matter-of-factly.
”Yes…couldn’t possibly leave the woman to fend all for herself with all those men to manage.”
“Have you known her long?”
“Oh….couple of years, I suppose.”
“Is that all? You seem very….close. You know her well.”
Slippery smiled at that and took a bite out of an apple she had taken from the tray.
”I’m a Cat,” she explained and when Halcwyn remained silent, she added, ”You know….Black Cats….did Hanasian not mention us at all?”
“Oh…Oh! A Cat! Yes,” Halcwyn said as she recalled how her brother had described this particular unit of his Company. He had felt no small amount of trepidation, if she recalled correctly. But then…did that mean?
”And was Rosmarin a Cat too?” Halcwyn asked, incredulous.
With the women gathered in the drawing room, Hanasian had convened a small emergency meeting in the dining room.
”Today was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster! What happened? Where were the Prefect’s men?”
“Not there,” Rowdy said emphatically.
”Just as well those Rangers were,” Loch added seriously, ”I thought the crowd would riot for a while there. Hate to think what would have happened if it did.”
“But why were even they there? What drew them out?” Farbarad asked, knowing a Ranger as well as Hanasian did.
Hansian rubbed his hands over his face to scrub the weariness from it and focus his thoughts.
”There’s something to this that stinks. No Prefect, Rangers drawn out, and a crowd just one drop of blood away from rabid all in time for our arrival. Or am I being paranoid?”
“It isn’t right,” Rowdy said.
”Aye,” Farbarad growled and a terrific concussive boom sounded overhead.
It made their ears ring for a good while and after it faded, Hanavia’s frightened cries gradually emerged along with the distant sound of someone pounding on the front door. Who would be out in this storm? Rowdy strode to the dining room door and peered out to see Khule escorting a heavily cowled man whose cloak dripped water onto the floorboards. He walked with a cane and Hanasian heard the thump of it on the floor as he came up the hall with Khule. Rowdy turned towards Hanasian and the Ranger nodded.
”Show him in,” Rowdy said to Khule and the Commander nodded and let the man pass him and enter the dining room.
Once inside, the newly arrived man used his free hand to push back the darkly glistening folds of his leather cowl. A weather beaten face familiar to Hanasian was revealed.
”Massuil! Mae Govannan,” Hanasian said and grasped the man’s outstretched hand.
”Hanasian, nasty business out there today.”
“Nastier, had it not been for your men. I owe you a debt, Massuil.”
“Your fair wife and boy…they are unharmed?”
“Shaken, the both of them.”
“And my wife is quietly getting angrier with each passing moment, but otherwise unharmed.”
“It was nobly done today,” Farbarad said solemnly, ”Not so often do the Rangers of the North ride to the aid of Cardolan that it will be forgotten.”
Massuil grimaced at that, but met Farbarad’s eyes squarely, ”Farbarad of Cardolan. Aye, I know you and know of you. A hard man, they say, yet fair and woe betide those who seek to harm those he has sworn to protect. You want to know why we were out there today, and rightly so. Were I in your boots, I would want to know the same. I did not venture out on this leg in this weather to inquire upon the health of your charges.”
Massuil grimaced again and adjusted his stance. Loch offered him a chair but the ageing Ranger waved it off.
”Getting into it is one matter. Getting out quiet the other,” he said with a mirthless smile as he reached beneath his weather beaten cloak and pulled out a handful of crumpled papers.
These he set on the dining table with a slap and Rowdy realised the papers were bills.
”Found these scattered about three days ago. Thought them interesting. Think you might too.”
Whoever had printed them had done so in a hurry. They were poorly set, crudely formed and roughly cut. The paper was exceptionally poor stock. Hanasian picked one up and read it. Anger lit in his eyes and he picked up another and another and another.
”Someone worked that crowd into a frenzy.”
“Aye, and just sat back and waited for you to arrive as you had to. Heard Cardolan had a Prefect now. Where was he?”
“Not here, yet,” Farbarad snarled, so angry he was quivering.
”Convenient, that,” Massuil said.
”Clever…whip a crowd up…sit back and wait for them to tear us apart… clever…professional. Lucky for us they didn’t count on you sending in your men,” Rowdy said.
“Suspect they assumed we wouldn’t, that it was a Cardolan matter. Certainly how things have run in the past round here. Cardolan, Arthedain, the old divisions are hardly relevant now, though.”
“Thank you for bringing these to us,” Hanasian said and Massuil shrugged it off.
”I said at your wedding that if you or yours ever had need, we would come. I’ve sent word out for more, wasn’t expecting this sort of dirty game. We look after our own, Hanasian. That’s all this is. Were it my wife and child, you’d do the same.”
Hanasian nodded and Massuil asked, ”What now?”
“My former Company are in town.”
“They’re your lads?”
“They’re sharp….I’ll let my men know, the more eyes the better.”
“We’ll need to run down the printer of these,” Rowdy said quietly.
”If you can find him…or her. If they’ve half a brain, they’re fifty leagues away or more by now. But, worth trying. You’re a Gondor man…King’s…but not Guard and not Grey.”
“No, not Grey,” Rowdy said slowly and the two men exchanged a long glance before Massuil broke it off.
”You’ve good men here, Hanasian, and you can count on mine. Not a one of them wants this sort of thing going on. I’ll let them know that you all came through. That’ll please them.”
“My thanks again, Massuil.”
“You keep that up, Ranger, I’ll start to think you no longer consider yourself one of us now that you’re some sort of Consort. Too good for us, or some such.”
As Hanasian walked Massuil back to the door, Farbarad eyed Rowdy.
”So, what are you exactly?”
“A man,” Rowdy replied and that was as far as he would be drawn.
It was late by the time the storm blew itself out and Hanavia could finally be gotten down to sleep. Hanasian made certain to gather up all the bills and stow them away. Aragorn would need to see them and they’d need them to track down the printer. Plus, he wasn’t sure he wanted Rin to see them just yet. With the storm’s fury exhausted, rain fell over Bree. Hanasian listened to sound of it running over the roof, down the walls, through the cobblestones of the street outside. He listened to the strange sounds of this unfamiliar house. And he let his thoughts run. Who was responsible for the bills? Was it linked to the Prefect’s strange absence? What and when should he say something to his wife? What harm were his sister and her family in? It occurred to Hanasian that Rin had been gone for some time and so he stirred himself from his chair and went in search for her.
He found her still in Hanavia’s room. The little boy was carefully tucked into a child’s bed, thumb in his mouth. It was a relief to see him so peaceful after the difficulty of the day. Whoever this was had threatened his son, his baby son. Hanasian unclenched his fists and looked next at his wife. Rin sat in a chair by Hanavia’s bed, stroking his hair or the soft skin of his little arm. He carefully crossed to crouch by her chair and kiss her softly on the temple. As he pulled back, he noticed Rin’s eyes had closed. When she opened them again, they were a frightening blue in the soft lantern light. He had never seen her quite so angry before.
”What happened today was deliberate,” she whispered, not a question at all.
”Yes,” Hanasian replied, unable to deceive her.
”So be it,” she said.
”So be it?”
“They can come for me, if they must…but my son is sacrosanct. So be it. I will have their heads.”
Hanasian pressed his lips to her shoulder, wrapped an arm around her, and gently guided her up from the chair and to their own rest.
After the day’s trials, it felt good to lay down beside Rin. She worked at getting comfortable and Hanasian slid up against her back after she settled. A hand went over to rest on the side of her belly and he felt one of the twins moving about trying to get comfortable itself. Boy or girl, he wondered. It was one of the joys the day brought to him. With a face full of hair and with Rin starting to breathe evenly, he quickly faded to sleep.
Breaking flagons echoed through the now-quiet inn. Tarina was tired and knocking the tray off the bar was the last thing she needed right now. She would have to clean it up. Just more extra work after such a busy day. The storm had driven the crowd inside and business had quite brisk. But she wanted to have a bit of time to get out of the inn. Word had it that the Lady of Cardolan had arrived and there was Talk that the King was coming in too. Tarina’s plan had been to slip out and see for herself but the inn had been far too busy well into the night. Now, with the morning hours slipping past, she was cleaning up broken flagons. Tomorrow would be no better. And to make things worse, Kholas had not come yet either.
The King would not know that the Prefect had yet to arrive as had been planned, well before the King was to arrive and certainly before the Lady of Cardolan had. All that they knew was a strong suspicion that something was amiss. At Bree, the Company created a tight watch around their former commander and healer. The Dunedain Rangers watched the various gates of Bree. The King’s Guards had taken up position at the Greenway to greet and protect the King once he emerged from the narrows of the Andrath.
There was a reason Kholas did not go to the inn. He had slipped out to south, with Berlas, to meet the scouts of the King’s caravan. They had solid information that he was not too far south and it was likely that he expected the Prefect to meet him. Kholas and Berlas wished to speak with the royal party before they ventured the final distance to Bree. The two men took up positions on the south edge of the Andrath by the road on a miserable night to spend out. They hunkered down in the hope that the next day would prove its worth.
To the south, the King’s party had set camp early prior to the storm’s arrival. Aragorn was troubled though he couldn’t quite grasp the source of his concern. This ill ease throughout the day had prompted him to decide on a late afternoon arrival on the morrow rather than the morning arrival planned. The rest taken now, he sensed, would be needed by nightfall tomorrow.
Morning came too soon. Hanasian opened his eyes to hair and found that Rin slept soundly. Still, outside he could hear whispering. He arose and slipped out to find Farbarad and Rowdy in the hall where they had spent the night. The two weary men were discussing yesterday and the Prefect’s absence along with the various implications and how best to contend with each. Shortly before Hanasian emerged, Farbarad had put forth the idea that Rin could represent Cardolan in the Prefect’s absence. Who else could be appointed with the authority so swiftly? Rowdy contended that they should ask Rin rather than inform her.
It was at this juncture that Hanasian spoke out, ”Absolutely not! Given yesterday’s occurrences, I am more than half tempted to leave for home today. Were it not for other things keep us here, we’d be on our way already! I do not and will not risk harm to Rin or our children!”
Rowdy cocked an eyebrow and nodded at Farbarad, who said after a moment ”Well, that settles that idea.”
“Indeed it does,” Hanasian emphatically replied, “There is no chance we would be able to enjoy even a moment of the festival or have a moment’s peace here.”
With his mind made abundantly clear, he returned to where Rin still slept. He pressed a kiss to her shoulder and saw that she shifted slightly, murmured something indistinct but otherwise remained asleep. The strain of yesterday had taken more from her than she had permitted anyone to see, as he suspected. He soon lay beside her, his fingers running through the fine, soft strands of her hair.
The morning light saw Berlas and Kholas riding south to find the King. They did not have much farther to go from where they had camped the night prior to find the vanguard watch. They were taken to where the King held counsel.
The King greeted them, ”It had been some time since the days on the eastern shore. Yet I think I know why you come. News of the Prefect?”
Kholas sighed and Berlas said, ”Lack of news, sire. We had hoped that he had come down to meet you yesterday, or earlier further to the south.
“He did not meet the Lady of Cardolan upon her arrival yesterday and there was nearly a riot. Someone had stirred the crowd to fever pitch with handbills distributed prior. The instigators are still to our knowledge being sought.”
Aragorn’s head dropped at this news and he washed his hands over his face. The King expelled a heavy breath as his hands slid down and his expression was sombre.
”I had hoped this would be a merry occasion for more than one reason,” he said, thinking of the grim report he received close to a year ago now on the outcome of events in Esgaroth. This would have been her first venture out since that. Treachery closed in on both sides of the Misty Mountains, dogged her steps relentlessly. Had he made an error in revealing her presence two years ago?
”I will send messengers back with you to instruct my men there. We will follow to arrive in the afternoon in force, lest civil unrest continues on from yesterday. Ride now back to Bree with haste. Seek Hanasian. I speak with him, and my cousin, though not as a public meeting.”
The two men bowed and left to prepare a swift ride back to Bree. With them came the King’s messengers came and a host of guards. The King’s arrival would be known hours before he arrived.
The riders made speed back north and arrived at noon. Things had changed since they had set out the evening before. The messengers found a commander of the King’s Guard in Bree, and the host of guards set camp on the outskirts near where the road from the Andrath found Bree.
Kholas made straight for the Prancing Pony Inn. He had a little trouble getting inside the door for it was already a busy festival day. He sighted Tarina serving the crowd and found that eased his concern slightly. The general mood seemed lighter than the day before. He managed to catch her eye for a brief moment and a slight smile told him all he wished to know. He slipped back out and headed to the smithy. He had plenty of work to do.
Berlas made for the house secured for Hanasian and Rin. The house was no longer concealed. Yesterday’s arrival meant that the throngs knew exactly where they were. The intensified watch made it all the clearer. Two banners extended down the front of the house: Cardolan’s blue and silver on one side and Gondor’s black and silver on the other.
Berlas was stopped once by one of the King’s Guard and a second time by a grey-cloaked Ranger. It was comforting that more than the Company and Cardolan’s own watched on the one hand. On the other, it spoke to how precarious things yet were that it was deemed necessary. Balanced on a knife’s edge, he thought with concern. The increased presence of the King’s men seemed to keep things calm within the town, while the Company maintained the inner watch with Rowdy’s men, whatever they were, around the house itself.
Upon arrival, Berlas found himself greeted first by Molguv. The giant of a Haradian was stationed by the front door. He grinned at Berlas, no doubt having heard of his twice over interrogation upon the way, but the smile had a savage, feral quality to it. Molguv, like all of the others, took any threat against the Company as a personal one and Hanasian and Rin most certainly would be Company for the rest of their days. Retirement meant little. Added to that was the proprietary way in which Molguv viewed Lochared and Rosmarin. The man was one that considered bonds tribe as a holy thing and he had summarily claimed the two as his the very day he had crossed paths with him.
Vid had quietly theorised that it all came down to events that day. Had Loch not thumped him and Rin not robbed him, the Haradian would probably have been as interested in acquiring them as he was in Donius. Just what Khule and Wulgof had done, according to Vid’s theory, beggared the imagination.
Berlas nodded at the grinning Haradian and Molguv sidled his bulk to one side to admit him without challenge. Even as Berlas reached for the door, however, he found it opened. Hanasian himself stepped out with his sister Halcwyn by his side. Berlas took several steps back so that they all stood in the front garden, replaying the King’s message in his head and wondering whether to deliver it in front of Hanasian’s sister or not.
While Berlas thought, Hanasian greeted him and said, ”We have come to Bree to enjoy the festival and to meet the King and his Summer Court. If it must be such that we greet the King in the stead of the Prefect, then so be it. We will go in force, for I will risk no harm to Rin.”
“Very good, sir,” Berlas answered, one puzzle resolved neatly for him by his former captain.
Behind, in the doorway, lurked his current captain. After what had been seen yesterday in the preparations, no one was under any doubt that accomplishing this feat would not be easy. Aside from the obvious preparations for security, getting Rin to cooperate was no small challenge. Berlas eyed Videgavia and the Daleman gave nothing away. Did she even know yet? He rolled his shoulders and set to the preparations that he could accomplish.
One thing that could always be said about the Company, Black or Free, was that when a decision was made, they were ready quickly. Not only did they clean up and get into their dress blacks, they saw to the necessary security arrangements in the process. The Rangers were assembled by some means and appraised of the plan for the afternoon. Massuil had his men set watch while preparations were made.
It fell to Farbarad to brooch the matter with Rin and he was surprised at how easily she accepted the idea. He trotted down the stairs to inform the others that they would not need to secure the Lady of Cardolan to her saddle and then her horse to five other horses to prevent her from making a break for it. Perhaps, he mused on his way, the idea of being trapped inside a house did not appeal to her. He was aware that Rin, Halcwyn, Rose, and Lady Anvikela had spent quite some time together. What had they come up with? Little did he know that it had been Halcwyn’s intervention to tip the balance.
When Rin had finally emerged, and after the rigourous security briefing had concluded, the women had been left with their tea to consider matters. No one was to go anywhere. Halcwyn refused to allow a few rabble ruin her days with her brother and family. She resolved that she was going to head to the camp where her husband had the horses no matter what anyone had to say about it. Little did she know that he had already sold them all.
If Halcwyn was going, Rin resolved, then so was she. There was a festival out there and for once she was to attend like a guest, a normal person. Rin had seen festivals many times before, but from a very different angle. She had spent more than enough time running, hiding. She had done nothing wrong, this time. She was not about to be kept hidden in a house now. She’d not stolen anything. Rin could scarcely believe her luck when Farbarad came to her and broached the subject of heading out.
The time came, then, to set out to meet the King upon his arrival at Bree. Alert, hands steady and resolve sharp, they formed an impressive party as they rode towards the southern gates.
Word of the King’s approach had gathered a crowd once more. This throng, though, was far more orderly than that of the day before. The heavy presence of the King’s Guard accounted for some of that. However many had been startled and even shocked by what had gripped them and close they had come to a frightening precipice. Upon his approach, the King seemed grim. He was preoccupied with the Prefect’s absence. Yet, as his Queen joined him he found the cloud that had gripped him relinquished its hold on him. Aragorn resolved that this Midsummer festival would be one of the best in memory. Hope, renewal, life and prosperity. That is what would come from this festival and his Summer Court.
His expression lightened and the crowd responded in kind, remembering why they had gathered here and the merriment to be had. As he rode with his Queen into Bree, a host arrived to greet him. The crowd withdrew to allow some thirty of the King’s Dunedain Rangers to approach. The men walked in a large oval and within their arc came a smaller party. Aragorn recognised men of the original Black Company of Arnor there, and a new face near the front that he had not seen before. A sandy haired fellow, possibly of Dunland or Rohan. Foster brother to his cousin, he wondered, as they drew near. Within this narrower circle, was a third party. He saw Hanasian, his old friend, and his cousin. Rosmarin was with child, he noted, and appeared fair and bright in the midst of so many warriors. Behind them came a very pleased looking Ranger of Cardolan. Pleased and relieved, Aragorn amended, as he studied Farbarad.
The crowd eagerly watched this grand meeting, drawn in and along by what they saw. There was no hint of tension, of ambition, of greed. Humbly did the Lady of Cardolan acknowledge her King and Queen. As humble as any of the others in her party. Warmly were they received, greetings of monarch and kinsman returned. A grand meeting was beheld by all, and it was in a sense a relief to both Hanasian, Rin, and Aragorn. The question on everyone’s mind was: where was the Prefect? Things were amiss, but for this moment, it didn’t seem to enter the minds of anyone.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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