"And I say that she's behind it all! The handbills, the Prefect's disappearance, everything! I think she's carving out a return to power, and under the nose of the Court what is more. I'm not the only one saying it, either!"
Rin's stomach twisted at the overheard assessment of her culpability. So many glittering nobles in a stately orbit of that garden; brilliant and fair beneath the summer stars and moon. All of them whispering, speculating. Sedition. Treason. Treachery. Power. Ambition. Greed. They thought she did it! Her! And what proof did she have that she was innocent? Those responsible for the handbills had not been found. The Prefect was still missing! The longer it took the more they whispered. All the while smiling at her with all those sharp teeth. She should never have come, never have left home. Never. Still, what had she accomplished there? Had the wolves decided to hunt other prey than her? Was her son any safer now? For all she knew, one of those she watched was responsible for this. So many wished for Cardolan to fail once more. The realm was riven by division and plots even now.
While she was distantly aware that her heart thrummed, the twins were definitely aware. They, in turn, were restless. How they turned and twisted and pushed at her. She had to breathe and sit down. Yes…or sit down and then breathe.
A hand slid around her elbow and someone said, "There you are!"
It was all she could do to not leap out of her skin with fright. Something cracked, a noise from far away it seemed and she suddenly light headed. On the twins swum, churning about. The hand on her elbow became firmer and then tight. Far too tight. Someone gripped her wrist. If they weren't careful, they'd tip her hand and she'd drop the glass she held. Down she looked to her right hand. Something wasn't right. Not right at all. No. Not at all. What was that buzzing sound? The lanterns in the garden were too bright, too hot. She needed to close her eyes and so she did.
~ ~ ~
The final shard of glass fell into the bowl with an innocent plink. Aragorn bent close to check one final time for lingering slivers. Finding none, he began bandaging. Once begun, he could look up to inspect his patient's face. Wan and her eyes unfocused. Her breathing was not so shallow and uneven now. An improvement.
"Six or seven months?" he asked the man who was coiled like a snake beside him.
"Five," Hanasian replied in a strained voice and added, "Twins."
"Ah," Aragorn said and after a few more passes of the bandage, "Not deep enough to require stitches at least, nor enough blood lost under normal circumstances to be of concern…but twins."
"She pushes too hard, as always," Hanasian muttered, exasperated and worried all at once, and Aragorn nodded.
"Not that I think she will listen to me any better than she does you, my friend, but I will instruct her to rest."
"I rest," Rosmarin said, words sliding around in her mouth like marbles.
"Do more of it, cousin," Aragorn said firmly as he tied off the bandage.
He watched her frown as he set her hand gently down and bent closer to inspect her eyes, "You are tired enough to sleep even now."
"Are you going to arrest me?"
"Not tonight Rosmarin."
"Lean back…go on…there...not so very bad now, is it?"
Hanasian watched his king pass his hands over his wife's eyes and was surprised to see that her eyes remained closed. Certainly she'd not be nearly so biddable were they his hands. Aragorn rose to his feet and removed the bowl and other items he had needed as Hanasian bent in to press a kiss to his wife's brow. That done, and Rin resting quietly now, the Ranger straightened and followed his king into the next room where the others waited. Aside from Farbarad and Rowdy, events had drawn Faramir and none other than Voromir. It had been Voromir's swift action that had ensured that matters had fared worse. Hanavia sat on the floor, torn between the two new faces of the Steward and the lord. As soon as his father walked in, the little boy pushed uncertainly to his feet and made for Hanasian. He had only started to walk on the journey to Bree, determined to keep up with everyone else.
Rin had such things planned for their son. Jugglers, acrobats, actors, all sorts of animals and flowers and food. All the sights and sounds of the festival, all the colours and merriment. Add to that three cousins and she had a feast of discoveries all mapped out. Hanasian had suspected that it would have been exciting for Hanavia and his mother, as certainly no one had managed to give Rin any such wondrous experience when she was a child. But now what? Hanavia reached his legs, tugged on his pants and reached up. Hanasian collected him up easily and settled him in. Pleased to have the same vantage as all of the others, Hanavia contented himself with this arrangement and fiddled absently with his father's shirt sleeve.
"I had thought to ask my cousin to act in her Prefect's stead," Aragorn said as he set down the bowl of glass shards.
"I see," Hanasian replied uncomfortably, glancing to where Farbarad and Rowdy waited.
"I see now that such a request is too much to ask at this juncture."
"Perhaps not, Sire," Voromir said, leaning forward in his chair, "I startled her tonight. What happened was mere accident, no more than that. She has demonstrated herself quite capable."
"Generous of you, Lord," Farbarad replied, recalling all too sharply just what the man's opinion of Rosmarin had been not so very long ago. He knew the questions, thinly veiled accusations, the man had thrown out at Pelargir. He had been in the gathered crowd there himself.
"Things have changed, Ranger," Voromir said, a touch of ice returning to his voice, "I read that report from Esgaroth."
"Ah," Farbarad retorted, dangerous gleam to his eyes, "Then that is all it took! Her abduction, beating, the attack on -"
"Farbarad-" Hanasian interjected as he realised that Farbarad was about to gravely insult a lord of Gondor. Aragorn held up a stern hand.
"I think it best if Farbarad and I wait outside, now that we know Lady Rosmarin is in no further danger," Rowdy quietly said and Aragorn nodded his agreement.
Teeth grinding, Farbarad permitted himself to be taken outside and the door clicked shut after them. Faramir rubbed at his jaw, "Woe betide any he deems to be an enemy."
"And I have done little to prove myself otherwise," Voromir finished with a terse nod and considered Hanasian, "I take no offense, Captain. But I will have you know that my actions are always taken in line with what I deem best for the realm. You saw that in Pelargir and again… in Nildrick and his merry band…I think you know of him as Rowdy?"
"He's yours, then? I had wondered," Hanasian replied thoughtfully.
"I understand that a number of additional measures have been taken to secure your family here in Bree, Hanasian," Aragorn said, "They are to continue?"
"Yes…I had considered returning home as well."
"Understandable," Faramir said.
"Unwise," Voromir opined, "Aside from what the Summer Court would make of Cardolan running, tail between legs, consider whether this was not the intent of the architect of all of this. What waits for you? Without the Prefect's men, have you enough to assure a safe return safely?"
"What the Captain elects to do is his decision alone. It is his wife, his son, his unborn children, his sister and her family," Aragorn stated.
Hanasian turned away to study Rosmarin in the next room. She had drawn her legs up to curl in the chair.
"Neth," Hanavia said softly, unable to manage the full elvish word for mother just yet.
Hanasian stroked the soft dark hair of his son and turned back, "We will remain here in Bree until such time as the way home can be secured. With the cooperation of the Free Company, that can commence now, with my King's consent to deploy armed forces in Cardolan."
"Would that it were not required, Hanasian. Yet it is as it must be. I will speak with Captain Videgavia if necessary. The Rangers of Arnor are also at your disposal. If you need more, you have only to ask."
"Thank you, sire. I believe that is more than generous."
"Let the search for the instigators of that near-riot and the Prefect's whereabouts continue. If word is received, we will reconvene," Aragorn said and heads nodded.
"Lastly, while in Bree, please allow yourselves to be seen. Provided security prevents any unpleasantness, it will serve to further ease tensions if the populace see that the festival continues."
And so it came to be that the Summer Court went on without the Prefect and Hanasian's family remained to enjoy the festival and to be seen to enjoy the festival. If Videgavia and Berlas had worried about what an idle Company might get up to, their worries were over. Cardolan was a vast territory and the stakes were high.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Flecks of foam spotted his mount's lips. If he pushed much farther at this rate, his horse would be blown and he'd be no less late than he already was. Later, in fact, and that could not be countenanced.
"Ho there! Where are you off to so late in the day and at such a speed?"
Mardoc swung his horse about hard in the direction of the man who hailed him. So hard that his horse stumbled. He squinted ahead and saw that it appeared to be a Ranger. The man seemed to materialise out of thin air, but tired eyes at dusk were unreliable companions. He slipped out of his saddle and onto legs no more certain than those of his horse. The creature was shivering beside him as if they stood in the depths of winter.
The Ranger closed and added, "You'll not get much further tonight, friend."
"The King? Has the King made Bree yet?" Mardoc asked and noted distantly that his voice was as shaky as the horse.
"Aye, a day ago now. You wouldn't happen to be the Prefect of Cardolan, would you?"
Mardoc barked mirthless laughter at the question that sounded wrong, too edgy, even for him. What had happened to his steady nerves and steadier hand?
"No, and that's a good thing for if I was I'd be dead."
Was that movement he caught out of the corner of his eye? Beside him his horse let out a terrible groan and collapsed, thankfully away from where he stood.
"See that? Happened to the Prefect while he was in the saddle. Thrown. Neck snapped."
"If you say so."
"I'm a messenger. I say what I'm told to."
Massuil watched the man lose whatever it was that had kept him upright. Horse and man lay on the earth, helpless and vulnerable. One would live, the other would not, if the Valar were merciful. Massuil had given up waiting for mercy from that quarter. He glanced to where one of his men had draw close in response to the signal.
"Ride north. You know what to do."
"Which one first?"
Massuil rubbed his hand as he thought. Sometimes the muscles tensed from gripping the cane all day into a painful claw.
"He's still one of us. Tell Hanasian first but get yourself to Aragorn immediately after!"
With that the younger Ranger was away, loping into the approaching night and leaving Massuil to dispense the mercy in the Valar's stead. He drew a dagger and approached, little liking for the task ahead. Had to be done, though. Like many things, had to be done. Besides which, cooked right, a lot could be done with horse meat.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
The Midsummer Festival was one to be remembered, and it was a relief to King Aragorn and to many others that the rest of the days were filled with much gaiety and were very normal. This was a relief to many, for many who were tasked with security of the King, Hanasian and Rin, and the general public were tense even if many of those who in charge of protection appeared to enjoy themselves. The Company was mostly active even though they appeared to be having the time of their lives. The Old Company, that inner core, kept a careful watch on Hanasian and Rin as they moved about, wandered Bree’s markets and spent time in the Rohirrim camp as guests of Halcwyn. Halrad and Foldwine arrived late to Bree and were swiftly appraised by their former comrades. They watched close the Rohirrim camp. The King’s messenger Darian and many of the King’s Guard watched steadily as the King spent time amongst the people of Bree.
Enedoth had, in the course of his bartering, had gained much wealth. It was far more than he had dreamed he migh. His horse breeds were prized here in the north, and each drew a top price the first day. By weeks end the payments had been made and he had kept news of his fortune close. Still he was sure to lay on a kingly feast to celebrate this good fortune. Much of the Old Company and the wider collection of the Free Company attended. Even King Aragorn and Queen Arwen happened by, a high honour. There was considerable talk of this newly arrived Horse Lord and Lady and the connection to Cardolan’s consort and the Lady of Cardolan herself was made by a number of the more astute students of these things. With such talk conspiracies were made and broken and there were no shortage of talk.
As the Festival played out, the Ranger rode hard and true and sought out Hanasian in the early hours of a balmy night towards the close of the festival. He found Hanasian on the step of the house they called home while in Bree, smoking his pipe. Delayed by only a few careful questions from Videgavia, Hanasian motioned the young Ranger to approach as he enjoyed the quiet of the night and his pipe.
”You have ridden hard and long. What word do you bring?”
“The Prefect is dead. Massuil is with Mardoc, the messenger, now. The man had pressed himself and his horse so hard that he could not continue after he encountered us.”
The Ranger would have been disappointed if he was anticipating surprise from Hanasian.
The elder Ranger murmured half to himself, ”This explains some things.”
After a moment’s pause, Hanasian unhitched a water bag from his belt and offered to the younger Ranger. The man accepted it with a grateful nod and took a swallow. This afforded Hanasian some opportunity to study the young man.
”You are young, yet you wear the Star of the Dunedain. What is your name?”
“Harlond, grandson of Elendur.”
Hanasian studied him closer still, then after a moment said, ”Yes, I knew Elendur. I can see a likeness.”
“You knew my grandfather?” Harlond asked and Hanasian nodded.
”Yes, he was my first commander. I only knew him only for a brief time for he fell at Raven Falls in an ambush. We brought his body home.”
The young ranger was silent as he absorbed this and Hanasian asked, ”You don’t mention your father. Who was your mother?”
“I would rather not say,” Harlond said quietly.
Hanasian waved a hand and Videgavia and Farbarad, who lingered watchfully, and then said to the young ranger, ”To claim a line as great as Elendur’s is no small thing. By doing so you invite questions such as this.”
“Lady Anna of Chetwood. I do not know who my father is.”
Hanasian thought a moment, then said, ”You are indeed the grandson of Elendur. Come, rest. You will need to attend promptly to King Aragorn in the morning, so take what you can in the few hours left to you to do so.”
Hanasian offered him a mat on the front room where some of the others were sleeping before he returned to the bed he shared with his wife.
The next day, the festival came to an official close. The King and Queen said their farewell to Bree and prepared to go north to their home by Lake Evendim. The great city of Elendil, Annuminas, was being rebuilt, and Aragorn wanted to spend the summer there. But the ill news of the passing of the Prefect left him in a dour mood. He worried at the trouble it would pose his cousin, Lady Rosmarin. Troubles that lurked beneath the surface.
While Aragorn was aware that he would have to announce his intention prior to departing Bree, he was beset by who to name as the Prefect’s successor. He could not make Hanasian Prefect for he was too close to Rin as was Farbarad. Mecarnil would have been his choice, but he has passed. Aragorn realised that there was no successor to name, for now. The realm would have to, therefore, take its place as a province of Arnor and be ruled from his seat in Minas Tirith. Any remaining misguided independence feelings had best not be acted upon, or his army of the North, led by Hanasian and consisting of the Dunedain Rangers and the Free Company would give swift answer. This announcement at his morning address seemed to meet with the crowd’s approval. Bree seemed pleased their King had taken such a stand, a promising start given Bree was an influential centre within Cardolan’s ancient bounds.
With the departure of the King, the crowds in Bree slowly drifted away and life slowly returned to its drowsy routine. Enedoth and Halcwyn and their sons set to go but it was a hard parting. Hanasian and Halcwyn spent the morning talking and the three young boys played and ran laughed and dodged legs of the tall people. All three cried when it came for the wagon to move and Halcwyn left with a promise extracted that Hanasian and Rosmarin would have to journey to Rohan as soon as they could.
They too would have gone shortly thereafter, but Rin was afflicted by severe cramping pain. Though she would have gritted her teeth and borne it. Hanasian refused to travel with her in such a state. Instead stayed a week and it would be a time of rest for them. The combined Company did not, however, rest much. Between the watch and patrolling the roads, there was little for to rest. All was not lost though for they did, at least, get a night together at the Prancing Pony where they all seemed to be in the common room.
Talk was of the days of old, and of their time last spent in Bree. Most of those who joined after listened intently. When Mulgov came in after he searched out his stashes from when they had passed through what seemed like a long time ago, he complained that well over half had been looted. But he had enough to buy plenty of ale. Loch and Rose were only there briefly, and slipped away together somewhere. They seemed to do that a lot when Loch wasn’t on duty. Lady Anvikela, who didn’t normally drink, had let her guard down this night, and though she got a bit wild with her table dancing, the only incident was later when she set fire to a table with a drunken display of wizardry.
Together the two sisters exercised careful control of their powers and kept each other in check. Apart, Rose was with Loch and little else entered her mind, and Lady Anvikela was usually reserved on her own. It was a good thing she rarely drank anything but this night was one of those rare occasions. Anvikela took a liking to the locally brewed golden ale. It was in abundant supply for Videgavia needed a the fresh bucket of ale to put the flames out.
Berlas stood and said to anyone who too interest at what was happening at the table and said, ”Nothing here to see.”
His stare was intent and noone seemed inclined to argue the point, despite the dark burn that would adorn the centre of the table for the rest of its days. Berlas took Lady Anvikela by the hand and she stood wobbly.
”Come m’lady. Lets go for a walk.”
She giggled an acceptance. Berlas led her toward the door and it was obvious that he would likely be doing the walking for the both of them before too long. Anvikela’s customary reservations appeared to have been melted away by Bree’s golden ale and, after some cooler night air, it took her awareness as well. Berlas caught her as she crumpled and carried her back to her bed.
He pulled a blanket up over her, ”Goodnight Lady Anvikela.”
Matters seen too, Berlas was quick to return to the common room before talk got away on them all. By the time he got back to the Prancing Pony, he found most had drifted away when he returned, including Videgavia.
Most, but not all. The Dirty Three were still stubbornly installed at an unsinged table.
To them Berlas said, ”We best get some rest this night. If Doc is feeling well enough on the morrow, we will ride.”
Khule an Wulgof grumbled, saying they should have slipped away as well. While Berlas’ words had been a suggestion rather than an order, they knew they all would be called to order in the morning.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Morning saw a few tender heads and sluggish risers around Berlas that little Hanavia took little mercy on. The boys parents were notoriously early risers and their son seemed to take after them. Berlas thought that Hanavia had to have been up at the crack of dawn to explore as far into the room as where Khule had settled onto his mat in the small hours of the morning. The boy showed not the slightest hint of trepidation as Khule had opened his eyes to find the weight on his chest was his former Captain’s son. The Easterling groaned which did nothing to discourage Hanavia in the least. He smiled at the man, and once he had decided his fun had been had, clambered off and went in search of his next victim. That, Berlas mused, was a habit he seemed to have gained directly from his mother. That and her eyes. The boy had the same silver and blue intensity she did.
He was not surprised that neither Rose nor Anvikela were about at this time. At his guess, it would be some hours before Anvikela ventured out of her room. When she did, he would be courteous as ever. Last night was an aberration brought on by far too much of the Prancing Pony’s golden ale. He resolved to make no mention of it, the better to let any lingering embarrassment she may feel fade all the faster. While his thoughts wandered from that to the day ahead, his eyes tracked Hanavia’s progress through the front room and the sleeping men. Once he had pried open eyelids or climbed over prone sleeping forms, the boy wandered out again. His walking was far from confident still, but it was astounding to watch how swiftly children learned at this age. Hanavia had been crawling when he arrived and now he was walking. He had a few discernable words before but since then his vocabulary had expanded since. Khule had been teaching him a smattering of Easterling, Molguv some Southron. He already had Westron, Dunlending and Sindarin from his parents. The lad was a quick study.
He smiled faintly at a sudden memory that sprang unbidden to mind. It was of Rin’s expression as her son called her in the Elvish fashion. She had rolled her eyes in exasperation and asked her husband what was wrong with normal, hard working, practical languages like Westron or her own Dunlendish. Hanasian’s reply had been an unapologetic, toothy grin that had made her mutter fitfully about Rangers. As she had stalked away, Hanavia on her hip and skirts flaring, she had been grinning herself. That memory prompted him up and off his mat in search of breakfast. Like Hanavia, he could hear movement in the kitchen and that was promising.
The source of the activity proved to be the very Lady of Cardolan herself. She wore simple clothing fit for travel, a grey kirtle and a dusky pink surcoat, and a determined expression as she prodded eggs in a pan. It was good to see her up and about and she looked reasonably well, her hair haphazardly piled on her head but already sliding half way down her back again. In the morning light, she seemed a little pale to him but then that had always been the case. She had seemed fashioned from ice the first he had met her. In any case, Hanasian would not permit her to be up and about if she was not well. Then again, Hanasian was nowhere to be seen and the former Company Healer was the sort of woman to sneak downstairs while her husband was busy elsewhere to cook breakfast. Hanavia hung contentedly off her skirts, playing with the folds and humming to himself. There was tea already brewed and steaming on the table and she had started to gather plates and cutlery.
”No bacon?” he observed and she wrinkled her nose.
”I cannot abide the scent of it cooking for some strange reason,” she explained and then added, ”You’re perfectly competent to cook some yourself – once I am well out of the kitchen.”
“Oh, high praise indeed from you, Doc,” Berlas returned.
With a wry grin, she said ”Well…you’ve come a long way and I felt it was time for credit to be given where it is due.”
At that he stepped back and made a slightly absurd bow that elicited a dry chuckle as she prodded at the eggs.
”Are they all for you, Doc?” Berlas asked.
“I suppose I could spare some…if you’re willing to work for them.”
“What would you have of me?”
“Well now…let me see…”
He knew what was coming and was already moving to finish setting the table and to start toasting some dark rye bread. He added other things such as butter and cheese and mushrooms, with a careful eye should the cooking of those disagree with the woman who shared the kitchen with him. She eyed the pan dubiously and then shrugged, to the relief of both of them.
Moments such as these were rare enough that they could be counted on one hand. Berlas had no idea where Hanasian, Farbarad or Rowdy were and the Company were doing their best to sleep off the prior night. He remembered the first one in a rain soaked forest outside Tharbad. Having robbed two of their men and been apprehended quite by fortuitous accident, it had fallen to him to ensure she did not scarper off again as they worked their way out to where her brother had been apprehended. He had warned her not to run, more for her safety than anything else. She had pinned him with those eyes of hers. They had been so bleak, so washed of hope, so frightened, and he found himself stuck fast then and there. Confused and disturbed by his reaction, he had been certain to keep a careful distance. That only grew when realities had been made abundantly clear. Hanasian had placed her on his horse and under his personal protection. By the time they left Bree, fates were sealed, paths chosen and Berlas had been careful to ensure he was not caught in the midst of it.
Still, for all of that, he found he was drawn to her time and again. At first he put down to her spirit, that blazing strength, for she was a most unusual woman. But it was more than that. She was an enigma to him and he had a weakness for mysterious women. There was always more to her than first appeared. Always. She was also peverse, argumentative, stubborn pain in his neck and she managed to undo his efforts at decorum, restraint and proper conduct without breaking a sweat.
She was the best cheat at cards he had ever met and the things he had heard about that night in Minas Tirith meant that she was a barrel of fun when she let her hair down. Berlas forced himself to collected his thoughts before they ran too far. She was his former Captain’s wife, and a mother, and as such he could not permit himself to dishonour himself, Hanasian or her.
They settled down at the large table in the kitchen for breakfast, just the two of them. A few times he was rewarded with her laughter, a silvery sound and each time he caught himself wondering what it was like to hear that every day. As they spoke, he did not dare use her name for to him it was too dangerously personal and intimate. She was Doc and he was not Hanasian and that, he knew, was that. Berlas had been so profoundly relieved when Hanasian had announced their retirement. He had been exhausted by the effort of keeping a safe distance, of ensuring he did nothing untoward and the gnawing fear that something would happen that would expose his confused feelings or worst still, something dreadful would happen to her. For all of that, he had been so very overjoyed to see her again on that beach and that familiar lurching feeling in his stomach had returned like an old friend. This morning, however, there was none of that. It was hard work to not look too long at her or too deeply into her eyes, but he was managing. It was going far better than he had dared dream.
The scuff of boots in the hall signalled the end of this precious time and Videgavia entered the kitchen like a dark shadow. His eyes flickered over them, pausing on Doc in brief assessment and then to the food on the table. He settled at the table, gathered up a plate and began filling it.
”We leave today, I take it,” Videgavia said, gaze flicking to Doc and then to where Berlas sat a few seats away. Something in his Captain’s expression made him uncomfortable.
”I hope so. Have to leave before Molguv discovers the extent of the damage to his secret wealth,” she said, smile flickering over her lips.
”I don’t suppose you’d know how that happened,” Videgavia pressed.
Rin set her cup of tea on the table, lent back in her chair and placed her hands protectively over her rounded belly.
”Well now, you know what happens to women in this state. Perhaps I did, once. Perhaps I did not. Who can say?” she said archly and won a rare smile for Videgavia before he set to buttering his toast.
”In any case, I am well enough. Have been for days now. Overprotective, peremptory Rangers are the only reason we have delayed so long.”
“Sparks and Bells disagreed with you Doc. It was sensible to wait and given there are preparations to ready the wagon for you now, I think you’ll get your wish to set out.”
“Wagon? I am not a sack of grain!”
And with that, Doc pushed her chair back, collected up her son and marched off to settle some accounts with overprotective Rangers who thought she’d be better off rattling around in some undignified manner in the back of a wagon.
”Are they really out there with the wagon?” he asked his captain and Vidgavia lifted a shoulder.
”They’ve fashioned some sort of cover over the tray with the help of Donius and Daius. Very comfortable, for a wagon.”
Berlas leant back in his chair with a wide grin as he imagined the scene that was likely unfolding right now outside the stable by the house. When his attention returned to his Captain he found Videgavia was studying him intently.
”Careful, Ber,” he sternly warned, ”That way lies trouble, as I would think you very well know from past experience.”
Berlas knew that Videgavia was not referring to heading out to watch the confrontation. There was little that the Daleman missed and Videgavia was aware of the circumstances that had led to his transfer to the Black Company. He had a habit of losing his heart to the wrong women. Or, as he saw it, the right woman at the wrong time. Both of them had pale hair, one golden as wheat and the other like sunlight on snow, and a fire in their spirit to which he was a moth. Unable to turn his back, likely to perish if he succumbed.
Berlas sighed, ”That I know, Cap.”
By midday they were on their way, and though he kept his usual safe distance Berlas could see through the back of the modified wagon one grumpy Company Healer, one badly hung over former foreign sorceress and one blissfully napping Prince of Cardolan. Evidently the overprotective Rangers had won. They set a moderate pace, for the return journey was one that had been carefully orchestrated. Scouting patrols and reconnaissance had been arranged to sweep the surrounding land for any possible threat.
The architects of the riot remained at large and there were serious questions over the nature of the Prefect’s demise. Misadventure or something more sinister? In any case, the Company had their work cut out for them. Get to the bottom of it, assure peace in Cardolan, deal with any insurgencies that may arise. For once, this was an assignment that did not seem them marching endless miles through deserts or jungles, deploying over oceans or boundless plains. This was an assignment at home for many of them. With Aragorn’s Rangers covering the northern lands, they would cover the central and southern regions and wherever the trail took them. Peace keepers…it was an entirely different beast to war and it remained to be seen how the Free Company would take to it. Some better than others, Berlas suspected, as he studied those around him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He was certain to be away before first light for he had much to see to. This Festival had, on the whole, been highly instructive. He was certain, now, that Silver Fox had made a fatal error in his calculations that had doomed them from the start. Their plans had always centred on Erían, either to lure her to them or to remove her entirely. He had long suspected this was the case, but Silver Fox had been a masterful at persuasion and his arguments had been convincing. Ultimately he was correct in that Erían was the key. But to come at her directly, secretly or in force, was to guarantee failure.
First of all, there had been her uncle to contend with. By the time Cullith had been dealt with, most of their people in the south had been eradicated and that left them with the buffoons that had botched the first abduction so thoroughly. When news of that had reached him, he had wondered at whether the two abductors were not, in fact, serving a power other than Cardolan’s remaining loyal cabal. A power such as the Arthedainian High King of the supposed Reunited Realm. It had been a mad scramble to find someone suitably competent to insert into the Black Company. The Black Company was the second formidable barrier. The man they had found had been, in his opinion, a superb choice and he was singularly successful. Of course, there was Hanasian, Mecarnil and Farbarad to deal with. Silver Fox had failed to consider Aragorn had his wiles as well. If they could insert an agent into the Black, then so could the king.
And last of all but not least of all there was Erían herself. Silver Fox had been a little too swift to discount her as a liability or handicap even from the outset. And, while he himself could admit that Prince would have been ideal, she had proven herself even more formidable than her father. She had survived Dunland, for one thing. That should have told them a thing or two. The Black had honed her into a salient threat or a powerful asset for Cardolan. She came with her own pet army! A little care and Silver Fox could have built an unassailable position but instead he had done his utmost to make her their avowed enemy.
During the festival she had been close enough that he could have touched her had he but extended his arm. Once he had, for he had offered a steadying hand to her elbow as an overexcited child ran pell mell through the crowd for the honey glazed apples that had just been put out. The Black were everywhere, watching everything of course. Still if he had enough men and Silver Fox’s disregard for the outcome, he could have snatched her or her son. They’d have their Prince then.
What Silver Fox had failed to see was that it was not the taking that was the test. It was keeping what had been taken. In his opinion, Aragorn had perceived this and considered it no small comfort that one of his closest friends and surest allies had succeeded in bringing Cardolan inextricably under the Reunited Realm. Unity through marriage was not a new thing and what he had seen during this festival had proven that Erían was utterly, inextricably bound to her husband. Cardolan’s Consort, and through him Aragorn himself, had an unshakeable grasp on Cardolan’s throne achieved not through violence and treachery, but by other means entirely.
Still, it was not a complete loss. Unlike Silver Fox, he could work with Cardolan being loosely allied to the Reunited Realm. There was no need for overt war and independence. Under the Prefect, another of Aragorn’s men through and through, Cardolan had already started to attain a measure of self determination. Tharbad was prospering, a second bridge under construction. Lond Daer had resumed trade with Ithilien, Minas Tirith and Rohan. Life and breath was returning to Cardoaln’s ancient husk that strife such as Silver Fox fomented would crush.
The Prefect had done admirably well and had the good grace to bow out when his purpose was served. Aragorn had not appointed another for there was not another to appoint. He already had a sense for how this would go. Cardolan would continue, and if it looked to anyone it would look to the one remaining person entitled to lead. The way was clear for her to take a gentle path out from the shadows and towards where she belonged for truly she was destined for this. He had known she was his rightful Queen from the moment he set eyes on her. She belonged to Cardolan and they to her.
She would need guidance, as any ruler did, that would serve her people’s needs first and foremost. And that guidance would find her. In time, with careful nurturing, Cardolan would have what was needed, what was surely deserved after so many centuries of suffering and depredation. Patience and care, a truly strategic vision. These were his strengths. He would pose no threat to his rightful Queen or her heirs. The key was Erían, and to obtain her he would have to avoid Silver Fox’s errors. There was a lot to do to build on the good work of recent months and to captialise on the opportunity he now saw. The way to Erían, the way to keep Erían, lay in the people around her.
First things first, though: the scum responsible for that riot. They had to be dealt with.
Meanwhile, east of Bree at the Forsaken Inn during the Festival…
Three men sat by the wall, about halfway between the door and the fireplace. The log post by that table added a bit of privacy, but still allowed them to keep an eye on the door and the bar across the way. The only other people in the place was a part-time bartender named Gavion, and a young girl serving maid named Reina. The regular staff had left with the proprietor for Bree to see the King. The three men at the table only knew each other by a nick name, which summed up their demeanour.
”Why have you called us here? You know this is where the Rangers gather regularly,” Gruff demanded as he looked about the place. The flickering shadows of the candle-lit room making shadows seem alive.
”I wanted to know that too” Old Man said, ”But Shadowy here said it is why it’s a perfect place to meet. Most all the Rangers are in Bree watching over things with the King coming and all, as is the regulars. There’s a part timer running this place with a very pretty young lass serving us. Says it’s safe.”
“So what are you? You his mouth or something?” Gruff said to the old man and then to the other fellow that had yet to speak, “Why don’t you talk for yourself?”
He glared at the shadowy man, and after a few moments a raspy voice came from him in a whisper.
"This talk of nothing has no interest for me. You are here to speak of Bree. Is he there?”
“Yes, as soon as I verified it was him, I headed here.” Gruff said before he drank down his ale.
He flagged the bartender for another round. Shadowy smiled ever so slightly as Gruff started to talk again.
”He’s there with a few hundred of his friends close by. Rangers, Black Company, others. And there was trouble too. Someone had stirred the crowds up about political issues, and the Prefect of Cardolan was missing. The King was due in later and security got real tight. Had I not been making deliveries regular to here, I wouldn’t have gotten out of the town.”
Old Man swirled the last inch of ale in his tankard, ”Yes, there has been some who had taken issue with the woman he took to wife. Makes things hard for you and- “
Shadowy lifted his hand to signal the others to be quiet for Reina approached with fresh tankards. He leant back against the post, let the hood of his cloak hang low over his forehead, and watched as she made her way from the bar to their table.
Reina did not want to approach the table. These men badly unsettled her, but she had a job to do. She set the tankards before the men with an automatic smile, picked up the empties and set them on her tray. Old Man and Gruff each lifted their fresh ales and sipped them, but Shadowy grabbed her wrist as she started to walk away. The sudden stop caused one of the tankards to tip over as Reina suddenly turned, and ale splashed over the tray and onto her blouse. She froze, peered fearfully into the shadow of the man’s hood. He reached for one of the few upright tankards with his other hand and took it. Draining the last of its contents, he set it back on her sodden tray.
Shadowy pulled her closer and whispered to her, ”It was paid for and I wasn’t done with it. Remember to ask next time.”
He let go of her wrist just as the bartender called out, ”Reina, stop loitering with the customers!”
She swallowed, held back sudden, hot, shamed tears, and scurried to the back of the bar. But Gavion was not finished with Reina just yet.
”They may be the only customers here tonight, but there is plenty of washing up to do. Can’t be chatting,” he said sternly to her.
Reina was relieved he had set her onto another duty instead of sending her back to that table to apologise. She did not want to go back to that table. That man was scary and the others were rough looking. Nor did she say anything to set the record straight about what had happened. She knew that Gavion had noticed the spilt beer on her but he said nothing further to her. She was off through the back kitchen door to fetch water from the well. She would have to grab a couple logs to stoke the kitchen fire to put the water on to heat.
Outside, Reina found the air was pleasantly cool after the heat of the day and the stars shone bright. She lingered for a time watching them and dreaming until a chill came over her with a slight breeze. The shadows of the nearby grove of oaks moved slightly as their leaves rustled and after the events inside she was skitterish. Reina hurred back inside to the kitchen and hoped she could remain in its safety until the three customers left.
Back at the table, Old Man said to Shadowy as Reina fled, ”That was really uncalled for, especially when we don’t wish to call attention to ourselves.”
Shadowy looked up, his eyes caught the firelight from under his hood and gleamed. He said in his raspy whisper, ”Don’t matter much. Nobody here. The one I hoped to meet here was led astray at Esgoroth some time back, so he will likely not be walking in the door.”
Gruff then asked, ”Who would this be?”
Shadowy whispered, ”I just come from Dale, and this man was there well before. Got led on a trek east he did and I expected his return to Esgoroth to seek his revenge. But he did not arrive. I left messages for him to come to Bree. He may yet make it one day.”
”So what are we to do then. Can’t stay here past tomorrow,” Old Man said.
Shadowy sipped his ale and looked towards at the bartender who was busy wiping the bar top. In fact, his focus was on Reina behind him in the kitchen, working the fire and boiling the water.
He rasped, ”You two will set off for Bree tomorrow morn. Move slowly for you will likely meet many leaving after the King departs. I’ll meet you there in a few days, a week at most, at Ferny’s Pub.”
Gruff then said, ”Not yet! I have more to report on Bree no matter how distracted you are by this piece of fluff here.”
Shadowy pulled his attention back to the surly man at the table and quashed the urge to do anything too sudden. Instead, he wheezed, “Yes, I was distracted. What else do you have to say?”
Gruff went on, ”I kept me eyes and ears open whilst at the Prancing Pony. They think me a local there now. There are a few folk that you may be interested in.”
Shadowy sipped his ale and waited for him to go on.
”The new blacksmith. He’s been there only since last autumn. Took on apprentice work at first, but soon was the master. Quite skilled, they say almost too skilled for the likes of Bree.”
“This is interesting to me why?” Shadowy asked.
”Well, being you mention Dale, and parts east. This man is an Easterling.”
“I see.” Shadowy said, thinking.
Gruff pushed on, ”Also, there is a bar wench at the Prancing Pony. She’s from the east as well though not so far as the blacksmith… Dale.”
Shadowy scratched his chin, "Change of plan. Gruff, you go back to Bree in the morning. Arrive by night and get a room at the Prancing Pony. Things should have quietened I think. Old will ride slower, and arrive a couple days later. I will see you at the Pony but you will not recognize me. I will then meet you later at Ferny’s.”
They finished up their ales and retired to their rooms but Shadowy wasn’t long in emerging with his pack. He came back to the common room and looked around. The bartender was nowhere to be seen and Reina was still in back finishing up the washing. He slipped out the front and stood there for a moment pondering what to do. A simple walk may clear his head, but he instead made for the stable, and he left silently for Bree in the night.
The town had settled after the King’s departure, more so when Cardolan’s party left. Shadowy, with Gruff’s help, had the information he needed. More than enough. He planned his steps carefully now, not wanting to tip off the lingering company men and Rangers. The first thing was to take care of a couple matters. Two of those responsible of stirring up the troubles before the festival and setting security ever so tight afterward had seemingly left town without a word. Once Shadowy heard who was on their trail, he was reasonably confident that they would never return. He was also confident that more than two were involved, but the Company and the Rangers were close on their heels. What he needed was peace and quiet.
In the days after Hanasian and Rin left Bree, Shadowy sat in the Pony watching her. The way she moved, the way she talked, her smile. Yes, he knew it to be her. He also noticed the Easterling that seemed to come in every night, from whom she held back little. He would have to be careful, for she could easily mark him, that is, if he still sounded the same. He didn’t. He would be safe, for now.
With the general whereabouts of Hanasian now known all he had to do was wait for things to calm down. It would be some time before any move could be made. Besides, there seemed to be other factors in play here, and he was content to watch them play out. They may work to his advantage. For now.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
With all the Rangers and the Free Company patrolling Cardolan, the realm was stiff with people doing everything they could to assure peace. Unfortunately, their efforts did not extend to Hanavia. His teething had started again on the second day out from Bree and they had now been on the road for a week. Rin felt like she had not slept for a year. Around her, people were getting beyond irritable. There had been a rash of discipline problems that had prompted Videgavia to send the restless ones to the south to secure the key strategic port of Lond Daer and the crossing at Tharbad. Rin had commended that course of action through Hanavia’s distressed wailing, suggesting that undisrupted commerce and travel would be useful in ensuring the populace remained as settled as possible.
Hanavia was capable of making quite a racket when he had a mind to and so there had been no debate over any of it. No one had even questioned why Rin was offering suggestions. Instead, Videgavia had agreed, wincing at a high note Hanavia managed to reach and had left with Berlas shortly thereafter. Berlas had taken nearly a third of the Company south at dawn the next day. They were for the most part Easterlings, but Runner’s squad remained behind. Hamoor had set out the following day with another third of the Company to support the Rangers along the north. And so, on day five, Hanavia’s teeth had successfully lain siege to his parents and the Old Company. Red eyes, and sharp tongues were at the ready and Rin had no idea how much longer any of them could last at this rate.
The things that had soothed Hanavia before either were not with them or did not work. She did what she could to ease the pain, but it hardly seemed enough. There was no ice to be had, no cool room to leave soft cloths in. Rubbing his gums did not settle him and could, if you weren’t paying attention, leave you with a well bitten finger. Nothing calmed him. She spent night after night walking back and forth, rocking him. At best, he would settle to a fitful doze, a thin gruel of a sleep and never long enough. He was bad tempered and lashed out, as only a small child could, at anyone and anything near him. Hanasian tried to help but Hanavia would not have him. Rin confessed that she felt a little envious of that. He would barely tolerate her. Men and women slunk about, doing their best not to glare at her. It was, she thought, singularly miserable. Then one of the horses pulling the wagon developed a limp.
When the wagon stopped, so did the gentle rocking of the wagon tray. Hanavia, of course, woke up and soon after that his angry, painful protests returned. This unsettled the horses and nearly resulted in the crushing of Farbarad’s foot. Rin was already moving as fast as she could to gather everything up but it was not fast enough.
”Get that child out of here,” Hanasian shouted, losing his temper and making the horses dance even harder.
Rin fled, howling child in her arms, to a safe distance. Of course, she could not go far enough because she wasn’t permitted to wander without an escort. So she went as far as she could, feeling rather like she would fall to pieces if Hanavia did not stop crying, and just sat down on the grass under a tree. Meanwhile, the column of the remaining Company dismounted to stretch their legs while men tended to the limping horse. Sour glances were thrown in her general direction as they moved about. The urge to scream, just as Hanavia was doing became too strong to resist. The force of it just not just surprise her. Hanavia was silent, blinking at her through his tears and saliva, his cheeks a bright red. Those by the wagon and column were staring at her too. It was, on the whole, blessedly and suddenly silent. The urge to giggle, a shimmer of hysteria, nearly escaped her control. She was assuredly mad. And, as that dawned upon her, Hanavia started to whine again.
Rin set him down and wrapped her arms over her belly. If it was this hard with one child, how was she to handle another two and all at once at that? Still whining, Hanavia crawled through the grass and leaves to the other side of the tree where it was shadier. Rin pressed her hand to her brow and tried to straighten her tangled, crooked thoughts. This would pass. It would get better. It would. She could do this. She had to do this. Rin stared down at her growing stomach. No chance of backing out now. Hanavia had gone quiet on the other side of the tree and Rin leant back against the trunk. She closed her eyes and let the sun warm her eyelids.
Simple things, simple accomplishments and pleasures were what she needed to appreciate. She felt calmer by the thinnest of margins and so she moved around to the other side of the tree to the dappled shade so that she could watch her son. Rin did not realise she had started to slip into an exhausted, dazed sleep until something brushed her arm and ripped her back to the waking world of teething children, angry husbands and a country on the precipice of rebellion. Her heart slammed hard in her chest and she sucked in a deep breath as her burning eyes focussed on a pair of unfamiliar boots. Beyond those boots were horse hooves, muddied. Hanavia was no longer on the ground by her and dread soured in her stomach as her eyes travelled up the boots and legs to find a stranger staring down at her.
He had her son on one hip and held the reins of his horse in the other hand. Her mind was paralysed by fear. He had her son! Rin scrambled to her feet, breathing shuddering, and pressed her back against the tree. Her son!
”Easy now, my Lady. I did not mean to startle you,” said the man holding her son. Behind him were two other men, their shoulders slumped and their eyes on the ground. They had an ill-favoured look to her, a furtive look that she knew all too well. The one holding her son was different. Slowly, he held Hanavia towards her and Rin snatched him back to her with the speed of a viper.
Hanavia nuzzled against her and she angled herself so that he was as far from these strangers as possible. It was then that she realised the two men were tied to the stirrup of the horse the third man led. She was so tired that she could not think straight.
”You’re not a Ranger,” she said, words not nearly as distinct as she might like and the man’s eyes crinkled at the corners.
”I am not,” he agreed, ”My name is Andred. I mean you, nor your son, no harm.”
“Who are they?”
“Men I thought you might be interested in, my Lady, given recent unfortunate events in Bree.”
Rin knew she was gaping stupidly but her mind would not work properly. She should have already summonsed assistance but instead she asked a question.
“You found the conspirators?”
“These two are all that remain.”
“Yet you are not a Ranger.”
His eyes crinkled again. He had faded blue eyes and his face was so deeply tanned that it was only a few shades lighter than his brown, slightly unkempt hair and beard.
”I suspect that is why I found them, my Lady,” he answered and Rin could sense that this was implicitly true from her own experience. There were many things duly authorised representatives of the crown could never hope to uncover. Her thinking finally assembled something approaching proper order.
”I am going to call for help now,” she told him and he nodded calmly.
”I rather thought you might. I’ll offer no trouble, my lady.”
“Good,” Rin answered as she angled back around the tree and added in a mutter, ”Because we’ve had quite enough of that for some time.”
Andred watched her slide out of sight and heard her give the call. She used a military signal, which he approved of. Such signals gave so much more information and ensured an appropriately informed response to the alarm. The Free Company of Arnor was not tardy once the alarm was raised. Erían was whisked away by none other than the Wolf of Cardolan himself. Farbarad had lost none of his temper, Andred observed, for the Ranger dressed Erían down thoroughly as he swooped in. Yet for a reason he did not comprehend, Erían did not defend herself. No one should address her like that, in his opinion. But he could do nothing about that, for now, and had to now let events run their course.
It would be some hours before Andred saw Erían again. His prisoners had been removed from his custody and kept under vigilant watch by the redoubtable Captain Videgavia. Meanwhile, Cardolan’s newest Ranger had set himself to interrogation and Andred found that the man was disturbingly effective. Not that this came as a surprise to him. Aragorn’s agent had been rumoured to be the best at the King’s disposal. For all of that, Andred knew that interrogations were all about truth and Andred’s policy was to stick to the truth.
After his interrogation, Andred was left to his own devices for a while. He could see the heels of the men left around his tent. He noticed they were facing outwards and not inwards. The fact that their current commander felt the need to ensure he was kept safe from the Free Company was welcome on two fronts. Firstly, Andred had things yet to accomplish and he needed to be alive to do that. He was unlikely to remain so in the Free Company of Arnor without the Captain’s precautions. Secondly, a potent Free Company so tightly bound to Erían made for a powerful asset to assure her position. He leant back on the pole in the empty tent and ran through the next elements of his plan while around him twilight faded.
Farbarad paced back and forth in the tent and plaintively said, ”Sometimes, I just don’t understand you, Rin.”
From the chair she was hunched into, Rin sighed miserably, eyes fixed on her feet and cheeks flushed.
”I just can’t make it any clearer. I can’t! You’re a bright woman, what’s more. Clever than most of us all put together. So…I find myself wondering whether you just want them to win. Is that it?”
“Farbarad-“ Hanasian wearily interjected with a warning.
”I have to know, Hanasian. I have to, because if it is true then…then I will not be able to continue my service to Cardolan.”
Farbarad’s words fell like a millstone into the tent. Rin only hunched over further at them. Her hair fell forward and Hanasian could not see her expression, if indeed she was showing one at all. He knew just how inscrutable she could be at times. He knew that they were tired beyond all belief and tempers were at their sharpest. His was no exception. He had shouted at his own wife and son only that afternoon. Which reminded him of something.
”Is Hanavia asleep?” Hanasian asked, incredulous and Rin’s hair swayed as she nodded.
”Yes,” she tersely replied.
”How was that accomplished? Has it finally finished?”
“No…I,” Rin hesitated a moment, ”I dosed him.”
“Valar be praised,” Farbarad muttered from the other side of the tent and this brought Rin’s head snapping up.
”No,” she growled, ”It is NOT something to praise anything or anyone for!”
“And why not? The boy’s quiet!”
Rin stood up from the camp chair she had been sheltering in throughout the evening’s argument and Hanasian saw that she was quivering with repressed emotion even if it did not appear on her face. She held her palm in front of her nose and spoke through it.
”He is quiet now, but when he wakes he will be even more miserable than before. The stuff upsets his stomach. You many only see this far ahead, Farbarad, but I have to look this far ahead,” she said as she straightened her arm towards him.
Emotion crept into her expression then. Her brow furrowed and she chewed her lower lip uncertainly.
”And that is how far I am looking when it comes to Andred. A storm is brewing. You say he should not be trusted and you are right. What was it that Mec would say?”
Hanasian found it hard not to wince at her choice but she wasn’t to know and nor was Farbarad. No one was, aside from Kholas and his cousins.
”Keep your enemies where you can see them,” Hanasian softly said and Rin acknowledged his words with a short nod.
”If you know a better way, Farbarad, then I would know of it.”
Farbarad squinted at her a long moment and Hanasian thought he’d argue the point further. Farbarad became difficult to manage when he received unpleasant surprises concerning the woman he now studied. Hanasian idly wondered what Farbarad had been like when she had been lost, presumed dead, in Dunland all those years ago. It was a frightening picture, he thought.
”I’ll go fetch him, then,” Farbarad asked unhappily and Rin looked next to where Hanasian sat.
While Hanasian was of a similar mind as Farbarad on the matter but he could admit that there was a strong strategic case to be had in the argument that Rin had set out. He rubbed at his temples, too tired for any of this.
”I do not want this Andred within ten feet of you or Hanavia if I, Farbarad, Rowdy or Loch aren’t with you,” he announced.
When Rin accepted those terms without equivocation, Farbarad went to fetch Andred. In this time, Rin had tried to put herself in relative order but there was no hiding just how tired she was. Hanasian did not at all like how wan she appeared and wished more than ever that they were home again. Nor did he like this Andred fellow. He could not help himself and he fancied not too many husbands would argue with him on the score. When the man appeared, flanked by Farbarad and Videgavia, Hanasian felt his hand fall to the pommel of his sword as he stood beside his wife.
Andred knew a formal hearing when he saw one. The men on either side of him were unhappy. Captain Hanasian looked like he very much wanted to separate his head from his shoulders as swiftly as possible. His fingers twitched, Andred saw, with the urge to draw his sword. The key to keeping Erían, Andred reminded himself, lay in these men and those without. He directed his attention to Erían herself. He had startled her badly in the afternoon for all of his efforts to avoid it but he thought she’d since overcome the shock. She appeared resolute now, focused and her eyes raked over him with such intensity that he felt his legs might buckle. While she remained tired, he recalled the wisdom of not under-estimating Bereth’s daughter.
”Your prisoners are to be sent north, to Fornost and the keeping of High King Estel,” she said without preamble, her words crisp and cool.
”As my Lady commands,” he replied and focused his eyes on the hem of her skirts.
”You, on the other hand, will remain with us.”
“My lady?” Andred asked, unable to stop himself from looking back to her face.
Erían met his eyes steadily, ”Unless you care to journey with them? Perhaps…seek a reward for your service in their apprehension?”
There was more to her words than might first meet the eye and he had to appreciate the guile of it. Any reward of the King was not something Andred wanted and, he fancied, she well knew it.
”I have done nothing to earn any such reward,” he recovered, meekly enough or so he hoped, and dropped his eyes again.
”Mmmmm…do you, then, have a family to return to Andred?”
“No, my Lady.”
“And do you object to remaining with us?”
Oh, now here was a pretty trap she was setting him. Again, he was impressed. Erían would do very well indeed. If he appeared too reluctant or too eager, he would taint his hand. Andred frowned, fidgeted, shifted his weight from side to side and glanced about.
”In what capacity, my Lady?" he asked warily and glanced up to find she had a very small smile playing on her features.
”I think you’ll continue to prove quite useful, if you have a mind to,” Erían replied and Andred realised that he was best served by saying nothing.
Instead, he ducked his head and let Farbarad collect his arm to pull him back out of the tent. Andred did not need to read minds to know that the Wolf of Cardolan was not in the least happy about this.
Back in the tent, Videgavia sucked on his teeth and considered Hanasian for a long moment. His attention moved to Rin, who appeared to have deflated somewhat. A moment ago she had been this Lady of Cardolan but right now she was a tired, pregnant woman who had once been Black Company Healer.
”I hope you know what you’re doing, Doc,” he muttered and Rin’s expression became somewhat haunted.
”As do I, Vid,” she admitted
“Set the Dirty Three on him…and Runner’s lot too. Spread word that he’s not to be permitted within ten feet of Hanavia or Rin unless Loch, Rowdy, Farbarad or I are also present,” Hanasian added
Videgavia’s temple twitched at that but he nodded and shouldered back out into the night. It was done. They were out on the tightrope well and truly now and Rin felt the urge to cry seize her again. She was straining every important relationship she had in this. Beside her, Hanasian sighed heavily and she felt his arms steal about her, as certain and strong and warm as ever.
”Never the easy path with you, is it my love?” he murmured into her ear and she shivered against him.
There was a foretelling in those words, she knew. Tomorrow she would speak to Rose and Anvikela. They may have something to say to her. Tomorrow she would have Hanavia to deal with as well. Tonight, though, the die was cast and she let Hanasian lead her to bed without complaint, eager to find rest and peace in her husband’s embrace.
A rare rainy evening after many fine days found the people hugging their ales in the Prancing Pony Inn. It was a summer shower but a breath of chill air had pushed its way down from the north and it made the night air unseasonably crisp. It was this night that Tarina caught a chill. At first she put it down to the damp air and tried to shake it off, but his glare could freeze water. The man responsible for it had been at the inn several nights since the midsummer festivities but this was the night that Tarina truly took note of him. She didn't like his eyes. Somehow he had rattled her without so much as a word or gesture, and she had a hard time through that night's service.
A loss of concentration, an overturned mug of ale on her tray, a slip in some spilled beer nearly caused a nasty tumble for a patron. Each time she glanced over at him and each time she found he watched her. It wasn't until Kholas came into the inn that Tarina felt her unease somewhat abate. She promptly signalled him about the troubling man and the need to maintain their distance. Kholas took a seat at the rear of the common room, near enough to the man in question. Shortly after that, the man drained his ale and stood to leave, his cloak drawn against the night air. Kholas forced himself to remember that there was, in itself, nothing strange about this. Many of the locals were doing the same thing. While Kholas had not had the chance to engage the man in any way, Tarina had certainly had been marked him. Kholas found he agreed with her in this. He did not, at all, like the man's air. They would keep watch for him in the days ahead.
That night, they walked home together through the quiet lanes of Bree, the few lanterns still lit pale orbs in the crisp darkness of night where the starlight ruled. Reaching their little house, they quickly settled in for the night.
The next day Tarina did not work, but Kholas had a backlog of work to do. So it was strange that Kholas did not arrive at the smithy. It was a young hobbit, apprenticed to Kholas, that made the gruesome discovery. He quickly found a member of the City watch, who with the young Ranger Harlond, went to the modest house that Kholas and Tarina had made a home of. They had been slain in their bed, a single old sword thrust into Kholas' back and then pushed on through Tarina.
Massuil was west just outside the city gate when word swiftly was brought to him. He was talking to Hamoor, recently arrived with his contingent of Company men. Both Massuil and Hamoor swiftly issued orders for a heightened watch in the wake of the grim tidings. After this was seen to, Massuil made to return to Bree to see this foul deed for himself.
"Sir, may I accompany you to the scene? Something about this seems all too familiar," Hamoor discretely rumbled, wary for such a request would almost definitely exceed his remit if his concerns were unfounded.
Fortunately, Massuil was not in the least inclined to quibble.
"Yes, please do, and bring a couple of your men with you if you don't mind."
Hamoor selected two of his men to join them, and left a third in command of those remaining, all without a word. Massuil was unsurprised, familiar with the silent signals and language used by the Company for it was formed in large part on the signals and hand language long used by the Rangers of the North. Massuil and Hamoor left their men to mount a watch on the city gates for any that might depart Bree and went as fast as Massuil was able, his stout cane thumping on ground and cobblestones, to the house. Harlond stood outside, his expression grave and eyes watchful for anyone that might seek to enter the house. Despite the fact that he was faced with his commanding officer and a small party, he admitted them only on the understanding that nothing would be disturbed or touched.
The house only had two rooms and Massuil was soon grimacing in the sleeping quarters at the scene that had lain in wait for him. Hamoor, he noted, appeared singularly unmoved. The large man soon turned and walked out of the room. It seemed passing odd to the old Ranger for was not this man one of Company? A colleague, murdered in his sleep in such a cowardly way and yet Hamoor just turns and walks out, stony faced, without a sound.
Following him, Massuil asked, "Thoughts?"
Hamoor raised a finger and cryptically replied, "Aye, I have them. Just need to be sure."
Massuil watched the man wave one of his own to join him and they disappeared back into the bedroom. Within, the man nodded at the terrible scene and they returned to where an agitated, suspicious old Ranger waited.
"It is Kholas. He joined the Company in Rhun and ventured West when the Captain retired. She, I believe, is the barmaid they encountered in Esgoroth when dealing with that business involving Rocks and Do- I mean Lady Rosmarin. When it was done, so I heard told, the maid continued on west with Kholas. Her name was Tarina. Her assistance was vital when it came to dealing with those rebels at Esgaroth," said the Company man who had accompanied Hamoor to view the scene in the bedroom.
"I thought him familiar from Skhar," Hamoor said, far less loquacious and then turned to Massuil, "I have seen this sort of killing before in Pelargir. Too much alike, I think."
Massuil's patience had been thinned by the brutal scene in the bedroom. He had seen far worse in his many years. But there was something unusually foul about seeing this particular brutality in a place like Bree. It galled, troubled and angered him.
"Tell me more about this," he demanded of Hamoor, "And why did you bring these two here with you?"
But Hamoor was deep in thought again and he appeared as unmoved as he had in the bedroom only minutes earlier. Memories of the days at the Quay Tavern in Pelargir. The wench and her paramour slain this very way. Too much was the same, even the angle of the sword. It was uncanny, and if he was correct, it was downright bad news for his Company. He had always thought clearest while moving and so he walked out of the house with an increasingly angry seasoned Ranger on his heels.
"We will have to be very careful," Hamoor said to Massuil as he walked, "I can't be certain. Few cared enough about the tavern maid or the sailor back then and so noone was caught. Now we are in Bree. Exact same method…and Tarina was a tavern maid. It is the same killer, I think, but I cannot say why beyond that."
Massuil stared at Hamoor for a long moment and then turned to where Harlond maintained his watch by the front door to the house.
"See to it that they are cared for, Harlond. Don't let anyone else see them like this."
Harlond drew a deep breath,nodded and this left Massuil with the large, strange Hamoor to deal with next. He found the man unsettling but practicalities and realities could not be debated with, unlike opinions.
"Considering those two are connected with the Company, Hanasian and Lady Rosmarin, I think it best they are informed."
"I will send word," Hamoor agreed, clearly preoccupied.
Massuil squinted at the sun. It was only mid morning and already he felt like the day should have run its course already. He looked back to Hamoor and decided that the only way to extract much needed information was to pull it from him.
"So you're thinking a killer from Pelargir just happened to be here in Bree this day to kill Kholas and Tarina? Any thoughts on motive?" Massuil inquired.
Hamoor merely shook his head. Massuil was left with no way to tell what Hamoor was disagreeing with when one of Bree's Watch approached. Massuil could just tell from the man's face, probably a farmer who volunteered in rounds for this sort of duty as was their custom here, that the news was not pleasant.
"Sir, we found two dead men at the Ferny."
Massuil resisted the urge to sigh and instead asked, "Anyone local?"
"One man was a merchant who delivered supply to the outlying inn. The other I don't know."
"It's going to be a busy day," the old Ranger dourly commented. Four bodies and it wasn't even lunch. What was happening to Bree?
Shadowy made sure he sat where he had the night before. To not be here would draw suspicion and so he would be here at the Prancing Pony, in this seat, quietly sipping his ale each night for the next week. Few paid him any mind in that time and he left Bree to the south without undue trouble. A day later a posting for a job of serving maid went up at The Prancing Pony.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The weeks passed and Hanavia settled as some of his teeth emerged. The wailing subsided and everyone got a great deal more sleep, particularly his mother. However, it led to teeth marks appearing in things. Every now and then a yell would rise up as he tried to chew on one of the Old Company. All that leather, it was inevitable. Usually he was handed a chicken leg or some jerky to gnaw on for awhile and the boy really liked to eat! It was good for Hanavia and his mother, for the twins grew within her irrespective of Hanavia's teething and expanding appetite. Hanavia's fondness for his uncle Loch meant he accompanied Loch and Rose around on their walks. They enjoyed that, to a point. Privacy was hard to find with Hanavia, the Old Company and Loch's duty all to contend with.
Hanavia's most enjoyable time was when his father would take him walking through the trees and forest that blanketed their home. They would hike the tracks while one or more of the old crew shadowed them. Hanasian thought it an overreaction, considering that Rowdy and Farbarad and the 'field workers' were also in place. Still, this was about the safety of his family and so he was illinclined to debate the matter.
Andred's arrival had made things uneasy. The man remained under constant survelliance by Farbarad and Rin had taken to daily morning sessions, heavily watched over, where she questioned the man over tea. Her technique was clinical, typical of one who performed surgery or analysed illness and symptoms with the weight of her patient's life and that of others sitting on her shoulders. Hanasian was reasonably confident that Andred had come to dread morning tea with "Lady Rosmarin" just as Rin had started to take a grim delight in it. Farbarad, Rowdy and Loch usually stood watch over the uneven exchange. Andred could have been ruthless but remained polite, to the point of painfulness. No matter how she tried, she could not ruffle his feathers.
Necessary as these precautions were, they did not stop Hanasian and Hanavia from coming up with a game he called 'ditch the Ranger'. Hanasian's skill as a Ranger made it a simple task for him to throw off whoever was tasked with watching them. The hardest part was preventing Hanavia from giggling when they passed them unseen. It was a good exercise in teaching the boy noise discipline. His own training began at this age. The first one they were able to elude was Rowdy, who was greatly chagrined to find Hanasian and Hanavia waiting for him when he returned to the house empty handed. He had accused Rin of corrupting her husband and son and Rin had been far too amused to bother with taking offense or correcting Cardolan's newest Ranger.
Hanasian was also perfectly aware that his wife was storing this away for later use should she decide she needed to elude her escort for any reason. Such was the price a father paid when it came to teaching his son Ranger craft, wood craft and other necessary skills that would serve him well in the years ahead. Unlike his own father, he intended to see them through. Perhaps, if Rin were to give him something as precious as daughters, he would teach them as well. It was that, or have them learn from their mother. While undoubtedly skilled, Hanasian was not certain he wanted his daughter to be as fearsome as the Cats Rin had shaped. Videgavia was still dealing with them and had yet decide if they were a boon or a peril or both
When word came from Bree that both Kholas and Tarina had been slain, a new urgency grew in everyone's mind. Games in the forest were suspended. Farbarad looked with heavy suspicion at Andred but the man had been utterly isolated and even relatively settled. Rin had managed to elicit very little from him. In fact, none of then had managed to gather much from the man. He was observed to be quiet, obedient, respectful. Little could be achieved with Andred that had not already been achieved and so Videgavia contented himself with ordered a heavier presence on the borders of their home. Though they could not be seen, any and all who moved about certainly were.
Hanasian, for his part, sent word back to Massuil and Hamoor at Bree that they were safe and had nothing to report. He also sent word to Berlas but there was nothing to report from Lond Daer or Tharbad outside of mercantile arrangements and arguments that Rin would have delved into if he had not prevented her. Her time was too close for getting embroiled in such things. Twins, while rare, posed no few potential risks to the already perilous task of giving birth. He watched her carefully as only he could. The others she could hold at bay, dissembling or concealing, but not him. She and the twins seemed to be in good health.
Still, Hanasian worried and so he permitted Lady Anvikela and Rose to remain close to Rin so that their unique gifts might add yet another protective layer around his family. The medics stayed close at hand and worried their way through the complexities of child birth, contingencies, and principally how to contend with their former commanding officer when the time came. It would not be easy, Bells and Sparks concluded, but the Sons of Elrond were nowhere in sight and unlikely to pop in at precisely the right moment.
That evening, dinner had been capped by a rousing technical argument between the medics and his wife about healing, midwifery and the many differences between the two. The three of them were still at it inside, speaking in a language that was mostly incomprehensible to anyone not a healer or a medic or a midwife over the kitchen table. Early winter saw the hearths kept well alight and Rin had been forbidden to wander about outside without being wrapped in, as she put it, "half of Arnor's bedclothes". And so she prowled about within, pouncing on anyone hapless enough to be caught unawares by his restless wife. It had been this way with Hanavia. She had been so restless that in the final weeks she scarcely slept, or so the others had complained. He and Farbarad had been more than a little preoccupied with the Prefect at that time. His own cousins had declared her a terror. The wise man removed himself from her path and so he stood on the front step smoking his pipe while Rowdy watched the night.
"A quiet one tonight," Rowdy said without a trace of irony for it was correct. An evening debate was, for Rin, a relatively subdued way to pass the evening. Even now, Rose and Anvikela were keeping a low profile in their rooms. Hanasian nodded silently and let the smoke from his pipe slide slowly through the still night air. There would be a frost come the morning.
"Aye, too quiet," Hanasian remarked and tamped out his pipe on the step.
His hand moved quickly in the warm glow from the house and, without further word, he and Rowdy moved quickly into the darkness. While Rin, Sparks and Bells debated, the unseen men of the company led by Loch on this night were alerted and watched the house close. Apparently sleeping men had gathered around the small hut that Andred had been given. Hanasian and Rowdy found the man lying on the ground outside it. He had been hit hard, the Old Company falling back on familiar methods in times of uncertainty. His nose bled but didn't appear to be broken and curiously, Farbarad was nowhere to be seen.
Khule reported that the Ranger had taken off in pursuit of someone that none of them had seen clearly in the night. Suspicions confirmed now, so soon after the bloodbath at Bree, Rowdy, Khule, and Hanasian set off in the direction Farbarad had taken. A bird call in the forest around them came then. The lands had been breached, infiltrated, and shortly thereafter Hanasian and his companions found two men dead and Farbarad's track cold in the darkness.
Farbarad worked his way up the steep embankment as quietly as his required exertions permitted, only for a boot-heel to send him tumbling back through the trees down the slope. He narrowly missed knocking Hanasian and Rowdy over at the bottm, but caught Khule's leg and the Easterling fell. Hanasian and Rowdy pushed immediately up the slope and the two men below heard the unmistakeable clash of steel. Rowdy managed to turn the sword at the last moment as bitter steel emerged from the night. Another came at Hanasian and the two men realised only then that they had run into an ambush! In the darkness and the trees, Rowdy slew one while Hanasian battled and slew another. It could not end well, not on that night. When Rowdy turned in the night to lend aid to Hanasian, he was met with a sword in the gut. Hanasian heard Rowdy's grunt of pain and caught the glint of steel as it protruded from the man's belly. He yelled as Rowdy slid to his knees and then all went black as a hilt came down on Hanasian's head.
The alarm had reached the house by now but Loch managed to keep things in hand around the house. As much as he wanted to break and set forth to help, he remained where he was. He and his men, and Runner and his lads were all the stood close in. They drew their weapons and stood their positions, staring hard into the night.
Yelling and fighting bounced haphazardly through the trees. Precious time passed as Farbarad and Khule had recovered their slide and climbed up the slope. They found Rowdy with three dead black-masked men around him, the iron tang of blood and smell of recent death redolent in the cold night air.
"Where is Hanasian!" Khule shouted and Rowdy coughed blood they could not see in the darkness as he pointed.
His outstretched hand was visible and Farbarad followed with great care lest he obliterate a trail or track they would need. He felt about on the ground and found drag marks. Something had gouged the soil and fallen leaves. He guessed that Hanasian had been dragged a short distance and he dreaded what they might lead to as he felt his way along. But the marks only went a short distance before they ended. He could make out a heavy boot print. Hanasian had been lifted, which meant at least two men for Hanasian was not a small or slight man.
Farbrad asked Khule, "Who had the watch up here?"
Mulgov and Wulgof pounded through the trees with two other men as if in answer and in time to see Rowdy fade and succumb.
"Balosat and Fermas, with Gamil out on far watch," Mulgov quietly answered as Wulgof closed Rowdy's sightless eyes.
Farbarad felt his jaw clench as he weighed up conflicting options. He glanced about at those with him now, still breathing.
"We'll search now, while they are not too far ahead of us. But don't leave your areas thin. This thing, this night, is not yet done and there are those below who need our defence."
Mulgov and Wulgof both pointed to one of their men who nodded and drew off again with his companion. Khule, Mulgov, Wulgof, and Farbarad set out to find Hanasian. What they found was Balosat and Fermas each with their throats slit. There was no sign of Gamil and sign left behind that Farbarad could detect in the night was jumbled. He found boots prints that went this way and that. Continuing in the night was a certain death, but the longer they waited the worse Hanasian's chances of surviving whatever this was became. His limbs were so cold, Farbarad distantly noted, like ice. Just as he decided to disregard sound reason, his frozen legs crumpled and he slumped to the ground in an untidy sprawl.
"Damn you, Farbarad," Wulgof said as he rolled the Ranger over or at least that's what Farbarad assumed since the man had reverted to Dunlending in his alarm. Wulgof continued in Westron, "You're wounded! Pretty bad from the looks of it."
"Must have cut myself, happened when I fell," Farbarad mumbled but Wulgof wasn't listening.
The Dunlending said to the others, "He'll live, I think."
Khule threw down his knife into the dirt and cursed in his musical Easterling. Hanasian gone, Rowdy dead and Farbarad injured badly enough to make the Dunlending wonder about his immediate longevity.
"We have to get him back to the medics and we have to find Hanasian. The trail gets cold while we stand here and we need to find out who these men are. Not just some Cardolan secessionists having a tilt at Doc, is my guess. There is more here. These men, they're good. Professional good," Khule surmised rapidly as he bent to pick his knife up.
Khule cast about them as far as he dared. His assessment was that there weren't too many. No way a large force, no matter how skilled, could have infiltrated the forest. The loss of three might, hopefully, put a crimp in whatever plans they had.
Once Khule returned, Molguv spoke up as he was technically the higher ranked Company member still on his legs in their merry gathering.
"I'll stay with Farbarad here. Khule, you go see what you can find out from the dead. Wulgof, you head back to the house. We have three we need to bury, and I'm assuming from the sound that there are no other disturbances around the house. But we are missing Cap, and I don't want to be the one to tell Rin this."
Wulgof shivered at the task that awaited him but did not voice a complaint.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Wulgof found the scene at the house a predictable uproar. The alarm that had been raised had been met with a full scale, martial response delivered hard by a Captain who did not at all like surprises. Videgavia. Even now the forests, Wulgof wished the Dunedain had cut them all down here so it would have been harder to sneak up, crawled with Company men. The Cats were out in full, frightening force. Loch, meanwhile, nearly split him in half despite the fact that he gave the signal and the pass word, twice!
”Put that down,” Wulgof demanded of him and Loch slowly lowered one of his wicked axes as the Dunlending emerged into the light spilled from the house.
”What’s happening? Where are Hanasian and the others?” Loch belligerently demanded of him and Wulgof thought in the soft light that he caught a glint of the beserker in the scout.
”Snap out of it, Kid. Where’s your sister? Inside? Safe?”
“Rin? Yes…why? What’s going on?”
“Then why can I see her over there?”
Loch turned about and sure enough, there she was, without so much as a cloak against the chill. She was steaming towards Videgavia, who was bellowing out orders and relaying information and the collision between the two looked to be one that would shake them all.
Loch muttered a Dunlendic curse before Wulgof managed to cuff him behind the ears, ”You should know better than most of us that you have to watch her! We’ve been infiltrated! You heard the alarm. She can’t be wandering about out here and those two medics chasing her have a better chance of turning the tide than taking care of things!”
“ Infiltrated…yes…yes…I heard…and she snuck out. You know how that goes. I don’t know how anyone so very, very….pregnant,” Loch diplomatically said,”Manages it. Is that where Hanasian and the others are? Chasing them?”
Wulgof grimaced at the question and instead said, ”Come on. This won’t be pretty and I’m going to need all the help I can get.”
Together the two men hurried to where Videgavia demanding that Rin return inside, immediately, before now, right this moment. Rin had her fists balled up on her hips and a withering expression on her face.
When Videgavia finished his orders, Rin’s caustic reply was thrown back at him, ”Firstly, there are a lot of things I could call you, Vid, but my Captain OR my commanding officer are not on that list. Secondly, this is MY HOME, and I demand to know what the devil is going ON! I have a boy in there that was sleeping, there are alarms being given, shouting, running. I am his mother. I have a right to know. Now. This instant. Right Away! IMMEDIATELY!”
Videgavia actually gaped at her a moment before he noticed the approach of the others and if anything, looked relieved. This made Wulgof only feel worse about the tidings he carried.
”You! Report, quickly, for the love of Eru! QUICKLY!” Videgavia demanded.
Both his captain and Rin turned their full, frightening attention to him and Wulgof found the words stuck in his throat. Loch, ever helpful, decided to assist.
”We’ve been infiltrated,” Loch said and right at that moment Wulgof could decide who was most likely to slap him: Videgavia, his sister or himself.
”Alright…this is how it is. I’m just going to say it how it is. Doc, you might want to sit down,” Wulgof said after he managed to un-stick his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
”I might also want to box your ears and I just might if you don’t REPORT,” Rin hissed and then, with a sidelong glance at Videgavia added a deferential, ”As your Captain ordered you to.”
“Aye,” Wulgof said to the both of them, ”Farbarard found an ambush and he’s injured, serious but not fatal as far as I can tell. I en’t no healer or medic, so I could be wrong. They killed Rowdy, as well as Balosat and Fermas. Gamil is missing.”
The colour in Rin’s face had drained at the mention of Farbarad and news of Rowdy had made her sway. Loch now held his sister steady with a hand under her elbow. She was staring at him, stricken, demanding, inescapable. Those eyes, terribly blue now in the torch light, flayed at him. Fear, such dread and anger, no rage and he couldn’t say it. Wulgof couldn’t say it for to say it would cause unimaginable pain and no matter what his idle threats were in banter, he could not countenance such grief. Skhar had been bad enough. He did not think he could do it a second time. Why was it always him?
”Molguv is with Farbarad and Khule is checking through the bodies of those that Rowdy and Hanasian managed to bring down.”
“My husband? What of Hanasian?” she pressed, aching voice soft as a feather in that night of strife. There was nothing else for it.
”They took him, Doc. We followed the trail as far as we could in the dark. We don’t know where he is. I – I’m sorry.”
It took all three of them to steady Rin as her legs buckled.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
With Hanasian missing, Farbarad out of action and Rowdy dead, Videgavia swung into full action and assumed control of the Cardolan forces as well as his own. He divided them between the search for Hanasian and Gamil, the flushing of the forests and the protection of the house and those within it. Rose and Anvikela offered their full combined might to assure that last and Videgavia gladly accepted it. As a result, by dawn, not a single creature alive or dead could enter or move about the seat of Cardolan’s Principality without one of the sister’s knowing. This confirmed that Hanasian and whoever had taken him was gone, grim tidings. What the sisters did find, unfortunately, was Gamil. His body was found in a thick copse of trees throat slit like the others. It was the last sign on a trail that Videgavia set his full might to pursuing. He even sent the wolfhound with them, the scent of Hanasian in his powerful nose. How Videgavia wished he could go with them.
But Berlas was far to the south and so he had to remain in a central location to coordinate their efforts. Videgavia sent word north to Massuil and Hamoor and then to Rivendell. He sent word south to Berlas. Mostly he coordinated the remaining elements of the Cats and Runner’s squad. It kept him busy enough that he didn’t see it coming. Loch took off of his own accord, a half cocked message left behind with Rose that “it was what Hanasian would have done for him.” Possibly, Vid thought, though far more likely Hanasian would have had the scout up on disciplinary charges for abandoning his assigned post and Eru knew that his sister needed family now more than ever. In retrospect, Vid told himself that he should have known this would happen. An unauthorised and poorly conceived assassination attempt when it came to his sister and now, an unauthorised and poorly conceived recovery attempt when it came to her husband. For all of that, Videgavia remained mightily angry with the scout.
As for Rin…well Videgavia preferred the raging woman that had forced them to drag off Andred before she ate him alive on that first night to the quiet one that had haunted the house since. Of all of them, only Slippery and Hanavia seemed to find a way past whatever fog wrapped her. Slippery managed to get some tea down her every now and again but nothing more than that. Hanavia managed to get her to hold him. The little boy knew something was terribly amiss as small children do.
Early in the evening when Hanasian usually came in from his day’s work, Hanavia asked his mother a question.
”Amme? Abba where?”
Of course she had not answered and so he had repeated the question over and over until Slippery managed to distract him. It was a brutal thing to witness and Rin drew a shivering, shaking breath once her son had wandered off after Slippery.
”We’ll find him, Doc. We will,” Videgavia had found himself promising despite the fact that false hope was just too cruel to offer now to this woman and he well knew it.
Whoever had taken Hanasian were professionals. They had a night’s lead on them and a clear idea of where they were going and how they were going to get there and, most importantly, why they had done this. Khule thought they weren’t successionists and Videgavia had been inclined to agree with him. Still, there had been something about the way Andred reacted to the news that Hanasian was missing that made Videgavia wonder. That the man continued to draw breath at all was, remarkably, due to Farbarad.
Farbarad had been unable to remain abed despite the condition of his leg. Upon waking the following afternoon he had interrogated the healers on the state of affairs and then made it clear that no one was to harm Andred. The man, Farbarad insisted, might be useful. Which made it a good thing that they had prevented Rin from killing him out of hand the night Hanasian had been taken. Videgavia heaved a sigh and left off his thoughts. Rin was seated nearby and in what part of her lap the twins had not laid claim to, her son sat. He was playing a game with Farbarad, bouncing along to the words of the rhyme and counting as intended at each chorus. Rin simply sat there, staring at the fire, as if all of them did not exist. So still, so quiet. So…sad and frightened. As far as he could tell, and she was a difficult one to read.
”They trained us and we did just what they wanted us to,” she said all of a sudden and everyone in the room aside from Hanavia straightened. His child high voice continued the rhyme for Farbarad for a few phrases yet.
”Pardon,” Videgavia asked when the silence had gone on for so long that it seemed like she had not spoken at all.
Rin blinked at the hearth, ”We did just what they wanted us to.”
“Who, lassie?” Farbarad asked, leaning forward as far as his injured leg permitted.
”The loyalist cabal. If you do not believe me, ask Master Andred. I think you will find he always tells the truth.”
With that she set her son down onto the rug, rose and left the sitting room. Slippery, Rose, Farbarad and Videgavia all exchanged long glances before Farbarad grabbed his makeshift crutch and levered himself up to follow. He found her in the office she shared with Hanasian. She was at his desk, stroking the wooden case he kept his writing tools within as if it were his own hand. Farbarad cleared his throat, her fingers withdrew and she spread her hands over a map.
”They weren’t after me at all. They want me where they have me. The Prefect is dead and now they have my husband. They will, I think, not wish to dirty their hands over much and so they will take him to someone that is not nearly so squeamish.”
Farbarad found she was considering a map of the Reunited King’s coastline, from the elvish haven of Mithlond as far as the Bay of Belfalas. It was one of Hanasian’s. His notations lined the margins and dotted the map. Some of them were easily understood. Water, food, distances. Others, though, were coded. There were a cluster of such codes around Pelargir.
”Do you know what his notes say there?” Farbarad asked and Rin lifted a shoulder.
”In part. It’s not an easy thing to learn and I have had to do it by clandestine means.”
“He hasn’t taught you?”
Rin smiled at the question and looked at him, ”Would you teach your wife all of your secrets, Farbarad?”
Farbarad found himself smiling at the question but then it cut too deep, too quickly. He saw the pain bloom in her face and she looked sharply away to the map again. He feared for all she carried within her at this terrible time.
”They’ll take him by the fastest, most expedient means, to Pelargir. Unless Vid searches on the water, he’ll not find them.”
“Lassie, it’s been two days and nights now and you’ve barely slept through any of it. How can you be so certain?”
“It makes sense! This was never about me directly, Farbarad. Andred brought us, on a platter, those involved in a plot against me. From the beginning he had insisted he meant me no harm. Not me, not Hanavia.”
“And you believe him.”
“I do, now. Too late, but I do. I should have been listening all along.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Me neither,” Videgavia said from the office door.
Rin sighed, ”This mob of fools doesn’t want me dead. They want me fulfilling what they consider to be my rightful place…something I can’t do with a Prefect in the way. Something I can’t do with one of Aragorn’s closest friends as my Consort. Don’t you see? This isn’t about me, it is about those around me.
“They took Rowdy, but not Farbarad. Rowdy was a man of Gondor but you, Farbarad, are the Wolf of Cardolan. They took Hanasian, yes, but they will not dirty their hands with his murder for they know that I will hunt down any involved in the harm of my family, including my husband.”
“Khule thinks it is something else entirely,” Videgavia said and then frowned as Rin pressed her hands to the small of her back.
”He’s not wrong. The men that did this are professionals, acting under strict instructions of men such as Andred. They’ll take him to Pelargir where Hanasian has unfinished business," Rin tapped the codes Hanasian inscribed upon the map, "And let matters take their course there. That is what they are doing. I know it.”
Rin sucked in a sharp breath. Could it really be so soon? And now?
”I don’t know about this,” Videgavia cautioned as Rin leant back against her husband’s desk.
”Me neither, but I do know about that,” the Ranger said with rising concern, ”Vid, get Bells and Sparks and see if you can get her to her bedroom.”
“It is too soon, Farbarad. Too soon!” Rin protested in a low, urgent voice.
”Open your eyes man and look at the floor! Its begun, soon or not and this happens faster than you can believe. Lassie, hang on now. Hang on.”
Videgavia was gone in an inkling as the enormity of it all hit him. Her waters had broken too soon. The house soon echoed with his urgent shouts as help was summonsed. Hanasian had been taken three nights ago.
Shortly after midnight, a cold and weary contingent of men stumbled in.
Wulgof found Videgavia pacing in the kitchen and he executed a sketchy salute.
”Report,” Videgavia snapped.
”Trail went cold a couple of miles south, at an inlet. Found sign that a boat had been tethered above the high tide line. Drag marks in the sand, length of rope that had been cut away from a tree. Empty land, no houses or towns who might use it for fishing.”
Videgavia swore at the report, recalling only too clearly what Hanasian’s wife had said. Hers had always been the sharpest mind amongst them. She saw things others did not.
”Found Loch too. He’s outside, under something you might call arrest if you were minded to.”
“Bring him in,” Videgavia muttered and Wulgof rubbed at his eyes.
”Now? Don’t you want to let him stew a bit, Cap?”
“Now and hurry. His sister needs someone in there with her that’s proper family.”
Wulgof trudged outside with the nearest thing to alacrity that he could muster and soon enough Loch was thrust through the door, blinking owlishly at the brightness within.
”What’s wrong with Rin?” he asked as Videgavia roughly grabbed him by the arm and dragged him towards the sitting room and the bedrooms beyond.
”You’d know if you’d bothered to follow your bleeding, forsaken orders,” Videgavia hissed in his ears, ”And I will be taking this further, Scout, of that you can be assured. For now, though, bigger fish to fry. The twins have come early and with Hanasian missing. You’re the only thing approaching family she has left.”
Videgavia thrust the startled scout through the door and closed it. It was far to quiet inside, he thought, and there had been the sound of someone crying. Doc did not cry, in his experience. She had not cried when they thought her brother dead. She had not cried three nights ago. But he could do no more than this and so turned to see to the news that Wulgof and his small squad had brought back with them. The search had to be redirected. Word had to be got to Lond Daer, Dol Amroth and Pelargir with all haste. Perhaps one of the sisters might help with contacting Aragorn. No telling what could be done with one of those Palantir’s, Videgavia thought, desperate for something constructive to do.
Someone inside had been crying. He pushed it to one side and summoned his remaining people to him for an urgent meeting.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
”Let me see that contract again.”
“Why? You’ve read it more times than you’ve bathed in your lifetime,” a feminine voice replied.
There was humourless laughter and then, ”That’s only twice, so I needs to read it again. Devil is in the detail, they say.”
A desultory grunt, rustling of paper and boots on boards.
”When you tap your nose like that, you look like a bigger idiot than I already know you to be.”
“Just as well your tongue ain’t as sweet as that face of yours. Too much to bear, it would be. Just too much to bear. Ah, here it is!”the man said.
”Here what is.”
“The devilish detail! He’s to be delivered alive. It says so right here.”
“I know that!” the woman replied.
”If you know that already, how come you aren’t making sure of it? When’s the last time you checked?”
“What do I look like? I am not his mother, his nurse maid, his strumpet nor his wife.”
“You look like a woman who wants to get paid on successful completion of her contract.”
Hanasian heard her sigh and the scuffling of boots on boards.
”Fine. But next time you can do it.”
“He’s partial to womenfolk.”
“The way I heard it said, he’s partial to high born blondes. I’m a low born brunette, but you, my fine fellow, are blonde. Or you would be, if you washed your hair.”
By the time the woman had unlocked the chains and cracked open the hatch on the tiny place they had stuffed him into once aboard ship, Hanasian was sure to slow his breathing and appear as unconscious as he had been the last time they had checked. It was night time and the woman’s companion held a lantern aloft to cast light down through the hatch.
”Out cold, still. How hard did you hit him?” she asked him.
”Hard enough! He wasn’t easy to bring down. A demon with a sword and has more than a head on me. Him and that other man of Aragorn took out three of us before we knew what was what and we were the ones holding the ambush!”
The woman let the hatch fall shut again, the chains rattled and the key scraped in the lock.
”And they call us professionals,” she sighed, ”If he isn’t awake by morning, you’ll have to fish him out. You’ve probably cracked his skull and we need to get water into him at the least or he won’t be in fit condition for our payment.”
He heard their bickering fade as they walked away, boots creaking on the deck above while water sloshed against the hull his cheek was pressed against. The movement of the boat suggested they were at sea, but relatively close to the coast. If he could break out and get over the side he’d have a fighting chance, at least. Thank the Valar it had rained the night before and he had managed to get some of the water that sluiced through the hatch above. Thank the Valar there were no rats in this coffin of a bolt hole they had him crammed in. Hanasian grit his teeth and set to running the series of exercises that prevented his muscles from locking in agonising cramps. His head possibly was cracked, but the pain had receded to a dull, relentless force that bored through his every thought. It was nothing against the dread, though. What had they done, these professionals? What had they done in their attack against his home? What had happened to his wife and son? Who had paid them and why?
The rocking of the boat and his physical state made it difficult for Hanasian to keep his wits about him. When the boat shuddered violently around him he was flung awake again. Wind was screaming, the timbers were being pounded and boots were running overhead. Each blow to the boat shuddered through him as well, jarring his joints and teeth. A winter storm had found them and there he was with no hope of release. He had to get out. Had to! For his wife, his son, his unborn children! Had to!
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Hanasian was out for some time after the last hatch check. The storm made staying awake hard, especially when the waves pushed the boat hard from side to side. His head would collide with the timber hull around him and the pain would be too much. Gradually, though, it became obvious to him that the boat was in trouble. He heard a faint yell from the other side of the hull as the boat pitched wildly and concluded that at least one of his captors had been washed into the sea. Unsure how many may be on the boat, it remained one less for him to deal with when he made an attempt to get out. Hanasian thought it likely that they would try and put ashore and ride the storm out. It surprised him to discover that whoever helmed the vessel was either unable to see to wisdom of such a course or unable to take it. From where Hanasian was, it was obvious that this boat would not stay together in the pounding surf.
The grating sound of the keel running aground forced Hanasian to think hard about what he might do. He could not endure another blow to the head. This much was certain. It meant he would have to make his move at precisely the right time. Unsure about numbers, he considered his options, as he listened for what sound could be heard from above deck. Was it possible, he wondered, that they had all been swept away and the boat was adrift? No, there had to be someone yet above, with the keys to the chains that locked the hatch shut. They would either get him out or he would drown when the boat broke up in the waves. He strove to hear some sign that this was yet true, his death was not yet assured. Aside from the roaring of the surf against the boat and the groaning of timbers under its assault, he only heard the furious shrieking of the storm. The constant lurching of the boat made his stomach roil and he retched, heaving what little yet remained in his stomach. Surely if they were listening for him, they would hear that, he hoped. But more than likely those above were trying to save their own hides in this storm-beaten wreck.
Above deck, Hanasian’s captors had steadily been whittled away until one remained. The woman had been thrown against the mast with the wave that had swept her fellow overboard and she was unconscious. She did not stir again until the boat was floundered on the shore. Waves broke against the side of the boat, the deck shivered with each blow. She struggled to stand up and peer through the driving rain. The flashes of lightening revealed an empty deck. She was alone now.
She mumbled to herself, ”Well Karlina, you really missed something in your planning. Now you’re in trouble.”
She braced herself with a grab at a railing and as the boat creaked under the next wave’s assault, Karline wondered if she should just try to get ashore or attempt to retrieve the “goods” that had placed her in this very predicament in the first place. If he was still alive, of course. Hanasian could be worth much if she got him to the people who offered the contract, enough to prompt them to chance the sea in winter just to get far enough clear of that damn Free Company. She had no one else she need worry about splitting the profit now, either. It was enough to inspire a certain boldness. Karlina released the rail she gripped and crawled over to the hatch. Still chained, it was fortunate she still had the keys. Better still, one of those weatherproofed lanterns lay on its side nearby, badly cracked but a meagre flame still guttering. She grinned through strands of hair the wind and rain had slicked over her face as she fished them out from her belt. Another wave slammed the boat and she almost lost her grip on the keys. Her grin vanished and she worked quickly after that. She struggled to get the lock open as another wave broke over the boat.
Hanasian heard the chain rattle overhead. Water dripped through from the deck and seeped through the cracked and leaking hull. It kept him awake and threatened to drown him. Still, he side of the boat was cracked and leaking, he feigned unconsciousness when the light came through the hatch and she looked in. It was entirely possible, he realised, that the woman might consider it not worth her while if she thought him dead. He moved and groaned, letting her know he was alive and waking. It worked. She started down the ladder, and stood in the narrow space with a sputtering lantern that threatened to extinguish at any moment.
”We’ve got to get out. The boat is done for.”
Hanasian grunted but couldn’t do much. He said weakly, ”How? You can’t carry me and I am bound.”
Karlina looked down at the man bound on the floor in the shuddering hull of the boat. He certainly looked weak. Blow to the head, little to eat and drink for days now, pale. She pulled a dirk from her belt, crouched and sliced through the rope at his hands.
As she moved to the rope at his feet, she said, ”You will have to get yourself out.”
As she was straightening a wave hit the boat and it lurched hard, closer to shore. The hatch slammed shut with the movement and it knocked Karlina to her knees. The torch fell into the water pooling on the floor and went out. In the darkness Hanasian moved. He was forced to guess where she was and he swung his arm in the hope of grabbing her. Unfortunately, the lurching had jostled them both and he missed. Guessing where she was, he swung his arm about in hopes of grabbing her and instead felt her hands seize him.
The woman’s voice snarled in his ear, ”I knew you’d try something!”
She shoved him back hard, easy for her to do in his weakened state, ”You listen to me! We need to get out of here. If I let you go first, you will kick me back down and lock me in to die. I’m not going to let you die. If I go first, will you follow me?”
Hanasian didn’t have any choice. He rasped to the woman in the blackness, ”Fine, I’ll follow.”
“Do you have the strength to make it?”
She sounded as dubious as he felt. Hanasian replied, ”We’ll soon see.”
The water had already climbed from her feet to half way up her calves. Karlina Karlina grabbed for the ladder and climbed, Hanasian followed close behind. She pushed open the hatch and water fell onto them. The ship was at a hard angle listing toward the sea so every wave hit the deck hard. The mast had snapped and now dangled, and some of the railing had already broken away. It would not be long now. She turned and reached for Hanasian who slowly climbed out of the hatch. The heavy gale filled with rain and seawater hit his face, and to him it was refreshing. He thought he could overtake this woman here and now, but she had already a shortsword in hand.
Hanasian called over the wind, ”You should put that away. You’re as likely to hurt either one of us in these conditions.”
“Alright, but do not try and escape me Hanasian,” she said as she reached for a nearby rope, ”Yes, I know who you are. Tie this to your belt. I’ll tie the other end to mine. We’ll have enough slack to safely work our way to shore, but we won’t get separated.”
“Aye, that should work. So who might you be?”
She paused and stared at him, ”Karlina.”
Hanasian considered her in the dim light, the night lashed by howling wind and driving rain and heavy seas. The best he could say was that she seemed vaguely familiar, yet not. He nodded and tied himself off as she watched him flatly.
She watched him and said, ”You don’t remember me do you? I remember you.”
She was him pause, his face expressionless. In fact, he wasn’t even looking at her. He had dismissed her momentarily and was instead watching the waves and sensing the movement of the boat. Hanasian concluded after a short moment that they would have to make a move off the side of the boat when a wave hit it hard enough to nearly stand it back on its keel.
He said to her, ”Here comes a good one. We’ll need to jump. We can reminisce once we’re ashore.”
But the wave came and they didn’t go.
Hanasian said, ”We’ll have to jump when another like that comes. We have to! Are you ready?”
Watching her reaction when the next wave hit the boat, he realized she was afraid of the water! She began to tie herself off, with shaking fingers but a wave hit and the boat shuddered beneath them. The boat shifted hard, turning the deck back and over toward the shore. She slid off and over the side, Hanasian pulled along after her by the rope that now linked them. He considered releasing the rope altogether and let the sea claim this final foe. It occurred to him, however, that she might be valuable to him alive. Unless he knew why he was her prisoner, and his recollection of recent events was decidedly confused at that time, he might find things went poorly once ashore. The next wave made any further consideration of the matter moot. It washed over the boat and sent him sliding. Into the surf they fell.
Hanasian had thought they were closer to shore, but the boat was hung up on a sand bar that was now the anvil for the hammer of the storm whipped sea. It was breaking up. He managed to throw an arm over a barrel that floated low in the water. He pulled the rope and drew his captor toward him. He could hear her spit water and cough, and he threw her over the barrel to keep her afloat. The waves pushed them on, and Hanasian found his dangling feet met with something solid. With his captor nearly unconscious, he used the rope to secure her to the barrel, chiefly to keep her on it. It would provide him with the upper hand once they got to shore, provide he remained conscious. He didn’t.
Hanasian opened his eyes as he felt a wave push against his leg. He was cold and stiff, and had to unstick himself from the sand that the sea was burying him in. The rope was still tied to him, but there was now nothing on the other end. Where was Karlina? If she had of been able, she would have tied him up while he was out. She had been a part of his capture and imprisonment. He staggered to his feet and looked about and spotting her not far away. She was still atop the barrel in some reeds. He waded over to her and found she was alive, floated her and the barrel to shore. He untied her and threw her over his shoulder, carrying her up the low bluff to the grass. As he lay her down, she started to cough and gasp. He sat her up and she spit out seawater. The rain was incessant though, and they had no shelter. He looked at her face close in the dim grey light. If she was familiar to him, he couldn’t recall. She lay back down and rolled to her side, so Hanasian left her there and went to retrieve the barrel. He was pretty sure it said it had salted pork in it.
Lifting the barrel was hard and the exertion made his head pound. He got it up on the grass and sat it down and sat on it. He touched his head where a welt was and he cringed. He needed a physician. A memory of one seemed to swim through his mind. The Black Company. She was a healer. Blonde. Beautiful. Where was she? This vague memory seemed to hold him for a moment as he reached for her in his memories. His thoughts were disturbed when he saw a parchments washing in the surf. Having archived so much, he took interest in saving these. He managed to fish them out of the water. He saw that one was a map and the other was a well-written parchment. He tried to read it but the wind and rain was doing its best to destroy it. He folded it and tucked it in his vest. Reading would have to wait. Right now, he needed to see if Karlina was awake, for they had to find shelter from this storm.
She was asleep when he returned, so he looked about for somewhere they could go to rest and maybe even get dry. There was little there though, but he did find a grove of oaks that was dense enough to offer some respite. He returned and tried to wake Karlina by shaking her.
”You, Karlina! Wake up! We need to move! The sea is rising and the boat has broken up. Timbers will wash hard ashore with the rising tide. We must go!”
Karlina mumbled and moaned but she nodded and sat up. Hanasian helped her to her feet and she immediately crumpled to the ground with a thin scream soaked with pain.
”My ankle! Broken, I think,” she gasped, shivering hard, ”It hurts bad when I stand on it.”
Hanasian looked grim as he took a closer look. He could make out an unnatural bulge where a bone jutted out into the leather of her boot. It was just above the ankle-bone on the inside of her right foot. Just touching the outside of the boot caused her to jump. Right now, her boot was the only thing keeping it close to in place.
He said, ”You've broken it good. Bone is snapped clean. I’ll carry you to the grove of trees I found. We can ride out the storm there and with better light in the morning I can make better judgement.”
Karlina didn’t say anything. Aside from the churning pain, she was aware that she was now dependant on a man she had plotted to capture, a man who had no good reason to wish her well. She was in pain, so when he lifted her, she shivered with nausea that rose in her gorge. But it wasn’t long before Hanasian had them under the trees. It was wet there but the wind wasn’t so bad and the rain was held at bay in the most by the branches. He sat Karlina by the biggest tree in the centre of the grove, leant her against its trunk.
He said tersely, “I’ll be back shortly. We’ll need that salted pork.”
Karlina’s answer was to close her eyes and succumb to sleep while Hanasian located the barrel and rolled it back to the grove. Too tired to break it open, he sat down heavily next to Karlina and soon enough fatigue had claimed him too.
The light of day found them laying flat together in the leaves. Hanasian stood up and looked about, blinking and disorientated. It was still raining, but the wind had ceased and much of the force of the storm had abated. In the distance, the surf wasn’t pounding as hard. Low clouds and greyness was all he could see, and nothing looked familiar. He had no idea where they might be. He then went back and considered Karlina. She was feverish, and her ankle had swollen through the night. It was not good.
He would have to make something to move her with. She couldn’t walk and he was in no condition to carry her. Not when he had no idea where they might be and how long he might be carrying her. While he considered her, she muttered something unintelligible in her sleep. He let her sleep and broke open the barrel he had rolled up the night before. Cutting into the undamaged meat, he made slabs to carry. He would take what he could, but he hoped to find some place in the next few days. He chewed down some of the meat, and used Karlina’s knife to go cut some saplings. He fashioned together a couple poles he could lay her on and drag. The rope would work and she stirred as he secured her to the poles.
”I guess taking you in alive didn’t work out too well,” Karlina said and Hanasian scowled.
”Lady,” he let bitter sarcasm drip for a moment, ” I have made some enemies since the war and have had some times where I cannot remember what I had been up to. The couple years after the war were generally a blur. But I need to know what you’re talking about. Who wants me?”
But Karlina faded away into unconsciousness again and he would have to ask again later. It was time to move. There was a river just to the north, and he would follow it upstream.
As he walked, he started to think that the land looked familiar, but Hanasian was far from certain. Like Karlina, many things seemed so but they weren’t really when he gave further thought to it. There was little around him but grass and rolling hills and mountains in the distance. But still every step he took as he walked upriver, the sensation of familiarity seemed to grow. The peaks of the mountains were white with fresh snow and the rare break of sun lit them brightly so that he could just make out their frigid gleam. Yes, there was definitely something familiar here. If only this pain in his head would subside! But he had to stay alert. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that Karlina was fading fast.
It was well into the afternoon when Hanasian paused. The rain had stopped earlier in the day but it had remained cloudy until then. The sun broke through and warmed him and he sat down in the wet grass exhausted. The only thing they had to eat was old salt pork. He sat and chewed a bit of it as he listened to the sound of the water in the river running over some rocks. It seemed to make the throbbing in his head subside a little, and soon he was asleep. He didn’t notice the rain shower that blew over. It was the later westering sun as it again broke through under a cloud and hit his face that woke him.
He resumed walking and dragging Karlina along behind him as darkness closed around him. Following the river seemed like the right thing to do when he left the shoreline. He would stay with it for eventually he will find someone or someplace along the way. Keeping Karlina awake was what he had to do, but she wasn’t talking. A while later he stopped and they shared nearly the last of the pork. The next day he hoped to find someone or someplace.
Morning light came bright. It would be a sunny day. Hanasian checked Karlina’s leg and grimaced. It was becoming infected and he had nothing to treat it with. He gave her the last bit of his pork.
Karlina took it, as puzzled as he, and said, ”Thank you.”
Hanasian considered her again and concluded she was not remotely familiar to him at all. He sat and decided to look at the map he had found. It was roughly drawn, and it looked like it was of the coastline. He studied it intently as his throbbing head allowed and guessed that he was following the River Isen upstream. Was that was why the land looked familiar? He pulled out the parchment and read what he could of it. It was badly damaged. Still, enough remained for him to make out that it was some sort of contract. Whoever Karlina and her colleagues were, they were to take him to Pelargir. He tried to recall how they had managed to take him but it only made his head throb viciously. He could not recall how he had been injured. He could, however, clearly see a beautiful woman in his damaged mind’s eye. She kept coming to him, as though she sought for him. Karlina moaned and the woman’s image faded like smoke on the wind.
Hanasian considered the contract, considered Pelargir and all the various possibilities and considered killing her and being done with it. She was no ally of his. She was a foe. She was also an injured, ill woman. So he instead gave her a drink of water.
She peered up at him with fever glazed eyes and asked, ”You still don’t remember? Maybe you remember my mother Katela? Twenty five years ago in Minas Tirith at the White Tree Inn?”
“I’m sorry, but I was in Khand around that time I think. Maybe… “
Hanasian paused and thought back. Everything was familiar, yet vague and just out of reach in his mind. He knew he was Captain of the Black Company, and he served King Aragorn. But trying to remember names and faces was hard. Some he remembered for they had been killed long ago.
He asked, ”What year is this?”
Karlina said, ”I think its reckoned 46 years of this age. I’m not sure.”
He considered asking another question but she moaned and fell back. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
”It hurts so bad! Am I going to die? Why do you keep me alive? Leave me and go.”
It was a good question, Hanasian thought as he gave her more water, but instead he said, ”No, you’re not going to die. Not if I can help it. I need answers, and you will answer them... eventually. But so far you only have given me more questions.”
Her eyes rolled back and she fell into a sleep. Hanasian drank a bit of water and mulled through his muddy thoughts. At some point it occurred to him that he was hearing things…recalling a memory…but then reality intruded and he grasped that the sounds were real. Horsemen approached: seven of them. Hanasian kept himself carefully still as sat there next to Karlina. He was too exhausted to do anything in any case. Soon enough the horsemen circled them about.
”Arise and state your business in these lands!” the leader of the horsemen called.
”I am Hanasian, captain of the Black Company, and this is …” Hanasian paused as he thought of what to say. He could tell them she as his prisoner and they would take her, but they want to know his business. Frankly, he wanted to know his business. He wasn’t sure why he was there or even where he was going.
He continued,”… someone I met on the way.”
“On the way from where, and to where?” The captain of the horsemen pressed.
Hanasian could only tell them what he knew himself, ”We were on our way south on a boat when the storm hit us. Of our number, only I and this woman survived. She needs aid, as she is sorely hurt. As to where we are going, we are unsure where we are.”
The captain signalled one of his men to dismount and check Karlina. He nodded and returned to his horse to fetch some supplies.
The captain said, ”You are in the far west of Rohan. Few come here save those who follow their herds. We will see to your friend and we will go to a place nearby. I wish to know more of this journey you were on, and the whereabouts of your Company.”
He signalled for the spare mount to be brought forward, and they secured Karlina’s poles to it and the horse of the man that had checked on her. Hanasian mounted the spare horse and they were off again. Hanasian was unsure how he would answer the captain, but the chance of some food and drink, and some aid for Karlina would be welcome. Still, he had too many questions in his head. He knew one thing though. His sister lived in Rohan. His mother had lived there too. Was this why the land seemed so familiar?
The old log roadhouse wasn’t much, but it was dry and warm with the open fire in the middle of the room. A pot of stew hung from a hook on an iron tripod fashioned from old orc spears. The stew served hot and steaming in a bowl with and a light, sweet honey tea to go with it. Hanasian made short work of both. It seemed to make his headache lessen. Once the horsemen’s captain had sent his own physian to tend to Karlina, he shared the table with Hanasian with a bowl of his own. Around them, the old lady who lived there and ran the place, scurried about. She had soon replaced the stew on the tripod with a large pot of water, and next raced past with some clean linen for the physican to use. This was was a man, Hanasian noted, his thoughts wandering to the healer of his own Company. Same woman as the one that kept haunting his thoughts, he wondered.
The captain reserved his questions until Hanasian had emptied his bowl and his mug and was onto his second.
Only then did the captain speak, ”I have heard of this Black Company, I’ll admit, though I did not expect to find its Captain here. Interesting that your only Company is a crippled young woman. Where are the rest of your men?
“You say you can’t remember the hows and whys that brought you two here to the far west of Rohan by the River Isen. I’m hoping old Lady Belcowyn’s fine stew might nourish your memory.”
Hanasian nodded at the captain’s words but his attention was on the physican. Belcowyn took a packet from the man and tossed it into the water, and the aroma mixed with the smoke of the fire. Something in Hanasian’s mind was awakened by it. Belcowyn then sat some bread upon the table with some fresh butter. He cut off an end and covered it with butter and chewed slowly on it. A good sourdough it was. He noticed the old woman looking closely at him.
She said, ”You have the look of Forcwyn’s boy”
“Forcwyn was my mother!” he replied, surprised at his mother’s name and blinked at the elderly woman.
She asked, ”You an only child then?”
Hanasian scowled at her, aware she was trying to trip him up while the captain looked on, and answered, ”No, I have a sister named Halcwyn, and I had a much older brother named Hayna. He was killed in the war. I only met him briefly on the field the day he died.”
Belcowyn peered into his eyes and only then let her seamed face soften into a slight smile.
She nodded and turned to the captain, ”He is who he claims to be. As for the girl in there, I don’t know her. Never seen her before.”
The captain nodded and was going to say something but a scream came from the corner.
The physician approached the table, face taut, ”I’ll have to cut her boot away. It is bad and needs tending to. The herbs will help, but I have not the resources to do it properly. I’m a physicker, not one of those Dunedain or Elvise healers. I can’t say if she will live.”
The talk of medicine, the smoke and scent in the air, the visions in his mind were coalescening for Hanasian. He was remembering. The blonde woman in his mind, the beautiful one, she was the Company healer. She had used those herbs before! Her name….her name…it was important to him…she was important….Rosmarin! The gates opened and it nearly overwhelmed him. She was his wife! More, she was mother to his children…she was to give birth!
Hanasian stood up and blurted, ”I must get north! My wife needs me!”
He got dizzy and fell back heavily into his chair, so many memories and thoughts colliding chaotically in his mind. New memories, old memories, so many emotions. It was too much.
Hanasian dimly heard the captain say, ”Easy now… you need looked at too….”
Hanasian’s mind drifted to the north. He had a son and Rosmarin was to give birth soon. He remembered now, the fight. He could see them slay Rowdy. Then there had been great pain. The same pain he felt in his head right now. He drifted through memory of far away lands and hard battles. He saw his first commander die again at Raven Falls. Hayna again died on the Pelannor, on the trampled and churned bloody ground before Minas Tirith’s charred and pitted walls. He saw the time in Khand stretch in bloodied sands and the long slow battle to subdue the chiefs. It had gone bad there, awry. So many things, atrocities that he had been forced to shut out of memory. He now saw them all. He had been so glad to return to Pelargir and then to Minas Tirith and the days had become messy then.
It had taken so long for him to get him to get his head on and he had gone back home, to the north he had spent his childhood in. Simra had been there. Enchanting and beautiful and doomed because he could not save her from the evil finger that stretched out there from Khand. He remembered hardening, closing himself off. A conscious decision, a necessary one to protect his battered sanity. All he had left then was his Company and he took them wherever they were needed, without question, trying to outrun the sorrow and the pain of the past, almost succeeding. So many years, so many places. The years passed, and he came to that day as they approached Tharbad. Loch would be looking for him, he realised, and this seemed to pull him back to the surface. He found the Captain leaned over him where he had been lain out.
”You’re back with us again. Thought you were gone but for your shaking and sweating. Your companion has lived. She is missing a foot, but lives. I think she wants to talk to you.”
Hanasian sat up and drank some water. Companion? She was responsible for him being here so far away from his wife and family at this critical time. Any mercy he might have felt had vanished. That woman had dragged him from his wife, his son and his unborn children. That woman had been part of an attack upon his home, imperilling that which was most precious to him. She didn’t die of infection, he coldly thought. he would just have to kill her then… after she was no longer useful in finding out who exactly was responsible for his abduction and why they did it.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
The heavy, measured tread of a man walking across snow caught Andred’s attention from within his small hut. He could hear the boots crunch with each step. Definitely a man. Did he dare it, he wondered. Since the night of the attack things had spiralled in ways he had planned. He knew Hanasian had been taken from the way Erían had tried to take him apart with her bare hands later that night. Such untempered fury! Unfortunately, the fool that came down to re-negotiate the terms of the arrangement had landed him in a mess and he was now directly linked in ways that hampered the immediate next phase of the overall plan. Perhaps fatally so. What point having Hanasian taken only to be in this predicament?
He had anticipated that once contact with Erían and her people had been made his plans would likely unravel, but not in this way. The instructions had been explicit. He had never imagined in his planning that his standing at this point would be certain enough to apply a direct lever. However, provided he remained indirectly linked to the attack, it would be sufficient for an indirect lever. There was little, he had correctly guessed, Erían would not consider if it meant the return of her husband. Killing Hanasian had a certain appeal to some, he knew, but Hanasian alive was far more powerful over the woman they sought to control and it would take a mighty thing indeed to push Erían to reverse her decision regarding her throne. Nothing short of those she loved more dearly than everything else. But now he had been linked directly and none other than Farbarad had established the link! The Wolf of Cardolan, of all the people.
All of that made sense to Andred. What had happened next did not and it worried him. The Wolf was not known for his mercy towards anyone he deemed a foe yet Farbarad had forbidden the Company to touch him. That was beyond odd. What was stranger still was the fact that the Wolf had trudged out to chain his door shut not two days ago. It was as much to keep him in as it was to keep others out. The door could be opened to pass food and water, which Farbarad did daily without so much as a word. The Ranger looked weary beyond measure, in Andred’s opinion and he suspected it had little to do with the cause of his marked limp.
Added to this was another development. Some of the Company men had taken to whispering outside the thin walls of the hut he was now chained into about how they might kill him. Fire was their preferred method and all they lacked was enough pitch to keep it ablaze in the wintry conditions. The chain and this malevolent whispering had both started three days ago, which was three days after the attack. Meanwhile, his opportunity to influence Erían was diminishing day by day. He had to get out and speak to her. Andred pulled the door open just enough so that he could squint through the narrow gap to the brilliant whiteness beyond. He blinked tears from his eyes and sighted the owner of the heavy, measured tread.
”Loch! Loch! Please it is important! You have to come here!” he hissed at the man.
It occurred to Andred, when the scout lifted his head to stare at him, that he may have just committed a terrible error.
All Loch had to do was take two of Runner’s squad and scout. His Captain’s instructions could not be clearer and he was achieving little of any notable worth with his sister. No one, all things considered, aside perhaps from Hanasian might. At this point, was not sure even whether Hanasian might be able to. All Loch had to do was angle past the traitor’s hut and keep going. Just focus on his boots, his orders, and keep going. But, when he heard the man’s voice everything started to slide out of his control.
His pulse pounded in his ears as what could only be described as grisly fantasies crowded into his mind. No matter how cruel the death, he had yet to invent one for the traitor that seemed to be commensurate with the suffering his actions had caused. His hands curled into fists at his sides. Loch realised with a start that he needed to slow his breathing before the monster that lurked within him sprang free. He sucked in a deep, shaking breath of frigid air and slowly released it. Just as his sister had taught him to. The air steamed around his face. Slowly, he lowered his head and forced himself to keep walking. He stared back at his boots to be sure his feet pointed him in the correct direction. Just scout. That’s all. Scout and breathe.
When Loch lowered his head and pushed on, Andred released a breath he had not realised he was holding. One thing was clear. Something important had happened. Something had changed and he had no chance if he remained in this hut. He needed to get to Erían now. Andred’s eyes traversed to the spoon Farbarad had permitted him to keep for his daily meal. The wood around the hinges was usually the weakest and he only needed to gouge out one – the lower one.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Videgavia clamped his hands under his arms and stomped his boots. It was another cold one, despite the brightness of the day’s sun. The wind up from the nearby ocean was bitter and there was little protection to be had where he stood. He squinted ahead at a wall was that slowly taking shape. Molguv was wrestling stones while Wulgof and Khule saw to the smaller details. It was not a high wall, not a defensive wall, and it kept the three men busy. In recent times, that was half the battle for discipline. These three men were all of the Old Company that remained now and he watched them labour. He had no idea what to do once they had finished with the wall and what it was to mark. Scouting wasn’t enough. Standing watch wasn’t enough. Farbarad was clear. Andred had to remain alive, though Videgavia had no idea why the Ranger was so adamant on that score.
He glanced sideways to where the man stood. Farbarad was staring at someone else. She was just too hard to watch, Vid thought, so he kept his eyes carefully away. Too hard to watch. She shouldn’t be out here, not so soon after…after….Videgavia’s thoughts shied away and he looked back to the wall. It ran between the forest and four cairns that had been raised for the men that had fallen in the attack. It had been Khule’s idea, actually. A wall, for those of the Company that could not have a resting place like this one. As soon as Khule had quietly voiced it, Vid had known what it would mean. In any case, given who lived here and the blood spilled to keep them safe, this would always be inextricably linked with the Company. Once Company, always Company.
Hanasian had hinted Rin had set aside large swathes of land for the Company. Barracks, records, storage, places for those who lived long enough to retire. A place to stage their campaigns from. Of course they would have a place like this, he thought, for the memory of those fallen. A final resting place. The Company’s, like those whose home this was. Videgavia flicked his eyes out to the western horizon. The three men worked on the wall as quietly as they ever had, loathe to disturb the other person who was there. He could hear her singing. He could avoid looking at her but he could not stop the sound of her voice. A lullaby. It was enough to break a man’s heart.
”How do you bear it?” he ground out quietly to the Ranger standing beside him, ”Two days now, for hours. She shouldn’t be here.”
“Can you keep her away, Vid?” Farbarad replied, eyes still trained on the grieving woman.
Rin’s back was to them. The wind had pushed back the cowl of her heavy, black, fur-lined cloak. It whipped her hair about and pushed her lullaby back to where they stood. She was seated now but sometimes she stood, sometimes she paced. She had been too weak to get from her bed the first day, but these last two days the full, rending weight of her grief had pushed her out from the warmth she should remain in. She was still so weak.
”Perhaps we should have waited. Perhaps we should not have set little Míriel to rest so swiftly,” Farbarad further mused.
That night had been chaos. Desperate, painful, bloody chaos. She had fought so hard, even after Míriel’s death so soon. Little Elian lived, somehow managed to survive where her sister could not. He had been so tired come the dawn, they all had been. Rin had lapsed into exhaustion and he had made the decision to set Míriel to rest that day. It had seemed right, he recalled foggily. What did he know, though? He was neither father nor mother. And now, for the past two days, Míriel’s mother came to where her newborn daughter had been buried and sang to her child even as her daughter was carefully wrapped, warm and safe and alive, against her mother.
”Perhaps we should have executed Andred then and there,” Videgavia growled, a savage note to his voice dragging Farbarad’s attention from Rin to the Daleman at his side.
Videgavia’s dark eyes were trained on her and there was such grief in his face.
”I can’t do this,” he snarled and whipped about to stalk away.
”Vid, stay away from Andred. Please? For Rin?” Farbarad called after him.
Videgavia glanced over his shoulder and curtly nodded and Farbarad turned his attention back to Rin. Sparks and Bells would be waiting to check on her and Elian. Hanavia would be fretting for his mother at the house. Farbarad sighed heavily and started forward. It was time for her to eat something anyway.
At the wall, Molguv set down the block he had been wrestling with and watched the Ranger lead Rin away, back towards the house. The warmth, the joviality of his eyes, was gone and they were flat. He flicked them to his companions, also watching with similarly distant expressions.
”I reckon we could make some, if we had the recipe,” Molguv said.
”We don’t have a recipe for pitch,” Wulgof observed.
”Bells may be of assistance,” Khule observed, ”And failing him, Rin herself.”
“Would she help us, you think?” Molguv asked and Khule turned to face the Haradian.
Molguv grunted a moment later. Khule was right. Both men had seen women lay their children to rest, seen the excruciating pain played out again and again. Such a common sight in their lands. The ululating keening of grief. There was nothing akin to a mother’s grief. Nothing. Molguv bent to pick the block up again and work resumed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The bowl thunked solidly onto the kitchen table. It steamed, hearty and rich and warm. She should be hungry. She should be. She was feeding two children now and her body was still recovering from its recent torment. She had lost so much blood. But there were a lot of things Rin knew she should be and wasn’t. Hungry was just one entry on that list. If she had to describe herself, it would be hollow. She felt so hollow that she imagined she might shatter, like a brittle twig, if pressed too hard. Or even a little. Maybe. She wasn’t sure about that. She wasn’t about to throw herself off a cliff either. Yes her husband had vanished into thin air. Yes, her daughter had died mere moments after birth. But she had a son and a daughter and she knew what it was to face this world without mother or father. What if Hanasian did not come back?
Rin stared at the soup and tried to muster the energy to feel worried, frightened, angry. Tried and failed. The agonising ache of Hanasian’s absence and uncertain fate hung around her neck. Against her, she could feel the rapid fire beating of Elian’s heart as her daughter slept. There should be two. There had been two. Hanasian’s was not the only absence, the only hole, in her life that hung around her neck. What if Hanasian came home and discovered what had happened, how she had failed him and their daughter both? He would be….angry. Yes. And he should be. Because there was one where there should have been two. Rin stared at the soup, picked up her spoon and ate mechanically.
When Rin became aware of her surroundings again it was late afternoon. She was in the office, seated at Hanasian’s desk. Her hands were spread over the wood, fingers splayed. Hanavia was on the carpet before the hearth, playing contentedly. He must have felt her staring at him for his game stopped and he peered up at her for a long moment. Then he climbed to his feet and toddled towards her, padded around his father’s desk to where she sat in his father’s chair. He climbed resolutely into her lap and found a way to insert himself against her that would not crush his infant sister. Rin buried her face into his hair, pressed her nose against his soft, dark curls and breathed him in, desperate for the sense of something…anything to pull her out of the cloying fog.
At the far end of the room, Farbarad stood with another man. She had met him, she knew, at her wedding. He leant on a stout cane, expression grim. Rin had no idea when he had arrived. That afternoon, yesterday. None. Nor did she care. She closed her eyes, let them talk, and sent her mind as far as she could, across the miles and searching, searching, searching.
Massuil expelled a heavy breath and considered Farbarad, ”The king was explicit in his instructions that the Lady and her son be brought north to the greater safety of Fornost.”
“Massuil, she will not be parted from her daughter’s grave. To achieve Aragorn’s ends, she would have to be bound hand and foot, dragged to Fornost and there locked up. And, I strongly suspect, it would drive her mad.
“Do not mistake me, I beg of you. I am no rebel against the High Throne or the Reunited Kingdom…But I can’t allow it. I ask of you, please do not force my hand.”
“I know what you are saying, Wolf. Were I in your boots, I’d fight too. Any word of Hanasian?”
“He has been found,” came the reply, but not from Farbarad.
Both Rangers stared at the woman in the office. She stared at a window and the wintry scene beyond, children held to her. Her expression was distant, remote and uncanny.
”He has been found,” Rin repeated and shivered hard before she whispered, ”Alive? Please, alive?”
“Amme?” Hanavia asked from his mother’s arms.
Like her, his eyes in that moment were an indescribable, piercing shade of blue as he blinked up at her uncertainly. Little Elian murmured, such a fragile and feeble sound.
”I must go to him. Now,” she continued and then blinked. Her eyes came to the two Rangers at the far end of the room, ”Immediately.”
Massuil sighed heavily. Aragorn would not like this at all. Not at all. And yet the woman he watched was Aragorn’s cousin and like her cousin possessed a full complement of their shared predecessor’s redoubtable will. It was impossible to strive against. He saw movement from the corner of his eye as Farbarad sank to one knee and bowed his head. Massuil followed suit, joints clicking with age.
In the ancient tongue of their forebearers, Farbarad responded, "As you will, my Lady."
It was much later, indeed after night had descended, before Massuil comprehended the true meaning of Farbarad’s words. He was assisting the Ranger carry gear out to the stables, where a horse was being readied. Torches hissed to throw back the darkness and, ominously, the wind had dropped away so that the air was frozen still. There would be snow tonight. Massuil knew it.
”She will, like as not, never forgive you,” Massuil observed quietly and, just ahead of him, Farbarad nodded. The torches created a shadow that trailed, stretched all the way back to the house that he half turned and considered it now.
”Like as not,” he brooded, ”She promised never to even as she slipped under.”
“Do you know what happens to people who fail to rest after sudden, massive blood loss, Massuil? Their hearts stop. Just run out of blood. Just like that. So a very skilled and knowledgeable Dunedain healer told me as I lay immobilised under her care in a farmhouse outside of Esgaroth two years ago,” Farbarad hefted the laden saddle-bag he carried and turned away from the house for the stables again,”She’ll never forgive me for a lot of things before I am done, Massuil. I won’t see her son and daughter robbed like that. I won’t deliver Hanasian his wife’s body either. Among other things, forgiveness is something I learned to do without years ago.”
Massuil made no reply to that and a few heartbeats later Farbarad barked a rough laugh that reported sharply through the crisp air.
”Besides, while she is powerful in the court, there is still at least one other ranked higher than her. I can count on Aragorn, don’t you think?” Farbarad asked.
“You think it likely she will resort to the court to prosecute her argument against you?”
“A man can hope, can’t he?” Farbarad muttered and Massuil found himself grinning despite the gravity of the situation.
They shouldered into the stable where the captain of the Free Company stood with a mostly saddled horse and Hanasian’s brother-in-law. Loch was carefully garbed so that he could remain warm and yet move freely. No one doubted the Lady of Cardolan’s assertions that Hanasian had been found alive. Alive, but where and for how long? That was now the issue and there was no conceivable way her brother or her Ranger would countenance the Lady taking to the wilds in a hunt, with two small children and her own state of health nothing less than precarious.
”Follow the coast, find the debris, locate a trail,” Videgavia was saying as he checked through the scout’s gear himself.
”Or in other words, scout,” Loch replied, a ghost of a grin on his face.
Videgavia ceased his checking as Massuil and Farbarad approached.
”Want for me to round up any of the Company patrols I find, Cap,” Loch asked and Videgavia stroked his chin.
”No…leave them in place for now,” he answered with a sidelong glance at Farbarad, ”Might be useful to us if Doc manages somehow to give us the slip despite our precautions.”
“She’s still under, isn’t she?” her brother asked, worried now, and Farbarad nodded.
”Absolutely. The doors and windows are locked and any gear she might want to take with her has been placed under lock and key,” Farbarad replied as he attached the pannier he had carried out to Loch’s saddle.
Loch rolled his shoulders and heaved a sigh, ”Right then, so you’re saying I’ve got a day’s lead, at best.”
“I’ve added my men to the immediate cordon of the grounds, considering the circumstances. She won’t be likely to slip through your men and my Rangers,” Massuil stated as he attached the pannier he had been carrying to the other side of Loch’s saddle.
There was silence between Loch, Farbarad and Videgavia a moment that seemed a little ominious. Massuil glanced up to catch their dubious expressions.
”This may be the Fourth Age, but my men are no less Rangers of the North than you or I, Wolf,” Massuil sharply said.
”Oh aye, Massuil,” Videgavia replied quickly lest any offense was given at this late stage, ”Only that’s not the concern we’re talking about here.”
“I think it’s unlikely she’ll try the chimneys. Unlikely, mind you, not impossible,” her brother continued, ”and only unlikely for as long as it takes her to start feeling her normal self. Shame the doors and windows all operate on hinges. That’s the real weak point right there, and there's nothing to be done about it now.”
”With Massuil’s assistance, we’ll keep her safely here, Kid. Don’t worry for your sister,” Farbarad said solemnly.
”She’s in good hands. I know it, Wolf. I know it. Right then…I’m off.”
“What about young Rose?” Videgavia asked uncomfortably and Loch actually flushed.
”Some things I am competent to see to on my own, Cap. Said our goodbyes already,” Loch muttered and swung into the saddle easily as Massuil held the reins steady. He handed them to the scout once he had settled in.
The man drew up his cowl and wound several woollen scarves around his lower face. All that could be seen of him now were his eyes and they gleamed with the need to be off. He glanced around the three men that stood in the stable a moment, nodded and with that the First Hero of Cardolan was off into the night to locate and retrieve Cardolan’s Consort. The three men in the stable were soon on their way back to the house. Videgavia peeled off to make sure the Dirty Three weren’t lurking around Andred’s hut. He lifted an arm in parting as he crossed beyond the reach of the torches to be swallowed by the night.
”Is it really so likely that the Lady will set off in pursuit?” Massuil found himself asking and Farbarad sucked at his teeth a moment.
”You’ve not really met the woman in question, I suppose,” Farbarad answered.
”I’ve seen enough to get a reasonable measure of the woman Hanasian married. More to the point, I know Hanasian. That he agreed to take her into the Company and on active engagements tells me that he trained her, hard. She is skilled, clearly, for the sort of combat situations the Company deals in and her reputation as a healer precedes her. She is also disciplined and intelligent.”
“Right at this moment, her Company skills are not what concerns me. She came to the Company with a quite a set of her own, Massuil. All we did, as best I can tell, is put the final touches on them.
“She’s a dangerous one, Massuil. Had to be so as to survive. Don’t let her beguile you. Do not underestimate her. Don’t let yourself be cozened by those delicate features. That intelligent, skilled, disciplined woman is not thinking clearly. There is no telling what she might do. As of this moment, I consider her potential to be the salient threat we must guard and protect against. I hope your men know what they’re in for.”
“If not, they’ll learn fast enough,” Massuil replied as they gained the kitchen door.
They entered into the house’s warmth and caught the very threat Farbarad had been talking about standing, disorientated but very much awake in the kitchen. She scowled at them ferociously from beneath rumpled hair that fell in shining, pale tangles down her shoulders and back like a mantle. The pupils of her eyes were dark and wide and she stood in a long sleeved chemise that was crumpled. Farbarad sighed.
”See what I mean,” he muttered at Massuil, ”Keep the door while I get her away from the windows.”
“You stay awake from me,” she said, or tried to, when Farbarad started to move. Her speech was still slurred and it made her scowl again.
”Come now,” Farbarad said, voice smooth as honey, as he angled himself around to block the bank of windows that lined the kitchen door, ”Back to bed now, lassie. That’s it now, there's a good-“
Rin had turned her back and started back for the living room, unsteady and weaving but moving as fast as she could manage all the same. Massuil thought this a promising development. Farbarad did not, apparently, agree.
”SLIP! COMING YOUR WAY,” he shouted.
”ON IT,” came the reply of the woman with the unlikeliest name from somewhere in the house.
”Hey there, Doc! What are you doing up?” boomed a deep, percussive voice that Massuil recognised as belonging to the Haradian that was once of Hanasian’s men.
By the time he and Farbarad reached the large man, he had the Lady of Cardolan under control. She looked tiny in his arms. Tiny, and decidedly safely unconscious again. Molguv, on the other hand, looked pleased with his work. He shook his head at Farbarad.
”Ranger, you want to play this game you need to do it properly.”
“There is nothing wrong with my version,” Farbarad returned, stepping close to check that Rin was really out this time.
”And yet, here we are. You Rangers…so convinced you know everything. For example, I suppose you want her back in her nice, comfortable, warm bed. The sensible thing to do would be to secure her…the cellar is the best option I can think of.”
“I am not locking her in her own cellar,” Farbarad hissed at him angrily.
”I’m not saying I’d like to. I mean…it’s Doc…she’s….She’s our Doc. But that’s my point. She’s our Doc,” the Haradian rumbled, adjusting his hold on the woman in his arms before he turned about in the direction of the sleeping quarters.
Massuil had the distinct sense as he watched this incongruous exchange between a Ranger and a Haradrim giant over the insensate form of a Dunedain princess that he may be slightly in over his head. Slightly. This was not helped at all when a particularly vicious looking Dunlender asked him later that night whether he knew how to make pitch.
Riding was difficult at this time of year. Keeping to the coast only meant that the snow blowing in on the stiff northerly wind was turned to very cold rain. Loch hadn’t felt anything like it since a couple days when they were headed east into Rhun. He hadn’t liked it much then, and he didn’t like it now. Sure he knew Videgavia was the Captain, but Hanasian was still and would always be captain to him, even if he was no longer Captain of the Company and was now his brother-in-law.
Loch rode the bluffs where the ancient forests made attempts to re-establish themselves from their decimation of the second age. Groves of young trees struggled to grow, huddled together in the grassy hills. Loch found himself riding through them to gain shelter from the incessant rain and would set his camp in them for shelter and remain unseen. The days passed in an incessant parade of grey with rain, drizzle, and cold wind. The clouds did break at times, invariably at night and while that permitted the moonlight through, it left everything frozen, including himself and his saddle and his horse. Loch found himself talking to no one but himself, or Rose or Rin as if they were with him. He never thought he would be assigned a mission to do alone. He usually decided for himself when he did them, as Videgavia well knew by now. Loch guessed it might have been some sort of reward for returning? Anyway, he was alone and cold. Sleeping was hard, with only exhaustion making it possible for more than a couple hours. Just like old times when he and Rin were living wild and rough, only alone. The wind had a lonely sound to it, he thought.
The next day he found himself not far out of sight from the ocean. He kept to the bluffs unless he had to get around some broken ground. The greyness made everything look the same and nothing out of place was spotted along that rocky shore. He did not see another living soul. Likely they had more sense than to be out in this weather. As he made his way south down the coast, the coast started to curve around to the east as he approached where the Brandywine emptied into the sea. Coming to the river, he searched for sign and found none. The river mouth was too wide and deep to cross, so he headed inland along its north bank to find a place to camp. Maybe he could catch a fish or two for a meal. He could see them in the clear cold water. He had been camping cold since he left. He would enjoy a fire this night,and set a line. He needed to make his dried fruit and meat last. In any case, it was probably frozen like it had been the day before.
A fish caught and gutted, he cooked it over the fire with a stick. It tasted so good he tried to lure another one. But as easy as the first one took his line, the disappearance of the fish from the water must have alerted the others, for they only studied or lightly nibbled on his bait. It was not long before Loch gave up, and returned to his fire. It felt good and before too long he was fast asleep.
Loch woke up irritable. He hadn’t wanted to sleep so hard, but the warmth of his fire, the relative dryness under the tree that overhung the river, the sound of the Brandywine River, and his own fatigue from the many gloomy days had held him in slumber. It was then he noticed the dripping of water from the trees had lessened. It had stopped raining. The wind had died to a very light breeze too. Already it felt warmer even though he was still quite damp. The brightness was welcoming, for the cool winter sun, was rising on a clear cold morning and Loch was more than ready to feel it on his face. He wasted no time breaking camp, and leaving but a little trace, that being the fresh ashes of his fire from the night before in the old rock fire-ring he had found. He rode out from the trees and paused in the rays of the low morning sun. But it seemed only like moments before the warmth started to slip away, for as the sun started to dry the land the cold air caused fog to form.
Soon Loch was riding the edge of the river looking for a place to cross but he could see little on the other side. The chill dampness closed around him and Loch pulled his cloak closer and slowly rode along. He should be on the coast looking for the Captain, not pushing through fog and scrub along the mouth of the Brandywine. When he came to where the water was swift over the rocks and the banks were shallow, he crossed. The south side was much like the north, and he rode west back to the sea. Looking over the bluff down to the ocean, he could see nothing in the grey fog. He slowly rode south again, determined to find the Captain.
It was late afternoon when the sun made its appearance again that day. Ahead the thick old growth woodland of Eryn Vorn lurked dark in the orange sunlight. He would camp under its eaves, and decide the next day whether to go in them to search the coast or ride around them. Rin was so certain there had been a boat involved. The thought of his sister gave him something to worry after. She had not been at all well when he had ridden out. If she was out in this weather…It was not long after he set camp did he hear the sound of hoofs. He moved his horse into the woods and waited. Perhaps they would ride by. But of course their footfalls slowed.
A voice sounded, ”Hail traveller! Who goes about these lands of Cardolan?”
Loch thought the man sounded familiar, but he didn’t say anything. A couple more horses approached. He heard them reign in and knew then that the men knew he was there.
Loch grimaced at being pinned down like this and said, ”It is I, Lochared of Dunland, brother of the Lady of Cardolan.”
“Loch! What are you doing down here? Who is with you?” came the surprised reply and Loch knew it to be Berlas.
Loch said, ”I could ask the same. I thought you were in Tharbad.”
“We were, and some are still. But some of the King’s Guard have taken up the watch of the crossing. So we removed ourselves west to watch the wide lands of Cardolan. We’re headed for Lond Daer where a few scouts had gone,” Berlas said as he dismounted.
Loch emerged from the trees he had taken shelter in, expression grim, ”Have you not heard then? The Captain had been taken!”
“Videgavia?” Berlas asked haltingly.
Loch shook his head, shaggy curls waving from side to side, ”No! Not Videgavia, Hanasian! There was a raid. They got in and killed three of us, took Hanasian. So far we’ve been able to track them headed southwest and there is some evidence that they took to a boat.”
Berlas could see in the fading light how grim Loch was and it fitted his tidings. Berlas signed to one of the riders Loch didn’t recognize and the man turned and rode off at speed.
Berlas noted Loch’s gaze and said, ”Some young Rohan boys. Better horsemen than the Easterlings. They’ve been watching the river. My gut told me something was amiss. We camp here and ride hard to Lond Daer on the morrow.”
They soon had fire and the three men sat and talked and ate before they lay down. Berlas found Loch was difficult to get further information out of, particularly around his sister, and that did not bode at all well. At least it was much warmer this night and it didn’t feel like rain was coming. But it was still winter.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hanasian managed to get up and place his thoughts in check once more. They settled into place with cool precision. He walked slowly over to Karlina who sat up in a bed, leaning back against the wall with her eyes closed. Hanasian grabbed a nearby chair and set it down hard with its back toward her and saw she woke with a start. He sat down, slung his arms over the back of the chair and rested his chin upon his arms. He stared hard into her eyes a long moment.
Once he was sure Karlina had enough time a guage his frame of mind, Hanasian said, ”I’m told you wished to speak with me?”
Her eyes were tired and hollow, as if all fight had gone out of her. She closed them and whispered, ”Yes, I did.”
Hanasian felt himself smile, a slight and cold thing, ”That is good. I wish to talk to you as well. Hopefully you will have answers for me this time.”
Karlina opened her eyes and looked at the blanket where her ankle used to be before looking at him and answered, ”And you mine I hope.”
Hanasian’s smile vanished as he reached into his vest and pulled out a parchment. He looked it over as he said, ”We’ll get to yours if I’m satisfied with your answers to mine.”
Karlina sighed and closed her eyes again.
Hanasian went on, eyes lifting from the contract to the woman propped against the wall, ”I have this contract in my hand. Very well articulated. Doesn’t say much, but it’s to the point. The party hiring six people to bring me back alive to them is an unknown, for their signature amounts to an X. But I see yours here, third out of six.
“Now I know that three were slain before Rowdy was felled and I was taken. And I know there were two of you on the boat. That leaves another. Now I can’t make out the last two signatures but maybe you could help me with that.
“Now, my questions are simple. Who contracted you, and where are you supposed to take me?”
Karlina sat motionless. Her eyes remained closed except for a moment where she glanced at the contract Hanasian held. After a long silence, Hanasian got up and moved the chair out of his way.
He said to the Captain of the horsemen, ”I think Karlina and I need a moment alone.”
The Captain stood and as he went to the door, he warned, ”We don’t tolerate any ill treatment of prisoners here.”
“No prisoners will be mistreated. I’m not even armed. We just need to have a private moment,” Hanasian said, voice mild even as his eyes simmered as they held Karlina’s gaze.
The Captain stepped out as Karlina opened her eyes. They went wide when she saw she was alone with Hanasian. He wasn’t armed, she had heard him say, but she was. The boot where she kept her finger knife was useless now, but it sat by her bed. Hanasian sat on the edge of the bed and had it in hand, turning it over as if he studied it. He moved suddenly, pressed against her wounded leg. He leaned toward her and covered her mouth with his free hand while his other hand moved. The tip of her knife was pressed now just beneath her eye and he face was so close their noses almost touched. She moaned in pain from her leg, but could not move without losing an eye.
Hanasian’s voice was soft as he stared hard into her now wide eyes, ”I may not be my father, but I have done and am fully capable still of things that would make my father proud. You will tell me what I want to know, Karlina, and you will do exactly what I say or you will lose your perfectly unscarred face. And that will be just the beginning. I won't kill you, but you will wish I had.
“Cooperate with me and help me, and I’ll see you get back to Minas Tirith safely. Between those two options, there is the matter of Rowdy’s death. I don’t believe you were there but you were an accomplice to those responsible. The King’s Court will not look favourably upon you in this matter, unless someone intercedes on your behalf. Someone like me…or better yet, my wife. Do we understand each other now, Karlina?”
Hanasian pulled back the knife a little and Karlina nodded shakily. Her breaths came in shaky gasps.
Hanasian then said, ”Very good. Now let’s begin again. Tell me where you were taking me.”
Karlina nodded, fought back sudden tears, ”We were to take the boat to Pelargir. But with the losses, we didn’t have the men aboard to do it. So we were to go to Tharbad, upriver.”
Hanasian sighed. Pelargir would have been bad. The gateway to the south and east, much happened there that is not accounted for, even under the king. Rin and Loch had made themselves a small fortune out of Pelargir when they thought he hadn’t been looking the last time they were there. The underworld of that city was extensive and there was little that could not be bought or sold, for the right price. It was good they had slain three. Tharbad was better. He had men there, and the Rohirrim helped with the watch at times.
Hanasian said, ”I see. Seems you kind of missed the river mouth, considering we wrecked near the mouth of the Isen. Once you got me to Tharbad, you would have been paid?”
“No,” Karlina wiped her face with her sleeve and went on, ”The deal was to get you to Pelargir. We could find assistance in Tharbad to re-man and re-fit the boat to finish the journey.”
Hanasian stared at her hard and considered returning her knife to its earlier position below her eye. There was something Karlina was withholding and his patience had vanished.
Karlina eyes softened as they stared into Hanasian’s, ”I wasn’t wanting to go to Pelargir or deliver you, and our reduced numbers was working in my favour. I was going to free you in Tharbad, figured you’d have men there. But we didn’t get there.”
Hanasian chuckled sarcastically, ”So you were going to free me. Well, I’m free. But you aren’t until you prove your words to me. We’ll go to Tharbad, and we will try and find some of your people. But only because it’s the fastest way for me to get to the bottom of this, so I can get home where I am needed.”
Karlina nodded and looked again at where her foot would have been. Hanasian sat back and twirled the knife on his finger.
”Now, you had questions of me?”
Karlina nodded as she gained her breath. Hanasian gave her a mug of water and she drank sloppily from it. She nodded again and he set the mug back on the table.
She said in a breathless voice, ”I asked you if you might remember my mother Katela. She knows of you.”
Hanasian considered the name again while looking at the contract he had found. It was vaguely familiar. His eyes tracked over the signatures on the contract and found a memory shaken loose by the name after Karlina’s signatur. He only saw Katela once, briefly, in Minas Tirith. She had been with child as she worked tables at the White Tree Inn. He remembered because she had come to his table and served him a pint of ale.
Katela had asked, ”Son of Halasian you are?”
Hanasian recalled innate wariness but he nodded slightly. The woman had glanced about the inn, gave him some parchments rolled up and flattened, then walked away. He blinked and found himself miles and years away.
He said, ”Does she now? Well, I remember a serving girl at the White Tree Inn who looked like you, about your age at the time. She was with child. I suppose she could be your mother, and that you were also there.”
Karlina seemed surprised at Hanasian’s answer. She pushed on, “Did she give you anything?”
Karlina was leaning forward, Hanasian noted, eager and seemingly fully recovered from her earlier melancholia.
”Yes, a pint of beer,” Hanasian replied, ”Maybe two.”
Karlina seemed deflated. He wasn’t going to mention the parchments. Not yet.
She asked, ”Did she give you anything else?”
“Not that I can remember. I’ll have to think on it. If you hadn’t cracked my skull so damn hard, perhaps I’d remember things better,” Hanasian said.
Sure, he remembered. He remembered the parchments too. He didn’t like what it meant either, for he would have to look at Karlina in a different light if he thought about it. Right now, he wasn’t going to think about it. He was going to use her to find and kill the ones responsible for his abduction.
Hanasian stood up from the edge of the bed, ”You rest up. It will be a bit before you can travel with your leg. I’m sorry they couldn’t save your foot, but your ankle was smashed and rot had set in. A couple more days and you would have died. Now, anything else you want to say?”
Karlina moved her footless leg and looked at the blanket, ”I can feel it, you know. Like it’s still there. The ankle aching, the toes throbbing, and in my mind I think I can move them. But I know they’re gone. A high price to pay for a fools errand.”
Hanasian looked out the window where the Captain stood talking to one of his horsemen. He said without looking back at her, ”Why did you do it? Sign on to this….”
He held up the contract and waved it side to side slightly.
Karlina said, ”I wanted to see and talk to you.”
“You kill one of my men, nearly kill me, take me away from my wife and son at a time they needed me most just to see and talk to me?”
“What’s so urgent about being there? Not like there’s no one else there, way I heard it told. Not like she’s on her own or nothing.”
“Do you know, then, that my wife is with child? Twins. Due any day now,” Hanasian said, tensing as his headache returned.
Karlina said in desperate voice, ”I thought it to be the only way to-“
Hanasian turned and threw her knife at her. She screamed as it sailed passed her head, grazing her ear and pinning a lock of her hair to the headboard of the bed. The Captain was in quickly and Hanasian walked past him, saying, ”You left her armed. You should be more careful. See to it she can ride. We’ll leave in the morning.”
When Berlas said they would ride hard, he meant it. The two newcomers that rode with Loch and Berlas revealed their skill on horseback, streaking ahead. Loch had not seen anything like it before. In all his years in Rohan, he had spent most of them avoiding the Riddermark. Since joining the Company, he’d seen the Riddermark in battle. But this was different entirely. The two young men from Rohan were not laden with battle gear and nor were their horses. For a good while Loch lost himself in the sheer exhilaration of it all.
The cold and the gnawing fear for those he cared for fell away and he was surprised and slightly ashamed of himself when he realised this. He was not down here on a jaunt. He was down here because his sister’s husband had been cruelly taken. He had left his dearest Rose with her to protect her but feared whether any of them could protect Rin from herself. She was dismantling herself inexorably, piece by piece. In all their years together, he had never seen her quite like this.
”There’s more to it,” Berlas said from where he squatted.
They had pulled in to rest themselves and their horses and the Company’s second in command was stretching his legs as he gnawed on some of his hardtack. Loch lifted a shoulder uncomfortably.
”You’re terrible at secrets, you know,” Berlas continued and Loch squinted at the frozen ground between them as he selected his words with care.
”So,” he said slowly, lifting his eyes from the ground to Berlas, ”Are you.”
Berlas frowned, opened his mouth and then looked away. He shouldn'y be surprised, he thought, that Loch knew. Ever since the paths of these two siblings had crossed with the Company, they all knew how closely Loch watched his sister. It made sense, of course. The world could be a cruel place and Loch’s sister was and is uncommonly beautiful. Right now, Loch’s expression was cold and unyielding and it was directed right at him. If anyone could spot a covetous glance directed at his sister for too long, it was Loch. But Loch’s reaction confirmed for Berlas that there was more and it was connected with….Rosmarin.
”We should be going,” Loch said gruffly and stood.
”The raid…the attack…they didn’t get Hanavia or… or…”
“No,” Loch said impatiently and Berlas felt a little easier. By a fraction.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sparks was still rolling his sleeves down as he stood there, expression marked with weariness and grave concern. Farbarad held his tongue by the slimmest of margins. He had nightmares about this man and that night. Eru forgive him, but he had given this man consent to….but it hadn’t come to that. It hadn’t. Rin was with them still and they had saved one and Sparks’ shirt was clean. No spattering of blood on his shirt this time.
”I’ve contained the bleeding again,” Sparks said, voice bleak, as he tied off his cuffs and lifted his eyes to Farbarad.
”I won’t mince words, Wolf. It’s bad. She’s weak. She can’t keep losing blood like this. I’ve sedated her for now, properly…but there is a limit to what any one body can endure and she has reached hers.”
Farbarad could still hear Loch screaming his refusal to let Sparks cut open his sister to save Elian. He could still see the little dagger, so carefully prepared so that it would be fast. He had ranted at them, sobbing, that it would kill her and he had been right. It would have killed Rin but it would have saved Elian and they had already lost Míriel. She is dying anyway, Sparks had said, and Farbarad had thought Loch would launch himself at the sad, desperate cutter. Poor Bells was hunched over in the corner by that time, rocking back and forth and crying. So much blood. So much pain.
”What are you saying,” Farbarad demanded, voice hoarse.
”You'll need a wet nurse and I recommend seeking assistance from the Elf haven at Harlond. Bells and I…we’re not…we’re not trained for this sort of thing, as I have said from the outset.”
It’s possible Sparks said more but Farbarad didn’t comprehend it. Videgavia seemed to take up the discussion, distant noise as far as Farbarad was concerned. He left them there in the sitting room and found Slippery seated on the side of the massive bed that Rin occupied. She had Rin’s hand in her own and was stroking her fingers gently. The pallor of Rin’s skin was painfully pale and her hand was limp, devoid of the tension that usually animated her skilful hands. Slippery glanced up at him as he approached and he dreaded what he saw in her face. She was grieving. Grieving for her friend, her companion. He did not wish to. He could not do this. Not again. No….the first time had been bad enough. He’d just gotten her back, from beyond the grave or so it seemed, beyond all hope. Had it all just come to this?
Slippery moved so that he could see better and Farbarad perched on the side of the bed himself. Covers had been piled over Rin to keep her warm. Furs and blankets and both hearths had been lit and kept burning because she could not keep herself warm. She had been cold all the time, shivering, jaw clenched to stop her teeth from chattering and that was before the latest haemorrhage. If he had looked in on her earlier, during the night, perhaps it would not now be as dire as this. She would not have lost so much blood this time.
He had been loathe to intrude. She was angry with him and so tired. The harder he tried to serve her, the greater he seemed to fail her. Slippery transferred Rin’s hand to his. It felt so cold. She was still so cold. He found himself searching for her pulse and found that faint, fragile thread of life in her wrist. Farbarad laid his other hand over hers to warm it between his own, head bowed and eyes closed.
”I hate this!” Slippery whispered, her voice harsh with impotent, futile rage.
She leaned forward and twirled the brush she had just used on Rin’s hair between her fingers. Farbarad glanced at her, looking at Rin was just too difficult right now, and saw that the small Gondorian’s nostrils flared with each breath. Her grasp on the brush hand tightened, her knuckles went white and then she hurled it with all her might. It clattered into the hearth. Slippery stared at it and then slowly closed her eyes.
”I feel so…helpless,” she whispered.
Farbarad did not dare say anything for fear of what might come tripping out. His head felt as though it would implode. He glanced back to his hands and deemed that Rin’s was warm enough to slip under the covers with the rest of her. He stared at her face. The delicate bone structure was so alike her mother’s. Right now, like this, she could be her mother. It was her eyes that made her who she was. Such ferocious spirit, such a bold intellect.
She had become more than he had dared hope she might. As an infant, he had thought he would watch her grow only to be swallowed by the machinations of her father’s politics, a pawn to be bought and sold. He’d dreaded what might happen if she was sold in marriage to a number of Gondor’s noble families. Somehow she had avoided all of that, by paths darker than any might choose to tread, and he had let himself come to believe that he would instead enjoy watching her flourish with her family. Kinder days, gentler days…almost enough to soothe his savaged spirit, and still it had all come down to this.
”It is not your fault, Wolf,” Slippery breathed beside him and Farbarad started guiltily, ”But if you give up on her now, I will hunt you down.”
“No, you listen to me! We fight for her! We must!”
“How? What can we possibly do against-“
“The only reason she lies there like this, is because of men like Andred.”
Farbarad was very still then. Truthfully, the desire to hold Andred accountable for the full wages of this attack had been chewing relentlessly at his self control for days now. If Slippery pressed him on it, his restraint might crack and he could not hope to serve if he forgot who he was: a Ranger of Cardolan, a Ranger of the North, a Dunedain man sworn to the service of the royal scions of Elendil.
”As soon as Loch returns with Hanasian, they’ll know they failed and they will scurry off as quick as the proverbial rats they are. We’ll be left with our dead, our brutalised and the long wait for them to take another tilt, in a manner and time of their choosing,” Slippery continued.
”What are you saying?” Farbarad warily asked.
”She’s saying we do a bait and switch, turn the tables about and seize back some control,” said Videgavia from the doorway, ”Lure the rats out on the illusion of success and crush them once and for all. It is a standard tactic that the Company has excelled at for decades now. If we can’t pull this off, then I don’t deserve its Captaincy.”
“The illusion of success? What might that be?” Farbarad asked and Videgavia’s smile was a terrifying creature.
”I was hoping you might ask that, Wolf,” he replied and with that he was gone from the doorway.
By nightfall much had occurred. Videgavia sat in the kitchen, his long legs crossed before him as he stroked one of his many daggers down a whetstone with something akin to tenderness. Hanavia watched on from the floor, fascinated. Massuil was absent, volunteering himself to make for Harlond. It had seemed incongruous for Massuil to take this on. He nor his men were Rangers of Cardolan nor were they Company. Still, the elder Ranger had been emphatic. Among other things, Massuil said it would be an honour, that Farbarad had other matters to see to and that when all was said and done this was a matter of the Rangers looking to one of their own. With that proprietary stake driven home, Massuil had divided his small party into two with preemptory speed. One set off searching for a wet nurse and the other made for Harlond, both moving at speed which was just as well, all things considered.
Runner, meanwhile, had sent his remaining men out far and wide to call back the Company men in the field. There was no telling just how many rebels might be lured back and so the more they had on hand the better. There were defensive preparations to make and the last thing the North needed were a few rebels slipping the noose after they had begun to draw it close. Things were bad enough with just one monarch disavowed. If both Aragorn and Rin were disavowed, they just might set up the seeds for Rhuadaur all over again. Farbarad and Massuil had both been very clear on that. Frantic, almost. Vid was already making plans within plans. The Company men and women would be very busy indeed setting them into motion, preparing, drilling…and there was the contingency plan to see to as well should everything go sour. Fortunately, the boat was still in decent shape and it was a short voyage to Mithlond. It would be unlikely that Círdan would turn away a ship with women and children aboard from his refuge, particularly if they were scions of Elendil.
Videgavia held up his blade to the light and considered it at length. So too did Hanavia. The little boy was not yet two years of age and the events of the past week had been terrible for the adults that surrounded him. He had his mother’s eyes, Videgavia noted, and they travelled from the knife to Videgavia’s face with undisguised curiosity. Videgavia had always found children made him nervous, particularly Rin’s son. The boy had a preternatural awareness that just reeked of trouble.
Almost as if he sensed Videgavia’s discomfort, the boy offered him a small smile and returned his attention to his own task. Vid realised with a start that the boy was fashioning a dagger of his own by rubbing a length of wood against the flagstones that comprised the kitchen floor. Well then, Videgavia mused, Hanavia was his father's and mother's son and clearly well aware that something bad had happened to his parents, Videgavia concluded.
”We’ll look after them, lad,” Videgavia rumbled and Hanavia nodded as if he understood.
”Amme tired,” Hanavia said thoughtfully, rubbing the wood back and forth on the stones, ”Abba gone.”
Before Videgavia knew it, he had the boy in his lap. Hanavia peered at him equally as surprised. Videgavia braced himself for whatever the boy might do by way of reaction and so was discovered staring expectantly into Hanavia’s face by the Dirty Three. The last thing they expected to see was their Captain gazing at a child. They froze in the doorway uncertainly.
”Report,” Videgavia scowled, feeling as if he had been discovered in a compromising position which Hanavia’s sudden giggle did not at all assist.
”He’s made it through,” Khule replied.
”Alive, I hope. He’s no use to us dead,” Videgavia pressed.
”He’s alive,” Wulgof grumbled.
”And he will stay that way long enough to pass on Farbarad’s treasonous missive, won’t he. They have to hear that Doc is taking back her throne and needs their help.”
Molguv sighed gustily. It seemed to be as much an affront to the Dirty Three that Andred had been turned loose, alive and kicking, as being stationed in a brewery and forbidden to sample the wares, or the serving maids. Worse, even, Videgavia amended.
”Your orders were clear, Captain. We’ve not lifted a finger to harm him,” Khule grudgingly replied.
Wulgof had ventured as far as the entrance to the sitting room. He peered through it uncertainly.
”How’s…” he asked Videgavia.
”Holding on, still. Everything that can be done, has been done. Farbarad and Slip are with her now.”
“Spit, like I said,” Molguv muttered and beside him Khule nodded solemnly.
Wulgof lingered at the doorway as Videgavia said, ”I want you three well rested. We have much to do on the morrow. Defensive works and the like. Anvikela and Rose will handle the watch for the night.”
“Aye, Cap,” Khule responded, walked the few steps and grabbed at the leather baldric that crossed Wulgof’s torso to tug him away from the doorway.
”If anything happens, you will know,” Videgavia said, more gently than he had intended but it did the trick.
The Dirty Three trooped out and Videgavia was left with Hanavia, who was sucking on his fingers thoughtfully. Outside, Videgavia could hear the three men talk amongst themselves. Wulgof was hatching a plot to pursue Andred that, for now, Khule was keeping in check. Molguv was complaining about the fact that Videgavia had gotten to question Andred and had not shared it around. Khule pointed out that sharing would probably have resulted in a dead Andred and he was needed alive, but not for too long. Videgavia found some comfort in the Easterling’s level, strategic head that came to a sudden standstill when Khule continued to elucidate how all of that would change if Rin perished. The Dirty Three’s conversation veered into the various forms of reprisal they would select and Videgavia placed his hands over Hanavia’s ears as a precautionary measure.
Outside, in the darkness, Molguv nodded and the three of them started to walk away, back to their barracks, as ordered. Once inside, Wulgof said, ”Do you think he heard?”
“He better have. If they court martial me-“ Molguv growled ominously and Khule waved it aside.
”Videgavia can hear an ant sneeze. He knows how things are. Any way, you two both saw the state Andred was in. Dare say he’d be with us, if it came down to it. I know we can count on the Cats. Reckon a few of the Company too…Berlas…Donius and Daius,” Khule said.
”Loch, definitely. Farbarad too. As for Hanasian, we all know what they say about his father and we’ve all seen how he can be when it comes to his wife. Probably them two witch sisters we picked up along the way. There are no shortage of people who’d happily take a nice bite out of this pack of rebels even if Cardolan don’t mean a thing to them. But it won’t come down to that because she’s hanging on. Spit, like Molguv says,” Wulgof interjected and then threw himself onto his bunk, boots still on.
”Used to be I though she had too much,” he continued, back to the other men, ”But now I worry she doesn’t have enough.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Loch slept uneasily that night, troubled by persistent dark dreams, despite the ground they had managed to cover during the day. At one point he found himself started awake, sitting up and shivering hard as the image Rin’s sightless, fixed, empty eyes floated around in his head. He dragged his hands over his face in a bid to clear his head and glanced around. Berlas was tightly wrapped in his own cloak a short distance away. The man had kept to himself for the rest of the day but Loch remained confused. Berlas was a good man to serve beside and a good lieutenant to serve under. More than that, Berlas had gone out of his way to show kindness to Rin right from the beginning. Still, he was reluctant to say anything at all to Berlas about his sister. It just didn’t feel right, to him, as her brother, for reasons he could not entirely comprehend.
Aside from Berlas, he saw another shape in the darkness. The moon was out and everything was glittering, beautiful and icy. Another reminder of his sister. But if only one Rohirrim was here, that mean the other two were afield. Loch lay back, listening for the telltale rumble of horses. He stared up at the night sky. Clouds wheeled by, far away and remote. He could not say how long he lay there listening. Next thing he knew, Berlas was kicking the soles of his boots in the Company honoured tradition of waking a lazy man. Or woman. Loch scrambled to his feet, blinking in the sunlight.
”That’s more like it,” Berlas said and shoved a warm tin mug filled with something hot into his hands.
”Quickly. Liven up. We have an appointment to make.”
“Huh?” Loch managed and slurped at the bitter, strong tea that someone had brewed. It made his eyes water, which was unfortunate because it was particularly cold that morning.
”There was contact in the night. Could be of interest, perhaps not.”
“With who?” Loch asked and slurped another mouthful of tea. It might be bitter, but it was hot and soon the ice on his beard and face had steamed away. He checked the bottom of the cup, worried that it might be eating through the tin. The stuff was strong enough, he thought, to manage it.
”Rohirrim,” Berlas said, turning away for his horse.
”I’m not looking for Rohirrim,” Loch muttered and ventured a third mouthful before he tossed the tea down his throat with a shudder.
He pulled his aching muscles into his saddle and they were off again. Blessedly, there was no fog that morning. Unfortunately, the sun was keen and the air was sharp. Loch resorted to pulling his cowl forward and winding his scarves over the top of it to shield his face from the elements. After about an hour, joints thoroughly jolted, the one Rohirrim with them shouted and pointed. Berlas let his horse veer towards the coast. At least, Loch thought it was towards the coast and he should know, given he was a scout. He hunkered down in his saddle and gritted his teeth. Soon a second Rohirrim joined them, teeth white and flashing in an unbridled grin, golden hair flying as he shot by to join his fellow countryman. Loch was reminded of Frea and Folca all of a sudden.
A few hours later, Loch saw a party take shape in the distance. One of their number shot forward and a while later called out to them. The two Rohirrm riding with them answered in kind. This, Loch concluded, must be the mystery third member of the mad horsemen. Certainly Berlas did not slow. If anything, Berlas rode harder still and Loch was forced to match his pace. He had counted himself a reasonably fair rider. Horses were not something he had a great deal of experience with. Unlike the Rohirrim, unlike even the Rangers of Arnor and Ithilien, he had not grown up in a saddle. He had not owned a saddle, or a horse, until the Company. He had not ridden hard like this, for days straight, ever before. He was a scout and he usually moved covertly. Mad dashes and wild gallops were not in his usual range. Thus, by the time Berlas and Loch reached the party, Loch’s muscles felt as though he had been dragged behind his horse instead of atop it and he thanked whatever powers had interceded to keep this party in one place to wait for them.
While Loch slumped in his saddle and wrestled with his scarves, Berlas slid off his horse and strode into the men on their horses. Loch heard a shout of greeting that made him sit up straight. He stared hard and saw that for the most part the group were yet more mad horsemen. But, there in its midst stood Hanasian and he was grinning like a loon. Nearby, uncomfortably watching, was a woman Loch didn’t recognise. She didn’t notice him, so intent was she on Hanasian and Berlas.
Loch forced himself out of his saddle and was relieved that he only stumbled slightly. Berlas managed to step aside in time to avoid being caught between his former captain and the Company scout. Hanasian was not a man easily knocked from his feet but he winced as Loch collided with him and folded his arms around the Ranger.
”Easy there, Loch. I don’t need cracked ribs to add to my collection,” Hanasian wheezed, pounding Loch on the back.
Loch released him and stared hard at him and Hanasian added, ”And if you kiss me, well I won’t be accountable for what happens next.”
Loch swallowed and nodded, as if collecting his thoughts. Hanasian sobered as he took in his brother-in-law’s expression.
”What? What is it? Rin?”
Berlas watched the Company scout wrestle with himself and loose as Hanasian gripped his shoulders and shook him for an answer to his question.
”It’s bad,” Loch warned, voice shaking, ”It’s real bad.”
Hanasian’s face drained of colour, ”Walk with me, Scout.”
Loch swallowed hard, closed his eyes and nodded. Hanasian’s hands dropped away from his shoulder and he turned to shoulder his way out from the men and horses. Loch drew a deep breath and trudged along in Hanasian’s wake. They only went a short distance and as Berlas watched, one of the Rohirrim drew up at his shoulder.
”I take it you’re one of his Company, one of the Black.”
“Aye…though we’re the Free Company now. Have been since Rhun, since he retired,” Berlas replied, distracted and then turned to look up at the man who had spoken to him.
”I’m Berlas, formerly of Ithilien, second in command under our current captain, Videgavia of Dale. You, I take it, are the captain of these men?”
“I am,” the man confirmed, lifted his gaze over to where Loch and Hanasian stood and leaned on his saddlehorn.
Aware he would get nothing further from the notoriously close mouthed rohirrim, Berlas resumed his study but not before he noticed the one woman in their number was nervously watching from her horse as well. She had a twitchy manner about her and she was injured. It looked recent. She was missing an entire foot. Well, Berlas concluded, that explained the tension around her eyes and mouth. The pain alone was savage enough, but at least they had tied off her leg. Like as not, Rin would have a fair bit to say about the woman’s state if she were here. Just then, Berlas heard a distinctive groan. It did not come from the woman.
He looked over to where Loch and Hanasian were and saw that Hanasian had fallen to his knees. He slumped forward again to his hands. Loch slowly crouched beside him, hand on the other man’s back. If that was not enough, the twitchy woman decided that was a good time to make a break for it. She succeeded only on creating a mild ruckus as the men around her were forced to press their horses closer. No one escaped a Rohirrim on a horse, as any idiot knew. Once she was firmly clamped into place, she threw a desparate look in the direction of the captain.
”I don’t suppose you know what this is all about,” the man unhappily asked.
”I’m guessing this has something to do with his wife,” Berlas replied.
”Which that woman is not?”
The urge to laugh was quashed and instead Berlas shook his head hard, ”No captain. That woman is definitely not Hanasian’s wife.”
“Who is she then?”
“I have no idea.”
“Alright,” the captain growled, increasingly frustrated, ”Who is Hanasian’s wife and why has any of this got anything to do with me and my men?”
Berlas took a deep breath, ”The Lady of Cardolan. Do you know of her?”
The captain shook his head and so Berlas continued, ”She was queen of Cardolan until she ceded her throne to the High King, her cousin. She is a crown princess of the High Court, allied to King Elessar and to your own king here and, I believe, titular ruler of the land we currently stand upon.”
The captain looked sceptical, eyes still on Hanasian and Loch, “Since when has this land been Cardolan?”
“Oh…I’d say somewhere around the early Third Age, at a guess. But not to worry, I believe there are certain trade arrangements in place so that your herds can continue to roam here. At least, that’s how I understood the last arrangement between the Lady of Cardolan and Eomer King. And all so she wouldn’t have to go to dinner at Meduseld. I’d say Rohan did fairly well out of that last round of negotiations, wouldn’t you?”
“And for all that you do know, you have no idea who that woman is?”
“Never seen her before today.”
The captain grunted unhappily at that. Berlas looked back to where he had last seen Loch and Hanasian. His former captain was on his feet again. More than that, he was walking back. His expression inspired genuine concern. Berlas had seen Hanasian angry before. Berlas had seen Hanasian frustrated, disappointed, worried, happy, drunk, depressed and gleeful. But this…this was rage he was watching and at Hanasian’s shoulder, Loch appeared to be in little better state.
”Captain, were I you-“ Berlas started but the captain was already on it.
More men gathered around the injured woman and meanwhile the captain kneed his horse towards Hanasian and Loch.
”I’ll have to ask you to hold right there, Captain.”
Hanasian rocked on his feet but halted, eyes locked on the now pale woman.
”Once again, I draw your attention to the fact that I am unarmed. I desire only a few brief words with Karlina. No possible harm could follow, unless you’ve managed to arm her once more.”
Berlas knew that tone of voice only this time the darkness ran far deeper than he had ever heard before. He shivered.
”Lochared and I will vouch for him,” he said and Loch looked taken aback but nodded.
”Aye,” he managed.
”On your lives then,” the captain announced, turning his horse about to face Berlas, ”On your lives and your honour.”
Hanasian was permitted to approach further. Berlas noted that the man had his hands clasped firmly behind his back. His grip was white knuckled. Loch looked anxious and sad, like a whipped dog. All three of them converged on the woman’s horse. Berlas held the bridle and Loch pressed close to make it difficult for Hanasian to swing at her if his control shattered.
”Do you know what you have done, Karlina? This fool’s errand of yours?” Hanasian inquired, voice strained.
The woman, Karlina, shook her head fearfully, ”Nothing! I told you what-“
“Nothing?” Hanasian hissed and Loch murmured a warning, ”My newborn daughter is dead because of the attack you were involved in. Dead. And my wife-“ Hanasian staggered back a step and Loch interceded for Berlas was too shocked to act or speak.
”She is alive, Hanasian. I swear it. She and little Elian both,” Loch urgently said, almost fervently, like...like. Berlas caught the note of something akin to a prayer and realised that Loch feared he may not be speaking the truth. He watched the man swallow hard and frown.
”Rosmarin,” Hanasian moaned, head bowed.
”I-I’m sorry,” Karlina said, voice shaking and Hanasian’s eyes snapped open again.
He did not turn about to face her again. Over his shoulder he bared his teeth and snarled, ”Oh, you will be.”
Hanasian stalked away, head lowered. No one met his eyes or was caught in his path. He leapt up into his saddle, coiled there like a predator longing to strike, to lash out at something. His horse shifted nervously underneath him.
”Where are we riding to,” Berlas asked, still holding Karlina’s horse.
”I’m not sure,” Loch answered heavily and washed a hand over his face.
”Loch, do you think….is Doc still…” Berlas couldn’t muster the words.
”I don’t know, Berlas. I truly don’t know. She was when I left…but she wasn’t good…Sparks was worried.”
Loch clamped his hands under his arm and strode away for his horse. Berlas was left there with Loch’s words echoing. If it was bad enough to worry unflappable Sparks…Berlas looked up at the miserable woman on the horse he held. One of mob responsible for the raid and like as not he would be defending her from his former Captain and the Company Scout should Sparks’ fears be proven true.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
A chill came over Halcwyn and she woke with a start. She sat up and steadied her breathing. Listening, she found that everything was quiet. The rustle of the tree branches, bare of leaves made a whispering sound as the breeze blew through them. Other than that, there was silence. It seemed to her that sleep would evade her this night even as it held close her husband and children. So Halcwyn walked over to her study where she lit a small candle.
She took out a leather-bound bundle of parchments and ran her hand over it. Hanasian had given these to her for safekeeping, and said that there were other places where many other parchments and journals had been lain down by him around the lands. They weren’t all his writings for he was given to collect the writings of others as well. He had collected many over the years and she knew he hoped to gather them all in one place one day. He had spoken of the large study he now had in his home. Perhaps there, though he had not been decided when they had spoken of it at Bree. In Halcwyn’s experience, these memories were as fleeting as the generations, and the next would decide whether it was kept or burned. Halcwyn had shared Halasian’s learning in their early years, but she had not kept writing much since it was not the custom of the Rohirrim. She did attempt once to record in writing the spoken stories of the Horse-lords, and in so doing she had thought it would add to Hanasian’s works. But upon re-reading it, she had discovered that it became her own work. Something had shifted between the telling and the writing and she sensed that it was this that prompted the Rohirrim to preserve their verbal heritage yet. Here in her study she held much that Hanasian had given her in his visits that she had not read. On this night she had awoken to the voice of Hanasian as it changed to what she recalled of her father Halasian’s voice. She opened the leather binding and read….
It wasn’t Hanasian’s clear, flowing script, but a rougher style. It didn’t appear to be that of her father Halasian at first, but there were parts that did. Halcwyn brushed the parchment with her fingers to sense the author but it remained a mystery. She started to read…
Halcwyn had only managed a few paragraphs when the sound of stealthy hoofs was heard to approach in the night. She arose and approached the main door to her home just as Enedoth stepped out from their room.
”I heard footfall of three horses and awoke. When I saw you weren’t there, I feared for you. I will see to them,” he said, his manner stern and not one Halcwyn was inclined to argue with.
Rather than reply, she retrieved her cloak and wrapped it tightly around her before following her husband to the door.
Enedoth called out, ”Who rides in stealth to our door in the night unannounced?”
Halcwyn saw that Enedoth had an arrow notched and ready.
The three stopped short of the gate by the track and one said, ”No need for that Enedoth of Westmarch, for we were summoned with news that Lady Halcwyn may wish to hear.”
Halcwyn walked out past her husband and the man who had spoken dismounted and bowed. Enedoth relaxed his arrow.
Halcwyn said, ”Foldwine of Westmarch. What news do you bear that I would hear?”
She stared at him solemnly. Foldwine bowed again and said, ”M’lady, word has come from the roadhouse to the west.”
Halcwyn stepped nearer again and signalled to Enedoth that all was well and she needed to hear what he had to say. As she approached the riders, the other two dismounted to join Foldwine and bowed in their turn. They started to talk as Enedoth stood by the door of the house. Soon their son had awoken and found his way to the door. He clung to their father as he rubbed his eyes.
Enedoth quietly said, ”It is the seed of your grandfather. The affairs of your uncle. I don’t have to like it, but it’s part of your mother’s spirit whom I love. All will be well son.”
As his son hugged his leg and watched his mother, Enedoth found himself hoping his words would not be proven false by whatever was to come, for something certainly was to come. Of that he was certain.
After some time, Halcwyn returned to the house and the three men rode away. She remained silent on what it was about, but Enedoth insisted.
”I have a right to know!” he demanded and at this Halcwyn took a deep breath.
She said, ”They brought word of my brother. Events no one is yet sure of have brought him south and he now makes haste to return to his home. His wife, if I am not mistaken, must be near to her time. They asked if I wanted to see him before he set out.”
“You’re going, aren’t you,” Enedoth replied, more statement than question and Halcwyn nodded.
He then said, ”I can only ask you not to even though I know that you will. So I ask that you take Halrad with you.”
“I will only be gone for the day, returning by nightfall. There is no need for Halrad to ride with me,” Halcwyn answered, looking grim and thoughtful.
But she saw that Enedoth would not relent and so she reluctantly agreed.
”I will leave after breakfast,” she said, took Enedoth by the hand and led him swiftly back to their room and pushed him back into their bed.
The morning sun did little to warm the still air. Enedoth awoke suddenly from a deep sleep. He knew that Halcwyn had gone. It was doubtful Halrad had gone with her too. He should be upset, but how could he be? He loved her so much, and he knew she would return ere nightfall because she had said she would…
Hanasian wanted to set out forthwith but was still weak from his ordeal. The Captain of the Rohirrim tried to talk him into remaining the night so that they might depart afresh in the morning. Hanasian was little pleased with any delay to his return to his wife and children. In the end, it took Berlas and Loch both to reason with him hard and convince him that rest before a hard ride would be useful unless he actually wanted to topple out of the saddle and snap his neck on the way home. By the time he had relented, it was clear to Loch and Berlas that Hanasian was not thinking clearly. Injury and grief, no doubt, but it worried them all the same. Hanasian was uneasy with the delay for all of his capitulation to its logic but this changed and he came to see it as a good thing as night fell onto their small encampment and three riders came from the southeast at speed. Two of the riders appeared older men, golden hair now much silvered. Their third companion was younger, but all wore grave expressions. The younger man bore an emblem that denoted some form of rank amongst the Horse-Lords. This was evident in the way the Captain of the Rohirrim with them saluted smartly. Loch wanted to go see, for he recognized one of the men but Hanasian prevented him.
”Let them play this out,” he said in a raspy whisper and crouched back down next to where Berlas sat, watching on with apparent disinterest. Loch relaxed and sat back on the ground by their fire. Hanasian watched the younger man as he talked to the captain from the corner of his eye, taking care not to stare openly.
Loch leaned over and started to say, ”Isn’t that-”
Hanasian hushed him with a quick movement of his hand. He tried not to smile as his thoughts drifted to the old woman at the roadhouse. She knew how to get word out without the captain knowing. How these men came to be here and to know what had happened was a mystery to him. As they talked to the captain, he leaned forward towards their little campfire. Berlas and Loch leaned in as well.
Hanasian said, ”This was unlooked for. I had in my head a plan to leave you both here to deal with Karina by whatever means necessary, but it appears we will be spared by Frea, Folca, and Foldwine’s timely arrival.”
They all looked over where the four Rohirrim stood. Discussions had progressed, it seemed, to the point that the three unexepected men were to take custody of Karlina. Hanasian saw Frea glance over to where the woman was at present. She looked caught between consternation and relief after her encounter with Hanasian earlier in the day. Frea lifted a hand to scratch at his head, and fingers flicked quickly and slightly. Nothing more needed to be said. Hanasian was satisfied with this.
He said in a quiet voice, as if talking to himself but knowing Berlas and Loch were listening.
”As much as I would like to see my sister, I must ride north in the morning. Berlas, you will return to your duties with your men. Loch, you will have to remain here and take care of anything that may be left open. You know what I mean, brother.”
Loch glanced up at that title and found himself looking into Hanasian’s eyes across the fire. Hanasian’s expression spoke of much and he was keenly aware of what his brother-in-law was entrusting him with. That he would do so…that he would trust him to look to the justice of their combined families… In Dunland and Rohan both, such a thing was… Loch let his fingers dance over the hilt of his knife and silently he nodded once, unable to say anything fitting, and returned his eyes to the campfire’s flicker. Berlas saw it too and Hanasian looked at him next. A couple flicks of his fingers and then Berlas nodded. The only thing that remained now was to see what Foldwine and his twin cousins had in mind. It wasn’t long before Karlina was in custody of Frea, Folca, and Foldwine. They didn’t want to acknowledge Hanasian, Loch, or Berlas, and set up a camp for the night some distance away. There was now nothing to do but wait this night out.
The quiet of the pre-dawn morn found Hanasian slipping into Foldwine’s camp. The men had appeared to be in a restless slumber but instead he discovered they were, in fact, waiting for him. His cousins took him aside and he gave them no difficulty.
”We would like to talk Cap, but we can’t. We have orders not to let you near our prisoner,” Frea said
Hanasian sighed heavily. He would have to accept this and go and leave Karlina in the hands of the Rohirrim. Yet there was something in the way Frea had spoken that tickled at his thoughts. A glance over at Foldwine was met by grim eyes. The man had a plan, clearly, and he didn’t want Hanasian knowing about it.
Folca set his hand on Hanasian’s shoulder and said, ”You look… tired Cap. Retirement doesn’t appear to suit you.”
“You’re damn right it doesn’t, if this can be called retirement! This was supposed to be a time of peace for us. Yet everywhere we go, or even at our home with some of the finest around us, we cannot rest. Now, I’m going home. I must, and I will kill anybody that tries to hold me back from my wife and children at this time. I would kill that Karlina if I had the chance, or so I thought. I did have the chance, and I allowed her to live even if it’s without a foot,” Hanasian rambled, clearly distressed.
Folca tried to soothe him, but Karlina was sound asleep and didn’t stir all the while.
Folca said, ”My brother and I are not quite sure what has happened, but Foldwine has ways of getting word. Not sure why, but he seems to have become some sort of bounty hunter. Says there is a price in that girl’s head in Pelargir. Now between you, my brother, and me I don’t think that is the whole story, but we came along when he said it was in some ways Company business. Besides, that Captain of these western riders won’t see her killed on his watch.”
Hanasian was silent for a moment, then said, ”I see. Well then, there is nothing more I can do. I will go home at first light. I will try and sleep a few hours.”
Frea then asked, ”How is the Kid? He looks much older than I last remember seeing him, which was way east.”
Hanasian said, ”He is still Loch. He worries for his sister and wants to see justice done. They’ve both seen too much evil in too short of years. Hes badly smitten with a young enchantress from the east and misses her as well. And he’s saddle sore.”
“You think he may want to ride with us for a while?”
Hanasian considered this, ”Unlike you and I, he’s still Company. He has some sort of orders from Videgavia about finding me. He also wants to get back to Rin and Rose, so he may not wish to. But I’ll tell him of your offer all the same. He may join you for a while, perhaps”
The brothers nodded and let Hanasian go. Though Hanasian had not succeeded in his aims that morning, for some reason he felt marginally better.
The foggy morning did little to change the general mood of the camp. Hanasian was ready to ride home and Loch was too, but he thought about going to visit Frea and Folca. They were up to something. They usually were. He gnawed at a bit of saddle fare as he debated his course. No, he had orders. He had found Hanasian alive, and should stay with him to ensure he returned safely to where he was sorely needed with Rin and his children. As he thought further on that, he wanted to return as well. For Rose…and to assure himself that Rin was…no, she had to be. Farbarad had her in his care. She was going to be fine. Then there was Videgavia’s other order, the one the Daleman had whispered to him the darkness after he had ostensensibly set out to find Hanasian…
But it was Hanasian that said to him, ”I know what you’re thinking. To return while one of them lives still is hard. I wanted to go to Tharbad and find others responsible as well. But it appears Karlina is out of our hands now. Come, let us say our farewells once again to our old comrades.”
Loch nodded, thoughts still ticking over in his head, and they rode over to where the others had all gathered in the morning. Berlas and his swift riders joined them to say farewell. They were going to Tharbad, knowing they had work to do there. Karlina was mounted on a horse but bound now. She seemed worried until Hanasian approached and then found some comfort in the fact that their ways would be parting. There had been such rage in his face yesterday, savage and raw. Foldwine said they were going to take her to Edoras to answer some charges. They looked about as if searching the mist for someone, but there was no one there. After parting words and handshakes and gestures, Hanasian and Loch turned to go with Berlas and his men. The quickest way back was through Tharbad.
The Captain mounted up and he and his men headed back west. Frea, Folca, Foldwine, and Karlina moved east into the greyness, and soon all had lost sight of each other.
As the morning gave way to the noon hour, the fog started to burn off and the sun felt warm. The four slowed and took a rest when Foldwine went to Karlina and said, ”You must need some water."
He unbound her to let her drink and she did so. Once the tin cup was drained, she methodically hit Foldwine with it. He fell backwards in surprise, and Karlina pulled the horse she was riding near. Frea and Folca moved to stop her, but even without a foot she managed to get mounted and rode off at increasing speed. Foldwine slowly got to his feet and dusted his hands off as Frea and Folca joined him to watch their captive’s escape.
Frea asked, ”How far do you think she’ll get?”
“Not far enough,” Foldwine calmly replied.
They walked their horses to the top of a knoll where they could see Karlina ride. They could see also another rider coming from the west that would intercept Karlina. When Karlina saw the sandy haired woman, she slowed and watched her, for she may have been sent by her employers to find them. Halcwyn approached slowly, her eyes wide with a hand up in greeting.
Karlina said, ”Hail rider!”
”Greetings, and welcome! If you be Karlina, I have a message for you and one for you to give to the others.”
Karlina looked puzzled. She said hesitantly, ”Yes. Who may I ask are the others which you speak?”
Halcwyn rode up beside her and looked Karlina in the eyes, ”First things first, the message for you.”
Halcwyn held out a small parchment, which Karlina took. She unfurled it and began to read. Halcwyn unhurriedly lifted her other hand, a casual gesture so as not to disturb the other woman. Her knife gleamed in the afternoon sunlight as she swept it across Karlina’s neck. She fell backward in her saddle and the parchment fluttered in the air, adrift now. Karlina hit the ground as she struggled to hold her neck, a gurgling sound was all that was heard.
”If you consider it in the time you have left, there really is only one message from my brother and his family to you and those you work for.”
Halcwyn threw the knife into Karlina’s heart and this sped the life that was painfully gushing out of her neck. Halcwyn watched until the last gasp was heard and the last twitch of a limb had. Once she was certain Karlina was dead, Halcwyn dismounted, retrieved the parchment and approached the woman’s body. She removed her knife from Karlina’s chest and wiped it clean using Karlina’s cloak. She stuffed the parchment into Karlina’s one boot top. Once this was done, Halcwyn swiftly mounted up, turned, and rode away at a fast trot, emptying water from a skin at her saddle onto her hands to sluice away the woman’s blood.
Atop the knoll, Foldwine gave a whistle and the horse that Karlina was riding started to walk their way. When it arrived, he gave it a piece of carrot
”I didn’t think she would do it,” he said after a moment, thoughtfully, ”I should have never told her about it all. But thought she may have wanted to see her brother. I think its best we ride and catch up with the Cap, Berlas and the Kid before the sun sinks and the mists return.”
The brothers nodded and set off at a fair pace. Enedwaith was a wide land on the fringes of kingdoms, and few crossed it. As they approached Hanasian, Berlas, Loch, and the two young riders, they were able to have a proper greeting and talk as the sun set. The last of the sun saw Halcwyn arrive home, greeted lovingly by her children and sternly by her husband. She had some explaining to do.
There was much to share on the ride to Tharbad though they spared little time to rest or talk at leisure. They reached the town with its new bridge under a cold, gelid rain late in the afternoon. Berlas led them to the small post he had established there where a dry roof and four walls were as much a luxury as a chance to sleep or eat out of a saddle was. Hanasian, not yet fully recovered, found the travelling particularly hard. He was exhausted by the time they stood, dripping and mud splattered, in a small common area warmed by some sort of makeshift oven one of the Easterlings with Berlas’ detachment had rigged up.
Berlas peeled off to make arrangements for quarters during the night but this was not all that waited for them. Tidings had reached Tharbad from Videgavia himself and it changed everything. Berlas read each carefully, rubbed his hands over his face and trudged out to the common room. Hanasian had found somewhere to sit and looked as if he was dead on his feet. Frea, Folca and Foldwine were deep in conversation. Their expressions were beyond grim. The men were outraged, angry at what they had learned. Loch remained standing, so tired that he had forgotten to sit. It took some effort for Berlas to snag his attention but once he had the scout shambled over to him wearily. Another signal had him trailing along, too tired to ask questions, as Berlas went back to the room that doubled as his office and bedroom.
He pushed a pile of papers, maps and reports mostly, off the chair that he never used and pointed Loch at it.
”Sit, before you fall over. I need what wits you have left about you, Kid.”
Loch slumped into the chair, sighed and shook his rain darkened sandy hair. He studied Berlas from beneath his brows, dull disinterest flickering in his eyes but not outright insurrection.
”What were Vid’s other orders?” Berlas asked him.
Loch shifted in his seat, crossed his ankles. He was getting better at keeping his immediate thoughts from his face, Berlas thought. Just his luck. This was not time for games.
”Don’t bother telling me there aren’t any, Kid. I know Vid. I know you. I know the Company.”
Loch’s lips thinned as he pressed them together. He lifted one shoulder and dropped his eyes to the mud that splattered his breeches. He began to idly pick clots off to drop to the rough floorboards. Berlas ground his teeth and struggled for patience.
”Has it occurred to you yet that we’re all on the same side here? No, that’s unfair of me. I apologise. You’re saying nothing because you have been ordered to say nothing.”
Loch paused in his re-distribution of mud and shifted again, lifting his eyes back to Berlas to wait him out.
”Fine,” Berlas sighed though it clearly wasn’t. ”Something’s changed since you left, Loch and no-“ Berlas added as Loch flung himself upright and quivered in his office,”Your sister has not perished. Sit down, Kid!”
Loch stared at him a moment and then seemed to deflate back into his chair.
”The decision has been taken to go on the offensive against these rebels, Loch. Covert offensive. Do you know what a bait and switch is?”
Loch blinked at him as if baffled by the question, ”Seriously? You’re asking me that? How do you think we managed to survive without knowing that?”
“Ah…I hadn’t thought of-“
“Bait and switch! Do I know what it is? You won’t find no one better than me and Rin at it. No one! Not this side of the Misty’s and probably not the other side neither for that matter-“
Loch’s grumbling was brought to a halt when Berlas raised his hand in the signal for utter silence.
Once he had it, Berlas pressed on in a strained voice, ”A stupid question. I freely acknowledge that. You’re not the only one who is tired and sore and worried near out of his wits, Kid. Back to the matter at hand. Will your other orders compromise a bait and switch offensive?”
“Depends on the bait. And the switch.”
“They’ve set a rebel that they had in hand free, a man called Andred.”
“THEY SET HIM FREE? How is he even still alive?”
“They set him loose,” Berlas continued, ignoring Loch’s question, ”Because he was most effective hook to place the bait upon.”
“Which was what?”
“Their plan was to hold Hanasian’s life hostage until Rin bowed to their demands to take up her throne and declare Cardolan an independent realm.”
“Hostage? That’s not how it would have played out. That’s never how those things play out! There’s no profit in keeping hostages to hand back!”
Berlas held up his hand for silence again and eyed the scout. He knew that the man and his sister had likely gotten into all sorts of things in their years. Rin knew things she shouldn’t, certainly. Things she could not easily explain.
”Is that so?” he replied thoughtfully and Loch began to look a little unsure of himself.
”Before you go asking me just how I know, things what got done before the Company are forgotten. It was only six months with that Treagon, but it were a dark six months. Sometimes, none of your choices are good ones.”
“Fair enough, Loch. I had not known you’d spent some time with that assassin. Were you apprenticed? I had heard he took none.”
“None that survived. It wasn’t me in any case. I wasn’t pretty enough for him. And if he ever crosses Rin’s path again, she probably won’t survive either. If he hears we’re putting it about that he had an apprentice, he’ll probably come looking for her and he’s a man that tends to find what he looks for.”
“Peace, Loch! I take your meaning well enough. We'll not discuss it further.”
Loch sat back in the chair and rubbed at his face. His thoughts were sluggish, dull things.
”So the bait is that they think she has accepted and when they come to see for themselves, we’ll switch on them. Then what? Arrest them?” Loch asked.
“Vid’s a little unclear on that. Certainly the law as I understand it is such that they would have to be arrested if at all possible.”
“Pity,” Loch muttered and then, hopefully, ”Maybe they’ll put up a fight, eh?”
“Probably,” Berlas agreed, ”But back again to the matter at hand.”
“For this to work, the rebels can’t find out that they’ve lost Hanasian. How long ago did they let Andred loose?”
“Ah…five or so days I think,” Berlas said and Loch nodded slowly.
”Then they’d already be closing in, circling the hook. This just all makes it more important that I do what Vid may or may not have asked me to do.”
Berlas nodded, ”What do you need, Kid?”
“Sleep. Food. Time. Hanasian won’t stay here long, though. Nor can he travel back on his own, all things considered.”
“Leave that with me,” Berlas answered, the dim shape of an idea hovering just out of reach.
”Considering the bait, what are the precautions?”
Berlas blinked at the question and then his brain kicked in. Of course Loch would be asking that. They were running a covert campaign that placed his sister directly in the maw of a foe that had proven to be formidable at a time that she was vulnerable and weak. She’d played this role before, Harad most notably, but that had been different.
”He's recalling us all, staged, with an outer net to catch any that might slip through our fingers once the bait is switched. We’ll infiltrate the target as well, so we can take them from both sides when the time comes. Vid has limited the information he has sent out for obvious reasons but I think it highly unlikely that the precautions are restricted solely to those.”
“They’d better not be,” Loch answered and shifted his weight to the edge of the chair. Berlas waved a dismissal at him and watched the scout shuffle out.
The lieutenant remained to sort through the matters that had accumulated in his absence until he received word that the evening meal was ready. He realised then that he had yet to shed his cloak or any of his other damp clothing. He hurriedly changed and emerged looking rumpled to find that his men had not made the same mistake with their other guests. Fresh clothing, mismatched but dry, had been found for Frea, Folca and Foldwine. The Rohirrim looked a little odd, truth be told, wearing Easterling garb and they knew it. But they were warm and awake. Hanasian, he had learned, had been tucked away somewhere to sleep and Berlas sent someone to wake him. The man had to eat almost as badly as he needed to sleep.
While this happened though, Berlas drew up to the three Rohirrim.
”Interesting development the Company has taken of late,” Frea said, eyes drifting over the men in the common room. They were mostly of Rhun.
”You were at Shkar. Are you telling me you’re surprised? The Company has always taken on those who could prove their worth. That is not new and these men do a fine job. Not nearly as fractious, either, as you lot are,” Berlas answered.
”But we’re the better riders,” Foldwine said with a faint grin and a proud glint in his eyes.
”That you are. Listen, a quick word before Cap gets here. What are your plans now that you know what’s happened?”
“We’re done with the Company, Berlas. We retired,” Folca pointed out.
“No,” Frea said quickly, ”You don’t. We’re done with the Company but this is a whole other matter. Hanasian is family. I’d thought that Esgaroth thing would be an end to it but its only gotten worse. This has to be dealt with, once and for all.”
There was nothing warm about Frea’s voice or expression. His brother, usually of easy good cheer, was similarly disposed.
”And you, Foldwine?” Berlas asked and the man shrugged his shoulders in a tunic that was slightly too small for him.
He fidgeted with a shoulder seam and said, ”I can’t claim family like these two, but the way I see it Cap has always done right by me. Doc too. I’d not be here now were it not for her. I owe them both. Now, I donated my best pipe to her a while back-“
“Donated?” Frea scoffed and Foldwine half smiled.
”Call it what you like, my best pipe ain’t nearly enough to call it even. Besides, sounds like there might be a bit of business for a man in my line of work up north right now.”
“There may well be….depending on which way this goes,” Berlas answered, ”I'm pleased to hear this. I'm hoping you can get Hanasian back home safely and, just as importantly, unseen.”
“Unseen? I smell a Black Company job,” Folca observed but at that point a groggy Hanasian arrived.
”Until later,” Berlas said, flashed a signal that all three men immediately understood and turned towards his former captain, ”Cap…here’s a place already and some decent, hot food for a change!”
Most of the men stationed with Berlas had joined on account of this man’s reputation so there was no difficulty finding Hanasian a place at the board or a generous helping of what appeared to be a stew of some sort.
Hanasian was hard pressed to assemble events after arriving in Tharbad. All he knew is that they had, he had slept and now they were late. It was well past dawn, the rain had only intensified and they had not yet set out. He scowled out at the deluge and drew another knife. It was sharp. All of the various weapons that had been donated to him were immaculately kept. In truth, he now had more weapons than he knew what to do with once it emerged that he was without his usual equipment. Still, he spat on the whetstone and began to work the knife over it. Loch had vanished. His usual stunt. No one knew where he was or when he had gone. Berlas had said he would send men after him but Hanasian was far from convinced. This only meant that Berlas knew something. He might have retired from the Company but to be kept on the outside was a bitter pill for its former commander and founder to swallow.
He would have set out on his own, but that had been effectively scotched. He suspected Berlas was behind that as well. There were no horses to be had and their own were in too poor a condition to continue on with. They needed fresh mounts. If the delay continued much longer, he’d go on foot if he had to. Just thinking of his wife was painful. Loch had found it difficult to convey what she had faced on her own. She must have been terrified. It had to have been excruciating. And then, after all of that, she had to bury their daughter. He’d never see her. Hanasian felt the resistance of the whetstone change as he nicked the tip of a finger. A bright scarlet bead rose and he lifted his finger to his mouth to suck. He had to go on. He had to get back to his son, his daughter, his wife.
”Right, now we’re ready,” Folca said, voice raised to be heard over the thrumming rain on the roof as he walked into the common room.
Hanasian turned slightly and saw three Rohirrim standing there. Frea had a heavy cloak, stiff with wax to keep the rain off and a cowl far too deep to be practical for anything else but concealment draped over his left arm. Loch was still nowhere to be seen.
”Are we indeed,” Hanasian replied around his finger.
Frea threw the treated cloak at him and his brother said, ”Aye. Managed to obtain passable horses even if they are not of Rohan stock.”
“And you’re coming? I thought you’d retired.”
“We’re making an exception,” Foldwine said and then, ”Besides, this is…well…personal…and business too, for me at least.”
Berlas strode out and caught the look on Hanasian’s face. His Captain knew something was afoot and he was a very unhappy man.
”Loch will catch you up, I am sure. I’ll send him after you as soon as I track him down. Horses are saddled in the mews and you’ve ample provision to see you back. I’m sure you want to get going.”
“Well then, done and done. I will see you in due course, Cap, but not before,” Berlas said, the last for the benefit of the three men that stood with him.
Hanasian’s eyes narrowed but he swung the cloak on, drew up the cowl muttering about occluded peripheral vision, and left them for the rain outside.
”Remember, keep him out of sight. I expect there will be a number of rebels gathered even now waiting for the big event. The final distance will be the hardest to pass unseen.”
All three men nodded at Berlas’ final advice, sketched informal Company salutes and followed Hanasian out into the rain for the nearby mews. Hanasian was waiting for them, dripping and suspicious within. In the time he had there on his own, it was clear that the men stationed in Tharbad were starting to deploy. Years of experience told him this. He gnawed at it while he waited. When at last his travelling companions arrived, dripping and shivering, he pounced.
No one remained Captain of the Black Company for long if he lacked a ruthless effectiveness in extracting information from unwilling sources. Confronted with this, the three Rohirrim decided capitulation was preferable to decapitation because Hanasian was not in a cheery frame of mind. He walked a sharp edge, they could see, between utter blackness and all that followed and the man that he strove to be. By the time, therefore, they departed from Tharbad, Hanasian had a clear picture of what they were riding towards. They crossed the newly restored bridge just after midday and pushed north.
After such a delay, Hanasian was not prepared to let the weather or anything else get in his way. He set as fast a pace as possible through the heavy rain and kept it up until nightfall. Little was said but Hanasian’s mind was not quiet. The rain continued for the next day as well. Towards dusk, it shifted into sleet as the temperature dropped. Trees were scant and discussion was scarcer. During the night the sleet transformed into snow and they woke to a clear day and a white, glittering world.
They stood and shook off the snow. The three Rohirrim pushed their cowls back but Hanasian did not. The snowbound dawn was a quiet creature and this silence closed in around them hungrily. They swiftly packed their meagre camp up and readied the horses. They had gained their saddles when a cowled rider was seen to approach them from the south. He pushed back his cowl to reveal his face. Loch looked utterly bedraggled and worn through, but he was also victorious. That much was clear in his flickering smile.
”All sorted away?” Hanasian asked him speculatively and Loch nodded, confirming Hanasian’s suspicions about the scout’s secondary orders. So far, it seemed like everyone was getting a chance at some justice except for him.
”Neat as a pin. Looks like I reached you just in time. You need a scout and I need food. Do you have any?”
“Typical,” Frea muttered and passed him some dried meat from a pouch at his belt.
”What you’re saying is that I’m consistent which, I note, is a good thing. So I’ll take that as a compliment,” Loch breezily replied, words slurring a little with his fatigue and then borrowed one of his sister's favourite phrases, ”Giddy up!”
“You’re in no fit state,” Hanasian observed.
Loch patted his midriff and twitched aside his stained cloak to reveal he had tied himself to his saddle.
”I’m prepared. Well trained and all that,” he answered around a mouthful of dried meat and that was that. They set off with a scout that was so tired he was punch drunk.
Loch’s return did something to the group of men he travelled with. The tension between them slowly melted. If he wasn’t snoring in the saddle he had tied himself to, he was entertaining them in other ways including how creative saddle sores could be in finding locations to torment him. Or biting hard whenever someone teased him about ‘his Rose’. He was even more protective of her than he had ever been of his sister. He was the sort of man that made you laugh, at him or with him was of no concern to Loch. He was also an excellent scout, a loyal companion and, despite external appearances, of reasonably sharp wit that was softened by a determinedly optimistic outlook on the world that only grew stauncher at each mishap, sorrow or misfortune thrown at him. Loch's innate optimism did not make him immune to concerns about this bait and switch plan.
It took them seven days all told. The need for secrecy caused delays. It became to clear to Hanasian that Videgavia was drawing Company men into position carefully and covertly. An intricate web was being woven but the stakes were higher than anything Hanasian could conceive of and Loch agreed with him. It sat heavily over his thoughts as they drew near. He was worried. What if it went wrong? There were so many ways that it might and he had already lost a daughter. Even if it succeeded, the price could be too high. What would he find at home? How would he be received? Round and round, like carrion birds, these doubts and questions swooped and picked at him.
Once they had gained the forest, the Company began to more openly show their presence. In the main, they revealed themselves just enough to show their faces. Relief, genuine pleasure and open curiosity for the three retired Company men that travelled with them. Then they would fade away again.
”They’ll send word ahead,” Foldwine said and Loch shook his head.
”No need. They’ll already know. After the attack, Rose and her sister did something. Now no one comes and goes here without them knowing.”
Loch sounded proud and Hanasian felt profoundly grateful but Frea shivered uncomfortably.
They pressed on the final way and made the grounds proper shortly after midday. The forest opened out onto a snowy expanse that appeared to run into the now wintry blue sky. Foldwine whistled at the house that crouched along the cliff. It was large, sprawling, and solid. Smoke drifted promisingly from its chimneys. Smoke meant warm, lit hearths and food. Hanasian had feared that they’d been letting rebels camp on the inner grounds and was relieved to find this was not the case.
Some sort of pulley had been rigged up near the stairs notched into the cliff face and people were clustered around it as something very heavy was carefully lowered down. Some did not wear their usual Company uniform. Some wore what appeared to be livery in Cardolan’s colours over their uniform. It all made for a puzzling picture and a quick glance in Loch’s direction indicated this came as a surprise to him too. He lifted his shoulders in a shrug and scratched at his beard, contemplated it.
What dominated the area aside from the house itself was the large spreading majesty of an elm tree. Its branches were naked now and its knees blanketed in snow. Under its boughs a game was at play. Hanasian could not help but notice that his son had grown in the time he had been away. He was taller and sturdier too. He skipped and ran, cheeks bright red and scarf flapping behind him, after a ball that appeared to have been fashioned from rags stuffed into a deer’s stomach. Hanavia’s laughter rose as he chased the lumpy ball across the snow, hands outstretched in bright yellow mittens. He was not alone. In fact, he had three rather unlikely play mates.
One was a fierce Haradian from the steamy southern jungles of his unconquerable nation. The second was a prepossessed, cool tempered Easterling military commander who was showing silver at last at his temples. This was a new thing. The last was a self confessed barbarian from Dunland who was presently capering after the boy that ran ahead of him. Wulgof made a dive not for Hanavia but rather his trailing scarf. He landed face first in the snow, the scarf slid off Hanavia’s neck properly and the boy whipped around to laugh fulsomely at the sight of a Dunlander wearing a mask of snow that stuck in his beard and hair. Molguv, meanwhile, made a dive for the ball. Hanavia was laughing so hard that he doubled over, which presented a prime target for the Haradian with the ball. It bounced gently off Hanavia’s back as the boy straightened and then froze as his father slid out of his saddle.
”ABBA!” he cried, heart and soul sent soaring with that beloved title and this made his three playmates look about.
Hanavia was off like a shot, running so hard that his feet could not keep up with him. He tumbled and rolled and ran as fast as he could towards his father. Hanasian strode forward, longer legs eating the distance, and scooped his son into his arms. The Dirty Three jogged forwards, past father and son, to the others.
”You was only supposed to retrieve one,” Wulgof said, picking bits of snow out of his beard still.
”This is was once an elite military unit,” Frea replied with a meaningful glance at his cousin’s son and the now abandoned ball.
”It still is. We’re keeping the boy occupied,” Khule replied.
Molguv rumbled, ”You lot throwing in with us on this job as well?”
“Aye, temporarily mind you. We’ve retired,” Foldwine said.
”Good. Trust you lot more than I do that Voromir,” Wulgof drawled.
”Voromir!” Loch sharply echoed and Khule nodded curtly.
”Lord Stag himself did descend from upon high to grace us with his presence. He’s taken Rowdy’s men under command, which is helpful given he owns them, but he’s...well…”
“A nobleman,” Wulgof grumbled and Molguv spat to one side.
Khule jerked a thumb over his shoulder at where Hanasian and son stood, ”He has to get out of sight. We have the woods effectively shut down but still, not wise to take chances.”
“Agreed, but he won’t be going anywhere unless its to his wife,” Folca said.
”In that case, this should be interesting,” Khule replied and Wulgof began to grin widely.
”Why’s that?” Loch asked as they set off.
”Right now your sister is, to quote her, knocking heads together. Was hoping we might be able to catch a bit of the proceedings,” Khule replied, "Tactical meetings are never as interesting without Doc arguing the point."
They made for the house. With the exception of Hanasian and his son, who refused to get down from his father’s hip, the men decided that the kitchen was just perfect. For Loch, Rose was there. For the others, a bashful scout and warm food was there. Additionally, Slippery was in a dress and they could clearly hear the discussions further within. Hanasian continued on, slowing so that he could grasp as much as he could of the rapidly developing situation as possible.
”-down, Rin, or you’re going back to bed right this minute!” Farbarad’s growl was exasperated and worried.
”Ha! Not until this is sorted out I won’t even if you get Massuil over there to help! The numbers are growing, trickle to stream. Best count, we have what? Fifty rebels camped to the north? What if that stream becomes a river?”
“Fifty thereabouts,” Videgavia confirmed and then, ”And it’s manageable. The net is almost in place and growing stronger with each passing day. The ship is nearly ready too. If things turn sour, you and your wee ones will be safe in Fornost and your cousin’s care before you know it. The mast is being put in today and the sails are ready to rig once it’s in. You’re working on the last pretty little dress for our plants in their camp. Anything they say or do, we know, and they’re all so eager to meet their new liege…lady or whatever the correct title is. Everything is holding up nicely.”
“For now,” Rin replied and then swore in Dunlendic, ”I have more holes in my thumb than hair on my head and I can’t afford to lose any more blood.”
“Which is why I want you to SIT DOWN! You’d find it easier to sew if you did,” Farbarad snapped.
”Done a lot of sewing in your time, have you?” Rin retorted, voice acidic as it was sweet.
”If you please, my lady!” Voromir said.
“I am not yours,” Rin grumbled, feathers apparently rumpled, and Videgavia was heard to mutter something that was hard to make out.
”Rin…” Farbarad warned, for apparently Rin had heard whatever the Daleman had said.
”No need to look so worried, Voromir. What harm could I do with a mere needle, hmmm?” Rin remarked and then, ”Oh very well. See? Sitting? Happy now are we? How delightful!”
Hanasian could hear the elder Ranger Massuil clear his throat and recognised the sound for what it was: carefully concealed amusement.
”Might I inquire as to what you meant by your earlier comment: for now. The matter clearly vexes you,” Voromir inquired, the strain of his voice evident and diminishing his effort to maintain courtly decorum.
”We have no idea how many of the curs there are skulking out there. None. The best we can do is guess. How many is too many? What do we do if the numbers tip in the wrong direction? How strong is that net, Vid, because we’ll be in all sorts of trouble if that net can’t hold those that slip away from us,” Rin pressed.
”A fair point, I think. Captain?” Voromir inquired.
Videgavia’s voice sounded like grinding glass, ”A fair point. I’ll grant you, Doc, we haven’t done so good a job as keeping you and yours as safe as you’d hope. We let you down. But not again. Never again. If you can’t place your trust in us, in me, when I say that the numbers will hold, then…then I suppose this is a whole other discussion.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Rin said, sounding profoundly tired.
”I’ve answered all of your questions but it doesn’t seem to be enough. We have a chance here to end it, once and for all Doc! You, your little ones will be safe no matter which way it goes. We can do this. I know it. But if you do not, then you must do as you see fit. You have children to protect and I’ll not hold that against you.”
Rin took her time answering, selected her words with care, ”If the rebel numbers are greater than we guess, then we will simply not be able to catch them all here. It would be an impossible feat and not because those that stood with us failed in some way!”
Rin pressed on, “Those that slip away will know, then, that they have been betrayed. The last thing anyone needs now is rebels disenchanted with Arnor and Cardolan both floating about the north. I will not sow the seeds of another Rhuadaur. I won’t. We need to be absolutely certain that outer net holds no matter what. If it fails….then we will have civil war on our hands. Not in Harad. Not in Rhun. Not in some distant land. Here.”
Hanasian chose the ensuing silence to duck into the large study that he shared with his wife. They had drawn the curtains for warmth and privacy and so it was much darker inside compared to outside. The hearth and lanterns provided a soft, gentle glow that shifted and moved over those gathered within. It took a moment for Hanasian’s eyes to adjust. He found the men either stood or leaned against desks or shelves. Rin sat, however, on a chair that had been placed close to the warmth of the hearth. Her lap was filled with the livery Hanasian had seen being worn outside.
She wore a heavy, fur lined mantle made for use outside and her hair was wound about her head in a braid that was loose. She stared at him as did the others. He was almost as shocked as she was. The woman he had seen last was vibrant and glowed with life. Rin now, though, had a deathly pallor and was almost as thin as the day they had first met. The livery she was working on slid to the carpet as she stood. Her movements were unsteady, another source of concern, and her eyes seemed huge in her face.
”Is…is it just me….or can you see him too,” she asked softly, as hopeful as she was fearful of what the answer might be.
”Rosmarin,” he said, voice roughened and stepped towards her.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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With a few steps Hanasian was before Rin as she tried to stand. He knelt before her, cupped her face between his hands.
“My love… I am sorry…” he whispered to her.
Rin’s eyes were wide and haunted by such sorrow. She was silent, unable to find words that he could see flickered within her and pressed her fingers to his lips. They stayed like that for a long moment, the rest of the study lost to them. Eventually Rin blinked and the spell was broken. Hanasian guided her to her feet at which point he embraced her. She was so insubstantial in his arms. Hanasian drew back and solemnly kissed his wife. There he found her. Her warmth and spirit was suddenly revealed to him anew. Her heavy mantle began to slide and he pulled it back around her shoulders and held it there, unable to release Rosmarin.
But they were not alone. A little whimper from a bundle in the arms of Anvikela by a doorway broke through and Rin pulled away to go to their surviving daughter. Hanasian followed and silently, Rin lifted Elian from Anvikela and set her in his arms. She was tiny compared to Hanavia, with hair so pale as to seem silvery and with the blue eyes of a newborn babe. She fussed until he made a soft sound deep in his throat and then brushed the fine hair upon her head. Her mother’s hair, Hanasian thought, heart pounding. This was his daughter. He had a daughter.
He looked to his wife and found her expression was solemn. She was watching him, waiting for something. He could not tell what it was. The others in the room were also silent. Too many questions needed to be asked, too many answers were needed. The tiny child in his arms peered up at him intently. He made another sound and she blinked, curious. Could it be that she somehow knew his voice? For those in the room, watching this, it was clear that plans and strategies were the least concern for those in their midst. Hanasian looked up to his wife and she came closer to carefully tuck the loose end of a blanket around her daughter’s feet. Hanasian murmured something to her and Rin nodded. Without further word, Hanasian and Rin walked out of the study with their daughter. No one followed. Any talk of strategy and plans would for now be left to the others.
It did not take those in the kitchen long to join the others in the study. It was fortunate that the room was generously sized. Soon the walls, chairs and couches and desks were filled with people. Videgavia was pleased to see the three Rohirrim amongst them. The Dirty Three leant nearby against shelves filled will all manner of books that Rin had clearly accumulated in her time here. Medicine, surgery, healing, botany and a diverse assortment of odds and ends he could only guess at. Molguv peeked curiously at the titles, no doubt wondering what their worth might be. Massuil and Voromir watched on as well. Videgavia had yet to decide what to make of either man, but at least the Old Company was here and he ensured they were paying attention. There was sporadic talk and their discussion hovered around the edges of the trap they were planning. All seemed reluctant to mention it until Loch lost patience and finally broached the matter that had been chewing at him since Berlas had told him of the plan.
”Rin is not in any condition to do this. Even if she was, I think it’s too risky!”
Loch frowned as he looked about each man in turn. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t. While together he and his sister had risked a great deal, it was because they had to. Their survival depended on it. This was entirely different. There were tiny, defenceless children in the midst of it. Hanavia was not even two years old! And there was a far safer option as far as he could guess. The King was somewhere in the north. Why court fate here when they could go to a safer place. All they had to do was board that ship at anchor in the bay. There was no way his sister would risk the lives of her children or consign them to the fate that they had faced themselves for a piece of land. It was just land. She simply wouldn’t countenance anything that might mean that her children faced the world alone for this house and land. It made no sense and while it was clear to him it didn’t seem quite so evident to those around him. Videgavia was one of the few to meet Loch’s eyes as he glanced around the room but the man said nothing.
”The Kid has a point. We can’t send Doc in. Besides, I doubt Hanasian would allow it,” Wulgof added in his roughened voice.
Voromir stood and said, ”The only certain way to bring this to an end is to have the Lady Rosmarin there and visible.”
Videgavia broke his silence at that, ”Yes, quite true Voromir, but I have to agree with Loch. As willing as Rin would likely be, she will not be physically able to put herself in this sort of peril. I will admit to genius of it as a plan …. Quite worthy. But without Rin, we will not be able to pull it off.”
Khule said immediately afterward, ”Hanasian wouldn’t like this one bit either. There is no way he would permit his wife to place herself out there like that. Not now. Since her heritage and identity has come to light, there has been one attempt after another.
“It won’t end and therein lies the appeal of this plan. It offers finality. As good a plan this may be, I do not think any of us could accept the danger it poses to Rin. Especially in her current state. After all she and Hanasian have been through? No, this borders on insanity to try.”
Khule’s bearing was grave and he appeared old and strained to those who knew him best. Mulgov tapped him on the shoulder and passed him a plain brown bottle. He took a drink from it and handed it back. Mulgov’s jaw dropped a bit when how his latest brew had not even managed a grimace from the Easterling. The Haradian shrugged slightly and took a drink himself before he offered it to Wulgof. They were all concerned about Doc.
Loch, meanwhile stared at Voromir. He knew his sister didn’t trust him and, frankly, he didn’t like the man. This had been the chief threat to Rin in Pelargir. And this had been the man in Bree in her immediate vicinity when she had been injured. Mildly of course, but still. And he was a noble. Untrustworthy to the core. The problem with nobles is that they could be as rotten as any knave, but appear lordly and fair and bright. And you couldn’t settle your score with them in the same way if they did you wrong. Rose was beside him and had been quiet as she listened to the discussion slide back and forth. An uneasy silence settled over them in the study and it seemed to her that they would remain locked in this indecision unless someone pointed out the solution that lay right beneath their noses.
”What if I do it?”
Loch flinched beside her and said, ”Do what?”
Rose considered him a moment. In a fleeting instant there was a surreal glow and it seemed that Rin was there. She had everyone’s attention now. The Rohirrim looked queasy, Wulgof was stunned. The Rangers appeared intrigued and Voromir was shocked.
As for Loch, he was having none of it.
”No!” he forcefully declared, bristling.
“And why not Lochared of Dunland? Are stealth and cunning exclusively yours?” Rose answered with a glint in her eyes that could have resembled daggers and reminded him powerfully of his sister.
Years of experience prompted Loch to hesitate and keep his mouth shut. Inwardly, he resolved that Rose and his sister were spending far too much time in each other’s company and he’d have to do something about that and soon. Wulgof slapped Mulgov on the chest with the back of his hand to make sure he was paying attention to what was happening. The others looked on with rising curiosity but a signal from Videgavia flashing signals kept them silent for now. The Captain knew there was something afoot and whatever it was, it was something he wanted to leave to play out. Sorcery and the Company had never mixed well. Rose directed her attention from a brooding Loch to the others in the room.
”I can do this. I have been studying the ways of your Kingdoms, and with some work and the support of my sister, I can do this.”
Restraint had never been one of Loch’s strengths. He pushed to his feet from where he had been perched on his sister’s desk and stepped forward.
”Do you have any idea what you’re proposing? These people are fanatics! If they even pick up the slightest hint of something amiss, things will go sour. You know what they have done with Hanasian. You have heard what they did to my sister in Dale! If that’s what they will do to people of rank, what will they do to those who are not? No! There has to be another way!”
Videgavia looked over to Farbarad and then Massuil. Both Rangers shrugged, unwilling to commit to a path just yet. Videgavia realised it would fall to him to say something when Lady Anvikela walked in saying,
”Sir Lochared, you should listen to my sister. Our whole lives have been spent amongst fanatics, yes. It has only been since we have come west with you that we had any idea what this freedom we heard you speak of is. So we are free now. With this freedom we will decide.
“It is with this freedom that we wish to repay the Company. It is also in this freedom that my sister has found someone she cares for. Therefore she cannot be the one to do this. I will be the one to go, if the Lords of the Company agree.”
There was silence for a moment. Videgavia let his fingers fly quickly in the hopes of keeping everyone quiet, including Loch. Even as he started to step forward, Khule’s hand grasped his shoulder. He didn’t even have to look at Khule to know why. He stood and watched the two sisters turn to one another. They stared for a moment and then suddenly started bickering in their native language. Their words were heated, and if they realized that the rest of the company were watching them, it didn’t seem to matter. What they were saying was a mystery to all in the room, but the body language and tone gave away a little.
After their voices returned to a more civil tone, Videgavia cut in, ”Ladies, you appear to have much to say to one another, and quite impassioned at that. But we need to know what it is you have decided. I have a general idea what it is you were discussing.”
Rose and Lady Anvikela exchanged a look and then Rose said, ”Should it be decided, then it will be I who will go. My sister and Loch are against this, but if it is to be done, it will be my sister who stands behind me. I don’t know if I have the strength or control to help her in the same way.
“My sister is somewhat more confident. But if this is to be, she will have to be nearby. But it seems it all is only in its beginnings. Should the decision be to my taking Lady Rosmarin’s place in this deception, then we will talk about how it will be done.”
Loch, still on his feet, shifted his weight restlessly but Rose’s pointed her finger at him and he paused. He knew he wasn’t going to win this fight right now. Still, nothing had been decided yet, and he hoped this would not come to pass.
Videgavia nodded, saying, ”You speak wisely Rose. Yet I would be remiss if I did not point out the dangers. Loch may have suddenly lost his words, but his earlier concerns are legitimate.
“Should you be discovered, there would be little we could do to aid you. What you and Lady Anvikela could do, I do not know. Rest assured that your offer will be considered, but this decision will be made when the Cap and the Doc are back with us, and everyone has had time to consider this thoroughly. Now, it is late and everyone here needs to rest. The morning will find us all ready for council again.”
They broke and once out of the study they scattered. Each seem to had thoughts of their own that they kept to themselves or shared with a select few. Massuil and Farbarad walked off whispering to each other on the way out of the house entirely. The Dirty Three made for the verandah that lined the western side of the house to carry on in a low rumble. Voromir remained a moment in thought, unsure what had just happened, but he finally stood and went out to where he had made his camp with the men that had been led by Rowdy. Videgavia watched Loch and Rose wander out, whispered disconcerting words to each other on the way to somewhere private. He noticed also that Lady Anvikela watched them as well.
He stepped over to her and asked, ”Lady Anvikela, will you walk with me?”
Without a word, she took his arm and they walked outside in silence. It was after they had gone some ways away from the house that he asked her, ”Is this something you and your sister could do in complete confidence?”
Lady Anvikela hesitated, ”Since our departure, my powers struggle to stay with me. I hold them only with use, and I have been amiss in using them. Rose, I think, is another matter.
“She seems to strengthen even as I weaken. This kind of visual deception we are consider requires a strong and sustained will. If we had Old Blood in our veins it would less uncertain. I can stand behind her, but in the end, it will be in her hands as to whether she can carry it through.”
Videgavia then said, ”If this is so, then if it was up to me, I could not permit this. It will be up to Hanasian and Rin with the final word, but I hope there is another way that will not put anyone, not Rin, you, or Rose, in danger. Yet, I can still see that this plan would work if Rin is convincing among them, whoever she is. It is a difficult choice. Let us go and rest now.”
~ ~ ~
Hanasian held Rin close, careful lest he cause her discomfort, and she finally said, ”Do you know what they are discussing out there?”
Hanasian ran his hand through her hair and kissed her head, ”I know enough. I know that you, or I will have to stand by the wayside. The plans are being made for us, and we will see what is decided in the morning.”
He kissed her and they lay back and drifted into an uneasy sleep together.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The council the following day was a furious one. There was no other way to describe it. For all of the impassioned arguments and counter arguments that sailed to and fro there was no other way around it. The trap could not be safely defused half sprung. That way assuredly lay mayhem, and the civil war that Rin so rightly feared. Nor could Rin serve as the bait to bring it to a close. Rin did not argue as hard against the gathered will of the rest of them. She couldn't ignore the risks. She knew what it was to face the world without a mother and father. She could not recklessly consign her children to the fate she had faced and narrowly survived. But, this problem as far as Rin saw it was hers. The rebels gathered because of her blood and what they would make of it. Sending in Rose, or anyone else, to draw their teeth was unthinkable. And every time she glanced at her brother she felt her heart ache for the worry and fear she could see him endure. He loved Rose. He knew what could happen.
By the close of the day the way ahead had been determined. No one liked it. Rose and Anvikela would deceive the rebels. Rose would appear as the Lady of Cardolan, and speak her words. She would ride Rin’s horse, be garbed as a queen might but Rin never would, and carry Rin’s sword. That sword would deliver the signal that would trigger the switch and then it would be in Videgavia’s hands. As for the real Lady of Cardolan, she would be waiting on the ship with her family, her ranger and Massuil’s men. Should it all go sour, that ship would make for Mithlond and then Fornost to report to Aragorn and seek shelter there while a larger offensive is launched.
As the sun sank, Rin stood in silence by Hanasian’s side. He was on his knees in the snow by their daughter’s grave. It was the first time he had come here. While his return had done much to ease her savaged spirit, she could still sense doom closing around them. The reason Míriel was dead, the reason for the attack, lay at her feet. Had she heeded Hanasian’s counsel concerning Andred, none of this would have come to pass. She was certain of that. Every decision from that moment onwards seemed somehow tainted, dragging them deeper into webs that seemed to gather faster the more they struggled. She had no idea how to turn this about.
Hanasian’s voice was roughened by grief he could not contain, ”What colour was her hair?”
“Dark, like your own,” Rin answered and sank to her knees beside him.
His hand sought hers and clung fiercely, like a man drowning. Except she was drowning too. She was going to kill them all, Rin realised, and terror howled through her.
”How often do you come here?” he asked.
”Every day, before…”
“The hemorrhaging and then the fever. You should have remained still and quiet and warm. It is what you would have told someone who had lost so much blood. You might have avoided the fever.”
He was right, of course.
”How could I when our daughter lies in the frozen ground, alone?” she whispered and closed her eyes.
”You nearly died. Farbarad told me, Rosmarin. Had it not been for the healers Massuil found, you would have!”
Rin’s head bowed so that her chin rested against her chest. Hanasian withdrew his hand from hers and the chill bit at her fingers. He sounded upset with her. She had been waiting for this. Her recklessness with Andred had killed his newborn daughter, Rowdy and three good Company men. It had placed him in immediate peril. She had betrayed them all, including those she loved the most. He should set her aside, take their children and run before she killed them all.
”Rosmarin, look at me!”
Hanasian had to repeat it before she could find the strength to meet his eyes. His expression was harrowed by grief and fear. But there was no hatred there. Not yet, at least.
”Understand me, my love. To stand here, by my child’s grave is nearly more than I can bear. To stand over your own….I could not. A long life, one in peace where our family flourishes. That is what you promised me and I to you. I beg of you, Rosmarin, do nothing that imperils that.”
“My life, the very drawing of my breath imperils that whether I will it or nil it!”
Hanasian lifted a hand to her cheek and cupped it, ”We will face this fight and we will prevail. And when it is done, and there is peace, we will rest.”
He gathered her to him and together, they returned to the warmth and safety of their home and those within it.
As time passed, the Company returned much to Videgavia’s relief. Even with Rowdy’s men, now lead by Voromir, the rebel numbers had become officially difficult. He gladly redeployed his returned forces, confidence returning that they could close the net and scoop all the rebels neatly up. Aside from the three men that had perished on the night of the attack, he was back at full strength again. He had Berlas back. An Ithilien Ranger was an ideal asset for the wooded terrain that surrounded the grounds. Another set of eyes on the lines that he trusted implicitly for good reason. Berlas would sooner gouge his own eyes out than harm Doc, never mind the reasons why.
Meanwhile, Rose and Anvikela refined their deception. Hanavia did not at all like seeing two versions of his mother walking around his house and so they continued their work carefully. Side by side it was obvious which woman was Rin. Rose could not match Rin’s height and the features were mostly accurate. So, for that reason, Rose would ride Rin’s horse. All it to be was convincing enough, not precise. Rin, meanwhile, had to write an address. It was a difficult task. She recalled all too clearly her father’s imperious demands. Yet, to follow too closely in his footsteps would mean she would be setting down, on paper, in her hand the equivalent of high treason. Voromir could stride into court, wave it around and Aragorn would have no choice but to find her guilty and act accordingly. She wrestled over the wording during the evenings until finally she set the wretched seal to it with some blue wax and her father’s ring. Doom continued to swirl around her as she reluctantly handed it to Rose. Rose would need to memorise it and, if further proof be needed to garnish the bait, offer it to the rebels to read themselves. If she could get them to swear fealty to Cardolan in public, there would be a clear basis for their arrest as traitors to the true king of the realm. This had to be finished as cleanly as possible for everyone’s sake. No messy loose ends.
Last of all the ship had to be readied. Massuil and his Rangers would accompany Hanasian and Rin and their children. Farbarad, of course, went wherever Rin did. Given the possibility of making a formal report to the court about events in Cardolan, Voromir also joined them. He was, in his words, an independent observer that could vouchsafe from the court’s perspective any report given to it without fear or favour. In all this time Rin’s sense of foreboding grew even as she continued to recover. Hanasian watched his wife like a hawk. She did not miss a meal. She did not exert herself. He ensured she rested, remained warm and safe and steadily grew stronger with each passing day. And so the inevitable moment arrived. Two royal persons departed the house that day. One went heavily swathed with a small knot of wary Rangers, her husband and her small children. Down the stairs notched into the bluff to the beach, safely into the boat that waited to take them to the ship at anchor in the small bay. Sails were unfurled already and a small crew was already aboard. Rin was whisked immediately below with Elian and Hanavia.
The other emerged in splendid regal garb. A voluminous sapphire velvet skirt, a brilliantly polished and finely worked breastplate and a mail corselet, an elven sword at her left hip and a crown of sapphires and pearls at her brow made for a stunning appearance. She was followed by a hand maiden in Cardolan livery that the real queen had sworn to burn every last skerrick of at the first opportunity in a large bonfire. With them went the First Hero of Cardolan, for where else would he be but by his sister’s side, and the Captain of the Free Company of Arnor who had reputedly already committed his forces to the former Company healer’s quest to regain her throne. The trap was set and the day was unleashed for good or for ill.
On the ship, the men lined the port rail to watch the shore. They waited for a signal to either come ashore or pull anchor and fly. As ever, the waiting was unbearable. Time dragged and the morning seemed to stretch. Hanasian’s arms began to ache from holding the spyglass up for so long. Massuil leaned against the rail and watched his men distributed about the deck. There was a fair wind, he noted, should they have to sail today. Farbarad paced restlessly, jaw bunching. This had to work. It had to. The sun slowly climbed in the sky. The air lost some of its frigid chill. Still the wind was brisk and had a way of cutting through clothing. Rin, unable to bear waiting below materialised at the hatch. Fortunately, Farbarad spotted her before she came onto deck.
”No,” he barked sternly, ”Absolutely not!”
“I am going mad down there twiddling my thumbs while who knows what unfolds up there,” she returned, scowling. Distantly, Hanavia could be heard exploring the galley. Pots and pans were clanging from below deck.
Hanasian turned about and fixed his wife with a particular stare that only he seemed capable of succeeding with.
”Oh very well. I’ll make lunch or something,” she muttered and the hatch closed again with Rin still safely below out of sight.
Farbarad resumed his pacing and Hanasian turned back to study the shore. The signal had to come soon, surely. It did not and the sun continued its ascent in the winter sky. After a while, Voromir mentioned something about checking on lunch and he padded below deck to do so. Still, no sign from the shore. Had it all gone sour? Rin’s sleep had been troubled, Hanasian knew, by a fear she could not articulate. Only that she was drowning in inky, icy water towards some nameless, shapeless creature she somehow knew waited for her below.As he waited now for word, he wondered if his wife had not foreseen a disastrous end to this ambitious, brilliant plan. His stomach was knotted and twisting.
”I am truly sorry it has to be this way,” Voromir whispered below deck and all she could see blood creeping across the floorboards, ”But this is the only certain way to ensure a united northern realm.”
The galling reality was that Voromir was probably correct, Rin thought as she lay on the galley floor. Her senses were flickering. It would not take long considering the state of her current health. The blood continued to gather which surprised her. She had not thought she had so much left to her as all that.
”I will not harm your son or daughter. They are safe. I have placed them in one of the cabins so that they needn’t see this.”
The floorboards creaked as he walked to the window. He opened it, climbed up and disappeared through it.
On deck, Hanasian gave a tremendous shout as he saw the signal at last. Frea stood on the cusp of the bluff, waving his arms. It had been done. There had been losses, none of them Company. There were some injuries on both sides. It was safe to come home! It was safe to come home! He felt lightheaded with relief. Safe! They had done it! And then he heard a strange splash at the stern of the ship. Farbarad, grinning like a man reprieved from the executioner’s block strode down the deck to investigate. Like as not it was Rin disposing of the lunch she was preparing. No one had any doubts that they’d probably not get any. Not that Rin wouldn’t try. She always did try. Cooking with an oven or stove was simply an anathema to her that she had yet to overcome.
It came as a shock to hear Farbarad’s shout of alarm.
”Man overboard! Quick! He’ll freeze!”
Men scurried at that and Hanasian frowned. It had to be Voromir. How he had gotten overboard from below deck was strange, unless Rin tossed him out. He knew she was uncertain about him, but she wasn’t in the business of tossing people overboard as a general rule and she certainly was not yet strong enough to overpower someone to toss them overboard. Then a strangled, horrified cry sounded from Farbarad, for he had reached the window and peered inside.
”NO! Oh Eru! NO! Below! Get below NOW!” he cried in Aduanic, shocked by what he beheld.
Without thinking, Hanasian ran for the hatch. The spyglass was left rolling on the deck under the sun, forgotten now. He slid down the ladder and stumbled before he regained his feet and pushed on. The galley, she would be in the galley and she was. Farbarad had climbed through the window and had his hands pressed to her. Blood welled between his fingers. Blood pooled on the floor and around a dagger that had been discarded there. Her eyes had not closed yet, but they were fluttering.
”Ribs. He got her in the ribs. Deep,” Farbarad grunted, face pale as he applied more pressure, ”Missed the lungs though. Maybe missed her heart too.”
Hanasian folded his hands around her face and angled her head back to ensure she could breathe. Farbarad seemed correct. Her lips and teeth were not stained by blood and she was not breathing in a way to suggest her lungs were being filled with it. But her pulse was thready and weak. She was fading.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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One hundred and forty seven men were arrested and not a single one slipped free. Foldine would be a very wealthy man if he wished to be. A further twenty three rebels perished, Andred amongst them. Only seventeen Company casualties and of them, most of them minor. Loch was so relieved and pleased that he proposed, on the spot, as soon as Rose looked properly like Rose again. He was sweaty, his armour was scuffed and dinted, he’d lost one of his dwarven axes and Andred’s blood daubed his chest in a splattered spray. But he proposed all the same. Once she said yes, he noticed that one of his fingers was pointed in entirely the wrong direction and he fainted before he could explain about the ring.
Videgavia was delighted. It had gone perfectly. It had gone so well that even Hanasian would be pleased. But then Folca had arrived on a horse, screaming for Sparks and they all froze.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Spring came and with it renewed life to the land. The great elm tree sent forth new shoots and Stillwater found himself in its boughs, grappling with timber, nails a hammer and himself. It had been such a good idea, but at this rate he would not have it completed by the time they returned from Fornost. He would have broken his thumb and fingers on his left hand, certainly, but Hanavia would not have a tree house. And if Slippery laughed one more time, he didn’t know what he’d do.
”Sure you don’t want any help?” Donius called up from below, the one proper carpenter in the Company.
”Thanks, but no,” Stillwater replied around the nails he gripped in his mouth. This was his idea, his birthday gift to the little boy, and he was going to see it done by hook or by crook.
Tree houses weren’t the only thing being finalised. In Fornost, the last of the rebels heard his sentence about the same time that Stillwater howled over his ltest thumb hammering. The sentence was the same as the others before it, but still Rin felt a great weight lift from her shoulders as the words were spoken. She reached for Hanasian’s hand and squeezed it tightly. It was done. But she could not smile. Over one hundred men would be executed for treason. It was nothing to smile about. From where she sat, she could see Aragorn was similarly solemn. He and his queen both wore black and silver. Aragorn slowly stood as the sentence was announced by Faramir.
The Prince of Ithilien bowed to the assembled nobles and then to the throne before he strode back to his position. He sat on the left with his wife, the White Lady of Rohan. Now there was a formidable woman, Rin thought. Farbarad had told her weeks ago that Faramir sat on the left because no matter what happened, he could never come to the throne. It was why Rin sat on the right, with the elder children of the King and Queen. Hanasian had to sit to Rin’s left. Rin thought it absurd but such things were important.
Aragorn waited until the final rebel was led out before he spoke. He surveyed the gathered court carefully. It was filled with nobles, including the wife and two sons of Voromir. Rin had not seen them before today and she had surreptitiously studied them throughout the morning. Voromir’s widow looked, frankly, terrified. Terrified and desperately sad. Her sons, young men, looked angry but really they were frightened and worried.
”It is my hope that this strife is now ended,” Aragorn said, ”But I have had such hope defeated before. To this end, the Free Company of Arnor will be deployed through the north to seek out any lingering remnants of unrest and to carry this word of this declaration.”
Aragorn turned slightly to his right and his eyes cut straight to where Rin sat as if he had known she was there all along. She’d not seen him looking in her direction earlier and frankly had been pleased to slip beneath his notice. Now she found herself regretting her small token of protest about the foibles of nobles. Instead of blue, a colour she was coming to loathe, she had chosen silver that day. Hanasian’s hand tightened on her own and she knew she had to stand. Aragorn did not look away. Rin slowly rose to her feet and fought to keep her shoulders straight and expression calm. She had nothing to fear, nothing to hide.
Except a silver dress. Farbarad had warned her. The eyes of the nobles, including Voromir’s widow were drawn to her. It was just a bloody dress! Aragorn lifted his arm and then Rin realised that she had to do more than just stand. She glanced down to Hanasian, who still sat comfortably with one foot propped onto his other knee. He continued to lean back in his chair, one arm slung over the back of the seat she had just vacated. Unlike her, he was appropriately dressed and as ever looked utterly distracting. But she did not notice that now. All she noticed was that he was casually seated while she stood with the court's attention on her. She was not going out there on her own.
”Will the Lady and Lord of Cardolan come forth?” Aragorn asked and behind them, Rin could hear Farbarad grind his teeth.
Hanasian rose smoothly, unhurried and unperturbed, and took Rin’s arm. Rin could swear he winked at her but it was gone so swiftly she was not sure. Together they walked to where Aragorn stood, paused and made their obeisance. Hanasian bowed deeply and then sank to one knee. Rin curtsied and the movement was steady. Despite everyone telling her she needed to be patient, she was recovered in the main and so she should be. It had been months and she had been doing nothing else but following advice. First Sparks, followed by Aragorn himself upon arrival at Fornost.
Aragorn reached for her right hand and held it so that all could see, ”From the outset, despite the perils, the Lady of Cardolan has faithfully served this court. First in surrendering her throne to unite the Northern Realm. Then in her service within the Black Company of Arnor to deliver peace and stability far from our borders. And now, in her own home, to quell rebellion and treachery.
“Time and again she has sworn oaths of service, fealty and fidelity to the High Throne of the Reunited Realm. But, deeper than that, she has honoured the bonds of kinship. As vouched by Lord Elrond himself, this woman is my kinswoman. Her royal descent and rank flows from the same source as my own. And I acknowledge her as such.
“As my kinswoman, so let it be known that henceforth, an attack on my kinswoman is an attack on myself. An attack on my kinswoman’s family is an attack on my own. It will be dealt with thusly. Captain Hanasian, you may rise.”
Aragorn released Rin’s hand as the court murmured around them. Arwen, Rin could see, was watching intently. Aragorn stepped past Hanasian and Rin clung to her husband's solid arm, baffled and feeling as if something overwhelmed had happened or would happen. She didn’t know which.
”For years too many to tally, Arnor has known the Rangers of the North. These men of the Dunedain have watched over the lands and those within them. My own Grey Company draw from their ranks and they are sworn to me as their king and their chief. And yet, what of the Rangers of Cardolan? Sworn to defend the heirs of Elendil but not the chieftain of Arnor. Their numbers have steadily dwindled until now only one remains.
“The Grey Company protects my family and children. It is only fitting, then, that the Rangers of Cardolan be restored so that my kinswoman and her family can know the safety and peace that my own enjoy. Whether you be a Ranger of the North now or not, if you swear the ancient oaths and join this number then you will make yourselves known. If you are suitable, your oaths will be taken by Cardolan’s Lady and Lord and, in time, an enduring peace long denied Cardolan will be returned to it.”
“And now we come to the final matter before us today.”
Aragorn spoke swiftly lest the court overtake his address. Certainly, those Rangers that lined the room remained quiet but Hanasian knew they had been as surprised as everyone else by the announcement. Farbarad looked like he might swallow his own tongue, though whether because he was alarmed or pleased was harder to discern.
”In addition to the grievous attack perpetrated by rebels upon the Lord of Cardolan and those men who defended my kinswoman’s home, there was a further attack upon my kinswoman even as the apprehension of the rebels was affected by the Free Company of Arnor and my kinswoman’s allies and men. The man responsible for this attack perished whilst attempting to make his escape in the icy winter waters of the ocean. He was not a rebel.
“He was a member of our number, this very court. A noble Lord who had served the court well for long years and prominent within Gondor, as his forefathers before him. His lands border those of Dol-Amroth. Lord Voromir took matters into his own hands when he drove a dagger into my kinswoman. Fortune, skill and will alone saw his murderous intentions defeated so that my kinswoman stands here today and not her assailant.
“His reasons and motives will forever remain with him now. This is not the first time our court has been riven by such violence. The Kin-Strife it became known as. Thankfully, that history has not repeated itself now. Despite his actions, the Lady of Cardolan has not repudiated the court nor her liege lord. Lord Voromir’s actions are a betrayal of us all. They cannot be left unanswered. I have no recourse but to strip Lord Voromir’s house of all title and position, all properties and holdings. In recompense for his actions, his lands and wealth are henceforth the holdings and properties of the Lord and Lady of Cardolan.”
All Rin could do was stare at Voromir’s stricken widow. The woman was not stunned. There was resignation on her face. Her eyes were closed. Around her, her sons leaned in to furiously whisper to each other. Rin was horrified. In one fell swoop, an entire family had been cast into penury and all that brought with it. She knew just how devastating poverty was. A grinding, wearying, long slow death, a feast of failure and helplessness. Aragorn turned, his wife rose and together they departed the court. The door had not closed behind them before the uproar began.
Chairs clattered as Farbarad pushed them aside in his rush to meet them. With the walls lined by Rangers and Knights and the penalty for doing violence to the king’s kinswoman already clearly demonstrated, there was little danger of attack. Still, Hanasian and Rin would be swamped. Already they were surging forward. Hanasian drew back a step but Rin hadn’t noticed yet. Her eyes were locked still on Voromir’s family.
”We must leave. Now,” Hanasian said as he continued to back away, his wife on his arm.
”No, I must to speak to-“ Rin began to say, clearly confused by all that had just happened so swiftly.
“Now,” Hanasian repeated firmly, and, aided by Farbarad, managed to get behind the knights and towards another door that led, hopefully, out of the court.
Once they had their bearings, Hanasian and Farbarad rushed to the apartments that had been their home for weeks now. Loch was there with Hanavia and Elian, and Rose. Rin was propelled into the room, pale and clearly upset. Hanasian and Farbarad piled in after her. The doors were locked and then Farbarad set himself against them.
”Another day at court,” Loch observed dryly as he took in their assorted expressions and then, ”I told you the blue dress was better.”
No one answered. Rin dropped herself into a chair and stared ahead, mind furiously working.
”What just happened?” Hanasian demanded, harried, and Farbarad shook his head.
”I…ah….am not entirely sure.”
“We’ve acquired Rangers, permanently, if any want to. Any further attacks will be met with the full armed might at Aragorn’s disposal. There’s a pleasant thought. A powerful noble family from the south has just been dispossessed and their holdings given to us,” Rin said, ”Which will do wonders for North South relations down there and transform a widow and her two sons into beggars. Through no fault of their own.
"Oh, and I think Hanasian is now a Lord.”
Loch’s jaw hung open and Hanavia toddled over to his mother. Rin lifted him into her lap and then stood to transfer the boy to her hip. That’s when people began knocking on the outer doors.
A week later, they set out from Fornost to home with fifteen new Rangers of Cardolan. It was only a beginning, of course, but it was also a beginning. Rin hoped that the arrangement she had come to with Voromir's widow would stave off trouble in the years ahead. She and her sons would be comfortable, well provided for. That what Rin had planned and authorised. Discreetly, of course. She could not face it if Voromir's widow thanked her for giving them back their chance at a decent life. Best they didn't know. Those who lived on Voromir's holdings could continue to do whatever it was they did. Sheep, she believed, and bees. There was no need to disrupt the long standing trade contracts with Minas Tirith or neighbouring Dol Amroth. Imhrahil had offered to keep an eye on it and she had plans to send Rowdy's men down as well, for safe keeping. They had, after all, been bank rolled by Voromir. They rode slowly, in no hurry and without any need for concealment. They did not advertise their presence or identity either.
Hanasian found himself in the saddle with his son before him. Hanavia had the reins and wildly waved them about as he kicked his feet. Fortunately, the steady pressure of his father's knees and the excellent training of his horse meant that nothing terribly remarkable happened as a result of his youthful exuberance. His son was approaching his second birthday headlong, much in keeping with how he approached everything else now. He had torn Fornost apart at the seams, or so had appeared. Rin rode to his right, with Elian in a sling before her. The spring light illuminated her hair and skin. Elian was smiling now and starting to respond to people. Her character was starting to emerge. Right now, she was gurgling at her mother. Every time Rin looked down at her, Elian grinned at her mother. Such a happy soul was Elian, and yet quiet. Of course, Rin smiled back. A mother's smile, for a child she doted upon. This only made Elian smile anew. Hanasian found a lump formed in his throat that was hard to swallow around. Winter had been dark beyond all compare. Twice his wife had danced on death's doorstep and yet there she rode with his daughter, the gentle breeze making her hair float and lift around her shoulders when she looked up to check the lay of the land ahead of her grey gelding. She must have sensed his attention for she looked across to where he was. Her expression shifted into something else. Never failed to make his heart thump in his chest when she looked at him like that. Hanasian cleared his throat and shifted in his saddle. Hanavia noticed nothing. Perhaps tonight, once the children were asleep, he mused with a growing...smile.
"Rin....When Hanasian proposed, did he give you a betrothal ring?" Rose asked from behind where she and Loch had been furiously whispering to each other.
A mischievous smile played over Rin's features. Hanasian heard Loch hiss something in Dunlendic at his sister. It only made her smile more devilish. Rin held up her left hand so that the sun caught the sapphire at the heart of his mother's ring.
"Why, let's see if I can remember....hmmmmm...so much has happened since Pelargir...hmmmm," she answered without turning about, wriggling her fingers.
Rin looked across at Hanasian and lifted a brow, "Can you remember, my love?"
At that, Loch groaned, "I'm trying! Really I am. It's just there aren't many jewellers about and from everything I've heard, you don't just pick up any ring you may find hereabouts lightly."
Farbarad laughed outright at that, "You are not going find a Ring of Power lying about, not any more. Nice try, though, Kid."
Loch grumbled to himself in Dunlendic for the next hour about how unfair it all was.
Broken sleep was all Halcwyn could manage that night. Enedoth was not talkative, aware that she would not give him any answers. He knew only that something lingered. It would be of no use to ask or press her on whatever it was. She would talk when she was ready.
It was some weeks later when two riders of the Westmarch Guard paused on the track by the gate. Halcwyn watched them from the porch. The riders talked to each other for a few moments before one dismounted and approached.
”Hail riders!” she called out as he neared.
”My lady. I hope all is well with you and your family?”
Halcwyn stepped down off the porch to meet him, ”It is. May I get you some water or perhaps tea?”
He bowed and said, ”The offer is most kind, but no, we cannot remain. We pause only to pass on tidings.”
“What news do you have?” Halcwyn asked.
”A woman was found dead in Enedwaith, not far north of the river. We want folks to know to be aware.”
Halcwyn shifted and looked in the direction of Enedwaith, ”That is well north of here. Who was this woman?”
The rider shook his head. He said, ”It is uncertain. We do not know her name or kin. She does not hail from Enedwaith or Rohan. Our Captain was troubled, though. He seemed to know something further than he made mention of. He instructed us to set out and inform the residents, and… “
“And?” Halcwyn said, a cold shiver making her tone sharper than she wished it to.
Her mind raced. What if she left a sign? What if the riders suspect more? What if this man sought to discover if she knew more than she should? Halcwyn forcibly ordered herself to calm. The rider watched her face and nothing would mean certain discovery than a display of skittish shiftiness. She was glad Enedoth was out tending the herds. She had not been good to him of late. She has been cold and distant. Words were few between them since that day.
The rider looked into her eyes and continued, ”… and to warn everyone to be wary. We do not know where the people responsible may be or what their intentions are.”
Halcwyn drew a deep breath and hoped the rider put her nervousness down to his ominous tale, ”Yes, of course. Nothing out-of-place has been seen around here. Still, we will be on the alert.”
The rider bowed and turned for his horse. Once he had mounted up he said, ”We expect to return in a week or so. It is possible that we may know more then.”
Halcwyn lifted a hand in farewell as the two Rohirrim rode on. She knew as she stood there that she now had to speak to Enedoth. While he had been accommodating of her dark mood, his concern mounted and it had rendered him impatient. He spent longer and longer in the fields and their exchanges were terse at best. But she could never tell Enedoth what she did, or why it had been necessary. And so, Halcwyn resolved to bury it within her and renew herself. She would become the woman her husband loved so well and put her darkness from her. Word would come from her brother any day now of new nieces or nephews. Glad tidings would mark her transformation and Enedoth knew that at times her thoughts ran black. Once she emerged, he would gladly welcome her back into the light.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hanasian pondered something for the rest of the journey home. While he had been fortunate enough to possess his mother’s ring, a family heirloom that he had given to Rin, Loch had no such thing. The best to be hoped for lay in the markets at Bree. From time to time, something of true worth came through. If one looked hard enough at the right time, the occasional ancient Arnorian ring could still be found. No further mention of it was made on the journey, for Loch proved sensitive about it. Thus, no sooner had they reached home did Hanasian send Loch off to Bree, for news. If the younger man knew he was being dispatched to locate a ring for his betrothed, Hanasian knew it would go poorly. The way Rin had eyed him as he issued the instruction, approving silently, confirmed his judgement. And so, Loch was on the trail again, with Molguv. Surely, Loch thought to himself, he would find something suitable there. And markets were where you heard the best news…markets and taverns. Everyone knew that.
As Farbard had said earlier in jest, Loch found in truth that Bree’s markets held no rings of power. Nor any other kind of ring that Loch considered worthy of Rose. While he trawled the markets, Molguv trawled the taverns. There was little of news either. Just the usual buzz about Fornost and the King’s decree. There were posters everywhere as well, calling for those that might wish to serve Cardolan’s Rangers. But talk of Cardolan played a secondary role to the true concern of Bree at that time. It was planting season and Fornost continued to do a lively trade with the settlement. Thus, with little news and no ring, Molguv and Loch set off once more. Loch brooded and Molguv nursed a thumping head on account of his last night at the Pony as they rode through the ancient Barrow lands, the dead heart of Cardolan now grassy knolls and leaning stones.
Loch eyed the nearest barrow and, partially in jest said, ”Maybe I could sack one of these tombs and find something worthy…”
He hadn’t forgotten what was said to linger under the green grass. He hadn’t forgotten how pale and haunted his sister had looked after straying into their margins. She’d yet to explain how that had happened to his satisfaction. But then, he knew she’d not been able to articulate it satisfactorily to her husband either. And Mec and Vid had been ropable
Mulgov glanced around him, for all the world appearing like the idea had never before occurred to him. In fact, it had some time ago. He remembered Hanasian’s words clearly. It seemed like an age ago since the Captain had said it. And then Doc had just wandered off as if he had not said anything at all. It would have been all very amusing, had she not looked like a ghost upon her return.
”One might find much. Much they wished they had never found. The world is now much quieter and evil has fled, it remains best to leave the tombs of the dead alone. Especially these dead.”
They rode on quietly for several moments before Mulgov eyed the man riding next to him sidelong. Loch had turned the Bree markets inside out and he had not been hunting news. The Haradian knew what he looked for even if the scout remained secretive. He fumbled around with an old leather bag he had always had on his belt and looked through it. He hesitated, then pulled out a ring that he weighed in the palm of one of his large hands. Loch had missed none of this and was trying to simultaneously watch without being seen to watch. A difficult feat, considering there was only the two of them on the road at present and little else to look at.
”Kid, don’t ask me where this came from, for I don’t rightly know. It was in with one of my early hidden stores from way back that I reclaimed when we were in Minas Tirith before we headed north and ran into you and Doc.
“I used most of that cache for expenses, but I kept this and a few other items which I brought with me north. I ended up having to stash them here in Bree before we left to catch the ship south.
“Now, I did have it appraised and judging by the value given it, it would be worthy of a lady such as your Rose. I was going to give it to a lady myself, once I found one. Seems I never will. Old warhorses like me don’t settle easily. You take it Kid, and give it to your Rose.”
Molguv deposited the ring into Loch’s hand. Its gold band had deep red and blue stones embedded in it. His sister would know in a flash whether the red stones were garnets or rubies. She had always had the sharper eye for appraising such things. Loch held it up to the light and decided that they probably were, and the blue stones were definitely sapphires. He placed it on his little finger and judged size indeed would fit Rose. But he could not take it. He knew that. He could steal it, but he could not take it.
He turned to Mulgov, ”This is a nice ring Mulgov. But I cannot afford to pay you for it.”
“Aw, you’re good for it,” Molguv said and quickly looked away.
Loch rubbed at his jaw, thinking, ”Molguv, I know you. What do you wish for payment?”
Mulgov looked back, earnest, ”I ask nothing of you Kid. It is a gift from me to you. It isn’t worth anything to me. Although, if you should feel that you would want to do me a favour sometime, I wouldn’t refuse….”
“There it is…” Loch sighed, ”Look Mulgov, I can’t have this be something that will bind me to you. I will pay you what its worth… once I have it appraised myself…. Eventually. For now, I thank you much for this, for I need a ring, and I think this would be worthy of Rose.”
Mulgov nodded, content with this, and smiled. He really had no idea what it was worth, and had he of known he likely wouldn’t have let it go so easily. Likewise, Loch would not be able to pay its worth had he known or was to find out. But both men understood what had really been said under the words, and the matter was left to rest without further thought. By the time they had reached the end of their journey, all thought of independent appraisal had vanished from Loch’s mind. He instead set out to see Rose right away. But his steps became evermore hesitant the closer to the house he got.
What a fool I am, Loch thought to himself. His walk slowed to a meandering shuffle. You don’t just pick up a ring from anywhere, he thought, yet I just take some ring from Mulgov of all people. I didn’t even steal it, which was absurd now that he thought on it further. In the early evening, light glowed from the windows of the house. Loch stopped and pulled the ring out to look at it in the lamp-light. No, he would not go tonight. He wanted to look at it in daylight. He turned and set off to where he was quartered. He would have to sleep on this and think. Is this unknown ring worthy of being worn by Rose? Yes, this would take much thought.
Somewhere in the night Loch slid into an uneasy slumber. The morning brought with it a short burst rain. With the sound of water dripping, the sun seemed to make every droplet glisten like it was a crystal. Rin was up already, in the garden, after the rain. He could hear her laugh at Hanavia and warn him away from the carrots for they were not ready to bring up yet, she told him. Loch made his way outside and started to take the ring out so that he could look at it in the sunlight, on his own.
Lady Anvikela appeared as if from nowhere to stand before him before he could take three steps. He was so startled that he almost dropped the ring into the wet grass. His fist closed around it at the last moment and it remained in his grasp.
"M’Lady, how are you? It is a wonderful surprise to find you out this early on a wet morning!” he exclaimed and then winced because he knew his cheer sounded forced. His sister would be rolling her eyes at him. Anvikela, however, was expressionless.
She said, ”Morning walks are refreshing, no matter the weather. It helps me keep my head clear.”
She paused and looked into Loch’s eyes. He found it unnerving and wanted to turn away but didn’t.
"You have gotten a ring to give to my sister, no?” she said, more statement than question.
Loch was silent as he tried to guess how she came to know this. Likely Molguv’s big mouth, and if Anvikela knew then did Rose know? He didn’t want her to know. Not yet.
His answer was hesitant, ”Yes…”
Anvikela’s lack of expression endured, and Loch thought that she was almost as good at it as Rin. If those two women ever sat down to play dice…or worse yet, allied themselves…He shivered at the thought.
She asked, ”Would it be too much to ask to see it?”
Loch hesitated but he really did want to look at it again in the daylight. He soon had it in his hand and considered its beauty. Anvikela’s extended her own hand so that her fingers hovered over his palm. They moved in the air just above the ring but did not touch it. Loch considered putting it away but found he couldn’t. After what seemed like an eternity to him, Anvikela withdrew her hand.
”This ring is very old and very well crafted,” she told him.
“Do you think it worthy of your sister? I ask because I love her very much, and I want this to be right.”
It would not occur to Loch until later that perhaps Anvikela’s use of the word crafted to describe the ring meant more than he had understood at the time.
Anvikela looked at Loch and nodded, ”Your words are sweet Lochared of Dunland. You have captured my sister’s heart… and I would like to believe that she has captured yours. Though I do not understand. I doubt I will ever feel for another the way she does. Still, I see this is a wonderful thing to happen to my sister. She has always been a dreamer. And you, Lochared of Dunland are her dream made real.”
Loch shuffled and may have blushed a bit. His words had abandoned him and he didn’t know what to say.
Anvikela asked him a question, ”I wished to ask you if you have noted anything different or unusual with my sister since the raid?”
Loch found the sudden change of topic a welcome one and he straightened as he considered the question. There had been something as best as he could tell. He had asked her about it shortly afterward, but Rose did not wish to talk of it. She soon returned to her happy self after a few days, and Loch thought no more of it.
He answered, ”No, nothing specific. She was a bit withdrawn after the raid, but it was passed off as fatigue from your linking and the intense demands of keeping the illusion of looking like someone else. Why?”
Anvikela was quiet for a few heartbeats, and then, ”I was curious. Since that raid, there have been times that I have not been able to reach her, as if she has shut me out.”
Loch weighed up whether he should point out what was obvious to him and decided that he should. Anvikela was not his commanding officer, the Dirty Three or his sister.
He looked at Rose’s sister and said, ”Perhaps she has. Maybe she wishes privacy in her thoughts and memories.”
No sooner had he said it did he realise that he probably could have been a touch more tactful. Anvikela nodded at his words and seemed to withdraw as if she had a realization confirmed. She started to walk away from him.
Over her shoulder, she said, ”You are quite right in what you say Lochared of Dunland. It is a great thing that you have come into the life of my sister. I will worry not of her now, for she has you.”
Loch nodded as she walked away toward the trees. He didn’t quite understand her words. Perhaps Rin might. He decided that he could wait no longer to see Rose but he would wait a little longer to present her this ring.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Hanasian leaned back in his chair and considered the letter he had been writing to his sister. There was much to tell her of but finding the right words was proving difficult. Enedoth would look dimly on any tidings that would send Halcwyn on the long, arduous journey north again and certainly this would do precisely that. But to leave something out seemed…wrong. He rolled a shoulder and heard it crack. He’d been at this too long. Rin was outside. He could hear her ordering Wulgof and Mulgov around the garden. It was hard to believe she had once been terrified of them. He rather suspected she terrified them now, though they’d never own up to it. And he could not fault them for that. Intimidated though they were, they were putting up a spirited defence out in the garden.
Rin was ferocious when it came to that garden. A kitchen and healer’s garden both, it was doubly precious to a healer who had spent most of her years with an empty belly. Molguv and Wulgof were not there, in truth, to help. They were there to entertain themselves. She had pressed them into labour, handed them the necessary tools and was now doing her best to keep Molguv out of the patch she used to cultivate certain plants the Haradian was fond of smoking.
Hanasian rubbed his jaw and turned his thoughts back to the letter he was writing his sister. He’d just finished explaining that despite the attack, Rin continued to recover. And it was true. On the surface, at least. Every day, rain or snow or sun, she went to that grave. Every. Day. He knew she mourned. The demands of motherhood meant she could not seal herself away but he sensed she would have if she could have.
And what of him? He too had lost a daughter. A child he had sung to through the months. A child he had felt jostle his hand in response to his touch. He did not go to her grave each day. He grieved…but differently and in a way he found difficult to describe. He knew his wife wondered. But none of that could go in this letter, he resolved, and took a deep breath before he picked up the quill. As he dipped the nib into the ink well, Loch slouched into the study looking thoroughly dejected and then slumped into a chair to stare at his boots. He had a look Hanasian was very familiar with. The scout usually wore it after he had done something wrong and it had been discovered.
”Trouble?” Hanasian prompted and Loch shifted as if he had not noticed Hanasian there.
Loch nodded, chewed on his lip, ” I’m just…waiting.”
“I am not hiding!” Loch exclaimed and then flushed and muttered something in Dunlendic.
”You can’t have upset Vid because he’s not here to upset.”
“It’s Rose,” Loch muttered and returned his attention to his boots.
The chair creaked as Hanasian leaned back, ”She heard that you didn’t come and see her immediately upon return, did she?”
Loch looked at him, flummoxed and deflated even further, ”That was a mistake, wasn’t it?”
Hanasian nodded and did his best not to grin at his brother-in-law. Loch raked his fingers through his sandy hair.
”To make matters worse, I think I went and upset her sister this morning as well.”
“Not on purpose!” Loch pointed out in a hurry, ”It’s all these….words! Women can be so…such…”
Loch’s response trailed off.
”And so, the plan is to what…hide in here until it blows over?” Hanasian surmised.
Loch lifted a shoulder, half hopeful, and Hanasian shook his head, ”Start at the beginning.”
Loch warned, ”You sure? It’ll probably only confuse you as much as it has me.”
Hanasian waved the man on and so Loch embarked on his account of the morning. As he spoke, Hanasian made a mental note to have a quiet word to Molguv. A married man had no business owing a favour to that particular Haradian. Once Loch reached the exchange with Anvikela’s about Rose’s withdrawal, however, something else occurred to Hanasian.
”Do you believe that is what it is? A desire for privacy?” he asked Loch and saw the man shrug.
Hanasian pushed his chair back and opened a window. The garden ran all the way along the rear of the house and right now he could see his wife. The sunlight gleamed on her hair in a way that he was much enamoured with. But right now he needed her inside, for more reasons than one. For starters, she was advancing on Molguv’s back with a rake at the ready while Wulgof looked on with a smirk.
”ROSMARIN!” Hanasian called in his best Captain’s voice and was pleased to see it worked.
Rin whirled about, eyes already wide and innocent. Molguv glanced up from his mischief and only then noted the rake she held and her proximity.
”I DIDN’T!” she shouted back at him.
”YET!” Wulgof called and grinned widely when she swung about to glare at him.
”INSIDE,” Hanasian called and Molguv begun to grin at that.
“NOW. I NEED YOU IN HERE!”
Hanasian did not wait for a reply. He withdrew and closed a window and watched on as his wife glared at the house and then threw down the rake to stalk inside.
”That’s just great. All I need. I already have two women unhappy with me,” Loch muttered fitfully as he looked on.
”She needed to come in anyway. It will be some time yet before she can labour all day under the sun.”
“That had better not be why you brought me inside,” Rin growled as she prowled through the study door to scowl at them both.
Her attention settled on her brother and she crossed her arms, ”What did you do this time? If Molguv has emptied the entire row because of something you did, I’ll take it out of your hide, Loch. You can be certain of that! Do you have any idea how much it costs to buy that stuff from Bree?!”
“Rosmarin,” Hanasian said and she swung around to him next.
”And since when did you start giving orders again? Hmmm? When? You are NOT my commanding officer any more, Hanasian! You haven’t been for a good two years! I am not some trained dog to come and go at your bidding and I-“
While his wife dressed him down, Hanasian had returned to the window, opened it and given Molguv a very clear warning about his wife’s garden that had sent the Haradian scurrying out of it. He closed the window again and turned about to face her. Rin had broken off now and decided silence was going to be her best option. Her arms remained folded and there was a deep furrow between her pale brows. She was clearly agitated with them both. It was in the shade of her eyes, a brilliant blue, and the delicate flush to her cheeks. Molguv had been in the garden for some ill gotten harvesting. Wulgof had shown up to enjoy the show.
”Have you been keeping an eye on Rose?” he asked her and clearly took her by surprise.
”Should I have been? More than usual?”
“Loch…tell her what you told me,” Hanasian said.
Reluctantly Loch did so and as he spoke, Rin shifted mental gears so that the garden was all but forgotten now.
”I’ll actively monitor Rose…. Her sister as well. Might be nothing, might not be,” Rin said.
“Anvikela didn’t think it was anything to worry about. At least, that’s what I think she said.”
“What did she say?” Hanasian asked and Loch reported Anvikela’s parting words.
Rin rolled her eyes to the ceiling and Loch exclaimed,“What? What did I do wrong?“
Hanasian considered Rin and shrugged at her. Just as lost as Loch was, she realised. Men! She loved these two dearly but sometimes they could be as dense as a rock.
”Alright…let’s look at this from another angle,” Rin said, "How did you feel, Loch, when I became betrothed to Hanasian?”
“Is that all?”
Loch squirmed uncomfortably and looked away. Hanasian took himself back to his chair and sat down at his desk.
”Go on, Loch,” he said, reasonably confident he knew where Rin was taking this.
”I was happy, really happy,” Loch persisted but his sister just kept looking at him the way she did when she wanted the honest truth out of him, ”Alright, fine. It was a bit….strange. One minute you’re my sister and the next minute you’re his wife…and…well…it’s just odd.”
“I imagine it is, particularly when your sister is all you have had for so long,” Hanasian said calmly.
Loch contemplated that and then frowned, ”But what I can do about that?“
“Loch, have you given any thought to what happens once you and Rose are married?” Rin asked and Loch grinned at her.
”Plenty!” he enthused and Rin rolled her eyes again and then frowned at her husband, who was grinning along from his desk.
”Where will you live? What will you do? How will you provide for children? You won’t be about to bounce along with the Company forever and a day,” Rin said, a touch impatiently.
”I have to retire?”
Right at that moment, Elian woke up and announced to the world that she was ravenously hungry in the only way she could. Rin paused to let her daughter’s insistent protests make an impact on her brother and then left to go to Elian, muttering about men as she went.
”This is complicated,” Loch said once she had gone and Hanasian nodded sagely.
”That it is, brother. That it is.”
Much later in the day, after children had been bathed and fed and dinner and Loch had continued his attempt to redeem himself into Rose’s good graces, Rin found herself in the sitting room with her daughter and her husband. Hanasian was stretched out on a divan, having just finished off a pipe and seemingly content with the world. Elian was as content as her father, full belly and snuggled into her mother’s arms. She was growing quickly, Rin thought. She no longer looked so small and fragile. Her little hands were curled up and her mouth was slightly parted as she slept, twitching with dreams. What did an infant dream, Rin wondered and not for the first time.
Winter had passed and it was Spring proper now. Still the nights in the north were cool enough for a fire to be lit and the sound of wood popping and crackling flames filled the sitting room. It was a peaceful silence and rare in this house. Rin looked away from the hearth with its flickering flames to her husband and found that he was watching her, eyes half closed. When she caught him, Hanasian smiled and his eyes opened. She was reluctant to break the comforting solitude of the moment but she had an idea concerning Loch, Rose and Anvikela. She broached it with Hanasian gently and found that he agreed with her.
”It has a certain elegance to it, love,” he said.
Hanasian scooped his daughter up so that she could nestle into the crook of his arm, ”Talk to Loch in the morning and offer him the stewardship of the southern holding. If he accepts, I will speak with Videgavia.”
The next morning, Rin drew Rose and Loch together and spoke to them of the stewardship position on offer.
”What does it involve? Writing and ledgers and the like?” Loch inquired suspiciously.
”We’ll take it, with our deepest thanks,” Rose declared.
”Wait! What?” Loch protested but Rose was not finished yet.
”Will there be any objection to bringing my sister with us?” she asked Rin directly.
”Now, just you wait there. I’m marrying one of you. Just the one!” Loch protested anew.
”Of course you can, Rose, if that is what Anvikela wishes,” Rin answered and noted the way in which Rose seemed to…unravel…like a spring finally released after being wound too widely.
”I believe she will,” Rose said, ”But I will ask her.”
As Rose left to do exactly that, Loch hurried after her.
”How about someone asks me first! How about that, eh?” Rin heard him bluster in the hall in Rose’s wake.
”That went well, don’t you think?” Rin said to Hanasian and he was no fool. He nodded his agreement with his wife.
”Just what to you expect Loch to do as Steward?” Hanasian mildly enquired.
”Oh…not burn the place down…or bankrupt the holding. Rowdy’s men are there to keep a steady hand. And he has Rose. Thank Eru. There’s nothing wrong with Rose, by the by. She was just concerned for her sister.”
“All packaged up neat and tidy then.”
“Yes,” Rin said with some satisfaction and did not add: but for how long?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Haldeth wasn’t sure what he had expected when he took service with Cardolan as a Ranger. He had feared he would be house bound, tending to whatever needs a royal household with two small heirs had. On that score he was relieved to be proven wrong. While Haldeth was welcome at the house, and there was always a warm bed and a meal for him there, he had spent most of his time where he loved it most and that was in the wilds. It was relatively new country, for until he had taken his latest oath he had kept himself on the northern side of the Branduin for reasons he had not thought about overly much.
The journey from Fornost had been uneventful but then the Wolf was a canny Ranger and Captain Hanasian’s field craft was renown. They had hidden, as it were, in plain sight. No trappings of nobility, no airs and graces. Just a family and their household on their way somewhere. Haldeth had been warned by Massuil to throw out any expectations he may have formed of Cardolan’s Lady. The warning had come just prior to his oath, made before her and under her scrutiny. It was the nearest he had approached her. But nothing he had heard or been told had prepared him. Nearly a month had passed and he still had no clear idea who she was.
Haldeth paused in the early morning to fill his waterskin from a clear, fast running stream. Ahead lay Eryn Vorn and it was the most thickly wooded expanse left to Cardolan. For some reason, this cape to the north of the realm, had been left untouched and the forest looked wild to Haldeth’s eyes. It reminded him of the Old Forest further inland and to the north. Perhaps it was the untamed nature of it that drew him on. He had ever taken delight in the wild places of the world and precious few of those yet remained to his way of thinking. Haldeth stoppered his water skin, reattached it to his belt and leapt across the stream lightly. Before long, he was lost to the bright morning light.
The first thing Haldeth noticed was how close the air was within the trees. He could almost hear the trees breathing. It was darker, of course, but he had expected that. He trod as lightly as he could. Eryn Vorn was some 40 or so miles across at the widest and roughly 100 miles in length. It would take him some time to plumb its depths. As he pressed into the forest, it seemed unlikely that anyone, Man or Elf, would make a home here. Not even old Tom Bombadil would, Haldeth thought. His heart raced for a reason he could not grasp. No creature tracked him. He would know if one did. And then it occurred to him that creatures could be more than flesh and blood. The trees! The trees marked him! It was their scrutiny he sensed.
Haldeth paused and crouched in the damp leaf litter. The air had an earthy, moist manner to it. Why would trees startle him so, even if they did mark his passing. He had given them no offense. They did not reach for him with gnarled fingers. He was no mere boy, given to flights of fancy. And yet….And yet…. Had it not been his ancestors that had so ruthlessly torn forests such as these down for their ships. Is that what they saw, what they sensed? Whatever the answer was, Haldeth deemed it unwise to linger overlong in one place and so he moved on as carefully and swiftly as he might.
It was difficult to judge the passage of time beneath the trees. Haldeth found a place that seemed suitably protected, though from what he was not certain, and settled himself into it. His muscles ached with long use as they would after a long day of creeping through the wilds. Perhaps it was nightfall. Perhaps it was only midday. Whatever time of day or night it was, Haldeth needed to rest. Despite that, it was difficult for him to close his eyes. Once he had, in that dark and dangerous place, he found his thoughts wandering to the reason he was there. The Lady of Cardolan was as fair and remote as….as….as one of Varda’s stars. And perilous. So very dangerous.
Sleep was treacherous, coming and going like the ebb of a tide. For all of that, Haldeth was woken by an unwelcome prick at his throat. He slipped from greasy sleep to find he was at the business end of a spear. The haft was roughly made, likely scrounged, but the blade was a long and well fashioned one that he could see very clearly. It was just like the blades used by his fellow Rangers. Steel, good quality, clean lines. The spear was held by a man whose face was difficult to make out. His garb appeared…rustic…tanned leathers stitched together and little woven cloth. Haldeth also quickly noted the soft rustling of boots in the leaf litter. He had more to contend with than the one man who had prodded him awake with the point of his spear even if he could not see the others.
After a moment of staring up at the shadows around the man’s face, Haldeth heard him speak. It was a garbled string of words, none of which made any sense. None of this made any sense? He had not been sleeping deeply. He was a skilled, experienced Ranger. And he had seen no trace of any other people in the forest. People always left a trace. Always. And yet this…whatever he was had managed to creep up upon him all the same. Haldeth frowned, partially in confusion and mostly in chagrin. The man repeated whatever he said, only louder this time. It was no improvement.
Haldeth watched him gesticulate at one of his companions. He heard a woman’s voice then, in the same incomprehensible language. The man holding the spear gave an answer. It sounded like an argument to Haldeth. If it was, the woman clearly paid him no heed for she crouched close by his sword arm and peered at him. Close up in the grainy light, he could make out her features. Grey eyes frowned down at his own. Dunedain, he wondered, startled. She said something to him, speaking slowly. It still made no sense. Her eyes travelled over him, pausing at his sword and belt and then at the pin that closed his cloak. She tapped it curiously and then said something. Haldeth guessed she was asking about the rose there.
”Rose,” he tried and then, ”Cardolan.”
This made the woman blink at him and then scowl up at the man who hovered with his spear. Haldeth watched her straighten and step back. She was also clad in the same rough leathers, dark hair braided in a bundle of little braids down her back. What happened next Haldeth could not recall, on account of someone applying his spear once again to the side of his head. At least they used the haft instead of the pointy end.
Because time was difficult to pin down within Eryn Vorn, Haldeth had no idea how much had passed before he emerged once more. Days, weeks or months. Certainly it had been slow going at first. The only thing that had saved him was the pin at his cloak, which was ironic given that Haldeth had been reasonably certain that Cardolan’s device would likely be the thing that killed him when all was done. The sun felt hot and bright on his face when he stepped out. He walked a few steps and then turned back to face the trees. He could see them there, faltering dark shadows. As best he could guess, these people had not set foot outside of Eryn Vorn since the Second Age. And that had likely saved them. Why they had remained there was uncertain. Haldeth was able to make out a sense that they feared the Elves that they thought lived on the northern shore of the Branduin. Why they feared them, he did not know. Perhaps they feared the war and pestilence that had scoured the rest of their people.
One thing Haldeth was certain of. The people that now gingerly edged out from the trees, blinking in the brightness, were Dunedain. Long forgotten in Eryn Vorn, he had lumbered into the midst of the last enduring kernel of the realm of Cardolan. Aside from the Lady’s lineage, that is. It had been tales of her and the safety of the world beyond that had tempted these few emissaries out from the wild, forest fastness. One was the man who preferred to use the pointy end of his spear. Jerlin was his name and he still did not like Haldeth. His companion was the woman who had argued with Jerlin. Haldeth did not know what her name was. Apparently, it was rude to ask. She would give it to him if she chose to and that was that. Haldeth could not call her Woman, though, and so he ascribed her a name all of his own making: Fae. It seemed….apt.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Wind carried the chill of the north down over the Westmarch one last time before the warmth of Spring finally took hold that day. Halcwyn had taken to riding alone each morning over the fields. Enedoth could feel the distance yawn between them in the evenings. Thus, he was unsurprised that once the children were tucked into bed, his wife asked him to join her outside. He strode out into the cool night air, mind and heart unquiet, and stood beside Halcwyn. They stood there in silence for a long time. He did not know if Halcwyn saw the stars she gazed at. He did not, in truth. Not until a bright stream of a falling stark cut a dazzling streak over the horizon. That somehow bestirred his wife.
Halcwyn asked Enedoth, ”Have you ever killed anybody?”
He found that he had not expected that and he looked at her profile in the night for a moment as he chose his response.
”I have not,” he began and sensed her withdrawal begin anew, ”But I have seen people killed. It is painful to talk of.”
Enedoth drew in the cool night air to give himself strength, ”I was but a small boy when the war came to us. My father killed three Dunlendings before he was slain.”
He was unaware of the pain that flickered in his face as memories long silent stirred.
Halcwyn found herself regretting her question now, ”I am sorry my love. I did not mean to bring sorrowful memories back to life…”
Enedoth raise his hand to block it all from him, but realised at the last that to retreat would make the distance between himself and the woman beside him insurmountable. And so he reached for her instead and embraced his wife. He looked into her eyes.
”Memories such as those can never vanish. I have only learned to live with them. It is well past time that you knew. Had I been older and stronger then, I would have killed those men. But had I done so, I would likely not be here now to tell you of it. I remained hidden and only emerged after nearly a day after the Dunlendings left. But I have to ask you this. Why the question?”
Halcwyn had known he would ask her this but only now did the answer emerge in her troubled mind.
She said quietly, ”Because I have, my love.”
It took a moment for Enedoth to uncover his reaction. Her words had startled him on the surface. Yet, deeper, he was not in the least surprised. The temptation to question her further was strong but he heard the grinding reluctance in her words. Halcwyn was not ready to tell. He put his arm about her shoulder, and they stood silently watching the stars.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Videgavia’s return from the northern patrol was a brief one but well timed. The Company soon settled back into a routine that came face to face with the growing number of Rangers that now populated and circulated the area. It made for some interesting encounters that Hanavia found fascinating.
On a lazy spring afternoon, Hanasian and Videgavia set out for a walk. The two men had much to discuss and finding somewhere to do so privately was difficult now. In the main, their talk centred on Loch and his role in the Company. His betrothal to Rose and subsequent appointment as his sister’s Steward made it likely that he would need leave, if not outright retirement, from the Company. However, Hanasian was convinced that Loch would find either option unbearable. The young man that Hanasian had recruited a day after arresting him had lost none of his desire to be a Company man.
Hanasian vaulted over a fallen tree smoothly and, upon landing on the other side suggested, ”This may work to the Company’s advantage after all.”
His companion did not look nearly so optimistic, but that was to be expected with the Daleman. Still, Videgavia did at least try to appear open minded. Command had altered him in subtle ways.
“Yes, I could see some advantages, but how would it work?” he replied, dusting bark stuck to his hand as he followed Hanasian along through the forest.
Hanasian paused, selected a path that led away from the coast before he continued. Videgavia twisted about and caught the flicker of a Ranger just as Hanasian vanished behind a tree. That made the Daleman smile and he hurried after Hanasian on his preternaturally quiet feet.
Hanasian picked up the dangling thread of their conversation once Videgavia had found him and the Ranger that had been following them had not.
”With Loch's appointment in the south, Rosmarin has given him command of Rowdy’s men – she sent them all down there as a precaution a month ago.”
Videgavia nodded, recalling well just what sort of precaution is was. A double edged one that he had personally approved of. Stability in the south, along with distance between the men that had been bought and paid for by Lord Voromir and the woman he had tried to assassinate. Hanasian’s wife had started to display a clever hand with these sorts of things.
Hanasian continued, ”Now some, I don’t doubt, will likely resign or worse still, remain but not be committed. For all of that, it could be a de-facto base in the south. We may have to send some of the old crew down just to make sure all is well.”
Videgavia nodded but countered, ”Yes, may be best. But only if you can trust the current Rangers of the North. Massuil knows them well, but with all this trouble with Cardolan… who can be sure?”
Hanasian shook his head solemnly, ”One cannot be certain about anything. Still, we must live our lives. These Rangers of Massuil’s are good men. You, Vid, will have to take the Company forward. There is much for it to do, for the king and others. With Loch in the south, I think it will prove good in the long run.”
Videgavia frowned as he fell deep in thought. He finally said, ”I sense you are right even if I do not know how. I do not see what you see. I don’t know if I have this same sense of mission that you have. This is why you will always be the Captain. Me, I'm a namesake alone. My role is to keep things in order for the next Captain. I am no longer a young man and I do not have your Dunedain blood.”
Hanasian sighed and put his hand on Videgavia’s shoulder, ”You know that in time Loch will be captain, don't you. He's made for it, whether he understands it or not."
"Provided he doesn't get himself killed first," Videgavia interjected, for the only person more adept at placing life and limb in harm’s way than Loch was his sister. Considering the company both kept, this was no mean feat.
Hanasian took it in stride, "The same could be said for any of us, really. The years pass for us all, Vid. Aside from Khule, the other old hands will never do more than lead a unit. Khule may once have commanded legions of his own, but he no longer desires that now.
“No, Loch… he has the fire in him. But do not dare to let him know it… yet. Give him those men he thinks he needs, and any who wish to go south with him that he will accept and re-oganise those that remain here. He will handle it.
“I hope he and Rose will have a good life together. But there is something that tells me he has already found his home in the Company and one day will be its captain… “
While Hanasian and Videgavia stalked through the forests, matters were afoot as per usual back at the house.
The discussion between Rose and Anvikela had gone on for quite some time. No one, not Loch or anybody else for that matter, could really understand the language that Rose and Anvikela spoke to each other. The sisters assumed that their native language gave them a privacy all of its own. No need for escaping into the woods and eluding watchful, cautious Rangers. No need to worry about eavesdroppers, despite the fact that the Company was rife with that sort of behaviour. What neither woman grasped that that Loch had begun to pick up words here and there. Khule prodded him to divulge details mercilessly. However, in a surprising turn of consideration, Wulgof pulled the Easterling back when he noticed how worried Loch had started to look.
The conversation being listened too fell into a natural lull and Loch used this to address Khule sternly, ”You can wait until they are done.”
Khule shrugged, accustomed to such bluster and bravado from the scout, and glanced over at Mulgov who shrugged in his turn. They all knew it had something to do with Loch and Rose going south, and whatever was being said was at times rather heated. They also knew that with precisely applied pressure and impeccable timing, Loch would spill it all. All they needed was the right lever. Unfortunately, Rin was nowhere to be seen, busy with other things – like infants and small children.
What happened next took the four men lurking outside by surprise. A rumbling started up in the room. The door vibrated in the frame and refused to open when Loch began to earnestly tug on the door handle. The ground shook if only a slightly, but it reminded those who had been east too much of the day Loch had disappeared. And the day the sky had cracked open. It passed after a few moments and a few moments after that, the door openly smoothly as if it had not been stuck shut at all. Rose walked out wiping away a tear. Loch went to her as she stopped outside the door.
”What happened?” Loch asked as he folded his arms around her and peered through the open door into the room inside, ”Where is Anvikela?”
At this, Khule stepped past Loch and Rose to enter the room. The breeze made the curtain by the open window dance.
Outside the room, Rose said, ”My sister has gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?” Loch asked and looked up at Khule who emerged, head shaking from side to side.
Rose looked up, caught Loch’s confused frown and placed a finger over Loch’s lips as she calmed herself.
”Do not be troubled. She is well. She wished to leave, and I could not convince her to remain and come with us. We…fought as sisters do from time to time. I am stronger than my sister now and I could have taken her powers. Instead, I gave the core of my power to her. I need them no longer. I am to be married to you, Loch, and will live a good life with you. Anvikela wished to go out into these lands and find her own way. She has greater need of them than I. We bonded one last time and she left. She may return to visit one day.”
Stunned, Loch said after a moment, ”I think you will have to tell the captains of this. They will want to know.”
Rose nodded and took Loch’s arm. They walked out, trailed by Wulgov, Khule, and Mulgov, who were even more confused by what had happened.
That night, the gibbous moon hung heavy in a clear spring sky as Anvikela emerged from the shadows gasping for breath. She found herself standing under a fair oak tree that grew on the eastern side of the hilltops. A flick of her hand took another breath from her as a night bird flew out from the tree. The Ranger standing on the hilltop watched the bird for a moment but turned again to watch the tree, ever alert. Men such as these are not easily distracted. Anvikela remained motionless for she had no further strength to conceal herself further. A gust of wind came from the west to rustled the trees and make the dappled moonlight dance. Anvikela used that to step away down into the brush. The Ranger kept his watch even as another approached and looked to where his companion’s eyes were affixed.
He whispered, "What do you see?"
"I'm not sure. It may have been a bird, or the wind, or a small animal. But I was sure for a moment I heard someone gasping and movement.”
He pointed at the tree and both Rangers stared at it silently for a time before slowly approaching. Anvikela had gone in this time and they found nothing.
As the Rangers retreated to their positions, "There was an odd feeling there. We will look there again once daylight comes."
Anvikela rested in a thicket down in the valley below. She would need rest, for the parting from her sister had drained her much and she had a long walk yet to reach the road. From there, she would make for Bree.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Videgavia took Hanasian’s counsel and quietly informed the Company of the choice before them: join Loch in the south if he would have them or remain here in the north with him. With their ship at anchor, the two bases would never be too far apart. He left it with them to decide over the coming days. Hanasian, meanwhile, had his own counsel when it came to the Company. Their presence in the north would add a stability and protection his family needed. With bases on his wife’s land, the Company had acquired itself a patron. It could recruit from both, and potentially take in young men that might become rebels if left to their own devices in the north.
What is more, Rosmarin’s position in her cousin’s court was never more prominent than it was now. She was a noble of the highest ilk, a queen in her own right, and everyone in his court knew it. If her kinsman called for her to send men for a campaign, and there were always campaigns, she would have no choice but to comply. Yet, who could she send? Simply put, the Company needed Rin and Rin needed the Company. The problem was that while the Company was accustomed to needing its Doc, Rin had lost none of her aversion to soldiers. Hanasian had no idea how she would react to the fact that she had acquired an army, quietly and gradually. It was only a matter of time before she realised it herself. For now, though, she was distracted with Loch’s wedding and the Company remained in her eyes the Free Company of Arnor – not the Company of Cardolan.
The date of the wedding loomed ever closer, Rin mused to herself as she strode across the grounds, that Loch was simply no help at all. There was so much to be done. All the tables in the house needed to be brought outside and set up under the beech tree. Thankfully, its winter bare branches were now suitably clothed in spring green foliage. Rin had spent weeks frowning at the naked branches, worrying over that. There were the lanterns to be finished so that they could be strung up. The Cats were working on the garlands, none too happily, but so far they had complied. The yard, however, was a mess. It was filled with Company men and Company gear. Orderly enough, she supposed with a sniff, for a military unit but utterly unacceptable for a wedding! It had to all be moved and she was going to start with the worst offenders of all.
The Dirty Three had been steadily accumulating stuff that had overflown from their little cabin and begun to colonise the area outside. Boxes and bags that no one was permitted to approach. It had something to do with some scheme the trio had cooked up between themselves. Of that she had no doubt. But it was unsightly and it had to go. For one night. For Loch. It was her cabin and grounds they lived in! Rin rehearsed her arguments as she approached, picking her way through the piles. She could hear them inside, chattering amongst themselves in a patois of three languages that Hanavia was starting to use.
The best approach was a strong one, Rin decided, so instead of knocking she just pulled the door open. The chatter inside came to an instant standstill and Rin’s eyes narrowed so she could see what was going on inside. When her eyes adjusted from the bright sun she stood in, her spine went stiff.
”GIVE ME THAT!” she shouted and sprang inside, swearing in Dunlendic as she chased the three men about the small confines of the cabin.
With the options in the cabin limited, Wulgof sprung outside while the other two attempted to delay Rin. He ran from the cabin while the scuffle just inside the door grew in intensity to such a degree that the others about the grounds paused in whatever they were doing to watch. Wulgof heard Khule shout something garbled by pain and Molguv barked laughter that was suddenly checked into a wheezing cough. He spun about to see his hunter surge out of the cabin. Rin was incensed by now and it showed. She lifted one arm and stabbed a finger at him.
”TAKE THAT OFF NOW! THIS INSTANT!”
Wulgof heard the unmistakeable note of command in her voice. It was that steely note that had made her so effective as their healer. His jaw bunched and he backed up several steps as he looked down at himself.
”Why?” he asked, lifting his eyes once more to find she was advancing on him like an unholy storm.
”It’s obscene!” she hissed at him and then, ”Why was it not burnt with the others?”
Wulgof had a decision to make. It wasn’t a hard one. He continued to back away, noting that Khule and Molguv had managed to drag themselves outside in this time. By the looks of them, they’d be no help and everyone else seemed content to observe. He was in this on his own. Well then, he thought, some things never change. Wulgof decided to not answer Rin’s question and instead brushed wrinkles away over his chest.
”There’s nothing wrong with it. Company colours now, anyway.”
The good news was that his words made her halt. More than that, she froze. The bad news is that the former Company healer and now Company patron got angrier still.
”What?” she asked, voice dangerously low now and behind her, Khule was energetically shaking his head from side to side to tell him to stop – too late, as Easterlings usually are.
”What, you didn’t know?” Wulgof angled and Rin was obdurately silent.
”The Free Company of Arnor is not mine,” Rin said, measuring her words out, ”I do not have an army.”
“We’re not an army, least not yet. More of an elite military unit, that, if you haven’t noticed, seems to act in your interests and is based on your land.”
Wulgof watched Rin’s mouth open and then shut. Her jaw firmed and she glanced around at the others. No one drew a breath, no one looked away either. Wulgof swallowed hard.
”Right,” Rin said, biting the word off ominously, gathered her skirts up and stalked towards the house with a new target in her sights.
Wulgof let his breath out and looked down at the blue surcoat he wore. He didn’t like the silver rose overly much, but it was better by far than a white hand and it belonged to a patron that he could genuinely commit himself to. Around him, people shook their heads and returned to their tasks while Khule and Molguv approached. Khule was limping and Molguv had a split lip.
”That went well, don’t you think,” Wulgof asked the other two.
By the time Loch and Rose’s wedding arrived, decisions had been made about who would join Loch in the south and Rin had not ejected the Company from her land. In fact, they were all gathered together under the great beech tree, laughing and singing and dancing in celebration of the union between Loch and Rose. Garlands were woven through the branches and strewn across the tables. Lanterns cast a soft golden glow on the merry makers below. Videgavia shook his head as he lowered his tankard.
”The younger ones are going with Loch, it seems, while the old warhorses have decided to remain here,” Videgavia confided to Hanasian, ”Not how I thought it would split.”
“Probably a good thing for Loch’s new marriage that Dirty Three aren’t going with him,” Hanasian said with a grin from across the table.
He turned to study those dancing. He could see the happy couple, oblivious to it all, surrounded by the other dancers. He recalled that moment well himself but for now, his wife was nowhere to be seen. Not far from the dancing if he had to guess, and probably up to something utterly unseemly for a woman of her rank. Rin had been doing a lot of that of late in an attempt to prove to herself that she was not a noblewoman, with petitioners and an army and titles and royal privileges and honours and responsibilities. As Massuil had observed, it seemed she had become a little wilder of late. She was certainly keeping his Rangers on their toes. Hanasian hoped it would wear off, that she would settle into this as she had everything else. His wife, if nothing else, was resilient and adaptable.
”-in a week or so, do you think?” Videgavia asked and Hanasian blinked and looked over at the man.
”Certainly,” he replied and Videgavia nodded before he knocked back another mouthful of ale. Hanasian did the same, marvelling at the honeyed texture of the stuff. It had been difficult to obtain, costly, and difficult to retain once in the cellars but it all seemed worthwhile now. Imladris’ honeyed ale was perfect for an event such as this. Barrels and barrels of the stuff had been rolled out and, by the look of those around them, everyone agreed.
”And what of you? Will you venture down as well or remain here?” Videgavia asked just as Slippery appeared at the Daleman’s shoulder and grasped his forearm.
Videgavia blinked his surprise for Slippery was in a dress and it appeared Rin had taken her revenge for all the ‘fussy’ dresses Slippery had insisted she wear. For all of Rin’s distaste for such things, the dress suited Slippery well. The golden hue emphasised her dark hair and her eyes twinkled.
”Come on then. I’m not wearing this thrice damned thing again, so you’d best make the most of it,” she informed Videgavia and pulled the man to his feet.
Hanasian lifted his tankard to his mouth and was left to consider Videgavia’s question. It would be necessary for Rin to show her face in the south, to sure up Loch’s legitimacy as her Steward there and prove that she did exist and was not a monster. And on the way they could look in on his sister…and Edoras as well. Oh yes, there was a certain undertaking his wife had given to the ageing King of Rohan. There was a certain history between Edoras and her nefarious youth. As the night pressed on, Hanasian’s mind was made up.
In the early hours of the next morning, Hanasian located his wife. She was soundly asleep by now empty barrels of ale, a protective arm thrown over a blissfully asleep Khule. Both their heads were pillowed on Wulgof’s chest, untroubled by the Dunlending’s snores. Molguv had last been seen headed off into the woods, five Rangers in pursuit. Hanasian shook his head. Yes, it really was best that Rin and the Dirty Three were separated for a while. Particularly while she was so wildly unpredictable. Some time in Edoras might cure her of her nostalgia for her illicit hey day. He extracted his wife, lifted her out of the tangle of sleeping revellers. Wulgof snorted and twitched. Khule rolled and flung an arm over the Dunlending, muttering something in his native tongue. Hanasian carried his wife towards the house and their own bed within.
In the week that followed, Videgavia sent the ship south. Loch and Rose went with it, accompanied by a small crew, eager to spend some time alone with one another, freed from their duties. While the ship made its way south, Videgavia sent those who would join Loch off by road and formed the older hands, including the Dirty Three who were not bouncing back from a night of merriment nearly as fast as they used to, into patrols for the north. While the Rangers saw to the immediate surrounds of the forests and coast, the Company of Cardolan ranged further afield under the mandate of the High King of Arnor. Things settled down into a routine of sorts. Petitioners came to seek the Lady of Cardolan’s justice. The Lady of Cardolan did her best to not be found, busy elsewhere or outright absconding as far as she could make it. The Lord of Cardolan, meanwhile, saw to preparations for a long trip south.
Consequently, in the first week of summer, a month after Loch and Rose’s wedding, the Lady of Cardolan was in the saddle along with the others who would join them on their journey south. There was no pomp or pageantry, but Rin still frowned because the rose of Cardolan could be seen here and there. She didn’t like it at all but she had lost in her argument with her husband to do away with it entirely. It was, he argued, an official trip and appearance and had to be treated as such. And he was right, only it didn’t become official until the very end down in Gondor somewhere and so there was no need to start early on all the Cardolan nonsense, she had argued. Rin had no idea about the plans to stop into Edoras on the way and Hanasian was determined to keep it that way.
Twenty of Cardolan’s rangers would be going with them. Some had already set out to secure the way ahead. If it was so dangerous, Rin argued, perhaps they shouldn’t go at all. She had lost that argument as well and so she sat in her saddle and brooded about how obstreperous and intransigent Hanasian had become of late. He had left her with his cousins and Foldine while he quietly spoke with Massuil and those Rangers that would be left behind to watch over the house. Rin twisted in her saddle to study him.
”You’ll like Rohan, Doc,” Foldine told her and Rin shot him a look.
”I recall it well enough to like it from here,” she replied and returned her attention to Hanasian. The man was up to something. She just knew it.
”Rolling fields, endlessly tumbling into the distant horizon,” Foldine continued, waxing lyrical.
“Grass, rocks and horses,” Rin answered flatly, ”With the monotony broken by the occasional goat.”
Frea chuckled and his brother grinned.
”The majesty of the golden roof of Meduseld!” Foldine exclaimed and this swung Rin’s eyes to his.
She stared at him for several heartbeats and then applied her heels to her horse to send it forward to where Farbarad quietly waited. Foldine looked over at the twins and grinned. All three of them knew. They knew about Meduseld. They knew about the cheese. They knew where Hanasian was taking his wife on their way to Gondor and they weren’t about to miss it for the world.
”I am going to enjoy this,” Foldine said, waggling his bushy eyebrows at the other two and watched them nod their agreement.
Hanasian came striding past them and swung into his saddle, clearly pleased with something or other. His eyes swept over them, resting briefly on his cousins and winking at them, before he found his wife with Farbarad and gave the signal to move out.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Loch wasn’t sure just what made a honeymoon a honeymoon, aside from the obvious. In his estimation, though, their time aboard the ship seemed to qualify. Didn’t it? There were enough hands on board to see to the ship and Loch enjoyed the opportunity that created to relax with his bride. The wind was favourable and constant. The seas were gentle, frothed every now and anon when the wind became more vigorous. They made fair time on the open sea where the currents ran favourably to the south.
On the second night out the skies were clear and the stars particularly bright, or so Rose thought as she stood on the nightdark deck by the starboard rail. Loch was below, soundly asleep. She pulled the white silk robe she had donned tighter around her and gazed to the western horizon. It was out there, somewhere in the dark, as was her sister.
Anviekla’s absence had been a palpable one at the wedding, Rose thought. She missed her even now. They had spent their lives together and separation, now, was not easy. Rose supposed Loch must have encountered the same thing with his own sister. They, like Anvikela and herself, had endured no small hardships together and their bonds were consequently forged strong.
For all that she missed Anvikela, Rose was certain that her life with Loch would be much more than anything she had known before. If their marriage was to grow, she had to surrender her powers. She had a different path now. Rose’s certainty that she had chosen wisely did not offer her any protection from lingering feelings of weakness and vulnerability. She had always had the refuge of her sister and her powers. Always had the customs and rituals. Recalling one particular rite from her childhood, Rose lifted her arms and put her hands out to the west.
The talk of the Dunedain echoed through Rose’s head. They spoke of the shroud of Varda. Rose gazed along her arms until she found the band of silver that arced over head. She lifted her hands towards this and closed her eyes to wait. For what she did not know. Her robe gently fluttered round her. The ship creaked. The sea sighed its ancient song. Nothing. Rose lowered her arms and opened her eyes, feeling a strange blend of relief and foolishness. She looked down to admire the ring Lochared had given her and smiled.
”It is better this way,” she murmured to herself.
The sound of footsteps turned Rose’s head and she saw Loch was crossing the deck towards her, sandy hair tousled by sleep. She did not see the tiny spark of white light her ring offered for a scant moment. Rose turned her attention back to the west as Loch fit himself against her back and slid his arms around her.
”Trouble sleeping, my love?” he murmured into her ear and made her smile. So few saw this tender side of her husband.
She looked over her shoulder at him as her hand entwined with his.
”No, dear husband. I only wished to smell the fresh sea air again. The last time we were on a ship, I did not sense any of this. Now I feel my senses awaken!”
Loch nuzzled her neck a moment and then led her back to their cabin. They were soon once again asleep as the ship gently rocked. It would be some time before they would be on land again. As Loch drifted off to sleep again, he resolved to make the most of this time with Rose. Too soon, he guessed, his duty to the Company would call.
Aside from their evening turn about the deck, Loch and Rose were rarely seen by the crew in what was a thoroughly uneventful journey south. The crew were saved from boredom when the seas became rougher and the wind contrary shortly as they rounded the Cape of Andrast and had to push their way east. All told, it only added a day to their voyage. In the opinion of the newly weds, it was a day well worth gaining.
The eastern sky was dappled in cloud as dawn approached. Loch awoke to find the bed empty and Rose gone. He found her on deck, standing by the prow. A faint sheen of light glowed from her hand and lit her face. Loch frowned for it was a strange sight. As soon as she sensed Loch, the light faded and Rose turned to face him.
”Good Morning Rose,” Loch said and watched Rose shyly smile at him.
”Good morning me dear husband.”
“Did you not sleep well?”
Loch wouldn’t have known, for he went to sleep hard the night before. How often did his wife go wandering while he slept? As he pondered that, he saw that Rose’s played with the ring on her left hand. She twisted it about, fidgeting.
”I slept well, of course. The evening was a rather busy one, as well you know. I woke only a little while ago and I came up to see the stars. There are lights in the far distance. We will land today, no?”
Rose turned away and Loch stepped behind her to peer over her shoulder. The ship was cutting a deep furrow east through the waves. His wife was fidgeting, and he hadn’t missed her habit of finishing statements with questions that weren’t really questions. Anvikela had done it too.
”Yes, by evening I believe,” he answered.
“I will always remember the time we shared on this ship. I will miss it, I think,” Rose said wistfully.
Loch nodded and said, ”Yes, for the days ahead will be interesting.”
They stood silent for a time, and Loch did not press Rose further. He knew from experience, a woman cornered into answering untimely questions could be a bruising experience. At that thought, the face of his sister floated into his mind for a moment. Rose turned to him and kissed him deeply, and all thought of anyone other than his wife vanished like smoke on a stiff wind. The newlyweds were soon gone from the deck and did not emerge again until the call came that they were about to dock.
The ship reached port before sundown and pulled into the fourth quay of Dol Amroth. Loch thought it had a faintly elvish look to it, but he kept that to himself. Once the ship was tied off, Loch led Rose and some of his men off the ship towards the party that waited upon the docks for them. There were three of them, all men who had served in Rowdy’s squad. Men handpicked by Rowdy. Men paid by the noble that had tried to assassinate his sister. Rowdy was a good man, a fine warrior who had given his life to defend Rin. Would he have picked men he did not trust?
Loch stood awkwardly there and wondered what they made of him: A Dunlending with a wife from a distant land and a band of Easterlings who looked about as inconspicuous as a bear wearing a tiara. Under the evening sun they stared at each other for a long moment and Loch began to wonder how this was all going to end. Finally the man that stood in the middle of the trio, the one with a slightly different insignia on his uniform compared to the other two, stepped forward and saluted.
”Commander Lochared, I trust your voyage went well?”
“Yes, quite well,” Loch answered with growing dismay.
Commander? He wasn’t too sure he liked the sound of that. What does a commander do? How do they act? He had not given it a moment’s thought since setting out. He had been preoccupied with, Loch glanced sideways at Rose, with other matters. Rose gave him a calm smile, looking thoroughly unruffled. How was it that woman managed to do that? Loch inhaled and tried to straighten himself out. He was on his own, on point. Videgavia or Hanasian were not here for him to hide behind. What would they do? Ah…..the answer materialised before him.
”I’ll have your report now. What is the situation here, Sergeant?”
The man took a breath and, with a glance at his two companions, spoke quietly. They were not alone on the docks by any measure.
”All is well here in Dol Amroth. The tidings don’t affect Dol Amroth directly. Only the usual rumblings here and there of discontent. The lands and estate of Voromir are secure. No incidents. Still the mood is mixed. They anticipate the arrival of you as Steward and feel no small measure of regret at the change and the reasons for it. Some fear retribution or ill will. Yet the likelihood of threat is minimal. Voromir, for all of his faults, was deeply loyal to the King and those who live on his lands are no exception. The King’s proclamation had been widely distributed and is well known.”
“Very good then.” Loch said and they started to walk.
He caught sight of a sandy haired old man walking with a stick in hand. The old man, like other elders about the dock, did raise his eyebrows at the sight of Loch’s party. However, in the main they were either ignored or politely greeted.
The sergeant continued, “We’ve a place for you and your men to rest tonight. I expect the trading will conclude tomorrow morning. The Lady was adamant that trade with Dol Amroth continue uninterrupted. We will be able set out for your new home by mid morning.”
There was so much to think of. Trade, alliances, the good will of the people. As Steward, Loch knew all of this would be entrusted to him in his sister’s absence. But would it be home? Loch seemed to find the faces that stared at them. He felt he was more of an occupier than a resident. The trust his sister had shown in appointing him to this role. He couldn’t let her down. Not just her, all the people that lived on her lands as well. Loch’s mind started to whir, decisions and plans for their days ahead. All he could do was hope they were the right ones. Time would be the judge of that.
They arrived at an old inn that the Sergeant had procured for them. Loch and Rose were shown to a stately room where they could rest for the night. Runner and the young Easterlings of the Company had a common room set with bunks for them. It would be a restful night for all save two. It was, after all, the last night of their honeymoon.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The days passed with fair weather and little disturbance for those setting out from Cardolan over land. The only thing unusual about it was how quiet most of the party were. Oh, and the fact that they travelled with a small child and an infant.
Too much thinking, Wulgof concluded, himself guilty of the same. They would reach Tharbad soon. On the other side lay Dunland. Wulgof regretted that Loch was not here to explore their homeland as they passed through. Still, he mused, the Kid was happy now, married and all. The thought made Wulgof frown. The Kid is a good man. And besides, his sister was with them and Dunland was her home too, once.
He looked over at Mulguv, who seemed to be counting something. The Haradian’s fighers flickered and he had that intense look of concentration on his face. Wulgof figured that the man had to have something in play, a scheme of some sort. Molguv always tries to find the angle most profitable for him. Trouble was, more often than not, it seemed to cost him just a bit more than what he gains.
Up ahead, Hanasian rode beside the Doc. Wulgof shook his head and amended that. Doc was Lady Rosmarin now. The last time they had been at Tharbad, she had been the thieving wraith that had robbed Molguv and Khule blind, in broad daylight. Well, it had been raining then, hard too, but it was day light. Bold as that. Who could have known that she was of royal descendant? He’d never even heard of Cardolan back then. Wulgof scratched at his head and pondered the matter further. After a while, he shook his head. She might be the Lady of Cardolan. As far as he was concerned, she was Doc. Always would be. And that made Wulgof check his purse hung where he had put it that morning. After that, his daggers. She was fond of those, demon that she was. He patted himself down to reassure himself and then glanced around the rest of the group.
Off to the side, the Rohirrim seemed to be holding together. Foldine was talking with Frea and Folca, and there seemed to be some concern amongst them. Those three were always worried about something. Wulgof decided he wasn’t going to get involved. He didn't like the sound of Rohirric anyway and he knew those three would not stoop to Westron if they thought they could get away with it.
Behind him rode Videgavia and Khule, talking together. If there was any two who should hate each other, then it had to be the Easterling and the Rhovanion. But Vid was the Cap, and Khule… well, he was a commander once. Officers… yeeesh. Actually, come to think of it, the three strawheads had no love lost for Rhun either. But then, they didn’t like anyone that didn’t advantage them to like. Proud, Wulgof thought, for a bunch of men who smelt overly much like horses.
Wulgof grinned to himself behind hid beard and decided he needed to stop thinking before it got him into trouble. They were approaching Tharbad, Doc’s most southerly settlement. There’d surely be official duties for her. That should prove…entertaining. Just as well he had brought his surcoat along.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Rin opened the door just wide enough to slip through. No sooner had she closed the door after herself did she hear the measured tread of footsteps in the hall beyond. She held her breath, glanced at the floorboards. She’d have to be quick and quiet. One misstep, one creak, and she’d be done for. A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. And they said her previous career offered no useful skills at all, she thought. It was all a matter of smooth movements, evenly distributed weight, an eagle eye and a pinch of good luck. She was on the inside of the door without so much as a sound just as the door started to open.
Rin glanced up for the first time and realised she was not alone. Her companions frankly returned her gaze. One was curious, one was amused and the other looked speculative. No time to buy their silence, or threaten it. She could try the wide eyed damsel in distress, but these three were immune to that. Burned too many times before, by her. Farbarad’s head poked through. She was doomed.
”Have you seen Rin?” the Ranger asked and three men gave three different versions of no.
One shrugged, one scowled and the other shook his head.
”Are you sure about that?”
“You calling us liars now, Ranger?” the scowling man asked combatively.
Farbarad muttered something under his breath in Sindarin and withdrew. The door closed and Rin heard his boots continue on down the hall. She let out her pent up breath and considered the three men.
”Alright, how much will that cost me?” she asked.
Wulgof’s scowl reversed and he considered his two companions.
”An excellent question, Doc,” the Haradian rumbled and Rin sighed. If they didn’t get out of Tharbad soon, she’d be so far into debt that not even her cousin’s royal treasuries could get her out.
Farbarad returned to the parlour and spread empty hands.
”She has not left the building. That much we know,” he said, ”But it’s a large building and she’s one determined woman. We’ll not flush her out before the party waiting downstairs started to get offended.”
Hanasian sighed heavily. Rin was getting worse. Something had to be done, for all their sakes. He looked over to where his son was busy with a toy given to him by a delegation of business men who had dropped by to curry the Lady of Cardolan’s favour. Rin had scarpered then too. In fact, the only thing she had attended since arriving at Tharbad was a tour of the local medical facility. They’d had to run to keep up with her for that official engagement. Hours later, they’d had to drag her out of there.
”Hanavia, would you like to see a bridge?” Hananasian asked his son and Hanavia considered it a moment before nodding.
Bridges meant water, water meant mud, mud meant squirming wriggling things and frogs.
Hanasian gathered up his son and set out to join the small delegation that waited to officially open Tharbad’s newest bridge.
”Don’t forget to name it,” Farbarad helpfully advised and Hanasian scowled.
Oh, he’d name it alright: The Misbehaving Errant Wife.
It took them three days to extricate themselves from Tharbad. After the first day and the following morning, Hanasian assigned a constant trio of shadows to his wife’s heels. Everywhere she went, they went. As a result, the Lady of Cardolan attended every official function thereafter and was in a foul frame of mind as they set off for Rohan.
”May the Valar watch over you, Princess Rosmarin,” the town mayor finished, ”So that you might return to our humble city all the sooner.”
Rin caught Farbarad’s warning frown and found her husband wore a matching scowl, both directed at her. And so she smiled blandly and waved and did all the stupid, meaningless things that she was apparently supposed to do. The fact that the Dirty Three were watching avidly and smirking did nothing to improve her disposition.
”That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” Farbarad muttered as he rode beside her.
”The next person who calls me a prin-“
“HEY PRINCESS, LOOK!” Wulgof shouted, waving his arms and pointing along the trail.
Rin directed a withering glare at the Dunlending, already regretting her deal with the Dirty Three.
”This is it,” Foldine said, glancing around him.
Hanasian, still cross with her, was ahead with Hanavia. He had slowed. Rin looked about. All she saw was a trail and trees. They’d barely ridden an hour from Tharbad and Rin wanted to be as far away as possible from that place. Foldine slipped out of his saddle. So too did the Dirty Three and Hanasian. They began to walk about, stopping at a stone or a dip in the land. Rin heaved an irritated sigh and scowled at her three ranger shadows. When were they going to be stood down, she wondered. She’d already tried to stand them down, on several occasions. It rankled that despite the fact they had sworn their oaths to her, they did not take her orders. At least, not the ones that counted. If she wanted tea or her horse saddled, well and good. If she wanted to be left alone, that was another thing entirely.
Rin was so distracted with her cantankerous thoughts that she scarcely noticed Foldine’s approach. He stood with a hand on her gelding’s bridle and looked up at her, a hand screening the morning sun from his eyes.
”Don’t you remember?” he asked softly.
”Remember what? It’s been four years since I was here last, and even then it was raining and dark,” Rin grumbled.
Foldine pointed to where the others were. Videgavia had crouched to explore something on the ground. Hanasian looked…thoughtful. That was a worrying thing, Rin concluded.
”Right over there, you saved my life. And there, that’s where Bear was, wasn’t he?”
Rin frowned at Foldine, taken by surprise. Here? Was it really here that she had first ventured into battle with the Black Company? She blinked at where he pointed.
”Aye, that’s where we found Bear,” Wulgof said, ”Nearly lost our heads for it thanks to an orc pike. Suspected you were insane then and there.”
The screams, gibbering orcs in the dark. The mud and the quivering of Hanasian’s horse as he slipped over the back and sent it charging away with a brisk slap. Now that she thought on it, insanity was the only reason. The Black Company had apprehended her for stealing! The orc attack had provided her with the perfect opportunity to escape. She could have fished Loch out of prison and been away. What madness had brought her back to this place to find Bear, then Foldine and then Gian. She had clubbed an orc to death with a rock! A rock! Videgavia had moved over to the side of the trail and crouched again. They had lost men that night, good scouts felled by orc arrows in the night. One had managed to sound the alarm, the only warning they had.
Rin slipped from her saddle to approach the spot. She had a distant look on her face as she wandered about. She recalled the terror and desperation. The clash of steel and iron, the tang of blood and the stench of orcs and battle. Someone had been singing, she recalled, through the worst of it. She had discovered later it had been her brother and in that moment she had known that he was one of them: a soldier. It had broken her heart at first. She stared at where she had found Bear. She could hear his laboured breathing, still feel the slick warmth of his blood on her hands and arms as she repacked his gut. The whistle of blades through the air and Wulgof panting as he fended them off her unprotected back.
”Do you regret it,” Hanasian asked softly from behind her and Rin whirled about to face him.
”When I saw my horse run by the edge of battle, saddle empty, I thought you dead,” he continued, ”I hoped, at least, for a woman taken alive by orcs is a crueller fate again. You could have run. Do you regret that you did not?”
Hanasian saw her eyes widen as he spoke. She held their daughter in a sling against her chest. She wore simple garb for travelling, but compared to the rags she had been wound in, it seemed luxuriant upon her. Gone was the fever gleam of her eyes. She had been so painfully thin then. He could tell she was thinking hard about his question and he began to regret asking it. If she answered yes, then what?
”No” Rin replied, barely more than a whisper. He could see that she meant it.
”Everything changed here. Everything. In ways I could not imagine or prepare for. It changes still, even now,” she continued earnestly, ”I try my best and I often fail…but I do not regret it.”
Hanasian slipped a finger under her chin and lifted it so that he could place a soft kiss upon her lips. He hated being at odds with this woman he loved so much.
”I know you are trying, my love. I will do all that I can to help,” he murmured against her lips and then cupped her face between his palms.
He searched her eyes, much as he had a little way further along the track over four years ago. Then she had dangled from his grip, frightened and angry all at once. She had been desperate and she had been sealed away and hiding behind a wall that had been very difficult for him to see through. Now, though, those walls were gone and the woman behind them was revealed to him. He kissed her again and gave the signal to mount up and continue on.
They were not riding through driving rain this time. Nor were they transporting recently apprehended, very weak and unwell thieves. And so they reached a place where a bank lined with tangled bushes rose sharply above the trail. The slope was no longer slippery with mud. Instead it was grassed over and green. Just down was the spot she had stood for hours, slipping in and out of delirum and staring at the trees. They did not stop here, although the Dirty Three made more than a few jests about daylight robbery and mud wrestling. Even Videgavia grinned when Molguv commented on how difficult it had proven to be rid of the Company’s pets.
”Pet? She owns us now. We really messed that up,” Wulgof said.
”Told you the frog was a better idea,” Khule said, ”Biddable, quiet and tasty in a pinch.”
Their first day in Dunland passed before it occurred to Rin that she was finally back in Dunland. She wasn’t sure what to make of that. Certainly, those around them knew what to do. The Rangers pulled in closer and began to reconnoitre far more extensively. The Rohirrim ensured their spears, bow and arrows were at the ready. There were fewer stops to let Hanavia run about during the day. Rin became instinctually wary, particularly as they passed a farm two days later around midday. The farmer, who lived alone, was more than pleased for company in his fields. He did not recall her but she would never forget him. She would never forget the look of rage on Loch’s face either.
Rin stayed close to the horses, eager to be away from this old soldier with a penchant for vulnerable girls on their own. She could see there was washing on the line by the house. The sound of her heart pounding in her throat as Loch dragged her out at a run. The rip of the sheet as they tore it off the line while sprinting past. Rin glanced down to see her hands shaking. Fear, revulsion, anger – she did not know which. She needed to calm down, though, for Elian was becoming agitated.
"This the one?” Wulgof asked quietly and nearly took ten years off her life.
He set a hand on her forearm, ”No need to worry now, Doc. Not while we’re about. He’s just a broken down old soldier, like me.”
Rin’s eyes narrowed as she studied the farmer. He was seated with Farbarad, Hanasian and her three Ranger shadows, laughing at something Farbarad had said. One look at Hanasian told Rin all she needed to know. The Rangers weren’t there to be sociable.
”No, Wulgof. He’s nothing like you,” she replied solemnly and did not see the queer look the Dunlending directed at her before he ambled away, scratching his jaw and muttering quietly to himself.
Aside from that farmer, they did not see another soul and for that Rin was profoundly grateful. She had no doubt the residents of Dunland knew they were there. None at all. She hoped that they would be left in peace, judged too much of a risk to cross, for the remainder of their time here.
Hanasian watched his wife draw into herself as the days passed in Dunland. She was sleeping poorly. The nightmares had returned. It was as if the past was reaching for her, dragging her back, and he did not know quite what to do about it. Thankfully, no horde set upon them though he expected that had more to do with the force they travelled with rather than fortune or good will. The tradgies and offenses of the past here ran deep. Wulgof muttered about the bare hills and the absence of trees. The man somehow seemed more fierce than he usually did, though he trod unusually carefully around Rin. The Rohirrim were a bundle of naked aggression barely held in check. Khule was keeping a low profile entirely. Rangers were like as not a red flag to Dunland’s bull. Farbarad was a silent storm in a saddle. Thank goodness for Videgavia, Hanasian thought.
Though they had little desire to linger in Dunland, they had to stop along the way. A pleasant dell in the lee of a sharp hill offered an ideal place to camp for the night. Dappled sun, lightly wooded, abundant fresh water fed by the icy shoulders of the nearby mountains. Hanavia wriggled out of his father’s lap, down his leg and leapt to the ground with a joyous shout before Hanasian could even rein in properly. The boy was off like a shot, charging through the dell and soon pursued by three Rangers.
”Let the lad play while we set up camp. Will do him a world of good,” Hanasian called after them as he climbed out of the saddle himself.
The business of setting up camp was down to a fine routine by now. Pickets were established, the order of the watch determined, tents and fire rings set up, fuel gathered. It scarcely needed Hanasian to oversee it, not with Videgavia keeping an eye on it all, and so he approached his wife. Elian had started to fuss. Rin was clearly weary, sleepless nights and days in the saddle weighing on her. She remained, he thought, too thin. She was wearing the blue dress that had stolen his breath away in Bree. She wore that dress a lot and it was starting to show signs of use. Now that it was relegated to travelling garb, he made a mental note to have another made before it fell apart entirely.
”Come, love. I am sure there is a quiet, cool place close by for Elian,” he said and saw her nod, distracted.
Hanasian took Rin’s arm and led her further into the dell. A proper watch had been deployed now and it was utterly secure. Farbarad was with Hanavia on the banks of the stream, predictably. Hanasian could hear his son’s excited chatter as he regaled the elder ranger with his varied discoveries in the cool, sucking mud.
”Ah, this looks right, don’t you think?” he said at a particularly pleasant, quiet spot.
Again Rin nodded absently and settled onto a fallen tree trunk. He sat beside her and kept a careful watch lest her fatigue result in an accident, such as dropping Elian. No such thing occurred and soon Elian was contentedly silent, hands curled against her mother as she nursed. Hanasian reached to stroke the downy soft skin of his daughter’s cheek. Her pale hair was getting long. He brushed a strand of her mother’s hair away from where it had curled over Rin’s nose. Rin barely blinked.
”I know this is hard,” he started, uncertain, and Rin sighed.
What was she thinking, he wondered. He looked over at where she was staring. All he could see was hillside. A green ocean rippled as the afternoon breeze eddied through the thick grasses. They sat in silence until Elian was finally sated and then headed back for the camp. When Rin saw it, her stomach dropped away with a sudden sickening lurch and she froze.
”What? What is it?” Hanasian asked, deeply concerned.
His grey eyes scanned the surrounds. Trees, moss, undergrowth, a bush covered in periwinkle blue flowers... A glance to Rin revealed that her face was the colour of chalk. He could see her pupils had dilated.
”Surely not,” he said and Rin drew in a shuddering breath.
She turned to face the hillock again. Her expression was flooded with emotion and Hanasian called for aid.
”Fetch Farbarad, keep the children here,” he told the Ranger who loped towards them at speed, and passed Elian to him.
”Aye,” the Ranger responded with a glance at Rin, ”Just Farbarad?”
“Yes, for now,” Hanasian said and then, ”Quickly. This must be done before the light fails.”
The Ranger was off, Elian carefully cradled against his chest. While they waited, Hanasian pulled his wife into his arms. She barely seemed responsive.
”Rin, We do not know what lies on the top of that hill. No matter what, nothing there can hurt you now. Do you hear me?”
Farbarad arrived short of breath and puzzled, ”What?”
Hanasian explained in quiet Sindarin and posed a simple question. Farbarad scanned the area and then shook his head miserably, ”I don’t know! It was over 40 years ago now, dark and we were running for our lives.”
“There is only one way to find out,” Rin said, eyes still locked on the hill.
”Is that…wise?” Farabarad queried.
”I have been carrying the past for too long. It is time, I think, to set it down,” she answered, not realising she had answered in Dunlendic, and set off towards the hillock.
The years had surrendered the trail that once had been carved into the hillside. The years had taken a lot, Rin discovered. The barn was now a jumbled heap of timbers that grass was devouring. Gone were the chickens and horses and goats and Da’s one cow. Gone too were the windows and door and roof of the cottage. No one had scavenged the stones. The thicker stack of the chimney thrust unevenly into the vast sky. Rin stood in the empty doorway. There was only one way in and out of the cottage. Gone was the table that Loch used to run helter skelter about, knocking chairs this way and that and making Ma cross. Gone were all the pots that hung near the hearth, copper always so shiny that you could see your face in it. Gone were the beds they would all pile into, sometimes all in one on the coldest of winter nights.
Here and there Rin could see, amidst the thick weeds that occupied what once had been her home, broken pieces of glass dimmed by dust and the years. Bottles, she guessed, of all the things her mother had put away to keep for the winter. She had let Rin help her with the pickling, patiently explaining vinegars and oils and brines and which went best with the things Da brought home. The weeds were so high that Rin could not make out the hearth. It had jutted out and it was there that Ma had made her sit while she brushed out tangles in recently washed hair.
Da would tease her and make her laugh with silly stories to distract her from the pulling of the comb. Loch would pull faces. Da had made a bird feeder one, just for her. He had set it in the window so that she could watch the birds from inside. If she was very still and quiet, they would linger there for a long time. Sometimes he would sit with her and watch. Sometimes Loch would sneak up on them for a joke and frighten them away. Da would chuckle along but pretend to be cross with Loch for her sake. Ma would sing. She could hear their voices, their laughter. Their faces were lost to her though. Rin considered the stones of the doorway around her. She had not touched them, yet.
A short distance away, Hanasian watched his wife in the door of her shattered childhood home. The wind was rising as the sun set. It tugged at her skirt and hair. She had her back to them both. He could not guess at her thoughts. Of all the places to stop for the night, this? His jaw clenched and he cast a glance at Farbarad. Farbarad was staring at what used to be a barn, hands curling and uncurling at his side.
”I thought she’d be safe here. I really did,” he muttered to himself, ”It was our only choice!”
Farbarad could still see the tears on Verawyn’s face as she carried her child past him and into the barn. He had stood at the door, chaffing at every moment lost. They needed to be off, draw those hunting them away. He had urged Verawyn to make haste, little knowing it would be the last she would see of her infant daughter. Still, if they had not set her here, the child would have been lost as surely as her parents were. Even if the arrow that claimed Verawyn that night had spared her daughter, how could they have sustained the child? She would have perished of hunger by the time they had regained the safety of Imladris. Farbarad found that his logic offered cold comfort to him.
Hanasian wiped his hands over his face. He had feared that the bones he had found scattered across the hill and in the cottage would linger still. He hoped someone had set them to rest and scavengers had not carried them off. He still remembered the gruesome tableaux. His wife’s foster parents had not met easy ends. Her mother, in particular, had been made to suffer. He felt the pressure of their presence even now and noted that Rin had been careful to touch no stones. Nothing could be gained from reliving those hellish final moments that the stones had witnessed. And so, when his wife set her palm to the doorway, Hanasian shouted his alarm.
All Rin wanted to do was see her mother’s face one last time. And the stones gave her that. She saw what she had already seen. She saw the spark of life gutter out and her mother’s eyes grow cold and empty. She heard the smashing of glass as they had come through the window to unbar the door. She heard their grunts and oaths, the slash of a knife and the spray of blood, the sickening sound of blows, flesh meting violence upon flesh. She felt the press of Loch’s sweaty hand over her mouth as he pulled her closer to her. She watched her mother’s blood pool and gather on the floor. She could see their faces too. Bloodlust and hatred, fear and revulsion. Harsh voices and panting. The stink of rancid sweat.
Hanasian reached his wife as her knees buckled. He pulled her back from the door and against him. Her eyes were open but unseeing and she was muttering something over and over again in Dunlendic. Farbarad pulled his water bag from his belt, emptied water into a cupped hand and sprinkled it over Rin’s face. She was a white as a ghost and Hanasian could feel her shuddering. It was the barrow downs and Skhar all over again, only infinitely worse.
Shadows leaned over her. She did not know who. They surrounded her. Was it happening again? If she took her mother’s place would Loch know some peace? Had they come because of her, what she was? One of the shadows held her fast, his grip unbreakable no matter how she tested it. The other leaned over. Something dripped onto her face. Blood? No, it was sweat!
Farbarad refilled the palm of his hand with yet more water and let it fall over Rin’s face. She twisted to avoid him, wrenching herself over so that she lay on the ground between Hanasian and Farbarad, panting into the grass as she repeated that phrase in Dunlendic.
They released her! Why? What devilry did they plan now? Grass was cool against the palms of her hands. She curled her fists into it and could smell the earth. But nothing further came. No more sweat. No pain or blood or violence from them. She pressed her face against the ground and breathed in the clean scent of the earth. It had passed. They had gone. She was alive. And her tormenters were not monsters at all. They were men. Frightened, cowardly, unwashed men. The discovery resonated through her as she drew in another breath. Against men she could prevail.
Hanasian glanced at Farbarad and saw the Ranger shrug. It seemed that Rin’s trembling had started to abate. She had stopped muttering and now she just lay there upon the earth.
”Not monsters, men,” she said, this time in Westron though the ground muffled her words, ”Men, not monsters.”
Hanasian stroked back hair carefully and she twisted her head to look at him. Rin’s eyes still seemed clouded, but they were clearing to a delicate starlit grey even as he watched. He ran the back of his fingers over the curve of her cheek. Slowly she pushed herself off the ground. He pulled her into his arms and held her tightly as the sunset cast a ruddy light over the hilltop. Night was not far away and Hanasian was determined to be safely amidst the fires of camp by the time it fell.
That night, Hanasian was surprised to find that his wife slept soundly. The fact that she did so with her Ranger outside the tent, drawn sword across his knees as his vigil was maintained, was no surprise. Come the following dawn, her soft warmth lay quietly against him. He opened his eyes to find she was quietly studying him, hair tumbling around her in delicate golden rivulets. For the first time since, perhaps, before the darkness of winter had covered them, he felt like he was gazing upon his wife. She reached out to smooth his hair, winding the dark lengths around her long fingers as she did so, leaned forward and kissed him fulsomely.
And so they made their way out Dunland and into Rohan proper. Rin’s irritability seemed to have vanished into thin air. Hanasian began to feel a little guilty about the surprise that lay ahead. It seemed, somehow, even more duplicitous to go to Edoras after seeing his sister. Thus he resolved they would reach Edoras first. The sooner that was out of the way the better. Then there would be no more lingering chickens from Rin’s past yet to find a roost. She had to let go of the past. So much, so many were relying on her steady hand for the future. And, the more time he had to work off her displeasure with him before they reached Gondor, so much the better.
Hanasian kept a careful eye on the Rohirrim. They would certainly realise the change in their course. His cousins and Foldine seemed preoccupied with what appeared to be an argument between them. What it was eluded him but after a particularly tense day of argument between the three men, Foldine threw his arms up one night and stomped over to the fire where Rin sat with Hanavia. Rin stared up at the man, who didn’t notice at first because he was busy scowling over at Frea and Folca. The twins stood together nearby, arms folded, brows furrowed and expressions unhappy. A normal state of affairs for Frea, most unusual for Folca.
In a voice that he was certain would carry, Foldine announced ”I owe you my life and I haven’t forgotten it, despite what some say.”
“Well now, that’s….nice,” Rin observed cautiously and this made the man look down at the woman he was speaking to. He sighed after a moment, the last vestige of regret.
”And so, in recognition of that, I will forgo any…profit that might arise as a result of our…acquaintance.”
At that, the twins nodded their evident satisfaction and Foldine sighed again.
”Does that mean I get to keep that pipe of yours too?” Rin asked and Foldine’s expression darkened. He’d quite forgotten the fact that the woman he was not now going to claim bounty on had stolen his best pipe.
”Fine,” he muttered and stalked away, leaving Rin to smile conspiratorially at her son.
Of course, the talk of profit had not gone unnoticed by others in the camp. The Dirty Three spent the next three days feretting out this unclaimed profit that lay for the taking. Ultimately, it was Khule who discovered the secret and he brought this to the other two. Molguv’s eyes lit up at the news and Wulgof looked like he eaten a lemon.
”Oh, that’s just perfect now,” he grumbled.
Molguv nodded enthusiastically, ”It’s what we’ve been waiting for. That price is the highest in Rohan. All gold too. Probably weighs more than she does. Do you think they’ll pay the full bounty given we’ve only got half of the culprits?”
Khule looked thoughtful and Wulgof thumped the Haradian’s shoulder, ”No! We can’t! She’s our patron. How can she pay our wages if she is in jail, eh?”
“I’m sure something can be worked out,” Mulguv assured him, ”And they won’t keep her for long. She’s royal, she’s a mother and Eomer has a weakness for pretty faces. You saw how it happened in Rhun. She was as charming as a hungry mountain cat, and all he could do was grin after her.”
“And what about the fact we’d be selling out one of our own?” Wulgof sighed and Khule eyed him.
With a shake of his head, the Easterling said, ”Never thought Wulgof would present us with an ethical dilemma. What are we coming to?”
Ultimately, though, it was impossible to approach Edoras without knowing it. The traffic on the roads increased and then there was the fact that Meduseld’s golden roof sat high above a plain. Difficult to miss, really. As soon as Rin clapped eyes on it she reined in her horse.
”Absolutely. Not.” she declared and had already pulled her horse about before she was surrounded.
”Time,” Hanasian said as he leaned across to address his wife sternly, ”To honour commitments given and undertakings made. Time to set the past to rest.”
Rin pointed at Foldine, ”There is no conceivable way I am riding in there with a man of that profession!”
“But I promised already!” Foldine objected, injured, ”And I gave you my best pipe!”
“Not to worry, Doc. We’ll make sure you ain’t arrested. My personal guarantee!” Wulgof earnestly assured her and Hanasian gave the signal to continue on towards Edoras.
”Comforting,” Rin growled to herself and eyed the knot of horses and men that now cornered her in. If Slippery were here, she'd help her. Last time she travelled without another woman, Rin resolved.
”You know, there is a way you could be assured with confidence,” a deep Southron voice rumbled over to her left.
Rin sighed at that, ”After Tharbad, I am utterly broke.”
“Really? That’s a shame,” Molguv agreeably commented.
Hanasian missed none of this, ”Molguv, please don’t extort my wife in my hearing. Men, don’t take your eyes off her for a moment. She’s slipperier than an eel. Rin, you have two choices: hard or easy. This is happening. Choose wisely.”
“And I’ve been so well behaved lately,” Rin muttered to herself, ”There's an unwise choice, clearly.”
She was so busy scowling at the place between her gelding’s ears that she missed the grins on the faces of the men that rode around her. And the fact that Wulgof had taken the initiative to wear his surcoat was not discovered until they reached Edoras’ main gates and those that waited there to welcome them into the city.
While the formal welcome at the gates might fall a long way from established decorum, the fact that Rin pursued Wulgof through the horses, tackled him to the ground and ripped the surcoat off him made one thing clear. The Lord and Lady of Cardolan had arrived to call upon the ageing Eomer King as promised some three years ago. For so many reasons, it would be a memorable meeting of northern and southern realms.
As they made their way with their escort and a dishevelled Dunlending wearing blue rags stubbornly around his neck, Hanasian beckoned one of the escort nearer.
”Whatever you do, make sure my lady wife’s full title is not used.”
“My lord?” the man replied, surprised and glanced at Hanasian’s fuming wife.
”Forewarned is forearmed. Tell the others!”
As the man scurried ahead, Rin considered her husband at length.
”Send him off to lock the doors and windows and hide the sharp knives?” she sarcastically inquired, the acid of the question masked in her calm, sweet tones.
Unapologetic, Hanasian answered, ”Something like that, dear heart.”
He rather enjoyed his wife when she was angry. Quite becoming to the eye, he thought with a smug grin that did nothing to calm her down.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
A brisk southerly wind pushed out from the White Mountains and made the banners and pennants of Edoras thrust boldly. The tower guard scarcely paid them heed as his made his way down to report.
”A party of northerners approach. Dunedain in the main, but there are others in their number.”
“Your eyes are sharp Halreth of Snowbourne. Send word sent to the gates to receive our visitors with all courtesy,” Erkand answered.
Halreth swiftly bowed and saw to it while Erkand sought our his king. He found Eomer in his solarium, deep in thought. .
”Eomer King!” Erkand said announcing himself for Eomer was not a man to sneak up on. Eomer made no answer, indeed gave no sign that he had heard for several moments. Just as Erkand was weighing up the merits of further announcement, Eomer loathed repetition, the King glanced up and his weathered eyes settled on the captain of his guards.
Relieved, Erkand approached, ”A party approaches. Dunedain it seems, there are others with them that are not.”
“It would be Hanasian with his company, a varied lot if ever they were. It appears the time for further deliberations has expired. A decision is needed now, though hasty it will be.”
Eomer strode towards Erkand as he spoke but his captain made no further comment. He had served his king long and well.
Eomer continued on after another brief moment of thought, ”Of the body that was found and the reports from the western riders, of their suspicions and charges, no word must be said. I have kept my counsel on this for reasons too many to number. Perhaps I will take private counsel with Hanasian alone on the matter.”
Erkand nodded and looked at the King’s Guard arrayed discretely around the solarium. The slightest ripple, heads inclined barely, confirmed the King’s instructions were understood by the six men that formed the King’s personal guard.
Eomer King then said as he walked toward the door, ”It will be good to have guests, for the annual Cheese Festival will commence shortly. I will walk with you to greet them as they are escorted from the gate.”
Erkand was for a moment surprised, but then the King’s childhood companion recalled the extent of history between his King and this Ranger Hanasian. Bonds forged in the bloody maelstrom of battle were rarely broken or set aside. Hanasian and Eomer had seen the Pelennor both on that grim day. Now, well it was no surprise at all. In fact, Erkand expected no less of his King. He nodded and accompanied the King down the wide steps of Meduseld. The guards followed without needing instruction, boots crunching on the stone path that led to the gate. The rapid footfall of a man in a great deal of excitement raced towards them made a startled staccato that no one missed.
”M’lord,” he said hurriedly, ”Lord Hanasian has asked that his lady wife not be greeted by her proper titles!”
Eomer eyed the gate guard closely and mastered his smirk. The man wore an expression he had seen on a number of faces in the immediate vicinity of the ancestral queen of Cardolan. It appeared that the intervening years, and motherhood, had not softened her stance towards such customs. Would she, he wondered for a moment, press a dagger she had produced from goodness knew where against the windpipe of anyone who dared call her princess? He rather hoped she might, personally.
Eomer glanced sidelong at Erkand and found the man’s eyes twinkled in anticipation.
The king cleared his throat, ”That is not unexpected. Let Hanasian be known as my old friend of the Dunedain and his lady wife as exactly that.”
The gate guard took his leave and rode back down the hill toward the approaching party.
Eomer chose the base of the path that led up to Meduseld to wait with Erkand, the rambunctious wind shoving cloaks and helmet crests and braids of gold or fire this way and that.
He murmured to Erkand, ”Hanasian is not one to care overly much how he is addressed. His wife, however, is another matter entirely. She does care, very much, and not in the direction one might anticipate of a woman of such high descent and rank.”
“I recall Rhun clearly, m’lord. Had I not seen it for myself, I would have continued to dismiss the tales from Harad as mere rumours.”
Eomer grunted at that. His son had come back full of tales that were very difficult to believe until one met the lady in question.
“She will eschew as many formal obligations and privileges as she can get away with. We will welcome them as honoured visitors to our realm, but see to it that the court does not get any ideas once it catches wind they have a visiting royal family under Meduseld’s eaves.”
“Yes, sire. That course seems wise,” Erkand replied and turned to spread the word to one of the nearby guards that waited with them.
”At least, until we’re certain she’s unarmed,” Eomer chuckled to himself.
Once Erkand was certain the instructions were being passed along, Eomer added, ”After our greeting, settle them in the guest wing. If I recall correctly, Hanasian and his wife are likely to have small children with them.”
“How many, sire?”
“Three. Once they are settled, have them come to me at their earliest convenience.”
After the small ruckus before the gates, the ride into Edoras was jarring quiet, especially for Rin as the circumstances of her desperate flight out of this very city some twenty years ago pressed close.
Rin eyed her surrounds unhappily and, once one of the guards set off at speed for Meduseld, she shot a scowl over at her husband.
”Send him off to lock the doors and windows and hide the sharp knives?” she demanded, her voice low in a way anyone who knew her knew was dangerous.
”Something like that dear heart,” Hanasian replied, unperturbed and looking thoroughly pleased with himself.
This did nothing to stop Rin from consider her various options for escape, followed shortly by her plans for vengeance on all those who were do such a terrible job of hiding their amusement behind her.
Her eyes roamed, appearing grey and sharp in the bright daylight. Hanasian knew that meant his wife was putting her rather too clever mind to nefarious uses. Farbarad had warned him. Unearthly blue meant high emotion of some sort. Stormy grey meant that she was thinking hard and trouble would not far away. Prevention, as his wife was fond of saying, was the best cure for that and she was not so angry as to be beyond reason. In fact, all things considered, she was unsettlingly calm. He decided to consider that a boon rather than a warning.
”We knew this day would have to come. It is best it comes now, under Eomer’s watch. You know he will wish us to see him in private,” her eyes whipped to his and he saw they were starting to look alarmingly blue, ”All will be well my love.”
Rin’s jaw firmed and she flicked her eyes away from him without a word. The escort met them only a few dozen paces to where the king stood with his men. They dismounted upon arrival and bowed with one exception. Hanasian was mildly relieved Rin opted to curtsy instead of run as soon as her feet hit the ground. Eomer, himself not one for rituals and formality nodded at the men but stepped forward to bow to Rosmarin. His eyes lingered briefly on Hanavia and Elian, who was nestled happily against her mother, before they shifted to Wulgof.
Eomer took in the Dunlender’s state. Dress uniform, well presented, aside from the rags flapping around his neck. Cardolan blue, Eomer surmised and guessed that the commotion at the gate involved the Dunlender and the Lady of Cardolan. The Dunlender seemed a little out of water, unable whether he needed to keep his eye on the Rohirrim around him or the woman in their midst. As for the Lady of Cardolan, it was clear that her mood was dark but Eomer could guess at why. Was she not pleased to have come to Edoras? Where was the third child? Eomer would have to see to it that she would leave with a different feeling.
Hanasian was delighted that their reception was a subdued affair. He did not want to speculate on what may have happened had Eomer treated their arrival as a matter of state. Most of the Company and those Rangers not rotating on dury were given a fair hall to quarter in a short distance from Meduseld. Though sparsely furnished, it provided welcome protection from the wind that came from the mountains and, what is more, a prime view of the city prison cells. No sooner had this been noted were the wagers flying on how long it would take for the Lady of Cardolan to become a resident of such an establishment.
Rin watched them peel away enviously and instead found herself ushered under Meduseld’s eaves with Hanasian, Farbarad, Videgavia and three Rangers. They were to be the guests of King Eomer. Hanasian hovered closely to his wife as they drew nearer. Her eyes became wider as they fixed on the great oak doors of the Golden Hall. He saw her swallow thickly. She was frightened and she clutched their daughter to her protectively. Thus far he had managed to prevent Rin from bolting the other way but for how long? Rin was determined, creative and when frightened she was unpredictable in a worrying way. He knew she could not hide from her past, that she needed to make peace with it.
Fortunately, he consoled himself, any good cheese festival had abundant supplies of good wine and good ale. Some had even been delivered to their rooms. Rin wasted no time in pouring herself a glass of wine and cutting off a bit of cheese, both at the same time. His wife had lost none of her dexterous control that her professions, thief and healer, demanded.
Hanasian said, ”We should wash off the road and make ourselves presentable and then see Eomer King. He has summoned us to meet with him at our earliest convenience.”
Rin lifted the wine glass to her lips and considered him as she sipped, “Yes, well, he has a long wait ahead of him before it becomes convenient for me.”
Hanasian considered her a long moment while she sipped at her wine. While she was peering at the cheese in her other hand, Hanasian plucked the wine glass from her grip and peered deeply into her eyes, ignoring the frown, the blueness and the rising flush of her cheeks. All warning signs.
He said, ”Listen to me, love. You have two options. You can attend the king in my company or, if I go alone, attend the king on your own when he summons you later. Either way, you will be attending the king. You cannot come to Edoras and fail to attend the see King.”
“Then why did you bring me here? Why did you deceive me? You said we were going to call in on your sister, not come to Edoras!”
Hanasian sighed at the anger in her voice,”Because I thought you might enjoy the festival. You have been spared the many duties of a formal visit. Speaking with Eomer will take such little time. In any case, I’m sure Halcwyn will be here tomorrow. She likes cheese nearly as much as you. Now make your decision. Come with me as my wife, or face the king on your own as the Lady of Cardolan.”
Rin made a grab for the wine glass but Hanasian swiftly moved it out of her reach. His wife was tall, but not quite as tall as him. Sitting on the bed, watching this curious exchange between his parents, Hanavia peered up at the glass his father held aloft over his head.
Hanasian said, ”We can have more of that later, after our interview with Eomer King.”
Rin exhaled sharply, the faint growl of some Dunlendic obscenity echoing, and blew a wayward lock of hair away. Hanavia giggled at that. It was clear to her that she wasn’t going to wriggle out of this and so she commenced to straightening herself up, in no particular hurry at all. It was a knack any recruit mastered in the Black Company. Move swiftly enough to avoid censure but not too quickly. Hanasian knew what she was doing. Rin knew her husband was aware. She was getting away with it too until someone knocked on the door.
One of her Rangers, the original three shadows that Farbarad and Hanasian had set on her heels back at Tharbad, poked his head through.
”The King wishes you to dine with him. Dinner will be served at sunset.”
Hanasian straightened his tunic and looked over at Rin, who groaned as theatrically as her foster brother might have. She scowled into the mirror at her hair and then down at her garb. By Hanasian’s reckoning they were about ready to go. He took his wife by the arm before she could flop onto the bed and announce she had nothing to wear and was tired and wasn’t hungry.
”Shall we?” he asked
”If we must. Let’s get this done and over with,” she grimly replied
Hanasian pushed open the door with his foot, his arms busy keeping Rin from bodily throwing herself through a window to escape. The three Rangers outside were arrayed around a kindly looking woman who bobbed a curtsy as soon as she set eyes on Hanasian and Rin. The wet nurse, Hanasian presumed just as one of the Rangers signalled as much. Rin, who thought wet nurses to be a life saving necessity in most circumstances, considered them to be a personal affront when it came to herself. Hanasian whisked his wife away before she could make her displeasure known and slowly, while she ominously glowered, they walked slowly toward the King’s chamber.
- - - -
Things were going rather smoothly for Loch and the men of his company. The way in which he had been accepted into what had once been Voromir’s guest house seemed overly polite. Loch felt uncomfortable moving into the main hall and was content to allow Voromir’s widow and sons the time they needed to get their affairs in order. Unaware of the arrangements and provision his sister had made for Voromir’s dispossessed family, Loch knew all too well what it meant to face the world with so little. He wished there was something he could do to ease their way but this case was beyond his power. This was a matter of the crown. Not just any crown, but the high crown, the reunited kingdom, and his sister’s position in that glittering array of remote yet illustrious individuals. He was here as her Steward, whatever that meant.
Loch wanted this to be normal. Loch wanted to be just another ordinary soldier or scout. But here he was known as the brother of the Lady of Cardolan, a crown princess and one of the highest ranked royals beyond the High King’s immediate family in all the wide lands. They bowed and scraped and ducked their heads and he could not so much as sneeze without someone wanting to scratch his nose for him. He worried at how those who had only known the long, unbroken rule of Lord Voromir viewed all this. He had the edict of the King on his side, and he had a captain who was far away that had sent him here and the scout felt all of a sudden very prominent and exposed. Loch tried not to dwell on it, but it snuck up on him in unguarded moments such as his dreams.
The dream was typical of those he had at times. He thought of them as Rin’s sort of dreams, the ones that are eerily real and usually always mean something. She had them far more than he did, and hers usually were about the future or the past or both in ways they don’t understand until an event has occurred. Loch’s usually had something to do with the Company marching off somewhere to do battle with some warlord in some far away land on the fringes of the kingdom, or having to put down a resurrection somewhere in the former lands of Mordor. But this time it happened differently. Hanasian and Rosmarin were gone, he did not know where, and Videgavia had fallen. What remained of the Company all feared the fact that he may someday be in the position of having to be Captain. He was voted in by the slimmest of margins, filled with doubt and trepidation that waxed as the dream lumbered on, treacle slow and ponderous, until he woke with an inexplicable start. Right when the outcome of the vote was declared.
Loch’s sharp movement stirred Rose who slept beside him. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood, wiping the clammy sweat from his brow. What was so frightening about that dream?
[I]”Damn dreams,” he muttered softly, unaware that Rose had also woken until she spoke.
”It has been long since I dreamt. Not since my break with my sister. That changed tonight though. I dreamed, as did you. Tell me Loch, what did you dream?”
Loch took a drink from a pitcher of water and poured some over his head. He said,
”The Company… it was dying. We were in a battle that did not end well. There were only seven of us left. Vid fell. I said Wulgof should be Captain as the oldest ranking member, but he put that down and said I was meant to be Cap, and the others agreed. Suddenly I was Cap, even though I said I wasn’t ready for that. No help would come from any of the Old Company, for they had perished. I saw Vid and Khule fall, and Molguv and Hamoor’s status was unknown. They took rear-guard to help the rest of us get out of the canyon.”
Loch’s voice broke off and into the ensuing silence, Rose said, ”You are nearly captain now. You are here with Rowdy’s men. They look to you, respect you as their own. Come now and rest.”
Loch came back to bed and Rose ran her fingers trough his hair. She marvelled as Rin had in years gone by, how easily Loch fell asleep again. While it didn’t take long for him to fall asleep, Rose remained awake. Her hand glowed slightly as he caressed Loch’s head. She would keep the dreams away.
The sun was bright in her face when she heard Loch’s voice in the distance. She felt water on her face and she opened her eyes to squint against the bright sunlight. Loch knelt beside the bed, clearly worried.
”Are you unwell Rose? I have been trying to wake you for some time now. I feared you were dead for you were limp and unresponsive. I couldn’t remember what Rin said to do, or not to do-”
“I… I am not sure what happened. I was asleep, with no dreams. Last I remember, you had fallen asleep in my arms and I was stroking your hair.”
She sat up and pulled her robe about her shoulders. Rose directed a small smile toward Loch.
”I am well, my love. It was just a hard, deep sleep.”
Rose said nothing, though, of the thoughts that threaded through her sluggish mind. She had not meant to go to sleep and for good reason. Sleep meant that she had lost control of it. She had pushed too far too quickly in her bid to regain her powers. She no longer had her sisters for stability and protection. She was on her own. Or, she mused as she considered Loch’s worried face, perhaps not. She would have to talk to Loch about it, but not now.
- - - -
Halcwyn had packed for a ride on her own and Enedoth had no plans to prevent her. Ever since that day a woman was found dead, Halcwyn had changed. He had been shocked by her confession and could not help that he had withdrawn for a while as he came to terms with all this meant. His wife had killed someone. There was only one way forward. She would have to speak to the authorities about it, but she refused to do so and he refused to turn her in. And so both of them withdrew, did all they could to make the matter fade. Though she stood on the far side of their sitting room, he felt like she stood a league or more away and now she was leaving.
”How long are you going to be gone?” he asked, striving to keep his voice calm and steady.
“I don’t know,” Halcwyn retorted sharply and then, after a moment, ”It will depend on what decisions are made.”
”Where are you going?” Enedoth asked
”Edoras,” Halcwyn mumbled as she strode to the door and the horse she had waiting outside.
”Let us come with you!” Enedoth demanded.
Halcwyn said, ”You cannot. The foals need tending to and even if they did not, this is something I must do myself if I am ever to find peace. Wish me well dear husband, and may I return complete once again.”
Without so much as a goodbye for him or their children, Halcwyn rode away. As she rode, her mind roamed through the years. She could not say she had ever truly been happy. Content, certainly, but not happiness and now this thing threatened to take even that. She loved Enedoth and their children. She had to make things right again, as far as anyone could when a life was taken. She would have to appeal to the King.
Halcwyn rode through the night but she rested for a time at dawn in the dew covered grass. While she rode light and on her own, and made excellent time, she did not glimpse Edoras until later in the day. She noted the flags that flickered over the gates and higher, over Meduseld itself. It was too distant to make out the devices but their presence was enough.
”The cheese festival…I had forgotten. This is ill-timed. Perhaps I should hesitate and linger and arrive on the last day….” Halcwyn murmured to herself and her horse.
Halcwyn debated with herself, lingering until the sun had set. In the darkness she rode forth slowly. Skulking her on her own would be suspicious. Better that she make for Edoras, keep a low profile and seek audience with King to throw herself upon his mercy. By her reckoning, if she kept a steady pace, Halcwyn figured she would arrive in the afternoon of the next day.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Dinner with the king was the last thing Rin wanted. What she wanted was to leave, immediately and never return. But Hanasian would have none of it and so to dinner they went.
”I do not know what offence Edoras has given you, my lady,” Eomer said to her at the close of the evening, ”But whatever it is, I am determined to make amends. Peace between our realms assures prosperity for both our peoples.”
“I was not aware we were at war, your majesty,” Rin replied flatly and Eomer lifted a brow at her.
”No? Are you so certain of that?” he replied.
The hour was late by the time Hanasian and Rin had returned to their rooms. No sooner were the doors closed did Rin turn to Hanasian and plead with him.
”We have to leave. Now.”
“Now? It’s the middle of the night. We just got here!”
“Please, Hanasian, we must.”
“For the final time, Rosmarin, we are staying and that is an end to it!”
“You don’t understand!”
Hanasian sank onto the bed and started tugging at his boots, ”Open your eyes, woman! You have a king out there intent on forming some sort of understanding with a neighbouring realm. He has welcomed us into his hall as honoured guests! What do you think he’d make of the fact that it’s head fled from his city in the dead of night, mere hours after arrival and minutes after an evening meal with him? You don’t have a Prefect to do this for you any more, Rin. Tell me, what don’t I understand?”
Hanasian let his boot fall to the floor with a thud. Rin sat before the dresser. There was a lot he didn’t understand. Hanasian didn’t understand about Brienne and what the woman did to those who left town in a hurry owing her money. Worse yet, Hanasian did not understand about Treagon. To be fair, he couldn’t. Some things he was better not knowing, for all their safety. Rin ran the comb through her hair, expression glum.
”You’re tired. It’s been a long day. Things will look better in the morning. They usually do. You’ll see I’m right,” Hanasian said and started on his other boot.
The following morning, over breakfast, they were informed that the festival was being opened today and that they were invited as guests of honour to attend.
”That is not a good idea,” Rin said as soon as the man had left.
”Nonsense. It is a perfectly fine idea,” Hanasian replied.
Rin shook her head stubbornly. The crowds would pose a nightmare. Anyone could be in them. A master poisoner, for example.
”Just think of all the cheese,” Farbarad told her with a grin and she scowled at the Ranger.
”It’s a very bad idea,” Rin insisted while Hanasian calmly poured out a second cup of tea.
”You needn’t worry about your little secret coming out. Eomer clearly is fond of you, though why is a mystery to me as you’ve not been particularly charming to him. You’re kin to the most powerful monarch in all the lands, who happens to be a potent ally of Eomer and a long standing friend. In any case, I suspect Eomer already knows.”
“Knows what?” Videgavia inquired as he strode in.
The Daleman cut an immediate line to the breakfast table.
”About Rin’s last visit to Meduseld,” Farbarad replied.
”Oh, that,” Vid grunted as he loaded up a plate, ”Well if that’s true, there’s a number of Company men that will be badly out of pocket.”
“Wagering already are they?”
Videgavia nodded and began running through the various odds doing the rounds about various outcomes of their time in Edoras. Prison, pardoned, on the run. Rin noted none of them included dead and buried. And just like that the discussion, if that was what you could call it, was over. They were going to the festival.
It turned out to be a warm day with a large crowd. The crown prince of Rohan gleefully informed Rin that they had come to see her. The idea, frankly, nauseated Rin. Her best chance of surviving was to keep a low profile. Instead, she sat under a canopy with the royal family of Rohan and a sea of faces to keep an eye on.
”Relax, lassie. He won’t arrest you here, in front of everyone,” Farbarad whispered into her ear.
”I wish he would,” she muttered, for in prison she might stand a better chance. It was harder than people thought to reach prisoners.
”If it is so unbearable, why do you not just tell him?”
Rin shook her head. Like Hanasian, Farbarad did not understand. The only one that did was hundreds of leagues away to the south. If Loch could see her now he’d be beside himself. Still, at least he was safely out of this for once. If only she hadn’t thrown her lot in with Treagon. It was all her own doing, this. She’d been a girl at the time and she’d had her reasons. Six months with the assassin had taught her more of herbs and surgically precise knife work than she had ever had before. Even the healers in Minas Tirith whispered about Treagon’s infamous guide to plants. The copy, forbidden of course, stashed away in the shelves in her study was worth a small fortune as well as a good decade in jail. The risk, she had thought, was worth it. The skills she had learnt had saved lives. Company lives, civilian lives. That necromancer in Harad, with his unholy craft, would be terrorising people still were it not for her decision twenty years ago. Rin had never imagined, however, how hard it would be to leave the assassin’s service. Twenty years later, she was still struggling free of his malicious coils.
”At the least, try to look like you’re enjoying yourself,” Farbarad suggested.
Rin swallowed a sharp retort and turned her attention from the swirling crowd to the events immediately before them. The festival had been opened with a pronouncement from Eomer and now the competitors were gathering. Some were even looking in her direction.
”Fine,” Rin muttered and strode forward to meet them.
The sooner she was down in the crowd, the better as far as she was concerned. Hanasian watched his wife move off and waved one a Ranger after her. The Ranger, a man named Caeros, nodded calmly and set off.
”She has Elian with her. You don’t think she’d actually run now,” Farbarad asked and Hanasian shrugged.
”I’m not sure what I think,” he answered and then looked down at his son.
Hanavia was bored. He sat on the wooden platform, legs crossed and shoulders slumped. His father ruffled his soft dark curls and Hanavia looked up at him, mutiny and injury competing for position on his small, cherubic face.
”Would you like to look at the stables,” Hanasian asked and watched his son’s face brighten immeasurably.
”Off we go then, boy.”
Farbarad watched Hanasian lift the boy onto his shoulders and set off for the nearest set of stables. In place like Edoras, there was no small number to choose from. The Ranger paused. Caeros was one of the most promising of the new Rangers. The Company were about. Eomer’s men and those of the Marshals were about. Edoras was not like Minas Tirith. But then, if something happened and he wasn’t there as he was supposed to be, as he had sworn to be…At times like this he found he missed Mecarnil sharply. The Ranger sighed and headed off after Caeros.
As soon as Rin was down at everyone else’s level she felt marginally safer. People milled about, laughing gaily, sampling the competitor’s wares. She could hear Eomer’s booming laugh somewhere. She’d seen Elfwine wink at her outrageously as their paths crossed. Then someone loomed at her shoulder. A side ways glance at him and Rin very nearly swore.
”Really? What does he think I’ll do with our daughter in my arms?” she demanded of Caeros.
The man shrugged and after a tense moment Rin heaved a pained sigh, ”Oh, fine. Just…keep out of my way!”
“As my lady wishes,” he intoned with a smug grin.
”I am not yours,” she growled, turned and nearly collided with a competitor who was hovering.
”Oh! Oh! My pardon, your highness,” the matronly woman bubbled and, over her shoulder, Rin saw Wulgof smirking at her. Rin narrowed her eyes at him and his smirk grew. He then began to saunter onto the next stall and she realised then what the brigand’s game was. Revenge for the incident at the gate yesterday.
”Please, there’s no need to stand on ceremony,” Rin said in a voice straining for patience.
”Oh! Are you,” the woman glanced to where Wulgof had been standing and found it empty, ”Are you certain?”
“Yes,” Rin bit off.
“My name is Rosmarin.”
The woman seemed uncomfortable and wrestled with herself a moment before she recovered, ”Very good, Princess Rosmarin.”
Behind her, Rin heard Caeros make a queer noise. It sounded like a cross between a cough, a guffaw and a giggle. Rin’s teeth ground.
”May I say that is a lovely colour? So summery and cheery, and it lights your eyes if I can be so bold. Just look at your bonny wee lass. Isn’t she precious?”
The woman had the ability to talk faster than a stampeding herd of cattle and soon Rin was enveloped. She was drawn in whether she wanted to be or not, surrounded by competitors vying for attention. Some heaped praise upon sleeping Elian’s head. Others remarked upon Rin’s dress. Rin had never seen it before that morning. She’d certainly not packed a dress the colour of burnt oranges. Had the rest of her garb not been curiously missing or travel stained, she’d not have worn it. Every comment on it only reminded Rin that she was going to have to have a firm talk with Slippery once she got home. Provided she survived Edoras.
Caeros trailed along after her as she was drawn on from one competitor to the next. There, amongst so many happy faces and on a glorious late spring day, Rin felt something of her tension slip despite herself. Bright, hard, yellow crumbly morsels or soft, nutty creamy white pillows. There were even brown and blue marvels. Never had she seen so much cheese and they all wanted her to try some. For free! If Loch had of been here, he’d be absolutely stupefied. Rin was amazed to find that she was enjoying herself. Perhaps, Rin thought as she walked, Treagon wasn’t in Edoras any more. Twenty years was a long time and his profession was a dangerous one. The man could be dead. He had not been young when Rin had met him. Rin wandered along. Loch always said she was a pessimist. Perhaps he was right.
”My lady, a small token for you,” Caeros said and she turned as he stretched out his hand.
In his palm lay a pearly white bloom that made her blood freeze.
”Who gave that to you,” she whispered, staring at the snowdrop.
”A man, elderly I think.”
“Is something amiss?”
Caeros studied her a moment and nodded, his hand closed around the snowdrop, ”Bright blue eyes, seamed face, townsman clothing, worn but neat. A thick grey beard, neatly trimmed, and a yellow-“
Rin whirled and dove into the throngs. Here. He wasn’t dead, he was alive, he was here and he knew she was too. She ignored Caeros’ cry behind her and pushed harder into the crowds. Dread twisted her stomach. If he found her with Elian…She needed to find Wulgof, or better yet all of the Dirty Three. Vid would do nicely as well. Wooden stands had been erected to offer seats for those weary of walking. She slid between a set, heart thudding painfully in her ribs. Had she been so foolish to think he was dead, or that the crowd would protect her? What if he went after Hanasian and their son? His terms had been clear. Cross his path again and his amnesty would cease. Speak of him and his amnesty would cease. She had honoured that, in every way, until now. Rin knew she was shaking.
”Rin? Is that you?”
In the tight space it was difficult to turn. Rin shrank down and angled about to find none other than Hanasian’s sister edging her way in from the other side of the stands.
”What are you doing in here?” Halcwyn asked upon reaching her.
Rin eyed her a moment and then confessed, ”Hiding.”
“From what, or who?”
“It’s difficult to explain,” Rin muttered and glanced back out at the crowd.
”Who is this?” Halcwyn asked, peering at the infant in Rin’s arms.
”My daughter, Elian,” came the distracted reply as Rin scoured the passing faces. He could be anywhere and she was wearing orange, for pity’s sake!
”A daughter? Oh! How I wished for a daughter! She’s beautiful,” Halcwyn said and then, ”Did you have two daughters, or a second son?”
The question came like a blow to the stomach and it dragged Rin’s head about to stare at Halcwyn, haunted.
”You don’t know,” Rin whispered, stricken and reeling.
Rin stared down at Elian as Halcwyn asked, ”What? What do I not know, Rin?”
Something thunked into the wooden stand frame behind them and Halcwyn’s eyes widened.
”That- that’s a throwing star! Someone just threw a throwing star! At your head! What is happening, Rin! You must tell me!”
If Rin was struggling to pull herself together, the sight of the jagged weapon embedded into wood, a lock of her hair woven through it, served to focus her thoughts. She counted the points. Nine showing and three sunk into the stand. Khandese. There was only one assassin using Khandese throwing stars on this side of the Misty Mountains. If she remained here, she would lose Elian and he’d take Halcwyn as well. All she had was her earlier plan. It was all she had.
”Listen. Halcwyn, do you remember Bree? Do you remember an Easterling, a Southron and a Dunlender? Do you remember the Captain, a Daleman?”
Halcwyn nodded, staring at the throwing star, ”They’re not easily forgotten.”
“I need you to take Elian and seek them out.”
“What about the Rangers? They’re yours, aren’t they? I’ve seen them about.”
Rin shook her head emphatically, ”No…not them. Seek out Vid, or any of the Dirty Three. All of them would be best. When you find them, tell them that Molguv has won. They will ask you questions and you are to answer them as directly as you can.”
“Rin, none of this makes any sense.”
“I know…if we’re lucky, I’ll be able to explain later. Now go.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. I have Rangers,” Rin muttered, passed Elian across to her aunt and began prodding at Halcwyn to urge her forward.
Utterly baffled and dismayed, Halcwyn wriggled out from between the stands first and Rin emerged after her.
”Remember what I said,” Rin told her and turned away.
Halcwyn clutched Elian closer to her and watched her brother's wife press into the crowd. She peered back down between the stands. The throwing star was still there with its pale blonde lock held prisoner. A commotion in the crowd dragged Halcwyn’s head around. One of Rin’s Rangers had found her. The man was not in the least happy. Halcwyn had no idea what Rin said to him but the man jerked back and shook his head emphatically. Rin seized him and dragged him towards a pair of guards. Now was no time to stand idly, Halcwyn told herself, turned and set out looking for the men Rin had told her to find. It should not be terribly difficult to find foreigners in Edoras. She found the Southron first. He was the easiest to locate because of his remarkable size.
He grinned widely at her approach and his attention drifted down to the child in Halcwyn’s arms. His smile faltered then.
Anxious, Halcwyn said, ”Rin told me to tell you that you’ve won your wager.”
“Hunh?” he asked, frowning and then straightening from the wall he was leaning against.
Halcwyn heard the man shout something and then the Easterling came trotting around the corner.
”Please, Lady Halcwyn, I don’t mean to alarm you,” he said.
”Alarm me! Someone just tried to kill my brother's wife with a throwing star right in front of my eyes!”
“How many points did it have,” the Easterling asked her and Halcwyn blinked at him in confusion.
”How many,” Khule tried again and then thought better of it, ”No, never mind. Show me. That will be best.”
“No, she told me to find you and tell you that Molguv had won his wager. She said nothing about-“
“And then what did she do,” the Haradian asked intently.
”Well…then…then she…let one her Rangers find her. They argued, I think and last I saw she was dragging him towards a pair of guards.”
“She’s desperate, Khule,” Molguv stated and the Easterling nodded.
”A throwing star….we can guess who that means. Explains why she’s desperate enough to have herself arrested.”
“Arrested!” Halcwyn exclaimed but Khule did not answer her.
Instead, he issued a set of complex instructions to the Southron. Molguv nodded and was soon gone. Only then did Khule turn his attention back to Haclwyn.
”Now, Lady Halcwyn, let’s get you and the little one somewhere safe and quiet, shall we?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In the twenty or so years since Rin had last been in Edoras’ prison, conditions had really improved. For starters, the straw on the floor looked like it was changed at least once a month. The cell door clanged behind her and Rin considered her cell with a critical eye. She would have preferred solid stone walls and thick wooden doors. Instead, she had a steel pen sealed in by thick bars. They’d placed her away from the other cells, all the way down the end, in deference to her rank. Aside from the straw, there was a rickety wooden crate that served as a seat or a bed. Her heart was still racing as she settled down on the wooden crate. Had Halcwyn found them? Would she be safe in here? If not, at least he’d only find her.
Rin watched the sun move over the floor. It was early afternoon. By mid afternoon she heard boots. Several pairs, all moving at a fair clip. Rin lifted her head to see her husband come into view. His expression was thunderous.
”Have you,” he demanded through the bars, ”Completely lost your mind?”
“Where is Hanavia?”
“Never you mind where he is! Is what Caeros said true? Did you have yourself arrested?”
“WHY?” Hanasian shouted, voice echoing through the prison. Behind him, Farbarad and Caeros shifted their weight uneasily.
”It was necessary.”
“Necessary?” Hanasian repeated, incredulous, and at that point Rin’s temper snapped.
She was on her feet and at the bars before she knew it and soon her voice was the one echoing through the prison, ”This was all your idea, Hanasian! Face my past, confront my demons, it will all work out for the better. Well, here we are then. Is it? Is it BETTER?”
Hanasian stared at her through the bars and stepped back. She watched him turn his back and walk out. Rin lowered her head.
”Do you even know what you’re doing, lassie?” Farbarad asked quietly and Rin shook her head.
”I'm not sure, anymore,” she whispered and turned away from the bars.
Miserable, frightened, Rin spent the rest of the afternoon trying to unravel her life. Evening came and the guards started to hand out rations. They placed hers against the bars so that she could reach through and eat. Rin had no interest in food and so there it remained for her second visitor. He arrived some hours later. Rin had no appetite for further argument either. She had drawn her knees up and her head rested upon them. Her visitor stood there a moment in silence and then let something metallic fall to the stone floor.
”Would someone care to enlighten me,” Eomer grimly asked as the throwing star wobbled on the stones before coming to rest.
Rin did not move. Eomer considered the uneaten meal on a tin plate nearby and then the woman in the cell.
”My guards tell me that you have confessed to a crime committed twenty years ago.”
“Does that crime have anything to do with that throwing star?”
Rin did not answer and, with her head resting on her knees, did not see Eomer’s expression become stoney.
”Guard! The door!” he shouted and that brought Rin’s head up.
Sure enough, a guard hurried with keys to unlock the cell. Rin moved backwards to flatten herself into the furtherest corner.
”Lady Rosmarin, with me!” Eomer commanded and Rin refused to budge.
Defying a king was far less dangerous than venturing out of her cell but Eomer would have none of it. His guards hesitated, reluctant to set hands on her and so Eomer himself strode forward and pulled her out of her corner.
”I think I’d like a few words with you,” he told her and whisked her out of her cell. She couldn’t even grab for the bars to prevent it.
Eomer took her by paths and tunnels she had never seen before and soon they were in the heart of Meduseld. It was precisely where she did not want to be. Eomer hauled her unceremoniously into a room that was not empty. Hanasian was there, Farbarad and Videgavia as well. All three looked absolutely ropable, arms crossed and expressions remote and closed. The door slammed and Rin heard it being barred from the outside. Only then did Eomer release her.
”Start,” he barked at her as he selected a position. Rin noted that each man occupied a wall. She circled about, surrounded.
”NOW!” Eomer thundered.
”Get me out of here. Now. Put me back in that cell this instant.”
Eomer considered her a moment and then looked over to where Hanasian stood.
”Is she usually so…” the king searched for a word that he did not need to find.
”Yes,” Hanasian replied emphatically.
”Heed me well, Lady of Cardolan. You are in my land, under my roof. When I ask you a question, you are best served by answering it. Do we understand one another?”
Rin eyed Eomer and barely nodded.
”Start, at the beginning.”
“Once upon a time, we were poor and desperate,” Rin snapped at him sarcastically and the king pounced.
”So, you did not do it alone then.”
Rin looked away, mind turning furiously. Farbarad was shaking his head at her but no one was surprised when she turned back a moment later and emphatically declared, ”I did it alone.”
“All the way up the northern escarpment, on your own,” Eomer inquired, incredulous and Rin lifted her chin.
”You wanted answers, Sire.”
“That I did. Very well…you did it on your own. Why?”
“As I said. Desperate.”
Eomer frowned and then shifted tack to keep her unbalanced, ”What has that got to do with today’s events.”
He watched her jaw tense and again she said nothing.
”Do not defy me, my lady,” he warned her, ”Why was it that a Khandese star thrown at you?”
A third time she said nothing. Khandese, Videgavia thought, and then asked what was for him and the woman in the room a rhetorical question ”Who owns it, Doc?”
Rin turned to look at the Daleman and said in a low voice ”You know who owns it as well as I do.”
Rin looked up at the ceiling and then at the door bolted from outside.
”Treagon,” she whispered at the door and expected to see it come flying off its hinges.
”Treagon?” Eomer exclaimed, ”That cur is here?”
“He’s always been here,” she snapped, still watching the door.
”Impossible,” and Rin whirled, her temper fraying dangerously a second time that day.
”Is that so? Your court, Sire, has been shaped by him like a gardener tends a flower bed. Directly or indirectly, Treagon’s stamp is all over it. And why not? Minas Tirith is too risky, the north too raw and unformed, but your court…well yours was reshaping, decimated by war.”
“What interest would an assassin have in Edoras,” Eomer asked, shaken.
”Profit! Gold!” Rin answered impatiently, ”He’s no idealogue!”
She turned back for the door. She was certain he’d come through that. Meduseld's ceiling was too solid.
”And how do you know this?”
Rin did not answer but Farbarad did, ”She was his apprentice, for a time.”
Of the four men in the room, only Eomer was surprised by that and it showed. This woman, straw caught in her dress and hair, a mother to two children…kin to the most powerful king in all the lands and a dear friend…she had stolen from him and worked for the most dangerous assassin to walk the lands.
”Why would Treagon want cheese?” Eomer asked, baffled.
”He didn’t! I needed the cheese to sell it so that I could buy my way out from underneath him. It didn’t work. The job was rigged, a death sentence. Probably his doing. Tried to put the damn cheese back, but that didn’t work either, and in the end had to skip, fast, owing a sizeable debt to him.
“You really do not want me under your roof, Sire. Put me back into the cells. Best that I am there when he comes for me.”
Hanasian stirred but Eomer forestalled him, ”Of course I won’t put her out to be picked off, Hanasian.”
But just what he would do Eomer did not say. Instead, he strode to the door, knocked on it and was let out. It closed after him with a thud that wasn’t nearly reassuring enough. That door was not enough to stop Treagon. For starters, it bolted on the outside!
”That won’t stop him,” Rin whispered, staring at the door.
”Now what?” Farbarad asked.
”We wait,” Vid replied and there was silence a moment before Hanasian very quietly asked a question.
”Is there anything else, Rosmarin, that you care to inform me of?”
She could hear he was angry and she’d had about enough of angry men. But there was something else in his voice as well.
"Are the children safe?” she asked, eyes still on the door.
When no one answered she turned her back to it, ”I’m not saying another word until someone tells me that.”
“They’re safe. Halcwyn is with them…and the Dirty Three…and twenty Rangers,” Farbarad said and Rin nodded at him.
”Well…at least I managed to get that right today,” she said and turned about to watch the door.
”Rosmarin,” Hanasian warned and Rin sighed.
”Fine…Anything else? Aside from this. I was here two years…so, let’s see. There was a robbery of several barrels of mead, one crate of wool, five bolts of fabric. Most of the food we, I mean I ate. Oh…and I think I left town owing money to the owner of brothel. She’s not pleasant, but compared to Treagon…”
Rin’s voice trailed off.
”For two years, that’s not much,” Vid observed and Rin shrugged.
”We – I mean I had other things to do while here. I wasn’t a full time thief.”
“You were not here on your own.”
“Loch stays out of this. You bring him into it and I will never forgive you. He’s out, he's clear and he stays that way.”
A silence fell on the room and Rin did not take her eyes off the door for a moment. She was still watching when Eomer reappeared. He considered her a moment and then looked past her to Hanasian.
”I’ve moved your family to somewhere more secure.”
“That won’t work. He knows Meduseld like the back of his hand,” Rin sighed, shaking her head as the futility of it all gnawed at her.
”I’ll be the judge of that, my lady,” Eomer replied crisply.
”My thanks,” Hanasian replied solemnly.
”As for you,” Eomer directed at Rin, ”I’ve come to a decision.”
“I know. I know. I presume the laws have not changed since I was here last. So, take the left hand,” Rin said.
”Tempting, but no. I’ll not destroy the most gifted healer our lands know lightly. But still, there is a price you will pay.”
Rin considered the king warily.
”You, my dear, are going to help me catch a killer.”
“Can’t be done,” Rin told him and he smiled at her coldly.
”It can and it will. Now, will you accompany me willingly or will you force me to drag you along?”
It was late before Hanasian pushed through a new set of doors. The hall outside was thick with men watching. Inside, a single candle was alight. Elian and Hanavia were sleeping and Halcwyn was unfolding herself from a chair she had dozed off in. She rose and crossed to embrace her brother.
”Hanasian! What is happening?” she asked him as he stepped back and he shook his head wearily.
”I’m not sure I know any more now than I did before,” he answered and washed his hands over his face, ”It was a mistake to come here.”
Halcwyn watched him cross to the cradle that held his daughter.
”Where is Rosmarin?” Halcwyn asked.
”With the king,” Hanasian replied, tenderly brushing pale hair from Elian’s brow.
He crossed to where Hanavia was bundled up, dark curls on the pillow, and sat on the edge of his son’s bed.
Halcwyn hesitated before her next question. Her brother was so very sad, she saw.
”Where is your other child?” she asked and he lifted his face to hers.
Halcwyn’s fingers pressed against her mouth and she whispered, ”Oh! Oh no!”
Hanasian sighed and hid his face from her, stroked his son’s hair, ”There was nothing anyone could do. I was too late.”
She heard his voice crack and she went to him, ”Tell me. Tell me everything, brother.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Eomer was convinced he would prevail but Rin just could not see it. No matter how well the King thought he knew his men and his city, Treagon knew both better. He over a richly detailed map of Edoras, deep in thought.
”That,” Rin said as she pointed at one of the poorest areas of the city, ”Is all wrong.”
“Know it well, do you?” Eomer asked, eyes gleaming.
”Better than you,” she returned, ”I’ve lived there! Have you?”
Eomer picked up a stylus, dipped it in blue ink and passed it to her with a simple answer, ”No.”
She had stared at his outstretched hand for a moment. He was sending men in there and they’d be going in blind. Even if they knew where they were going, it would still not end well. Places like that ate men like that alive. She sighed, took the stylus and started on the map. While she worked, he bombarded her with questions. How best to get in. How best to move around.
”It’s getting out that you need to worry about,” she muttered.
”So, tell me about that too,” he answered and provided a fresh sheet of thick paper.
Rin sighed. Did he really want her to map the best routes to conduct a raid on one of the poorest, most desperate, parts of the city? His gaze did not waiver and so, with no great hope that any of it would avail them, she set to work. It took some time to craft something that the men, none of whom had ventured into this blight of a place, could comprehend. Once they had it, Eomer sent them off and then turned to interrogating Rin over the ways in which Treagon had pruned and shaped his court.
This he kept up until dawn, at which point, he finally permitted her to sit. No sooner had she sat did her fatigue claim her. The king watched her head sag until it rested upon the table. He shook his head, bemused. She had lived in his city, right under his nose, for two years. By her own admission, she had worked in his household twice: once in the laundry and once in the kitchen. Desperate, she had said and he believed her. Eomer rubbed at his jaw. Only a desperate soul would break into Meduseld, from the northern escarpment. Only a desperate soul would take up with Treagon. He had no idea how she had managed to slip out of the city. He’d closed it tighter than a drum when the theft had been discovered. Aragorn had been there. They had been so close to finding her, twenty years ago. Why had she not sought help, he wondered. He heard countless petitions each day. Why had she not come to him, back then? Why had she gone to a killer instead of a king? Eomer thought he might never have his answers.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Caeros’s breath came in shallow, painful bursts. His ribs, he guessed, as he looked down at the ground. At his feet, a man lay unmoving. He still wore his townsman garb. Caeros painfully crouched and pulled the dark cloth that concealed his face away. He revealed an aging visage, seamed and lined by the years, eyes wide, staring, unblinking. The earth beneath was greedily soaking up his blood. The most feared assassin East and West, Caeros thought. It felt strange to be staring at his body. A master of poisons, Caeros had striven to ensure his blades did not land. His ribs were broken and he was dazed from a brutal knock to his head, but, it seemed, he had defeated this demon of a man. His first encounter in Cardolan’s service. Caeros smiled, revealing bloodied teeth, and sat down to enjoy the moment. Just wait until he told the boys back home, he thought. He got the Lady of Cardolan arrested and he had…Caeros’ eyes rolled back in his head before he could finish the thought.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In her dream, Farbarad was shaking her, trying to wake her, except he was a wolf. How his teeth did not break her skin she did not know and did not find out for Rin woke proper, dazed, disorientated in an unfamiliar place. Someone leant over her and she shrank back until she realised it was Eomer. He peered at her a moment.
”Quickly. I think we have him,” the king said and towed her up to her feet. He pulled her along after him, led her outside into the early morning. It was still cool and the air cleared the tangles of sleep from her thoughts.
There was a small circle of men. Caeros was the only Ranger amongst them. He leant heavily on one of Eomer’s guards. He noticed her sharpening gaze and shook his head at her.
”There…is that him?” Eomer asked and Rin pulled her eyes from the obviously injured Ranger to the body on the ground, convinced already of her answer.
What she saw shocked her. She stared and her skin prickled from head to toe. Could it be? She knelt, ignored the blood as only a warrior or healer could, and probed the cooling flesh around the edges of his face. She felt his nose and chin and then she looked up to where Caeros stood.
”How?” she asked and he sketched a faint smile at her, smug.
”Well. Is it him?” Eomer asked and Rin slowly stood, blood and dirt added to the straw already stuck to her bright skirts.
She scrubbed her hands on her dress, took a deep breath and nodded, ”It is.”
“You are certain?”
“That man, Eomer King, was Treagon. He is dead,” she said, surprised to find herself shaking. Was it really over?
”Then I consider this matter closed, Lady,” He held her in his gaze a moment, ”Assist the lady and her Ranger to their quarters. Send for the house physician.”
“No need, Sire,” Caeros wheezed, ”Just a few ribs and loose teeth.”
Rin felt a shudder skate down her spine. It was really over. She turned and advanced on Caeros.
”Oh no, my lady,” he said, ”There’s no-“
“Need…yes…I heard…I’ve cracked a few ribs myself, so don’t bother. Guards, set him down.”
“The house physician-“
“Is a fine physician, I am sure, but no healer. Hold still.”
The result of her work was evident in the relief on Caeros’ face. The men around, king included, watched on curiously. Aside from Eomer, none had seen a healer at work. Eomer had watched Aragorn tend his sister but this was different again. Rin sat back over her heels and nodded so that the guards to help Caeros to his feet. Eomer watched Rin’s head bow and stepped in to steady her as she stood. This time she did not resist or fight but instead leaned in.
”I hope, now, we understand one another, you and I,” he said to her quietly and she considered him solemnly before she nodded. Eomer’s expression warmed, ”I am pleased to finally meet you, Rosmarin of Cardolan.”
Farbarad pushed the doors open with his foot and ushered Rin through, his grip tight on her to prevent her from stumbling. She was rumpled, ragged, there was dirt and blood on her skirt and straw from the cells still clung to her hair and clothing. She was also abominably tired.
Hanasian turned from the window, where he had been watching the morning and brooding, to face them.
”He’s dead,” Farbarad said as he walked Rin over to the bed.
She fell onto it with a groan and curled up into a ball. Farbarad pulled her shoes off and tossed them to one side.
”The assassin?” Hanasian asked, not moving from the window, and Farbarad nodded.
”Caeros took him as he was closing in on us here. He did not emerge unscathed, and so,” Farbarad gestured at the curled form on the bed.
Hanasian nodded and slowly said, ”Excellent. So now all that remains is to pay off a debt to a brothel.”
It was clear, Farbarad thought, that the man was still angry. He could well understand why that was. But it was also clear that Rin genuinely feared Treagon and the consequences that might befall those she loved if she spoke of him. Farbarad’s jaw bunched as he chose his words. He recalled the coded maps in Hanasian’s study and what Rin had said of them.
”Can you say that there is nothing you have held back, for fear of the repercussions that might unfold if you spoke?”
Hanasian turned back to the window. Farbarad sighed.
”You can go, Wolf,” Hanasian said.
”Caeros was injured,” Farbarad replied.
“His ribs were the worst of it.”
“You’re missing the point. Rin healed him. Remember what she did for Morcal? Cracked ribs, and this is the condition she is in? She’s still not eating, Hanasian, and a good many other things besides.”
“I know. She is my wife, Farbarad. Do not overstep your place!”
“I know you’re angry with her. I know you’re worried. You have every right to be. Just…”
Farbarad shook his head and looked away. The man looked helpless.
”Go, Wolf,” Hanasian said, ”There is nothing more to be done here today.”
“Aye,” Farbarad softly said and turned for the door.
Once it had clicked shut, Hanasian considered his wife. She had not moved from where Farbarad had set her down. Slowly, he approached her. She did not stir and he did not expect her to. That she was so fatigued was concerning. He began peeling her soiled dress from her. He tossed that to one side and then set about tucking her within the sheets. He sat beside her, ran his fingers through her hair to pluck out more straw and untangle the worst of the knots. As he did so, Farbarad’s words and Halcwyn’s ran through his mind.
Hanasian sighed heavily, ””Why are you so reckless with yourself? Why must you run into the path of catastrophe? Every time you do this, you leave me to pick up the pieces.”
It tumbled out of him, a torrent that had been building for months. He was shaking as a hand squeezed his shoulder. He glanced up to find his sister there.
”Only now can you heal, brother,” she said softly.
”Heal? How does one heal from such a loss?" Hanasian wondered as a father's grief yawned around him, ”As reckless as Rosmarin is, as much as I feel it rising within me, I cannot blame her for being herself.”
“Then you should not,” his sister replied and stepped closer to her brother to comfort him.
Hanasian kissed his wife’s cheek on the cheek, brushed a finger down the panes of her face, traced the delicate lines that he so loved.
”Rest now dear heart. Sleep deeply and may your mind fill with pleasant dreams.“
Rin’s sole response was to breathe deeper, an encouraging sign. Hanasian stood and took his sister’s hand.
”Come, let us walk in the sunlight, as once we did when we were children in Rivendell.”
The two left Rin sleeping soundly. Hanasian saw Farbarad sitting directly across the hall from the door he was gently closing behind him. The Ranger was twirling a twig in his hand. Hanasian recognised the gesture. Farbarad had a habit of twirling or stroking things when he was thinking. It was a habit he shared with the woman sleeping on the other side of the door. He looked up from the idly spinning twig to Hanasian and Halcwyn and then slowly unfolded his long frame to stand.
Hanasian said, ”I have much to discuss with you, but it can wait until tonight. I know you’ve had no rest this past night. I can ask someone else to stand watch so you can remedy that.”
“No,” Farbarad reflexively answered, ”I’ll watch and make sure Rin isn’t bothered, even by me. I do not sleep well in daylight hours anyway.”
While his response was no surprise to Hanasian, Farbarad betrayed his weariness by stretching. He barely suppressed a yawn. The Ranger’s sense of duty, the oath he had sworn decades ago, was keeping him on his feet. Like as not it had kept him on his feet through the long years Rosmarin was lost to the world she had been born into. Farbarad would not stand down now.
Hanasian told him, ”I wish Rin to sleep her fill and not be disturbed unless King Eomer himself comes calling. Understand?”
“Not even you?” Farbarad muttered and Hanasian hesitated, squinted at him for a brief moment before turning away to go.
Farbarad said nothing further, expression carefully blank now. He offered a belated nod of acknowledgement that he would do as bidden. Hanasian felt his sister’s hand curve around his own and together they walked down the hallway to the front courtyard.
Outside, the festival was in full swing and the spirit of Edoras matched it. Lively bustle, bright colour, laughter and music eddied up and down the slopes around Meduseld. They would not find anywhere that was quieter than there where the banners flew, so they just walked around the perimeter of the golden hall in silence. Their circuit brought them to a stone bench that faced out over the Mounds of the Kings below. It was even quieter there, for it was a sombre place.
”I wish we were still children playing in Imladris. That time seems so long ago, more than the years that have passed,” came Halcwyn’s wistful words.
“Yes, I can see those days if I look hard through the fog of years. All the study we did there. I remember the scents in spring,” Hanasian said remembering. They sat silent for a time, and when it was broken by Halcwyn it was done so reluctantly, with trepidation.
”I need to know something my brother. Has King Eomer spoken to you of anything that befell in the western lands?”
“No, he has not. With all that has happened, there has been little opportunity for private discussion of any sort,” Hanasian sighed as he reviewed the events of the previous hours. His wife had excelled her demonstration of disdain for anything approaching diplomacy.
"I will need to speak with him soon, in hopes of preventing a major incident between two, no three realms,” Hanasian replied.
Halcwyn hesitated for a moment, then said, ”If all the trouble could end here and now, I would be pleased. But troubles do not. The solution of one seems to bring another or many. It is why I have come to see the King. It is about a matter that I am told you were involved in.”
Hanasian was silent for a moment, suspicions rapidly forming, ”Sister, I am weary and have not slept. I have no need of further riddles. Please, speak plainly to me. What troubles you?”
Halcwyn turned her face to look out over the vista before them. When she spoke, it was in a halting whisper, ”I killed her.”
“Killed who?” Hanasian exclaimed in initial surprise but then a dark thought filled him with sudden gloom and he guessed, ”Karlina…”
He drew a deep breath and pushed it slowly out again. Then he turned his sister to face him and saw the bright shine of tears in her eyes.
”Why? How? Please dear sister, tell me all of it!”
Halcwyn gasped several times before she could speak but even so, her voice was dull and broken.
”I had a dream. Father came to me and told me that I needed to ride. The next day I did so. As it grew toward evening, I met two men who said they had been in your company. They told me that I would find one who had caused much grief to you and your family riding southeast. They described her clearly and said you wanted to kill them. I felt as though I was still in the dream. All I could do was nod and they left. I rode home but the next day I rode out early and at speed.
“I came across a woman riding hard, northeast. She stopped when I hailed her and we talked. I knew as soon as I saw her that it was her. She was exactly as they had described. I killed her, as soon as I was sure it was her. No thought, no feeling, no remorse.
“It was as I rode home that I began to realise what I had done. As though the world had started to fall upon me. I could no longer sleep. I could no longer talk to my husband. I could no longer feel. What have I done?”
Halcwyn took a breath and hugged her brother. He felt her tremble.
He said, ”I could tell you that you should not have done this, or gotten yourself drawn so deeply into my troubles. Yet I too yearned to do what you did at first. I began to know my captor in the short time our paths crossed. I suspect I received much better treatment because she was among the conspirators.
“Her name was Karlina and she hailed from Gondor. She claimed I had met her mother once and she believed I was her father. It wasn’t so, for I did not know her mother in that manner. She had fallen in with some who desired to force Rosmarin to turn to their favour. They sought to use me as a lever to that end and Karlina saw this as a way to find me.
“Yet none of this excuses her for her part in all of this, in all that followed. This matter still remains shrouded even now. I suspect King Eomer wishes to speak with me of a matter he has yet to disclose. I fear it has to do with Karlina, whose body may lie in state here.”
“I have come to confess my crime to the King. I will put myself in his hands,” Halcwyn said.
Hanasian wrapped his arm around her shoulders and they sat quietly for some time before he whispered to her, ”All these long years I had wished that you had been spared our father’s curse. He was, for the most part, a good man who did bad things. Too many times I have found myself wondering he would do. For the most part, I have done the opposite. But there have been times…”
He sighed and then looked deeply into Halcwyn’s eyes, “This will not bring to ruin you my sister. You are our mother’s daughter. Permit me to speak to the King on your behalf.”
“No, I cannot hide behind you brother! I will find no peace in that!”
Hanasian hushed her and earnestly said, ”To kill a person is to take all that they have and all that they will ever be away. But that is not all that is taken. It changes something in you. You can never go back. You can only learn to live with it. I wish I could say more of comfort dear sister.”
They were silent for a moment, both looking down at the stones below their feet. Hanasian squeezed her hand and whispered, ”We will go to the King together.”
Halcwyn hesitated and fighting back tears she said, ”You are burdened already with troubles. You need see to mine.”
Hanasian was about to speak when a voice in the shadow of the hall behind them said, ”What troubles you Lady Halcwyn?”
A cloaked man approached and looked out over the tombs of his ancestors as he threw back his hood. Startled, Halcwyn lurched to her feet and swiftly jerked a curtsy.
Hanasian bowed silently but King Eomer did not look away from the mounds below.
”You may speak freely, Halcwyn, daughter of Forcwyn of the Westmarch of my realm.”
The King was usually polite in his words, but stern in their meaning. These were nothing short of a command for her to speak. Hanasian had heard the tone only hours earlier. His wife had chosen to defy him. He watched his sister now, wondering what she would choose. Halcwyn hesitated and looked to her brother to find him expressionless.
Eomer then turned to her and said, ”Look not to your brother! The Ranger from the North will not speak in your stead. You will remain silent, my old friend.”
Halcwyn knew her doom was upon her, ”Sire, I have come to place myself before your mercy.”
Unsurprised, King Eomer asked, ”What can you tell me of thithes woman who rests here? That is why you have come, is it not?”
Halcwyn paused, wondering how he would know this already. Perhaps he had overheard her speaking with her brother.
”I think… I’m not sure…” she stammered uncertainly.
Eomer then pressed, ”You know of whom I speak?”
Hanasian broke his silence then, ”She is Karlina, one of the party that kidnapped me from my home just before my daughters were born.”
Eomer issued him a stern look and gestured the man to silence. He turned back to Halcwyn, who stood miserably by her brother’s side, and asked again.
”You know this woman?”
Halcwyn was silent at first, then, ”No… yes… I don’t know…”
”A strange answer. Let me refresh your memory. Both of you, come.”
Eomer took several steps but neither Hanasian or Halcwyn followed. Eomer turned back as two guards stepped forth, ”We are going now. The manner is, of course, of your choosing.”
Hanasian nodded and took Halcwyn’s hand as they followed the king, the two guards in their wake.
Coming to the morgue, the body of Karlina was uncovered. Hanasian saw the woman who had been a part of his abduction and all the sorrow that had followed and his blood started to seethe. It was with difficulty that he kept himself in check. Halcwyn cringed and turned her face away.
She nodded, ”I killed her.”
“You did?” Eomer asked yet it sounded more like a statement, ”The incisions are well placed. At first thought she may have been attacked from behind, but upon closer inspection it was clear she had been taken head on. I was certain that you would recognise her.”
“Her death that is the reason that I have come. I place myself at your mercy and will abide by whatever my King deems just.”
Halcwyn bowed as she spoke and Hanasian sighed. Eomer’s forehead crinkled in deep thought. He considered Hanasian at length.
“Hanasian, you seem to be at the centre of much troubles. First all that has happened across the night and now this, with your sister.”
He didn’t wait for Hanasian to answer and instead turned to the Ranger’s sister.
”Know that you have placed me in a difficult situation. There is some question as to her identity. You cannot say who she was, but your brother can.”
He looked over at Hanasian and asked of all that had happened. Hanasian told him all of the time of his capture. Eomer listened to the sorrowful tale. It explained a great deal, he thought. A great deal indeed.
After further consideration he said, ”You speak of it much as my captain did when he brought her body here. He suspected you had done this.”
Hanasian nodded solemnly, ”Good men died, my home attacked, my son terrified and my wife heavily with child. I would have, there were many times I could have. I could have, and should have let her drown. And when I learnt the fate of my daughters…”
“Yet you did not. Instead, you saved her so she could be slain by your sister? It makes no sense.”
Eomer rubbed his temples and then rubbed at his chin with his thumb as he thought. He finally said, ” There is much to decide in this matter.
“First, there was some doubt that this occurred within Rohan’s borders. Considering the circumstances surrounding the woman, I cannot rightly say that this was not warranted.
“However, my captain said she had claimed she was a citizen of Gondor. Word has been sent, and should word come back that identifies her as such, then my hand will be forced. It may not fall to me to determine your fate Lady Halcwyn.
“You have yet to be charged with anything. Nor can I permit you to go free. Until this matter is closed, you will required to remain here as my guest, confined to the hall.”
Hanasian turned to her and said, ”You are not being sent to the cells, yet you will not be free.”
Halcwyn curtsied to the king, saying, “You are most merciful my King!”
The two guards appeared beside Halcwyn, and they escorted her to her room, which would serve as an informal cell. Once they had gone, Hanasian turned to the King and found the man studying him.
”I could have closed this issue by simply locking her up in the deep until word arrives. And that is what I fear may yet occur… dependant on what, if any word should return.”
“Aye, I thank you, my Lord. It is a fine line that you walk.”
“It was all I could do for the sister of a comrade of the Great War. However, if things were like this in the realm of Gondor, would Aragorn do anything different? I cannot say. For now, this is a matter to be dealt with in Rohan,” Eomer replied with a heavy sigh.
Hanasian nodded, ”I am sorry that our time here has been so. I fear there will never be a time of peace, whether it is a cheese festival in Rohan or the Mid-Summer markets in Bree. Even at home something will undoubtedly raise its head. There seems to be very little, if any, rest.”
Eomer stared at the stones on the floor, and Hanasian could see the years in his face. He had become King of Rohan suddenly and he had ruled well since. But when it came to rest, there was none for a King and nor was there any for his wife, the Lady of Cardolan. He had hoped that freeing herself of the ghosts of her past would reduce the burden she carried on her shoulders. He had felt its weight gradually increasing, though she said nothing of it. So many secrets to lift, so many things to cram into that far too busy mind of hers. So many regrets and sorrows crowding her conscience.
Eomer’s next question surprised Hanasian, as if the King guessed the direction of his thoughts.
”Rosmarin… she wasn’t in Edoras alone, was she?”
All Hanasian could do was remain still and silent. His wife had striven to keep her brother free of events here, fiercely protective of him during the interrogation of the preceding evening. Such fire in her then, almost savage, the response of little girl, abandoned in a dark world with only her brother to lend her hope.
The King asked another question, ”Who does she think she is protecting?”
Certainly not herself, Hanasian thought with considerable chagrin and exasperation. Was it too much to expect that once in a while she would not cast herself into the fire? Hanasian felt uneasy. It was not his place to answer these questions, but he answered anyway, ”It would have to be her brother… or one whom she knows as her brother.”
“He is not of Cardolan’s royal lineage then. Who is he?” Eomer asked, determined to get at the truth.
Hanasian walked a few steps towards a stone pillar and stared at its base.
”Let me tell you something… as one friend to another, one who has shared battle with you, not as husband of the Lady of Cardolan, or a man answering the King of Rohan, or the Captain of the Black Company to the Commander of the Rohirrim….” he said
Eomer boots scuffed as he came to stand beside Hanasian.
Hanasian sensed the other man nod and he continued, ”While my sister Halcwyn is so very much our mother’s daughter, once in a while our father can emerge in her. So too in me. I know it well. And Rosmarin’s foster brother is remarkably similar.
“I see him as my brother, in spirit and by marriage. Men like him are uncommon: at times reckless and at others, calculating.”
“So who is he?” Eomer asked again.
Hanasian ran a finger over a seam in one of the pillar stones, ”His name is Lochared. He is the Standardbearer in the Black Company, a free company presently commanded by the Northman Videgavia, and presently sworn to the service of Cardolan and King Aragorn.
“Presently, he is Steward, overseeing the lands that were recently allocated to my wife. A prefect of sorts, if you will, in the service of King Aragorn. You won’t find a better scout, or dare I say, and officer in anyone’s ranks. I’m unsure how he will perform as an administrator and may prefer one of your cells, should it come to it, after a while. Loch has a restless nature.”
“I have no intention of locking him up. I have bigger issues to manage. For example, how was Treagon was able to live so long here without being noticed? How many apprentices did he recruit? What untimely deaths involved his hand and how many other attempts? Not to mention the necessity to keep the sister of a friend and comrade in arms under house arrest.
“I just wanted to know the truth of twenty years ago. Would that your wife could be fully truthful with me.”
Hanasian slid his finger down the pillar but said nothing. Rosmarin might be honest with Eomer, if she trusted no harm would come from it. He was certainly not going to assure Eomer that his wife would trust the King of Rohan. Sometimes, he was not even certain she trusted him. They stared at the pillar in joint silence.
Hanasian finally stirred, ”I must take my leave my friend. I need to talk with my sister, privately. Does Eomer, King of Rohan, give me leave to talk to his prisoner?”
“I do,” Eomer said, still looking at the pillar. Hanasian bowed slightly and turned and walked away.
He was nearly to the door when Eomer said to him, ”We will speak again, you and I. If the Lady of Cardolan agrees, I should like you both to join me at the table of the tasting as judges. I will allow your sister to sit with us as well. It will be a fine conclusion to this year’s festival.”
Hanasian turned to him and nodded. Rin would not be easily convinced to go, but if there was cheese to sample perhaps she would be amenable. At least as amenable as a bear cornered by wolves.
Hanasian wasted no time coming to the door of the room where his sister would abide until the King granted her release. He fervently hoped no word would come back from Gondor. The guards stepped to the side to let him pass. He tapped on the door and when she opened it he could see she had been weeping. Hanasian closed the door behind him and kissed her brow.
”Tell me again about how you got word and description of Karlina? Who were them men from the Company?”
“Our cousins, and also one other. He said he had been with the Company in the east.”
Hanasian sighed, his suspicion was confirmed. Ever since Bear and Foldine had been healed by his wife, both men had been inclined to abandon their better judgement when it came to the woman they owed their lives to.
He said, ”Frea, Folca, Fordwine. Rohirrim, each of them. But why did they call on you to be the assassin?”
”They didn’t call on me. They just told me because it was a family matter. I asked for the necessary information and each knew they couldn’t stop me,” Halcwyn walked to the window and looked out to the day beyond, ”You know I can’t remain here, caged. It will drive me mad.”
“Sister, you must, or more woe will find you. Eomer must wait for word for a time. I do not think it will be long,” Hanasian said to her.
She turned her back on the window to look at him, ”And if word comes? What then? Will I be sent to Gondor? Will I suffer a trial here? What I did I did for my family. I will not regret it.”
Hanasian sighed, ”You rest easy here for a week. If no word has come by then, I’ll petition the King to set you free. But you have to rest easy until then.”
He reached into his vest and removed a bound leather bundle that tossed on the bed.
”Some clean parchment, ink and quill. Do some writing. It helps, I find. I must go now, but be ready to attend the tasting tonight. The King will be sending word to you shortly.”
Hanasian opened the door and was greeted by two spearheads. Once the guards saw it was him, they returned to their upright stance. Hanasian gave them a nod and hurried off.
He found Farbarad still sitting where he was before, still twirling a twig in his fingers.
Hanasian asked, ”All is quiet?”
Farbarad nodded as he stood, dropping the twig but not the brooding expression on his face.
Hanasian said, ”You’re excused. Try and get some rest.”
Farbarad remained motionless as Hanasian entered the room. He sat on the edge of the bed by his sleeping wife and kissed her soft cheek once he uncovered it from beneath layers of long, pale hair. She was sprawled on her stomach across the bed.
He whispered, ”If you feel up to it, we can sample cheese tonight.”
Best to start with the positives, he had found. All he earned was a murmured exhortation too blurred by sleep to comprehend. If she was speaking Sindarin, she had agreed. If she was speaking Dunlendic then he had no idea what she had said. Whatever it was, she did not wake. He watched her long fingers twitch with some dream. Agile, graceful, strong fingers. Fingers that could do remarkable things of many varieties. He drew a deep breath. With his wife asleep still, he had much needed time to sit and think about a good many things.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Loch sat at a large desk and fumbled with paper. He wasn’t the best reader or writer, yet this task he had been given seemed to mostly entail with dealing with the grievances of those who had something against their former lord. Voromir did not cut a sympathetic figure. Loch did what he could to settle things fairly and so far there had been few significant issues to place in a report of some variety. But, then, there was the local commander he had met here. The man was a regular in Gondor’s army and had been high in Voromir’s favour. Loch could not get past the sense that he remained an outsider here, even with the men that had once reported to Rowdy. Rowdy’s allegiance to his sister had been unswerving, but Loch was not nearly so confident in this commander.
It would be some time before men he could trust arrived for they were coming on foot. Months, he thought, at an outside guess. He knew they wouldn’t really fit in with the locals and would become his de-facto personal guards when they arrived. That suited him well for the Easterlings were some of the best men he had served with. Still, he needed someone he could trust here and now until they arrived. He had spoken with the sergeant about this, and requested someone he trusted to come work for him that was not involved with Voromir in the past and the sergeant had agreed to look into it for him. Noone had been produced. It probably needed to all go in a report. But who to send it to? His sister? His Captian? What about the King? And how would he get it there, reliably and unaltered? Loch scowled at the papers before him when no answers emerged and decided he needed some air.
Counting on the fact that there’d be no one wanting his ear about some ill Voromir had done to them waiting out the back, Loch slipped out the rear of the manse and found himself almost immediately accosted by a young soldier. He was younger than himself, even, and Loch had never seen him before.
”What is your name, soldier?”
The guard swallowed, ”Dorne”
“Who is your commanding officer?”
The guard hesitated before offering up a name.
Loch nodded to himself, ”You didn’t know his name?”
“I am new here. Recently assigned,” Dorne replied.
Loch persisted with his questions, ”Have you reported yet?”
Dorne replied nervously, ”No sir… just to the Sergeant. He said I needed to take this watch so I came immediately here.”
Loch ran his fingers through his hair. Rowdy had spoken highly of the sergeant. By Loch’s estimation the man was quite old for soldiering now, but it would not have been that way always. Like as not the man had signed on during the War. He was of that vintage. Loch eyed the young soldier before him. Perhaps the sergeant had been doing as he had said he would. Perhaps he didn’t need to worry about the sergeant… which meant no report...
”I see,” Loch said, turning his thoughts back to the younger man in front of him, ”From which unit have you come, and who did you replace?”
Dorne was clearly unsettled by so many question, yet he swallowed thickly and answered, ”I’m from Minas Tirith. My uncle is commander in the City Guard. I was sent here to gain some field experience. I don’t know who I replaced.”
Loch squinted at him a moment, ”Remove your helm.”
Dorne hesitated, “Sir? I’m on guard…”
“Just do as I say. Even the local commander has to report to me whether he thinks of the matter.” Loch replied, under no illusions that the commander would have removed him already had the man not been loyal to a certain High King. Perhaps his reports should go to Aragorn, now that he thought on it. Dorne removed his helmet an revealed sandy brown hair, matted with sweat.
Loch nodded, ”You look like Videgavia… well, as a child, if he ever was one.”
“Sir? Who is Videgavia?”
Loch grinned at Dorne, ”Oh he was my… is my… never mind, I’m not sure myself anymore. How old are you?”
“Twenty as of last month.”
Loch nodded slightly, ”Well, I think I’ve just seen the face of my new, lone aft guard. Now, about your assignment here. Field experience here? Not sure I like the sound of that, unless they mean ‘outside of Minas Tirith’ experience. You are probably being groomed to be in the Palace Guard.”
Dorne shuffled uncomfortably, ”I doubt it, Sir.”
Loch scratched his beard. There is more to Dorne’s recent assignment to here, judging by the tone of that statement and the look on his face. He would have to talk with this man further but right of this moment there were other things that needed to be understood between this Dorne and himself.
”No telling what the future holds. Take today, for example. You arrived here and were posted to my back door. I needed some air so I come out here. Because we had this talk and now you have new orders.”
Loch directed his gaze right into Dorne’s dark eyes, just the way Hanasian and Videgavia did when they wanted to drive a point home. Or his sister, though when she did it the results could be a little unpredictable. Some sweated, some fidgeted, some legged it and some seemed to become unsteady on their feet. Except for Rowdy. Rowdy was the only one Loch had ever seen unaffected by his sister’s direct gaze. He missed the man sorely.
”Orders, sir?” Dorne asked, ”I’m on gua-
“Not any more. Instead of reporting directly to your local commander, you’ll report to me. I need eyes and ears close to me that are not bought and paid for by Voromir. I’ll give you your amended orders when you are relieved of duty. It will have a promotion written in.
“You’ll take them to the sergeant, not your former commander. He will sort it out from there. You’ll find the sergeant in my office when you’ve been relieved from your post here. Now, put that helm back where it belongs. You’re on guard duty.”
Loch reached out and pumped his hand vigorously. Dorne replaced his helm and Loch slapped the man on his shoulder.
”As for your uncle’s wish for your field experience, I’ll see to it that you get it. You should be relieved around about dinner time. Report to me after the Sergeant for dinner. You’ll be our guest tonight. No sense waiting about, eh?”
Loch disappeared back into the house, Dorne standing a touch taller than before. He wasn’t sure what had just happened and his smile revealed his lingering confusion. Perhaps things would be clearer after dinner.
In his place before his desk once more, Loch set himself to testing out his writing skills. He was glad then to have studied what he did from the more experienced Company hands. He had orders to write up for Dorne.
quote:’Hereby upon assignment to Sergeant Algor’s command, it was recommended by Sergeant Algor that I take Dorne of Minas Tirith as my adjutant, reporting directly to me. The rank of corporal will accompany this appointment, with its pay grade. Signed Lochared, in the name of Lady Rosmarin, Lady of Cardolan and her liege–lord, High King Elessar of the United Realm’
He rolled it and then sealed it with some satisfaction. One problem dealt with, he poured himself some water. So far the day has proven interesting.
Dorne was relieved an hour before dinner and went immediately to report to the sergeant. Why the sergeant would be in Lochared’s office was a little confusing until Dorne arrived and found them both there. He stood at attention as both men stood.
”The sergeant has recommended that you serve as my adjutant,” Loch said without preamble, ”I had asked him for a suitable candidate some time ago.”
Loch held up a scroll with the sergeant’s army seal on it and handed it to Dorne. He then held up another with the King’s seal on it and handed it also to Dorne, ”And this is my approval. Also, the sergeant and I agreed that the rank of corporal will accompany such appointment, effective immediately.
“Your belongings have been placed in the room at the foot of the stairs. Go clean yourself up and make yourself presentable for dinner.”
Dorne gave a salute that would make his uncle proud and was off.
”Many thanks, sergeant. You’re welcome to join us, of course.”
“My thanks, but no. Perhaps another time. I’m due to dine with the commander. After today, he’ll need some careful managing.”
Sergeant Algor gave Loch a hurried salute and departed with his copies of Dorne’s papers.
Rose had the small table set for three in a side room off the main dining room. Dorne arrived promptly on time in his dress uniform and found the dining room deserted. There was no one there. Had he made a mistake or was there another dining room. It was a large manse. Just as he was considering leaving, Rose stepped into the room. She wore a flowing gown, a warm caramel colour and she curtsied to him.
”Welcome to our table, Dorne of Minas Tirith!”
Dorne was stunned for a brief moment by her exotic beauty. She was quite unlike any woman he had ever seen before, and he had seen women from Harad on the streets of Minas Tirith from time to time. Still, it didn’t show as he bowed in return.
”M’lady. I am honoured to dine with you and my commander this evening.”
Loch wandered in casually, hands thrust into his pockets and looking pleased with himself, ”Welcome Dorne. I see you’ve already met my wife, Rose, the love of my life.”
Rose smiled indulgently and kissed Loch on the cheek as he strolled past. They sat down at the table and the evening meal was served shortly thereafter.
Loch asked, ”Do you have anyone waiting for you back in Minas Tirith, Dorne?”
Dorne sighed as he looked down at his plate, ”I do and she loves me in return. But her father sees things differently.”
”I would think being a young soldier would impress many a daughter’s father.”
“It was not because of what I was, but who I was. Too much of the North in my blood,” Dorne answered, pushing peas around his plate.
Loch frowned, ”Didn’t Gondor set to killing each other over that very same thing many many years ago? Kin-strife I think they called it?”
“Aye. You know your history well,” Dorne said.
Loch replied, ”The Dunedain really need to grow up both north and south. It’s been a source of trouble for up there too. In any case, you will do your girl proud here and then you’ll return and be appointed to the Palace Guard…”
“No, that is not likely to happen. Her father is a lieutenant commander of the Palace Guard, in temporary command while the commander is with the King in the north. He wanted to send me to the frontier, but it was only my uncle’s intervention that got me sent here instead,” Dorne answered glumly.
Loch glanced at Rose and his wife nodded at him before she said, ”So it was fate that brought you here, no?”
“And it was fate that put you on guard duty upon arriving, and sarge being where he was to order it, and so on,” Loch said between mouthfuls, waving his fork for emphasis in a way that seemed to irritate his wife and his sister both. Rose frowned at the waving silverware and Dorne finally resumed eating his meal before she continued on smoothly.
”Serve my husband well and he will look out for you in turn. He cares for his people. I should know.”
They fell to silence at that and continued to eat in that fashion until one of the guards ventured into the dining room.
”Pardon my disruption, Sir, but there’s a woman here who insists on speaking to the lady of the house. She says it is important.”
“What? Now? Can’t it wait until morning?” Loch replied.
The guard shook his head, ”She refused to leave to return tomorrow. She insists it is important and she insists that she must speak with the Lady Rose.”
Rose smiled at Loch as she stood, ”I am finished eating anyway. I will see what this important matter is.”
“I didn’t agree to be Rin’s Steward for a day filled with writer's cramp and nights with interrupted meals,” Loch grumbled but he stood anyway, as did Dorne, as Rose departed.
”Does this happen often?” Dorne asked once the men were seated again.
Loch said, ”More often than I care for. Anyway, Dorne, being that I gave you the job as my adjutant, I forgot to ask, can you write?”
“Of course sir,” Dorne answered.
”Good,” Loch stated happily, ”I’m not very good at it. Never really saw the point of it in the rocks of Dunland, for all of my sister’s efforts. I’ve come to realise that perhaps she may have been right, but I’ve only recently started to make any effort at it and in the field, at that. So I’ll have you do much of my writing, and maybe I’ll work on bettering my own under your direction. But first things first. Write that girl of yours!”
“I have no place to send it to without her father knowing,” Dorne said.
Loch lifted his brows at him, ”Surely you have some place, a mutual friend, or such you could send it to?”
Dorne shook his head, saying, ”I was ordered out the day after we were caught together.”
“I see…I’ll not ask the details. All the same, write her, even if you keep them and give them all to her when you do see her again,” Loch told him and tapped his nose,”It’s what all the Company men do when they’re in the field. The ones that can write…and have someone to write too. Part of the field experience.”
Dorne smiled slightly and said, ”I will sir. Thank you sir.”
They quietly finished the last few scraps on their plates and drank down their water.
When Rose returned, she said, ”I think you, Lochared, will need to hear what this woman named Katela has to say.”
Loch sighed, ”Dorne, you may want to come too. You can see what this job is all about.”
The three walked into the small room by the door where visitors calling on the Steward were seated. There sat a lean woman with auburn hair peppered with grey. Her face was fair and while the years had overtaken it one could still see the beauty of her youth showing through. She wore a dress that once had been quite fine, as far as Loch could tell of such matters. It still fitted her well but it was worn and stained in places and the hem was frayed, as if she had travelled far in it. Rose sat next to her as she seemed frightened by Loch and Dorne.
Loch leaned to Dorne and whispered, ”Observe, take notes in your head. Write it all down later.”
Meanwhile Rose looked to the woman and nodded encouragingly, ”Please tell my husband what you told me.”
She shuddered and finally said, ”Please, I come to you because I heard you are representative of the King in charge of all that Voromir had.”
Well, strictly speaking his sister was, but now was not the time to split hairs so Loch said, “Yes, go on.”
Katela then said, ”Voromir had taken my daughter, my only child.”
“She was abducted?” Loch asked.
”No…” Katela said followed by, ”Well yes, sort of.”
“What’s that mean? Was your daughter abducted or not?”
Katela swallowed hard, ”Voromir stole her away with his ideas. I warned her about him, but she wouldn’t listen!”
Loch sighed and stood, ”Look, seems to me that you’re saying your daughter wandered off chasing after an idea. Happens all the time. She’ll be home one day, unless the idea is a really stupid one.”
“No, that is my gut feeling. She won’t be back. That is why I have come to you. Will you not search for her?”
This sounded like nothing he should really have any involvement in. He was a Steward, not a marshal. However, one glance at Rose told him that he was involved whether he wanted to be or not.
”Very well, this is what I will do. Clearly you’ve come a long way with very little. Tonight you will lodge for us, plenty of room. We’ll talk more of this in the morning, after you’ve rested. My adjutant Dorne will get a detailed description of her from you then and we’ll ask around to see if she has been observed hereabouts. That is the best I can offer right now.”
“Thank you kind sir… thank you,” Katela said, rising to take Loch’s hand and kiss it.
As Loch’s cheeks flamed, his wife said, “I will see Katela settled in tonight.”
Loch nodded as he extricated his hand and strode out with Dorne on his heels.
Loch said to him, ”A lost daughter is a new one. Pretty sure we would have found a daughter by now if she were here. Still, my wife seems to have taken interest in this one. Try and get as much detail as you can tomorrow. I have a feeling we’ve a long day ahead of us.”
The next day Dorne was up early and Katela obliged him with a most vivid description. He was bent over his paper, sketching with charcoal when Loch arrived for breakfast.
"Good Morning Mistress Katela. I take it you slept well?"
Katela looked up and Loch could see she must have been quite lovely in her younger days. She had cleaned up well and a decent bed had thrown off the heavy weariness of the night before to some degree. Loch studied Dorne’s work from over his shoulder.
"I see you have been giving my adjutant details?"
"Yes" she said, brushing her long hair back over her shoulder so it wasn't hiding her face. Loch studied the sketch taking shape intently.
"I should have asked this last night. What is your daughter's name?” Loch asked and Katela pushed back sudden tears.
"I named her Ciara, but she went by the name of Karlina."
Loch tried not to show any emotion. He nodded and looked again at the sketch.
He said, "I think we have enough to go on, but if you wish to give any other details to Dorne here, please do so. Your dress is being laundered and tailored, and should be ready for you by this evening. I hope it will not be too burdensome to guest with us another night?”
Katela murmured that it wasn’t, distracted by the need to make small adjustments to the sketch of her daughter. Loch strode away then, went up to his office and closed the door behind him. He leant against it and stared at the opposite wall before he uttered one word. Translated loosely from Dunlendic, it meant rancid crushed goat oysters.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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