Rosmarin’s arrival was neither unlooked for nor concealed. She, and the Rangers accompanying her, rode openly without attempt to hide their presence. They were stark against the snowy land. Still, for all of that, the Lady of Cardolan did not arrive with banners unfurled. Aside from the silver roses that pinned the Ranger’s thick winter cloaks, there was little at all to announce her identity. For instance, she did not come in gilded carriage as some of the Company had supposed and as a result, the chief architect of that particular rumour made a tidy sum when the wagers came due. Wulgof was busy counting his winnings and reflecting on the gullible natures of new recruits, by which he meant anyone who signed on after he had, whilst Molguv peered over the heads of the Company men that had gathered to watch the Lady’s arrival.
”Hmmmm,” Molguv rumbled, able to see clearly despite the attempts age had made to bow his height, ”That’s interesting.”
“What is?” Khule asked, unable to see overly much for the press, but Molguv did not answer immediately.
Wulgof stashed his winnings and looked up at the Haradian, ”Well? Answer the Easterling! What’s interesting?”
Molguv shook his head thoughtfully, ”You’ll see.”
“Useful as ever,” Wulgof muttered, dissatisfied, but Khule was not content to merely complain.
He slipped forward, moving reasonably agilely despite his years, into the press. Wulgof scowled as the Easterling’s silvered head vanished from sight. Age had turned him in a piece of wizened leather left out in the sun too long but it was different for the other two. Khule became increasingly distinguished to the point that nearly half the Company (the Easterling half) bowed and scraped and deferred to him as if he were the Lady of Cardolan. As for Molguv, he still carried enough bulk to draw a certain gravitas. His inclination to fall asleep on the spot meant that the Company men had learnt to keep a wide berth of the Haradian if only to avoid being crushed beneath his suddenly comatose form. Wulgof, though, well as per usual the mounting years had not be kind and it only served to prove the Dunlending’s belief that in general, life was just not fair.
Molguv turned away and set off down the row of tents. Wulgof scurried after him by instinct alone. A quick check over his shoulder confirmed that the men were scattering too. He followed the Haradian all the way back to the tent they shared. Inside was a brazier that Molguv had purportedly won a few nights ago in a game of dice at the Forsaken Inn…even though the Company men had strict orders to stay well clear of the Inn. Wulgof had a theory of his own about how Molguv had come by the brazier but as the proprietor of the Inn had yet to complain about theft, he had no choice but to accept the Haradian’s explanation. In any case, he was content to let the matter rest for the brazier brought welcome respite from the damnable cold that infested Arnor this time of year.
”What we need,” Molguv announced as he shouldered into the warm interior, ”Are carpets. Perhaps a hanging or two for the tent walls.”
Wulgof snorted with contempt for the idea but the Haradian was not so easily put off, ”We’re going further north and it’s only going to get colder. You’ll be whining and sniveling like the greenest recruit without a few more necessary…items.”
“I’m not carrying carpets, or hangings,” Wulgof announced flatly and crouched by the brazier to feed it more wood.
Wulgof groaned as he lowered himself down to sit on his dry, warm bedroll and asked, ”Who said anything about carrying?”
The Dunlending squinted over at him, ”Good luck getting near those wagons Berlas brought up with him. He won’t let anyone near ‘em and he keeps them guarded – day and night. The man’s as prickly about those wagons as I’ve ever seen him!”
“There’s a way,” Molguv persisted, ”There always is.”
“Even if there is, as soon as we get them on there they’ll vanish. Nothing’s safe from the mob of thieves this Company is.”
Molguv tapped the side of his nose and smiled mysteriously at Wulgof, ”Not if the wagons continue to be guarded.”
The Haradian’s smile grew as Wulgof considered the elegance of the notion. They’d have the most comfortable tent in all the Company and they deserved it. No one had served longer than they, except Videgavia and Videgavia had up and disappeared on them. Wulgof nodded appreciatively and then shivered violently as Khule pushed into the tent, admitting a spear of icy air as he did so.
The Easterling bore down on the brazier and held his hands over the guttering flames for warmth, teeth chattering. As he rubbed at his chilled, aching hands, he glanced over to where Mulgov was stretched out and nodded.
”Interesting indeed. We’ll have to do something about that.”
“I know,” the Haradian rumbled.
”What? Do something about what?” Wulgof demanded, eyes bouncing between the other two men in the tent.
Khule speculated, ”Though for the life of me, I cannot understand why Farbarad has not done something already.”
“The Wolf may not know Doc carries Naiore Dannan's sword.”
At the mention of that cursed name, Wulgof turned his head and spat on the bare earth he squatted upon.
”Hanasian ought never have given her that thing,” Wulgof grumbled, ”Not like she needed the thing anyway. We already knew what she could do with a set of knives by then.”
“None of that changes the fact that she carries it with her now,” Khule said, unwilling to reopen that old debate between them, ”And if the Moricarni realise the woman who leads the campaign against them carries their dead mistress’ sword…”
Khule knew he need not finish the statement and for a moment there was grim silence in the tent as the Dirty Three considered their various options.
”Going to be a hell of thing to get it off her,” Wulgof declared and the other two men nodded.
But then Molguv smiled, ”Then again, it will be a case of long overdue justice. Won’t it Khule?”
A smile flickered over Khule’s face at the Haradian’s question. So many years ago, a certain waif had dared rob them in broad daylight even though they’d tried to lend her assistance. And now…well now it was time to turn the tables on her.
’When?” Khule asked, ”Tonight?”
Molguv and Wulgof nodded in agreement and Wulgof added, ”She’ll get the inspection out of the way first, then serve up the details on our next assignment tonight. It’ll have to be late.”
“Excellent,” Molguv declared as he stretched out on his bedroll, ”Time for a nap, then.”
There wasn’t, really, for the camp inspection was sure to begin imminently and the Dirty Three knew that Doc would be thorough. Still, the Haradian employed his knack for instantaneous sleep and was snoring within the minute of his announcement.
Wulgof eyed Khule while Molguv thundered away and, after a while, asked, ”How did she look to you?”
Khule withdrew his hands from the brazier and tucked them under his arms, ”Tall and fair.”
“Of course she was! She’s been like that since we first clapped eyes on her!”
“She’s made herself into a weapon, Wulgof. That’s how she seemed to me. All steel and deadly promise. A beautiful weapon to match the one that swings from her hip.”
Khule’s tone sounded as sad as it was pensive and the Easterling seemed lost in his thoughts for a while before he shook his head. Wulgof watched the Easterling’s dark eyes sharpen again.
”She’s become what we shaped her to be,” he said softly and Wulgof’s mouth turned down at the corners.
”You know,” he admitted solemnly, ”Somehow I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
Rin knew from the way Berlas’ smile was plastered to his face that he was taken aback. It had been years since she had seen the former Ithilien Ranger and so she guessed that her appearance must come as a shock to him. Well, she thought, if Berlas had six children to rear alone, a realm to manage, a kingdom to keep tabs on for the king and a military campaign to run all at once, he might look a bit different too. She strode towards him, hand outstretched to grasp his forearm despite his widened eyes and frozen smile. Berlas managed to recover his composure as she closed her gauntleted hand around his arm.
”Well met,” she murmured sardonically as she peered past his shoulder to the growing knot of men, ”This is them, then? All of them?”
“Aye, Doc,” Berlas said as he released her armoured forearm and turned about to face the camp, ”Well over four hundred of us.”
“Will it be enough?” she asked and Berlas shrugged.
”You tell me, Doc. You’re the one who knows what’s planned.”
Rin cut Berlas a sidelong glance, well aware that the fine art of guessing what the next orders might be had not perished amongst the Company since she had left its ranks.
Still, she let the statement slide and instead muttered, ”An old habit – talking to myself.”
“I imagine even you have to talk to someone sensible,” Berlas answered and leaned back to grin at Farbarad where the Ranger stood close to hand.
Rin looked over to the Forsaken Inn a moment, ”Loch’s in there, I take it?”
“Then let’s get this inspection out of the way before he can do anything further about it,” Rin declared, displaying her cynicism in a wide streak for Berlas.
”As you wish, your Grace,” Berlas replied, testing the waters to see what else had changed in the woman he had once known quite well.
Rin merely rolled her eyes and advanced towards the camp, hands clasped at her back and her cloak flapping at her heels. Berlas hurried to fall into step beside her and decided that, in short, mostly everything had changed about Doc. From the chain mail and armour she openly wore without complaint and, from all appearances comfortably, to her mannerisms and perspective on the world around them. As they went, he noted her keen eyes missed nothing. They were mostly grey in the light of early afternoon and he wondered if that still meant that she was deep in thought.
Men, including his sergeants, scattered at their approach and Berlas hoped his officers had the sense to alert the other men that inspection was imminent. He wondered what his officers would make of the woman by his side. She had never been what anyone might describe as a conventional member of the nobility. He wondered if that had changed since she had come to reside in Annuminas. Certainly her rank was elevated in Arnor above all others aside from the King and his heirs. The commonfolk, fondly, had taken to referring to her as the Queen of the North when they thought no one was listening. He knew she was frantically busy, rarely at home, constantly on the move and traveling. When she was done here, she was due down in Tharbad to formally open the new bridge.
Berlas glanced surreptitiously at her pale hair again and for a second time he found himself startled. The delicate golden hue he had known it to be was gone and in its place now was unmistakeable silver. Despite the fact she’d been ahorse for days on end to reach them here, it still shone in the sunlight, but with none of that golden glow. Her silver hair, coupled with her youthful Dunedain features rendered her beauty almost uncanny and otherworldly and perilous. On the other side strode Farbarad and Berlas saw the Wolf of Cardolan look gravely across at him. The Ranger nodded slightly, as if he could guess at the thrust of Berlas’ thoughts and Berlas returned his gaze to the camp ahead. Perhaps, he considered, it was unreasonable to expect Doc to be unmarked by the sadness that had defined her life. Hanasian had been beloved by her and then cruelly snatched away before his time. That, surely, had to leave a mark.
As was always the way with inspections, Berlas saw a fresh crop of shortcomings only just before Rosmarin noticed them. The men were nervous mostly, ducking their heads and touching their brows hesitantly as she passed. Still, she spoke to them as if she were one of them and usually they were left in her wake smiling and perplexed at how that had come to be. The Company medics were the most anxious of the lot and, after Rin had scrutinised everything and declared it satisfactory, the most profoundly relieved. The Cats swallowed her whole into their midst, leaving Berlas and Farbarad standing there to entertain themselves for a good while. Rin emerged with a genuine smile on her face, eyes twinkling, but soon a more solemn expression was in place as she continued on. The only greeting of a like the Cats had offered came from the Old Company. Daius and Donius rushed up to her as though they were lads, brimming with tales about new contraptions and ideas and competing with each other for her attention. The Dirty Three waited for her to come to them and that exchange was the one thing that went the way Berlas expected it to.
While they exchanged insults and insinuations with each other, Berlas edged closer to where Farbarad stood.
”I know,” the Ranger replied as soon as Berlas was in earshot, ”We’re doing the best that we can.”
“Hanasian would not have wanted this for her.”
“A lot happens that Hanasian didn’t want,” Farbarad growled unhappily.
”It’s not my place,” Berlas apologised, surprised at how agitated Farbarad was.
”No, it’s not…but you’re right. She can’t go on like this much longer,” Farbarad bitterly declared, ”But you try telling her that!”
Loch came puffing up to join them, cheeks and ears reddened by the cold, whilst Rin was wrangling with the Dirty Three.
”What’d I miss? Why didn’t anyone tell me she was here?” his eyes narrowed as he considered his sister, ”She wanted it that way, didn’t she!”
“She did,” Berlas told him and Loch sighed with his disgruntlement.
”That’s not fair,” he complained, ”Did she notice the-“
“Yes, she did,” Berlas said and Loch heaved a second sigh as his eyes drifted to where the Company’s stores had been assembled.
Berlas watched Loch study the wagons there and those who guarded them and then flick his eyes to Berlas with a silent question. Berlas answered it with a shake of his head and that was that for Rin was done with the Dirty Three. She beckoned Berlas and Loch both to accompany her and once she was clear of the camp her questions began.
”What the hell are you thinking, Loch? The Dirty Three? War is no place for old men!”
“Those old men are the only ones who actually know what and who the Moricarni are. Would you rather we go in blind?” Loch returned squarely.
Berlas saw Rin’s jaw tense at the response for a moment as they strode towards the inn, ”Well, I suppose they’re fool enough to want to meet their end anywhere but in a warm, comfortable bed.”
“Knowing those three, I think they’ll have acquired aforementioned warm beds no matter where they might be,” Berlas offered to cut through the tension and was rewarded with a nod from her.
”Like as not, “ she said and then switched topic suddenly, ”The captaincy. Is it resolved? I’ll not have you take the field without a clear line of command.”
“No,” Loch said.
”Yes,” Berlas said and Rin climbed the broad wooden steps that led into the Inn.
She turned at the top to consider them both, ”Vote in an acting captain.”
“Still no word on Vid?” Loch pressed and in response Berlas saw open worry flare.
She shook her head as she gazed north and east, ”Not yet.”
Rosmarin spun about on her boot heel and reached for the Inn’s door, ”Report back to me this evening.”
Just like that she was gone, with Loch and Berlas standing in front of the steps to the Inn.
”I bet she’ll take my room, too,” Loch said and then glanced at Berlas to shrug, ”So now what?”
“We vote,” Berlas said emphatically, ”I’m not coming back here without an outcome, are you?”
“Suppose not,” Loch allowed and Berlas guessed that Doc’s brother was perhaps not as intimidated by her as the others were.
Loch turned for the camp again, hands thrust deep into his pockets and boots crunching over snow.
”How long has she been…you know…like that?” Berlas inquired.
”It was worse. Much worse. This is actually better,” Loch told him.
“She smiles now. Sometimes,” he explained and glanced at Berlas, ”And she’s different with the children. Not so grim and stern.”
Berlas nodded to himself and, after a few steps, ”But she doesn’t laugh anymore, does she.”
“No,” Loch admitted, ”Nor does she dance or sing.”
”She didn’t even greet you,” Berlas said, ”Are you quarreling with her?”
”No – she doesn’t want anyone thinking she shows me favour. Nothing more than that. She knows how the men gossip.”
“Ah, I see,” Berlas said, relieved that at least she was not estranged from what family she had left.
The pair split up as soon as they entered camp, for organising a vote took time and effort both. By the time it was done, it was past sundown. Loch trudged through the campfires, shoulders hunched dejectedly, for the Inn.
”Told you,” Berlas said quietly, the only thing he had said since the votes had been cast.
”You needn’t gloat,” Loch grumbled, guessing that Berlas had a grin from ear to ear in the darkness, ”And anyway, it’s only acting captain.”
The pair found Rosmarin a table by the common room hearth. The fireplace was well alight and it cast the Lady of Cardolan and the Rangers she sat with in a flickering glow. Rosmarin had cast her plate armour aside for the evening. Steel no longer glinted across her torso, atop her shoulders or down her arms. Her hair was combed out smoothly and loosely braided to fall in a thick river of silver down her left shoulder. The table was in deep, quiet conversation as Berlas and Loch approached. From what they heard, it appeared to be in Adûanic and Rin was nodding while one of the Rangers spoke.
Their arrival in the common room had not gone unnoticed. With the Lady of Cardolan in residence, the Forsaken Inn’s common room was littered with more Rangers than it had ever before seen. Some were stationed here permanently now, Loch had discovered, disguised as inveterate customers of the Inn. He wasn’t sure how Rin had managed to accomplish that but he admired the move all the same and he had spent the few days waiting for her arrival trying to figure out which of the regular drunks were in fact Rangers. He was pretty certain the man that permanently occupied the far left bar stood was one but he’d yet to make his mind up about the one that liked to sit in the darkened corner by the stairs. Give a Ranger a few days in the wild and they tended to go a touch feral, in Loch’s experience.
The Rangers at the table with his sister were no less wild and dangerous for all of the fact that they were more neatly accoutred. Their conversation faded away as Rin looked up at him and Berlas. Her eyes bounced between them both for a moment.
”Are you going to make me ask?” she inquired as the Rangers with her watched on.
Her hands were loosely wrapped around a mug of tea, long fingers not tapping or otherwise tense yet.
”Your brother has been voted acting captain,” Berlas said when it was clear Loch could not bring himself to answer and Rin nodded her acceptance.
”Good,” she declared and then asked her brother, ”Doesn’t it feel better to at least have that resolved?”
“No,” Loch combatively replied, ”You’ve not told me yet what you’ve got in for us and besides, it wasn’t a fair vote.”
Rin lifted a brow at his statement and looked to Berlas for an answer which he supplied, ”He thinks I stacked the vote.”
“No more than usual.”
“It’s done then. Have a seat, gentlemen.”
At her words two Rangers rose and made for the door to the Inn. Loch sat into one recently vacated chair, muttering about how it wasn’t done and it was only a temporary measure, while Berlas took the other.
”Your next commission...” Rin began, switching to the Company patois out of habit and then pausing.
Berlas thought he saw true concern, if not outright fear in her eyes for a moment and beside him Loch shuddered.
”I hate it when you do that, Rin! Just tell us, for pity’s sake!”
“You’re to relieve the Rangers currently holding the Rhaudar line. They are to fall back into Western Arnor as they see fit, bearing in mind that the King is eager to restore Fornost. That is to serve as their base.”
“Fornost? What’s next, Amon Sûl?” Berlas inquired and Rin’s eyes travelled to his, unreadable and impassive.
”In time, Berlas,” she answered calmly, ”I am of one mind with King Elessar in this. The northern realm is to be restored fully and, mark my words, I will see it done. Do you take issue with this, Man of Gondor?”
“No!” Berlas blurted out, startled.
She studied him a moment longer and then frowned, her brow crinkling, ”Fornost…Western Arnor…Rangers…where was I?”
Farbarad leaned in to murmur something in her ear and Rin’s confusion cleared, ”Yes, now I have it. My thanks, Wolf. The Company is to hold the Rhuadar line throughout the course of winter. Then, once the season clears, you are to commence occupation of Rhuadar. I want to Moricarni extinguished in Rhuadar once and for all.”
“How long are we to occupy Rhuadar?” Loch asked.
”As long as it takes. If it can be done in a year, I will triple the Company’s pay. I suspect, however, that it will take at least two summers. And, if you have not guessed, the coming winter will be bad. I have seen it. Getting into position will be your first challenge, surviving there will be your next. The Moricarni will be the relatively easy part.”
“What of Rhuadar itself, though? Are they supported there?” Berlas asked and Rin grimaced.
”I do not yet know. I had hoped to learn that from Beragil, and failing that from Videgavia. Both have vanished…what I do have comes from the Rangers currently holding the Rhuadar line. They made easy progress at first but for the past six or so month they have been hard pressed to hang onto it. They’re tired, thinly spread, and will not withstand winter’s onslaught. I do not mean to see us lose ground won by their blood, nor do I wish to see the Moricarni break back into Western Arnor.”
Rin paused then and washed one of her hands over her face. She regarded Berlas and Loch solemnly.
”I believe the Moricarni must have support. I believe they are organised, they train and they must be recruiting. That suggests a command structure, a base of operations, somewhere in Rhuadar. Whatever the case, they are a sloppy cult dedicated to a dead Elf no longer. You should deal with them accordingly.”
“But if they are supported, then who supports them?” Loch asked, ”I thought Rhuadar was largely deserted.”
“Plainly it is not,” Rin replied, ”And bear in mind that whoever calls Rhuadar their home now reside within the greater realm of Arnor. They are subject to the King’s laws…and his protections. Am I understood?”
Berlas and Loch nodded slowly and Loch said, ”Don’t worry. I’ll keep them on their best behaviour.”
Rin sat back in her chair and Berlas realised that she must have been concerned indeed, ”Good…you had better…because Arnor has had quiet enough of tearing itself apart. Any Company man failing to abide by the King’s laws will meet with the full force of those laws himself.”
Their talk shifted to more practical matters such as supply. Rhuadar’s reputation as a rather bleak land had been worrying Berlas on that front so the assurance that Rin would keep the Company supplied was a welcome relief. As the evening pressed on, a simple meal of stew was served and the remaining Rangers drifted to other tables aside from Farbarad and another man, with strangely beaded and braided hair and a dangerous air to him. He didn’t look at all familiar to Berlas but despite that, the younger Ranger was clearly deeply within his mistress’ counsels. Every time the man caught Berlas studying him, his eyes glinted knowingly.
Once business was done, which occurred around about the time the last of the bread had been devoured, Loch leaned back in his chair and gestured at the commonroom.
”Are they all Rangers in here now?”
“They might be,” Rin replied evasively and then canted her head at her brother, ”Why?”
“I was just wondering…idle curiosity.”
“Mmmmmm,” Rin picked up a fresh cup of tea and sipped at it patiently, waiting her brother out.
Eventually she won for Loch confessed, ”How? How’d you do it? How’d you slip them in here like that? How?”
For a moment Loch thought his sister would keep her methods to herself but she ended up lowering her mug, ”It’s simple, actually. I purchased the Inn.”
Loch’s jaw swung at her answer, ”You own the Forsaken Inn?”
“The Forsaken Inn?!”
“What of it?”
Loch cast a leery eye about, ”Well, of all the establishments the Lady of Cardolan might acquire, this does not exactly spring to mind first! Aside from the activities known to occur in and around this place, does it even turn a profit?”
“Depends on how you manage those activities you mentioned,” Rin said and Berlas thought she was enjoying herself now. It was hard to tell.
”Banditry! Lawlessness! Petty larceny!”
“The occasional assassination too, I’m told,” Rin added.
”But your job is to apply the King’s laws!” Loch argued and Rin rolled her eyes.
”Lochared, my job is no different to any of Aragorn’s nobles. We apply the King’s laws…most of the time in accordance with what best suits us.”
“Oh settle down!” Rin snapped, ”I acquired the Inn for its strategic and tactical merit in the campaign, you idiot, not to turn a profit. If I charge in arresting its customers left, right and centre, what do you think will happen then, eh?”
Loch flushed and the dangerous looking Ranger that still sat at the table shook his head slightly.
”Oh, I see,” Loch admitted, ”That makes sense, I suppose.”
“Of course it does,” Rin growled, ”And thank you for so readily thinking I was just like every other corrupt noble we’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter too! Did you honestly think that I’d-“
“I’m sorry, Rin! I am, honest!”
Rin sniffed at her brother but said nothing further. Berlas found the argument a refreshing piece of normality, both in how the siblings baited each other and the way Rin’s eyes flashed a deep, searing blue. Loch appeared genuinely contrite and in the aftermath the dangerous Ranger stood and excused himself.
Berlas was thinking about doing the same when Loch leaned forward over the table to reach for his sister’s hand.
”There’s, um, something I want to tell you about, if I might.”
Rin withdrew her hand, still stung, and crossed her arms over the faded green tunic she wore.
”That all depends on what you’re about to accuse me of next.”
“Nothing! I said I was sorry, didn’t I?” Loch rejoined and withdrew his outstretched hand, ”I’ve had a dream.”
“We all dream,” Rin replied, stubbornly intractable.
”No….a Dream, Rin. Like…like the ones you have.”
His sister’s truculence evaporated. She sat up straighter in her chair as she uncrossed her arms.
”I did not know you Dreamed, Loch. When did this start?”
“I don’t Dream…and it only happened the once a little while ago.”
“But you’re certain it was a Dream?”
Loch nodded, ”I just know it was.”
“I understand,” Rin told him, her eyes glinting in the flickering firelight of the hearth, ”What did you see? All I see is ice and…well never mind the rest. What of you?”
Berlas found himself tensed in his chair, every muscle coiled as he willed Loch to silence. Loch didn’t even glance in his direction. Instead, his attention was centred on his sister across the table.
”Hanasian is alive,” he whispered.
Even though no one else would have heard it, Berlas thought the entire common room froze. Certainly Rin did. She did not so much as twitch or blink for the longest moment.
Then she said, ”I see.”
“I see? Hanasian is alive, Rin!”
“Yes, I heard what you said, Lochared,” she replied, her voice taut as a bowstring and she looked to where Berlas sat, ”I’ll see you on the morrow, then. Good evening.”
Berlas stood as did the others at the table and watched Rin depart, her movements smooth and as tightly controlled as her voice had been. She disappeared up the stairs without a backwards glance and Berlas was struck by how strange her reaction had been. He was so busy staring after her that he did not realise Farbarad was moving until the Wolf of Cardolan had Loch by his shirtfront.
”Have a care,” the Ranger snarled, anger stamped on his face.
Loch pulled himself free of Farbarad’s grip and pulled his clothing straight, ”I’m not joking, Farbarad. Not about this. I know what I saw and she has a right to know!”
“Your sister nearly drove herself mad thinking that way,” Farbarad snapped back, ”It was nearly the death of her!”
“Really?” Berlas asked, shaken by the revelation.
Farbarad turned away, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides as he grappled for control of himself.
”She clawed her way back from the brink and I’ll not see that unravelled,” he said as he turned about to face them again, ”Not even by you, Lochared. Think what you want, but if you have any love for your sister then you will keep your thoughts to yourself.”
Loch nodded wordlessly and with that the Ranger strode away to take the stairs two at a time.
”I didn’t know,” Loch said quietly, stricken, ”I didn’t realise.”
Berlas clapped a hand on the acting captain’s shoulder, ”She’ll come good. You’ll see. She’s made of stern stuff.”
“I didn’t know,” Loch repeated, ”How could I not know? She’s my sister.”
“Come on…you’d best spend the night in camp.”
Berlas led him away and offered the troubled man a berth in his tent. Loch passed a restless night tossing and turning and the clear morning that followed found the new acting captain taciturn and irritable. By contrast, his sister emerged looking as fresh as new snow. The Company assembled for her address and to hear their new commission and, with the blessings and well wishes of all within the Reunited Kingdom ringing in their ears, it was time to break came and set forth for Rhuadar.
For her part, Rin strode towards where her horse waited with the Rangers. They had saddled it for her that morning, despite the fact that she had not asked for it and usually preferred to saddle her horse herself. Everything was wrong this morning, including the empty air at her left hip. She had no idea how someone had made off with her sword and she should be wroth. She was, in fact…aside from that corner of her mind that was nothing short of relieved. She had come to hate that sword, and the Elf it had been fashioned for. It had haunted her nightmares, night after night, as had the sword’s original owner.
The hilt of the replacement caught her eye from where it had been lashed to her saddle. The thieves had been well meaning and she had three men in particular in mind. Why they had decided to acquire her sword was a mystery to her but for now she was content to let them have it. And, should they survive the winter that waited for them and the campaign beyond it, she could settle up accounts then. If anything, she was patient.
Rin swung up into the saddle and turned to watch the Company break camp. She lifted her arm to her brother and saw his own shoot up to wave energetically at him. Loch had been filled with self recriminations and regret that morning but given she was sending him into an uncertain future, she had no stomach for taking him to task. She had quarreled with Hanasian before he had left and would have to live with that regret through all the years ahead. She would not repeat that error with her brother.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ If the sound of her weeping had been agonising, the silence that followed was worse still. The Ranger washed his hands over his face, felt the grit on his skin in the darkness that surrounded him, and tried to sustain his hope. As if by force of will alone would get him and his sister through this hell. Time had come adrift by the time he heard something in blank emptiness. Someone was unlocking the door and excitement collided with sudden dread. A shaft of sunlight blinded him and hands pulled him roughly into the searing light of what once been his sister’s sitting room.
The furniture was smashed, curtains torn and there were grotesque dark brown splashes on a floor his sister kept spotless.
The Ranger was dragged through this to the yard outside where his sister’s children, his nieces, had played on bright warm afternoons like this. He still did not know where they were but he feared the worst.
”You know what we want…you know what we can do,” whispered a voice in his ear and the Ranger whimpered miserably despite himself.
“She will be ours until you deliver us what we desire.”
“But it can’t be done! It’s not possible!” he pleaded.
”Find a way.”
And just like that they were gone. When the Ranger dared pick himself up from the ground, he found the yard and house empty. But, by the post of his sister’s front gate there was the favourite toy of his youngest niece. He recognised the stuffed rabbit by it’s bright red vest for it’s head had been wrenched away. The Ranger crouched in the grass of his sister’s yard and buried his face in his hands.
What they asked was treason…but if he refused then he would be responsible for the murder of his sister and her daughters. Shaking, the man rose unsteadily to his feet and with each step, what he had to do firmed in his mind.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
IV - 57
In Annuminas the winter’s end had arrived at last and the city streets were bathed in equal measure of relief and sunlight both. Windows were thrown open to admit the much sought after warmth. There were bright streamers and banners hung in all the colours of Arnor’s noble houses. Prominent amongst these was the black and silver standard of House Telcontar and rightly so for the King had returned to the north and with him had come his queen and his heir.
Receptions, banquets, balls glittered within the restored northern city. Minstrels and bards roamed widely. The trials of the winter past were brushed aside. Nestled liberally amongst the black and silver was another standard. This one was all of sapphire and silver and it belonged to a woman that was not in the city in late spring. She was far afield from her official duties in a place where spring had yet to arrive proper and, right at that moment, she was scowling at the thin crust of dirty snow that persistently clung to everything.
Her horse shifted beneath her. The gelding pushed out a heavy breath laden with impatience that she shared. Her brother was late and her business with him was nothing she was pleased to be conducting. Rosmarin of Cardolan tightened her fist around her reins and glanced over to where Farbarad was astride his horse. The ranger was focused elsewhere, his pallid grey eyes somewhere off to the north where, she presumed, his thoughts ran.
They waited in a copse of trees, branches still bare despite the lateness of the season. They had scarcely survived this past winter and well she knew it. The stores of Annuminas had nearly failed them. Had she not been able to move those willing south to her holdings in Edhellond, there may have been starvation outright. It had been close enough that she had genuinely feared outbreaks of unrest within the city for a good number of weeks. Then a horse had kicked a lantern over in a stable by the northern gate and the city had nearly burnt! Investigations were ongoing but so far, nothing had been found to suggest the fire had been deliberately lit. Annuminas had stood on the knife’s edge through the winter of IV – 56 and 57 and she had managed to pull them through it by the narrowest of margins.
”Just as well the White Wolves stayed away this time,” she muttered to herself but even though this was true, Rin harboured no small degree of dread for the winter to come.
Here, in the north, winter had not ended yet. Further south, spring had arrived but it was late. There was genuine concern that the harvest would fail and if that happened, all of Arnor would fall. Not just Annuminas but the entire northern realm! Underneath her layers of wool, fur, leather and steel, sweat dripped down her neck and spine. She needed to have a long, serious discussion with her cousin when she returned to the city. She’d put ships out far afield in the hopes that they may trade their way into replenishing their stores. Surely Rhun and Harad could not be so blighted by Fell Winters as Arnor had been. But if that failed, if those ships returned with anything but full hulls…
The sharp, clear whistle of one of the local birds, a dullish brown pheasant that made decidedly unpleasant eating as they had discovered, reached where Rin waited with the five rangers she had picked for this assignation. They were chosen for their skill and their capacity for discretion. Farbarad looked over to where she was and nodded. Rin pushed her thoughts back to the unpleasant matter at hand as Loch and his fellow commander, Berlas, rode at last through the trees. The thin, stubborn snow crackled under the hooves of their horses and left a clear trail of muddy brown crescents behind them.
”Sister,” Loch said curtly, already suspecting why she had taken the extraordinary measure of riding so far into Rhuadar.
Beside him, Berlas nodded politely and Rin urged her gelding forward to draw nearer.
”One question, gentlemen:” she said, adjusting her reins as her horse ambled towards the two men, ”Why? Chose your answers carefully indeed.”
Loch’s attempt to remain cool and calm evaporated and he launched into an impassioned accounting for the Company’s actions over the course of winter in Rhuadar. Berlas continued in his silence. No one could get a word in edgewise around her brother in any case. Rin waited for Loch to run out of bluster and, eventually, he petered off into silence with a shrug.
”Just so that I understand,” she said, ”The detachment in Tharbad thought the surplus incendiary powder the dwarves were using there might be useful and brought it with them. And this was subsequently involved in …how did you put it, Lochared?”
“It was a training mishap. An accident. We were still learning how to use the stuff.”
“A mishap,” Rin repeated, ”You utterly rearranged an entire valley, turned it inside out and on its head…but it was just a training accident.”
“It wasn’t even a good one, as valley's go. Nothing but lizards and rocks really,” Loch glanced to where Berlas was beside him, ”See, I told you she’d understand.”
“And how much of this powder do you have left?” Rin inquired.
As Loch opened his mouth to answer, Berlas finally perceived the moment had come for him to speak.
”None of it, Doc. We used it all up,” Berlas said quickly and saw her eyes narrow suspiciously.
”It’s all gone?” she clarified and Loch recovered from his momentary confusion.
”All of it. In fact, we need more of it.”
“I see,” Rin said quietly and the leather of her gloves creaked anew. She canted her head to one side, ”What does the Company make of this new weapon?”
“They see it’s potential, of course,” Loch replied enthusiastically, ”It could bring this campaign to a close months earlier! Think of the lives saved!”
“And useless landscape features eliminated,” Rin added, unable to keep her sarcasm out of her voice this time.
Loch missed that entirely in his relief that his sister had not arrested him and did not seemed inclined to do so, ”Exactly! Think of all that arable land…once the dust settles…and the rocks…you know what I mean, Rin.”
“I am afraid I do, Lochared. What did Wulgof make of it?”
“He thought it a grand idea. He said it worked at Helm’s Deep just fine,” Loch said.
”Wulgof was on the losing side at Helm’s Deep,” Rin pointed out.
”Yes, but only because a whole cavalry of Rohirrim showed up at the last gasp. I don’t think these Moricarni have that, Rin. Do you? We know what we’re doing with this stuff now. Give some more and we’ll finish this off for you. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Peace? It’s been three years. Let us end it. You know what Vid would say were he here. Hanasian too,” Loch answered and saw his sister’s jaw tense as she clenched her teeth.
She looked away from them for a long moment before answering, ”Yes, as a matter of fact I do. But neither man is here now and even if they were, neither man is the commander of this campaign. That pleasure falls to me and me alone.”
When Rin looked back at Berlas and her brother, she let her anger shine clearly. Berlas sighed in defeat but Loch appeared genuinely surprised. When she next spoke, her voice was iron. It had to be. There was no other way.
”Mark my words well: I forbid outright the use of this wizard’s powder. I will not have Rhuadar saved by Saurman the White’s malice. I will not have Arnor’s stability imperilled by rash, thoughtless action here. I will not lay waste to Rhuadar just so that you can go home a little sooner. Is that clear!?”
“You’re making a mistake, and you’ll come to regret it!” Loch burst out.
Rin’s tone became icy, ”They are my mistakes to make, brother!”
A short distance away, one of the rangers cleared his throat and Loch remembered himself. He shook his head sullenly and shifted in his saddle.
Berlas quietly said, ”We understand, Doc.”
Rin’s gaze snapped to the former Ithilien Ranger, ”You’d better, because the next time I hear of this I’ll have the heads of those responsible. Irrespective of who they belong to.”
Berlas nodded and endured her scrutiny until she released him. He was struck by a sudden recollection of the woman that had confronted him. It was that morning at the Prancing Pony, many years ago. Hanasian had only announced the evening before that she had signed on and the very next day they were gathered together to receive their next orders. Rin had arrived with cheeks flushed and hair tangled, slightly late, harried and breathless. While the rest of the Company had taunted her roundly, he had found himself seated beside her and unable to join in the fun. Instead, he’d discretely suggested that she untangle her hair.
She’d turned such a wide eyed look of dismay at him that he’d nearly drowned in her eyes. Then she had looked over to where their captain stood, irritably waiting for them to all settle down and her cheeks had burnt anew at the reproach Hanasian had no choice but to deliver. Now, he would be hard pressed to connect the woman on the horse to the woman he recalled all those years ago. Her trepidation and uncertainty had vanished and she looked as indeed she was: a daughter of kings, descended from the royal line of Núnemor.
Rosmarin drew a breath and broached a new topic, ”Your supply train should reach you in a week or two. I do not know when the next one can be gotten to you, so make it last. If this year’s harvest fails as they fear it will, you may be fending for yourselves like the rest of Arnor is.”
“Is it that bad?” Berlas asked, shaken by the grim words.
”We’ll continue rationing. The men are accustomed to it,” Loch replied, voice flat with reproach, ”Any word of Vid?”
Rin shook her head testily, ”No, and if he’s any sense he’ll stay gone. I have no option now but to arrest and try him for desertion!”
“We’ll continue as we have been, then,” Berlas said quickly and gathered his reins, ”Travel safely Doc. You’re a fair way into Rhuadar and a significant target for the Moricarni even without that sword of yours.”
Rin nodded shortly and Berlas wheeled his horse around and departed. Loch, however, remained where he was. Rin could tell he was brooding.
’Rin, it’s a mistake I tell you.”
“The matter is closed, Loch. I will discuss it no further,” Rin said and watched her brother’s shaggy head turn aside.
She sighed unhappily and then reached for her nearest saddlebag. Rin drew out a bundle of paper wrapped in brightly coloured string. Her movement drew her brother’s attention and she tossed him the bundle.
”Rose sends her love,” she told him as he caught it.
“She misses you…but yes, she is well. I sent her south to Cardolan with the children. They are safer there, now.”
Loch nodded and turned the bundle over in his large hands.
”Loch?” Rin asked quietly and his head lifted so that his dark eyes, coals of anger still, met her own gaze, ”I want you to come home to your wife, whole.”
“I’m not going to get myself killed, Rin,” he scoffed as Rin nudged her gelding closer still.
She reached out to wrap her hand around Loch’s wrist, ”That’s not what I meant. I know what it is carry that darkness within you…to wake sweating and shaking in the night, haunted by what you saw and worse, what you have done. Do not do that to Rose, Loch. Do not consign her to watch you suffer like that. Have done with this recklessness.”
Loch curved the fingers of his other hand over hers and squeezed a little, ”I understand, Rin.”
She nodded and knew she’d have to be content with that. He let her fingers slip out from underneath his own and she picked up her reins.
”Have you had any further Dreams?” she asked, eyes on a spot between her horse’s ears.
Loch looked over to where Farbarad waited, ”No.”
His answer was an honest one and he wanted to reassure her that it changed nothing. He knew his dream was true. He knew it. Instead, he let her go and she turned away for Annuminas. Loch remained where he was until Berlas slipped back out through the trees.
”That went as you expected,” Berlas observed, sounding surprised.
”Of course it did. She’s my sister,” Loch replied and tucked the bundle of letters into his saddlebags.
”Shame we couldn’t get any more of the stuff out of her.”
“Aye…but we’ve enough left for it to be of use to us all the same.”
“You mean to proceed?”
“I see no reason not to,” Loch replied.
”I think she meant it, Loch. If your sister discovers what we’re doing here, she really will have our heads. Even yours.”
“I know,” Loch said, ”Rin is not given to idle threats and we still don’t know how she got wind of that accident a month ago. If it wasn’t the rangers-“
“It wasn’t,” Berlas said.
”Then my money is on the Cats. They’ve always been hers ever since Vid created the unit in Minas Tirith.”
“Whoever is responsible for it, we need to ensure we get to the bottom of it before we try to use the powder again. I really don’t want your sister showing up any angrier than she was.”
A lop sided grin surfaced from Loch’s beard, ”Haven’t seen her that mad in years.”
“Took a demolished valley to make it happen,” Berlas said with a faint smile of his own, ”You’re losing your touch.”
“It’s those twin boys of hers. We have to go to extraordinary lengths now to get a bite out of her because of those two.”
The two men turned their horses about and rode off to regain their Company encampment, discussing their plans for the months of the fighting season ahead.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
”You know, it’s not too late,” Farbarad told her as sunlight flickered through the tree boughs overhead, ”We could still turn south and bypass the city altogether.”
The idea held no small amount of appeal for Rin as well Farbarad knew. The king waited for her report in Annuminas but her children were in Cardolan with Rose. They were far enough away from the city to be able to slip south. It had been so long since she had held them in her arms that her body ached at the thought of them.
”Are you tempting me to shirk my responsibilities to the crown, Wolf,” Rin inquired.
”Just a suggestion,” he said and nodded ahead, ”Think it over.”
She smiled as she looked ahead to their resting point for the evening. Amongst the Rangers it was a well known place – ample water and shelter and all things considered reasonably defensible too if it came down to it. A short while later she was unsaddling her gelding whilst the Rangers around her discussed the evening’s duties. Two decided to set off on a hunt. If they were fortunate, they’d find something for dinner and not have to dip into the cache that was here. In turn, that would spare them the trouble of replenishing it on the morrow before they set out. There was firewood to collect and water too. Just the mention of water made Rin’s scalp itch furiously.
”I’ll get that,” she said swiftly as she hauled her saddle free.
”Not on your own you won’t,” Farbarad groused at her and Rin rose onto the tips of her toes to smile prettily across the back of her horse at him.
”You can help me wash my hair, then. I suspect it will be a two person job anyway.”
At that there was quiet chuckling from the other men, Haldeth the loudest of them.
”I’m not here to wash your hair,” Farbarad grumbled, ”I’m too busy collecting firewood. That’ll have to be Haldeth’s job, as Mardil has to ride ahead to Fornost.”
Both Mardil and Haldeth sighed unhappily but Mardil had the worst of it. It would fall to him to let Fornost to expect her arrival any day now and that would not be welcome news. It would be worse yet when she informed them that the King was set to inspect the reconstruction efforts there by the close of summer. As of this moment, she had no idea if there were even any masons left after the last winter. Her thoughts preoccupied by where she might find more masons, Rin collected up waterskins and set off for the brook nearby with Haldeth in tow.
”I don’t know why you don’t just cut it all off,” he told her as they walked along through the trees, ”It’s no use to you in a fight and a pain in the neck when traveling.”
He was talking about her hair, which was currently a gnarled mass of knots and dust and sweat. Rin twisted about look at the Ranger, with his beads and braids and feathers.
”But how would you recognise me?” she asked and swiftly straightened before he saw the grin on her face.
Behind her, Haldeth drawled, ”Oh, I imagine I’d think of something. I’m quite resourceful, like that.”
Her grin grew wider at his response but they’d reached the stream and so she crouched on the bank and began filling water skins. Once this was done she passed them back to Haldeth and set to unstrapping her pouldrons.
”Hey,” Haldeth protested when he noticed what she was doing.
”If you think I’m stupid enough to go into a stream wearing armour…”
“Then don’t go in!”
“I’m not squatting on the bank like some toad and dunking my head in the water for your amusement, Ranger!”
Haldeth sighed and settled in with the waterskins, ”Fine…you can explain it to Farbarad then.”
Rin began to unlace a boot and had pulled the first one off when she first heard the sound. She peered across the stream to the far bank but saw nothing. A swift glance to where Haldeth was confirmed that he’d heard it too, whatever it was. Rin returned to scrutinise the far bank but saw no movement amongst the trees gathered there. Then, bouncing across the water, she heard the sound again. It drove her to her feet despite a warning hiss from Haldeth for now that she heard it a second time she was convinced it was an infant.
”What are you doing?” he demanded as she waded into the stream.
Haldeth hurried after her but the speed of the water meant that he did not catch her until she had reached the far bank. Here, when the sound came a third time, even he could tell what it was. Haldeth winced at the woman who stood next to him.
”I don’t suppose,” he started but she was off again.
”Even if you did find it, what then Haldeth?” she asked as she pressed through the trees.
”I might ask the same thing of you,” Haldeth replied through gritted teeth as he followed her along and finally found a way to insert himself ahead of her.
She glared at him forcefully but he asked anyway, ”What if it’s a trap?”
Rosmarin jabbed a finger in a random direction, ”Even if it is, there’s an infant alone in the woods, Haldeth!”
“We don’t know it’s alone, though!”
“No mother would let her babe wail like that – hungry and in pain. The child’s alone.”
Somehow she slipped around him and Haldeth regretted training her so well in that regard. Even though she only had one boot on, she was moving so fast he was forced to scrabble about to catch her up. She turned this way and that, following the pitiful, wretched wails of the child. It was the sort of sound that tore at a man’s eyelids. But then, through a particularly rending peal, Haldeth heard something else entirely and it made him reach ahead blinding and drag Rosmarin back towards him by her braid. Once she was within his arm’s reach, he wound one around and clapped it over her nose and mouth. As soon as he did that, she stopped trying to shake him off and went as still as he was. Through the trees came the unmistakeable sound of battle and death.
Dreadful as it was, there was only one thing to do now. He lowered his hand from his mistress’ mouth and shifted silently to take her hand in his. Their eyes met briefly and Haldeth mouthed a single word at her. She nodded even as her eyes flicked to where she could hear Rangers dying. Tears stood in her eyes, illuminated by a shaft of afternoon light.
”We must run,” he said and no sooner had he spoken did a thick, bristling shaft embed itself in the tree by his head.
In an instant they were off, him pulling her on after him as he tried to find a way to see her clear of the ambush that had closed in around them. They did not stop until the sun had westered and even then it was only because she could go no further. Her one bare foot was bloodied as she fell, gasping to her knees. Haldeth spun about, looking for some sign of pursuit.
”We cannot remain here,” he gasped and turned to where she lay, chest heaving for air.
”A moment. I need to bind my-“
Another bristling arrow ended debate and even though he was exhausted, Haldeth leapt forward and gathered his mistress up to resume the race. He ran past the setting sun and into the evening until he could go no further.
Haldeth set the Lady down at the foot of a small hillock. He could hear them coming. There was little point in trying to elude them now. His best chance, exhausted though he might be, was to try to fight them off. He had half drawn his sword when a man emerged from the shadows.
”Hold!,” the fellow called in Adûanic.
”Come no further,” Haldeth panted all the same, sweeping his sword all the way free.
”If you stay here, they will discover you,” the fellow said and this Haldeth knew to be true.
”I know of a safe place,” the man said, ”But we must hurry.”
“Your name?” Rosmarin asked from the darkness behind Haldeth.
”Garrimond, m’Lady – I am honoured to serve amongst the Rangers of Arnor.”
“I know that name,” Rosmarin murmured but still Haldeth hesitated.
”If you will not come away, perhaps you might permit me to stand with you,” Garrimond asked.
”I see little option, Haldeth,” Rin murmured, ”Do you?”
Though he had little liking for it, Haldeth answered by sheathing his sword. At that the other Ranger approached them.
”Careful,” Haldeth told him, ”My mistress is injured.”
“We must delay no longer,” Garrimond said and swiftly led them further into the darkness.
By the time they reached Garrimond’s place of safety, Rin had lapsed into sleep in Haldeth’s arms. He hunched to fit the pair of them through the hut’s low door. The interior was simple and rustic, a table and chair and a narrow cot that Garrimond waved Haldeth towards. He set the Lady down upon it, trembling with fatigue himself, while Garrimond lit a lantern from the hearth coals and brought it closer. He clucked his tongue at what the light revealed.
”This will not do,” he said and set the lantern down.
”There was no other choice,” Haldeth told him, ”We had to run or be taken by them.”
Garrimond nodded sadly, ”I know…I found the others. Over there on the shelf over the hearth you will find a small bag. Bring it here while I pour water.”
Haldeth located a small cloth pouch that smelt of herbs and other things good for healing and fetched it back to the cot. Garrimond, meanwhile, poured water into a bowl and brought it to the cot. He had found rags too and Haldeth peered at them to ensure they were clean.
”Fear not, Ranger of Cardolan, I know who your mistress is,” Garrimond told him and Haldeth forced himself to step back again out of the other Ranger’s way.
He watched Garrimond sprinkle a packet of white powder into the water and then soak rags in it. He lifted the sodden cloths towards Rosmarin and Haldeth could not restrain himself.
”Wouldn’t hot water be better,” he asked.
Garrimond lowered the rags again and considered Haldeth a moment.
”Perhaps you might want to check that we were not followed. It would not do for us to be surprised now,” the ranger said and Haldeth knew it for what it was.
He sidled to the door and pushed outside again to leave Garrimond to his task. In the darkness beyond Haldeth stared up at the stars overhead. Three men were dead, one of them the Wolf of Cardolan no less. It was a stunning loss that would affect his mistress profoundly. If Mardil had not gotten clear away on his run to Fornost, the tally would rise to four. He had no idea how it was even possible. Four experienced Rangers taken just like that and in Western Arnor too. Still it could have been worse. At least he had managed to get Rosmarin free and clear. He had not failed her even if it meant he had left his fellow Rangers there to die.
By the time Haldeth returned to the hut, Garrimond had finished up. He checked to find Rosmarin still asleep, her injured foot neatly bandaged in such a way that he thought even she’d approve. He glanced over to where the other Ranger sat and nodded with gratitude.
”She has lost a surprising amount of blood. Her foot is badly injured.”
“It could have been worse,” Haldeth said and finally permitted himself to sit down.
With Garrimond in the hut’s only chair, Haldeth perched on the wooden frame of the cot. The other Ranger watched silently as he slipped inexorably into the grip of his exhaustion and it was not long until Haldeth was curled upon on the pressed earth floor beside his mistress’ bed.
Garrimond waited until he heard the rumble of Haldeth’s snoring before he rose. He approached and considered the two sleeping forms for a long while. Then, slowly, Garrimond drew his dagger.
”Forgive me,” he whispered as he lifted his arm.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The crows. It was always the crows, Aragorn thought, as a new wave of disgruntled cawing was set off by his men. Down on the stream bank, the gruesome trophy that had been left there on a rough wooden frame had been taken down. It was a hell of a thing, the king thought, for a man such as the Wolf of Cardolan to be put on display in ignominious death like that. Who know how much longer he would have hung there like that had a hunter not been alerted by the crows.
The site was littered with thickly bristled arrows and that alone told Aragorn who was responsible for this. The fact that his cousin was nowhere to be found was either a very good thing or very bad. It was too early to say which yet. A piercing whistle indicated something had been found. Aragorn tensed, dreading what it might be but there was no subsequent signal to indicate it was another body. Soon one of his Rangers came trotting back from across the stream.
”A trail, leading north and east,” he said, pointing the way.
”Pursue it!” Aragorn nodded and the man whirled away to see to the king’s bidding.
Aragorn’s fists clenched and unclenched. He wanted to track it himself. As he wrestled with the idea Massuil pounced.
”You know who did this as well as I,” the irascible old man declared, ”And it makes no sense whatsoever!”
Aragorn turned to consider the elderly Ranger, ”Perhaps it was opportunistic.”
Massuil snorted contempt for that, ”Ha! If it was opportunistic we’d be gathering up Moricarni corpses now.”
“They shouldn’t even be this far West!”
“They were…and they made sure we knew it. Made sure we noticed.”
Aragorn looked down to where the rough wooden frame still stood, empty now.
“Think boy! Think!” Massuil urged him, ”Why would they take the risk, eh? They’d have to know you’d come after them like a dragon chasing his plundered gold. They’ve had a good three years now to strike at your cousin and they haven’t bothered. Now this, and while the Company is crawling all over the East! And it’s not like the Lady would go quietly with them – not that one! Why would they invite the trouble when their plates are already so full?”
“A message,” Aragorn said and Massuil threw his arms up.
”Well that’s obvious, but to who?”
Aragorn was quiet a long while, staring at his dusty boots, as he twisted the old Ranger’s question around. When he looked up again, Massuil was peering straight at him with both eyes, including the one that did not see any more.
”A dead man,” the old man said, nodding, ”That’s who.”
Massuil’s words struck new dread into Aragorn’s heart. If he was right and if the Moricarni had their hands on Rosmarin there was no telling what they would do so as to lure their avowed foe out. And how could Hanasian comply when he was dead? It was truly diabolical.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The rag was pulled from her mouth not long after the blindfold was taken away. She did not waste time sucking down fresh air.
”Please,” she begged, ”You don’t have to do this!”
The man she begged looked at her sadly as he uncorked his water skin.
”I’m afraid that I do or otherwise I'd not do it,” he told her as he raised the skin to her lips, ”Though I have no liking for it.”
The tepid water coursed down her throat and spilled over her chin.
”I have children!”
“I know…six of them…but they have aunts and uncles…my nieces have no one else but me. Please, drink some more.”
He poured water into her mouth again and she was forced to swallow or drown.
”How is your foot?” he asked as he stoppered the skin and replaced it on his belt.
Garrimond did not wait for an answer as he crouched to see for himself. Even though he’d bound her hand and foot, gagged and blindfolded her and murdered Haldeth, the Ranger had done an excellent job tending her foot. It pained her less and less with each passing day. He finished his inspection and nodded with satisfaction.
”Very good. Shall we move on, my lady.”
“I hope you rot, Garrimond. I hope they find a dark cold cell and leave you there.”
“They probably will, your Grace. I have resigned myself to my fate. I recommend you do the same.”
“Whatever they’ve promised you they won’t-“
Garrimond tugged the gag back into her mouth but as he was doing so, something distracted him. He was usually so careful to keep his fingers clear of her teeth but this time he failed to be cautious. Rin bit him hard, the metallic taste of blood thick on her tongue, and Garrimond roared with sudden pain. Finger injuries were painful, as she well knew, and while he was grappling with that sudden onslaught, Rin wriggled away to roll as fast as she could down the slope he had paused upon. Rocks and sticks and tufts of grass jabbed at her ribs and hips but she screwed her eyes shut and hoped the jolting roll did not snap a rib or shatter her arms. Once she was at the bottom, she was fresh out of ideas.
Rin landed face first with a pained grunt and spat Garrimond’s blood out onto the ground. She could hear the Ranger shouting on the slope but as she wriggled around the noise cut off. A large looming shape stood between her and the sun and she squinted up at what was probably certain death.
”Great. Just great,” the shape declared, nonplussed, ”You’re not supposed to be here!”
“Videgavia?” she asked, stunned, and the shape sighed as if she had just dealt him a great injury.
”Why is it always me,” the shape grumbled as he knelt down beside her.
Still a little stunned, Rin attempted to wriggle away.
”And why do you always make things harder than they need to be? Hold still, you idiot! Do you want me to leave you trussed up like this? Yes, it’s me…now stop wriggling and hold still. Wouldn’t want to accidentally stab you or anything,” Videgavia direly muttered.
He severed the bonds at her wrists first and then her ankles, ”What have you done to your foot? You can’t walk, can you?”
“I can too, mostly…and don’t you start with me, Videgavia! Where the hell have you been? You’re under arrest!”
“Oh, sure, of course I am,” he said, grunting a little as he hauled her up and over her shoulder.
”Did you find Beragil?” she asked, her voice muffled by Videgavia’s dusty cloak.
”Can this wait until we’re somewhere more suitable?” he asked as he set off at a trot.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
[OOC: Please note my co-writer backtracked in time for backstory reasons]
Misty Mountains – Eastern Flank, Rhovanion – IV 57 – Spring
Losing the trail was a bitter pill for to swallow but they did not abandon hope. Hanasian and Videdgavia pushed west over the mountains towards Eriador as the melting snow allowed, while Beragil and his Rhuadur brethren went east following a track. Somehow, whether by coincidence or design, the five men met again at the burned out cabin. After combing the ruin, they gathered under the withered oaks to camp for the night. Unsettled, Videgavia stood at the perimeter of the charred earth and stared at it. This set Hanasian to thinking. As the sun set, the Rhuadar rangers established a watch while Hanasian got a fire going. Anyone and everyone, including the one they hunted, would know they were there by the fire’s bright glow.
Videgavia returned, crouched and silent, as Hanasian coaxed the flames to life.
Hanasian leaned back as the hungry flames too and as the fire spluttered into steadier life he said to the watching Daleman, ”You know it as well as I. He got out, even if we don’t know how. I suspect he used the cabin fire as a diversion of sorts. He’d be He is heading north back to Dale as fast as he can.”[/I[
Vid tossed a stick into the hungry blaze, [I]”Why? The Dale Guardsman would be very much alerted.”
Hanasian nodded, ”Yes, but he need not see a single guardsman if he doesn’t press too far in. The Moricarni had supporters there, supply and a line of communication to the west. These have been eradicated, but he may still have a sleeper up there. I suspect he only led us down here to get us out of the way.”
Hanasian took his pipe out and scraped together a bowl from what was left in his empty pouch. A twig had it lit in no time.
Vid took a strip of jerky out and gnawed at it a while, thinking, ”You managed it. I suppose he has too. You’ve a suspicious mind Cap.”
Hanasian let a slow stream of smoke out, ”Cap? … you’re ‘Cap’ now. Or have you left your duties to others while you run after this phantom with me? You need to go back. Take up the captaincy again, then resign. Do it right Vid. It isn’t fair to the others.”
Vid nodded as he pitched another twig into the fire, ”I know. I was going to head west no matter. The rivers are still quite high, but I think they’re passable.”
”Take Beragil and the scout with you. They are good rangers and they are Company. They need to settle up with their campaign command too,” Hanasian said, then took his pipe out to dump the ash.
He sighed then and put the empty pipe back to his mouth, ”Massuil, Aragorn too, never held much with deserters.”
Videgavia ducked his head and winced. Neither, he thought, did the woman who actually commanded the campaign. But Hanasian had no idea about that and now was not the time to inform him. Vid looked out to where one of the Rhuadurians stood watch.
He asked, ”What of the quiet one? Is he staying with you?”
“I think so. He is very observant. Has secrets he does, and I get the feeling he is looking for something or someone himself. But that is not my business. He is wise in the ways of the North Country, and we are going north. His skill will be needed,” Hanasian answered.
Vid nodded, then asked, ”How will you split those two? They’re like brothers.”
Hanasian nodded but had nothing to offer on that. He leaned back against a tree trunk and rested his chin upon his chest. A moment’s sleep was worth much at such times. Videgavia stood and decided to relieve the scout that would travel with him and Beragil.
When the scout later rose to relieve the quiet, secretive ranger in the early morning, Hanasian was awake. He watched the ranger that he had decided would join him north pad back towards the oak trees. As he lowered himself to the ground, Hanasian broke his silence.
”I think I can count on two hands if not on one the words I’ve heard you say,” Hanasian observed.
The Rhuadurian shrugged and said after a moment, ”Don’t have nothing to say.”
Hanasian stood, preparing to relieve Beragil, ”That’s fair. You’ve already earnt your Company name anyway. Even Beragil refers to you as ‘Quiet’. But I like to know a little about those I travel with. You’re secrets are your own and I don’t want your biography, but I need to know your name. What is it?”
The Rhuadurian shrugged, ”Quiet.
Hanasian checked his blades while Quiet stared at the fire.
A moment later the Rhuadarian said, ”You said you didn’t want our names back in Bree.”
Hanasian leaned towards him, ”You’ve a hard life ahead of you ranger if you’ve not learned that things change. Get some rest. Come dawn we have many leagues to cross, you and I.”
Hanasian soon sent Beragil back to the camp fire to eat and rest. In position, Hanasian watched the shadows and the stars, his mind wheeling furiously. By the time the eastern sky shaded blue, his thoughts had narrowed to the path they would take and what it was they would look for. Yes, he knew. He knew where he went wrong in losing their quarry.
The morning chill was wintry even if the sun rose a little earlier each day. The frost of the morning was lighter and there was even a bit of a chance that the sun would be warm this day. The five men sat about a fire that had failed to draw any Moricarni out and ate their trail ration slightly warmed. It was agreed that Vidigavia would head west with Beragil and the Scout, while Quiet would accompany Hanasian north back toward Dale. They said their farewells and rode off their separate ways.
Hanasian moved quickly, which concerned Quiet. He thought that they might miss something at the speed Hanasian had set but Hanasian clearly wanted to reach the north in haste. Their first break didn’t come until they stopped for the night. There would be no fire that night. With only two, they could not afford a watch and the last attempt had not yielded any Moricarni. Hanasian immediately set to writing in his journal before the day’s light failed entirely and darkness took them. Aside from the scratching of his nib across the rough paper stock, there was silence until Quiet suddenly blurted out his name.
Hanasian looked up in surprise, ”I know that name!”
Hanasian eyed him closely and then made a note in his journal. Dauremir shrugged, uncomfortable again, and picked up a branch that had recently fallen from the bare tree above. He eyed it before tossing it back to the ground in front of him.
Hanasian asked, ”You have Dunedain blood?”
“So I am told,” Dauremir replied, wishing he had said nothing.
Hanasian went on, ”And your parents named you Dauremir. That is interesting!”
Dauremir looked over at Hanasian and warily asked, ”Why does my name interest you so much?”
Hanasian nodded, ”Well, for one, King Earendur of Arnor had younger twin sons. One of that very name. He would become the first King of Rhuadur when Earendur died and Arnor was broken up. His twin brother Caontar became the first king of Cardolan. Knowledge of the Line of Rhuadur is even harder to find than those of Cardolan. It was said that the royal line died out when the Hillmen arose in rebellion and slaughtered the family. It led to most of the Dunedain either being killed or driven out where they fled to Arthedain.”
“Well I can assure you there is nothing royal about my family,” Dauremir said as he took a bit of jerky out to chew on, agitated now.
Hanasian decided he would let this be for now. He could look further into what is known of Rhuadar when he gets back…if he gets back. They were silent for a time as the night drew in around them, dark and cold.
Nothing more was said between the men as they pressed north. They tarried seldom and only at need. A moment’s rest by a pool gave Hanasian opportunity to study his appearance. His hair was greying on the left, but was near white and curled where it grew where he was burned. He used his knife and shaved his head close, leaving only stubble. There was nothing he could do about the scars. Would his wife, would his children even know him if he returned? Would they find him too terrible to behold? He returned to where Dauremir had remained with the horses and sat in quiet, dark thought. Even if they could bear the sight of him, he was not in the least assured that they could forgive him for what he had done to them.
The sky was fast turning from deep blue to darkness as the first of the bright stars began to show and Dauremir broke the long silence reluctantly, ”There has been no sign.”
“Yes, I know,” Hanasian replied, laid out his bedroll and stretched out upon it, ”Any sign we might have seen would have been a decoy. on the right track. Tomorrow you’ll go in and get supplies. We’ll be continuing north, where it is still winter.”
And that was that, even if Dauremir had no idea how Hanasian could be so sure that any signs they had sped past would be false. The following day, Hanasian hung back to avoid Dale while Dauemir went into town to collect supplies. It took them a number of days to acquire what they would need but once it was done, the two set out north towards Ered Mithrin (Grey Mountains) after a week or so.
They were only three days in before Hanasian said, ”We are being followed. They have some skill, but they are inexperienced. I suspect they are following you, for I know I have not been seen in town.”
Dauremir nodded, not looking, ”I thought this would happen. I don’t believe they’ll cause us any trouble.”
Hanasian scowled, ”That so? Having somebody on our trail? How could you know this unless you know who it is!”
Dauremir looked out to the western horizon a moment, choosing his words carefully, ”I was noticed when we were at Hunter’s Rest. I didn’t see them clearly and but I didn’t want to compromise is us while we were there. I didn’t see them when I was in town this time, but I had that feeling on the back of my neck that someone had an eye on me.”
“And you don’t think this will cause us any trouble,” Hanasian replied before he shook his head, ”Then no trouble it will be. We’ll move on now, no camp this night. It will draw us closer to our quarry and put distance between us and whoever follows us.”
Dauremir was puzzled, for he expected Hanasian to question him harder, but opted to take the inexplicable reprieve the older ranger offered. They rested shortly until it was dark so that their hunter would think they readied for yet another cold camp. Then, as soon as twilight had deepened into night proper, they mounted up and continued north. Other than leading out into a creek and riding upstream for nearly a league, they did not bother to hide their track.
They were soon back in the snow, wet and cold and slick. It was near impossible to cover tracks in the spring slush and it revealed a solitary track. Hanasian was sure they were on the heels of their shadowy quarry, but he could not determine why the canny man had made no effort to conceal his path at least to some degree. Could he really think that they might not uncover his deception back at the razed cabin?
As for their tail, it appeared they had lost them, even if for a time. Whoever it was may be inexperienced, but they have the gift, and were learning quickly. They had been spotted when Dauremir and Hanasian had reached a high escarpment in the Greys where they could see far south into the lowlands. Their river decoy had worked but their hunter had guessed they were going north. It was doubtful they had regained their trail but the hunter pushed on none-the-less. Hanasian noted to not underestimate them. He also knew that whoever this hunter was, they knew Dauremir better than the Rhuadarian was aware of or prepared to admit.
Spring was late to come to the north and they were daily pelted with rain, snow, sleet and wind. But the two kept on, and one night they found shelter in a cave that was partially covered in ice. The dripping water had made the inside wet, but they were out of the wind, and even the horses enjoyed the relative warmth.
For three days the rains fell hard. Water flowed everywhere and creek beds that were dry most of the year raged with rain and melting snow water. A cave in of ice had blocked the mouth of the cave they were sheltering in, but the two worked at digging and moving the slabs of ice away so they could get out. It wasn’t until the fifth day that the rained slowed to a mere drizzle. Hanasian went out to scout the area and returned with tidings back.
”We are either in luck or deep trouble. Somehow, our hunter has managed to negotiate the steep tracks in the rain and is now not far away. Our own tracks were obliterated by the slide and cave in. Our hunter is now on the track of our quarry.”
“Why is that lucky for us?” Dauremir asked, surprised.
Hanasian replied, ”Because they will set off any traps our foe may have set and when he makes a move against our hunter, we will have the upper hand on him.”
Dauremir stood, not hiding his concern, and Hanasian’s mild expression shifted into one that was as hard as stone.
Hanasian growled, ”Tell me who follows us or sit yourself back down!”
Dauremir backed away, realizing the sudden threat in Hanasian’s demeanour was no ploy. He leaned against the damp cave wall and kicked at the river of water at his feet.
Then the Rhuadarian sighed unhappily and said softly, ”I’m not sure. I think it is someone who knows me well but I cannot be certain.”
“Who do you know that would they follow you? You have to know!”
Dauremir shrugged, ”I can only guess. But you are right. We will see if they draw out our Shadow.”
Hanasian shook his head at Dauremir’s sudden change in demeanour and drew his sword, ”Well, if we’re going to see anything, we best get into position.”
They managed to get out over the wet ice and snow and they climbed up to a rocky ledge and looked out to watch their hunter ride closer. Hanasian watched close for movement in the rocks. Dauremir kept his eyes on the hunter. Just when thought the hunter would ride straight up toward them, the rider stopped. The hunter dismounted and studied the ground. Then, having noted something, the hunter turned and made off in a westward direction. An interesting turn this was! Dauremir at first didn’t say anything to Hanasian, for he was intently watching and the rocks.
Later, when Hanasian’s eyes moved to search out their hunter, Dauremir said, ”They are in the draw, they turned west for some reason.”
Hanasian squinted hard at the draw and then glanced briefly to Dauremir, ”That will go well for us. Look, the Shadow watches. He has revealed himself to us!”
It was an advantage that Hanasian would not lose this time. They watched as he slipped back into his hiding place in the rocks, suspicious of the rider and likely just as curious as they were on why they turned west. Hanasian and Dauremir readied themselves and made way to the north while the break in the clouds prevailed. They had to be very careful.
The days started to grow longer but the wind, rain, snow, and sleet was relentless. Hanasian and Dauremir managed to keep on the trail of their stealthy quarry without him guessing they were following him. The horse he was riding helped in marking the way. Still, they were only able to follow him at a distance. They could not guess why he was lingering so far north in the Grey Mountains, slowly working his way west.
The days turned into weeks, and the weeks reached out into the summer months. The long days and the morning and evening twilight had them moving longer and farther each day. With supply running lean, Hanasian and Dauremir had to ration their remaining dried goods. At times they managed to find small game to eat, but it was always raw, for no fires could be lit. They would then have to move quickly, for the crows and vultures would soon start to gather. It was the same with their Shadow. He was much more careless now, almost as if he were confident of his success. He would even light a fire, as if he did not care who might find him. He seemed to have forgotten the men that had hunted him over mountain and dale.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rhuadar – IV – 57, 17 Lothron
I have located the Free Company of Arnor and informed them of my position as campaign command. It is difficult to say how this has been received for the Company is in a state of uproar.
Tidings of the attack upon the Lady of Cardolan arrived before me and their new captain is the Lady’s foster brother – Lochared of Dunland. I am told the Company voted him in prior to taking the field.
He is overcome with grief for they believe the Lady to have perished and I have been unable to confirm whether or not she has survived. There are three, advanced in years now, with prior experience of the Moricarni. They hold that no one survives as a captive of this foe and there is no one to gainsay them.
Into the breach has come another, a former Ithilien Ranger by the name of Berlas. A steady hand, well regarded within the Company. The Gondorians amongst their number are particularly strong supporters. He has been able to moderate, to some degree, the Company’s blood lust.
Their hunger for vengeance is strong, Father. Unfortunately, Berlas served alongside the Lady for a time and he, too, is disinclined towards temperance.
I will do what I can to contain them, as I must, but I fear it will go ill for any the Company encounter here in Rhuadar. I have sent a small party of Easterling scouts ahead with instructions to warn those they find to flee.
I cannot help but wonder what has prompted our foes to attempt such a bold venture. The risks are many and for what? To seize the Lady of Cardolan? Surely they cannot think that would bring this campaign to an end.
If anything, it appears only to have spurred it on.
Rhuadar Campaign Command
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Annuminas – IV – 57, 28 Nórui
I have received disturbing reports concerning the Free Company and the use of wizard’s powder.
Rumours are ever the rats of war and they flourish within Western Arnor. Still, I must ask, is this true?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rhuadar – IV – 57, 18 Cerveth
Sadly yes. Battle was joined shortly before dawn on Erulaitalë. It raged through the day and into the night and I will not soon forget it. The screams and moans of the injured and dying will, I think, haunt me to the end of my days.
The killing field was strewn with bodies torn asunder, limbs…I cannot go on to describe it adequately.
Battle was triggered by the sudden arrival of Moricarni fleeing ahead of the rangers that had pursued them from Fornost. I did not discover the ampules of power before the first was ignited and by then it was too late. There is none of the wicked stuff left now, of that I am certain.
By the following dawn, none of the Moricarni flushed from Western Arnor lived. By comparison, our losses were light. Nineteen dead, many more injured. Of those, perhaps two score are serious enough to merit removal from Rhuadar. Arrangements have been made.
Of the Rangers who drove the Moricarni into our savage arms, those of Arnor have since returned and those of Cardolan have been given leave to seek their mistress.
Rhuadar Campaign Command
~ ~ ~ ~
Imladris – IV – 57, 21 Ivanneth
I hope the Easterling messenger, Runner, found you with my hasty note. Now that I am arrived at Imladris I am able to provide a fuller report.
If Runner found you then you will know that the Lady of Cardolan was located, alive, in Rhuadar. Her captor is dead. She was returned to the Company by Videgavia of Dale, former Company captain. He was accompanied by two Rhuadarian Rangers, one of whom you might know – Beragil.
The Lady’s arrival was a moment of great relief and immense dismay. Her injuries were considerable. Videgavia reported that most were incurred during her escape. Bound hand and foot, her captor had halted atop a steep, rocky ridge far to the north. I believe her captor was attempting to elude the Company and those you have set to pursue the Moricarni attackers from Fornost. As Videgavia tells it, the traitor was distracted by either Videgavia’s presence or one of the Rhuadarian Rangers. The Lady seized the opportunity this presented and, after a brief tussle atop the ridge, hurled herself down it.
Beragil says that he killed the traitor, an arrow to the eye, when the man seemed likely to set off after her. Videgavia says he found her at the bottom, shaken and stunned but otherwise alert. He moved swiftly, keen to locate cover to take stock and put as much distance between them and whoever the traitor was seeking to meet with there.
By the time they regrouped and halted, the Lady had lost consciousness. It was only then that they realised how grave her condition was. Any rib that was not broken was cracked. It is a wonder her lungs were not punctured. Her right wrist was snapped and she was bruised black and blue from head to toes. There was an older injury to her foot, likely sustained during the initial attack at Fornost if I had to guess. At some point, a knife was taken to her, likely to quell her resistance. Most troubling of all, though, was a head injury sustained on her way down that wretched ridge.
The Company’s elation swiftly soured when Videgavia brought her in. The medics did what they could in camp and they tended to her well. The Company’s captain surrendered his position to Videgavia and retreated to his sister’s side. A vigil was mounted in which time she scarcely stirred. She woke once, briefly, confused and unable to recognise her own brother. She could not comprehend nor speak any language bar Dunlendic. I sent to Imladris then and there and some weeks later, my uncles answered my call.
They bore her swiftly back to Imladris, accompanied by her brother. Videgavia issued him a temporary leave of service. As for Videgavia’s own absence, he told me that he had gone in search of Beragil as approved by the Lady of Cardolan. I have been unable to confirm this with her directly, but it does correspond with the records she has kept. The Company has swiftly settled under his more experienced hand.
As of now, they scour Rhuadar for any Moricarni that might yet linger. Few have been found and I suspect the Moricarni may well be a spent force. Again, I wonder at what they hoped to gain.
Our cousin has steadily improved under my uncles’ care. They tell me they are optimistic. Bones knit and bruises fade, as we well know – but even the confusion that beset the Lady in Rhuadar has begun to recede.
Her household arrived a few days ago despite the concern that she may not recognise her children. It proved unfounded, thankfully, and I suspect her children will accomplish whatever my uncles cannot. They have taken measures to ensure the Lady and her household may remain in Imladris, beyond the Moricarni’s reach until this campaign is done.
I expect to remain here a little longer yet, another ten days and no more, before I return to Rhuadar.
Rhuadar Campaign Command
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Northern Rhuadar – IV 57 – Late Summer
Berlas checked his men before sending them out on one last long-range patrol before they withdrew south for the winter quarters. He had many of his Tharbad men with him, and his recruits from their days in Tharbad now had plenty of field time under their belts. The young Rohirrim all now had nicknames bestowed upon them based on the skills and demeanour they had shown. It had been a week since they had any contact with the Moricarni, and it seemed they had given it their last in the battles they had fought a ways south.
Loch and most of the Easterlings had pushed their sweep east into the high country, seeking out any pockets that may have remained. They did the same to the north. But winter would be coming to the northern heights of the Misty Mountains, which some called the Angmar Mountains. They had pushed as far north and west as the low hills to the east of Mt Gram, and they were overstretched. Berlas knew that he had to make sure he was thorough, and so he planned this last foray.
He would send out six groups in sort of a star pattern from their main encampment on the upper Mitheithel where he would stay with the remaining men. They had instruction to gather information, and search and use any caches they may find, and secure that which they could not use or carry. Berlas doubted they would be back, but one never knew. If they came back next year, he would have a cache of his own. The groups were to avoid any fighting if possible, and to send word if strength was needed. He trusted his field sergeants, for they had done well since their deployment north. A couple were veterans, like Hamoor who had been with them since the Rhun campaign.
One group headed due east up the river into Hoardale, another would accompany them for a time before turning north and back west down a valley to the lowlands that lay between the mountain spurs. They would meet up with the third, which would go due north, then they would go west along the foothills until they met up with the fourth, fifth and sixth group coming around Mt Gram. It was the last three groups that would have the hardest terrain and the longest way to get to their waymeet with the others.
”You all are as well supplied as can be and know what to do. I’ll expect you back here when you get here. The journey back may get rough if winter comes as early as it did last year. May you find only caches and no battles.”
The men spent a few minutes on their farewells saying farewells and were soon formed up and ready to move out. It would be months before they would be back here again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Signs of the waning of the short summer of the far north appeared with the dry withering of the scrub grass in the rocks. But for now, it was if not outright hot, it was quite dry. Hanasian wanted to take a hard look at their back-trail, so he left Dauremir to keep an eye on any movement of the Shadow while he set out for a day of back tracking.
”I’ll return by tomorrow evening,” Hanasian said, ”I’m going to back sweep to that spring we passed. so we don’t fall into complacency. If you need to move to keep his track, do so. But it is appears he has likely settled for a day or two and I should be back by the time he moves. He is familiar with this far North Country. The rocks give little, so he likely has found water there and will not move for some time.”
Dauremir nodded agreement with the assessment, “I will move around northwest up that way so we will be shaded in the height of day. Make haste, and bring back some of that water. We were too swift in our haste when we went by it.”
Hanasian nodded as he handed the last full water bag to Dauremir and took the empty ones and the one partially full with him. He silently eased his horse away over the rise they had just come over and made his way back east.
The itch between Hanasian’s shoulder blades had been there since yesterday. He was convinced they were being followed again and determined to see if this was indeed true. He’d said nothing of this, however, to Dauremir. His young companion was an excellent ranger but there was something about his silence and his reticence that troubled Hanasian.
Hanasian made sure he didn’t leave a track and cleaned any sign he saw they had left on his way back. He had hoped to come to the small spring they had passed earlier by nightfall, but he stopped short. Dismounting, he climbed up to a rock ledge to see what he might find. Sure enough, their hunter was back on their trail again. They’d been pursued since Spring, on and off, and yet over the months that had passed their hunter appeared to have learned nothing.
He saw signs of carelessness everywhere. The hunter’s horse rested by the spring while the hunter splashed in the water. All the hunter’s gear, water, satchel, knives, sword and bow were still lashed to the horse. Hanasian eased back from the rocky edge of his vantage. He picked up a small rock in one hand and a larger one in the other. With a hard hook he lobbed the small rock far overhead. Just as the small rock hit some rocks up the far side, he pushed the larger rock over the ledge. The small rock started a small slide in the loose scree. The resultant din made the hunter leap up, look about wildly and reach for a blade. Just as the hunter realised the blade was still on the horse, the larger rock crashed down. The horse spooked, reared and bolted up the track only to slow after a few spans when it sensed and then saw Hanasian’s horse.
Hanasian calmed the mare swiftly and began to study the gear the mare had carried off in her flight. Westernesse blades, Rhovanion bow, Rohirric horse. Scant food, no water, and a small pouch of Gondorian coin.
Hanasian could hear the hunter struggling up the track, cursing in the common tongue, totally unaware that Hanasian was there. He sent the mare over by his horse, grateful that the pair seemed to get along well, then crouched behind a rock pillar where the track curved. The hunter stormed up the track then paused at the sight of two horses.
”Who did you find?” the hunter said, her voice raised in mild surprise and no small relief that she’d found her mare without too much difficulty.
Hanasian swiftly emerged behind her and wrapped a hand around the woman’s mouth, his blade pressed against her flank. A brief struggle caused the blade to cut through her leather jerkin and shirt but it drew no blood and she soon capitulated.
Hanasian whispered into her ear, ”You’re late. Dauremir was expecting you much earlier.”
The sudden gasp at the mention of Dauremir’s name confirmed what Hanasian suspected. The woman not only knew the Rhuadarian, the ranger knew in turn who she was. Hanasian’s trust in Dauremir had been reserved since they had left Dale, and even more so when he did not tell of who tailed them. Hanasian spun her around, keeping grip of her wrist as he sheathed his knife.
”So you do know, and dare I say, seek him?”
“I…. I don’t know of who you speak.”
She said with hesitation, nervously darting her tongue over her lips.
Hanasian smiled at her grimly, “I know better lass! He told me all about you, back when we first saw you followed us in Spring. I have to admit, though, that I thought you would be older.”
She tried to pull away from him but Hanasian held fast to her wrists. He wasn’t getting too much information from her other than her body language.
He told her, ”I will release you if you promise not to do anything. Yes?”
After another slight tug against his grip, she nodded grudgingly. Hanasian slowly relaxed his hands, she remained still, looking at him. Quiet though she was, her eyes betrayed her. He could see she was calculating distances and options, and he was reminded of another woman who would do exactly that had she stood in this young lady’s boots. Hanasian was ready for her next move yet she still made the distance to her horse quickly. Her hand did not fully grasp the knife she reached for in her saddle as Hanasian collided with her. The knife fell to the ground with them and he knew he had knocked the wind out of the girl. He got his knees under him and held her wrists to the ground as she tried to draw in new breath.
He said in a low voice, ”You lied to me girl and that was not wise. But Perhaps you didn’t understand what I said.”
He stood, dragging the gasping woman up with him, and using rope from her horse bound her wrists together.
”This wouldn’t be necessary if I could trust you,” he told her, ” What is your name?”
Still trying to breathe properly, she gasped, ”Didn’t Dauremir tell you?”
Hanasian took up the reins of both horses in one hand and led the woman by her wrists in the other back down the track.
”He was very protective of some information about you,” he told her, looking about to check no one was ahead or behind or above them, ”It’s getting dark, so we’ll go back down by that spring you found and camp there.”
She nodded in agreement as if she had a say in the matter, and again he was sharply reminded of another. Though, were his wife here she’d be considering how best to roll down a mountain rather than actually comply. Fortunately, the young woman he towed along behind him seemed to have lost her will to fight and they settled by the water without further incident.
With the woman secured to the gnarled tree with the two horses, Hanasian filled his water bags, and took the two from the woman’s horse and filled them as well. Finding a pouch of dried berries on her horse, he sampled a couple. He offered her some, but she turned her head away.
Hanasian finally said, ”Listen, I don’t think Dauremir would want us to get along like this. I prefer to take you to him unbound.”
He offered her a drink next and after considering it carefully, she did not recoil.
She then heaved a forlorn sigh, ”Alright. Yes, I know Dauremir.”
Hanasian shrugged, ”I already know that. I also know who you are to him. Like I said, he told me.”
“Then he has told you I haven’t seen him in a long time?”
Hanasian nodded. He was finally getting somewhere, which was good since he didn’t know how long he could fool her with his charade.
”Over a year at least,” Hanasian replied and added, ”Believe me, I know how that feels.”
Hanasian released her from her bonds and watched as she stretched her arms but made no unwise moves. She retrieved her bedroll from her horse. Hanasian sat on a rock carefully looking on as she rolled it out.
Laying back and watching the sky darken, she said, ”My name is Caila and we have been married two years.”
Hanasian realised then that there was quite a bit that Dauremir had failed to tell anyone, including Videgavia and his brethren. The young Ranger had an even younger wife for one. But, if this answered Hanasian questions about the Rhuadarian, it only triggered a much larger swathe of new questions.
Caila finally drifted off to sleep talking of how she wanted to see her husband again. Hanasian slept alert, sitting up. It was possible the young woman was deceiving him, but somehow he doubted it. The next morning came and Hanasian awoke with a start. He expected to find she had fled with everyting, including his horse. Certainly, it is what his wife would have done. But now, he found Calia was still there by the spring. He rose and went to offer her a hand full of dried berries and nuts to eat.
”It isn’t much. Food is scarce here.”
She stood and turned as she pushed her wet hair from her face. She scraped it up and tied it, then took the offered food.
”Thank you,” she said haltingly and ate, studying Hanasian as he walled away again.
Before she could ask him his name, he turned and said to her, ”No, thank you. These were yours to begin with. Come, we should go. By day’s end, we should meet up with Dauremir.”
Hanasian wasn’t sure what to make of Caila. She was perceptive enough, despite her initial hostility, to know that he was sincere. He could see that she believed he would lead her to Dauremir. He also knew she harboured no small amount of curiosity about him. It was best she did not know his name, though.
They rode at a fair pace, and by midday, they stopped at a saddle in the ridge. Hanasian looked about as he dismounted, taking a water bag and the pouch of the dried meat. He convinced the horses to eat the drying grass that grew in tufts amongst the rocks there. Caila dismounted and picked at more of the dried berries she had.
Hanasian broke off some of the dried meat and handed Caila the other piece, ”Here, take this.”
He placed the other half in his mouth and peered into the bag at the last remaining piece before he tied it off.
”You keep this as well,” he said as he set the pouch into her hand. He slung a water bag over his shoulder and looked north.
”This is where I must leave you. I will have to borrow your horse. You take your things, these water bags, and my horse, and go due west on this track. You keep my cloak as well. Dauremir may not want to be found by someone who isn’t me.”
“No, he won’t,” she agreed, ”Where do you go?”
Hanasian reply was a riddle.
“If my gut is right, I go to end this whole mess.”
Calia’s confusion showed but then a coy expression that belonged only to the young crept over her features, ”Should I say that I killed you?”
Hanasian shrugged, ”If that is your wish, lass. I doubt you two will be talking about me over much, given it’s been over a year since you have seen each other. You should get moving if you want to change that today. You stay safe.”
She smiled openly at him, taking no effort to conceal her feelings and Hanasian found himself wondering why Dauremir had stayed away from her so long. Or didn’t talk about her, or conduct himself like a husband separated from his wife by unwelcome circumstance. Then again, the same questions could be asked of him. Or so Hanasian supposed as he whispered to his horse and sent her up the track.
Caila turned back and said, ”I still don’t know your name!”
Hanasian mounted up on Caila’s horse and mare seemed anxious over this change of events. He turned the horse around a few times before he called out to Calia, ”You can ask Dauremir when you find him!”
She turned and rode forth over the rise. Swamped by his large cloak, she resembled a small wraith. He watched her until she dropped over the ridge and was out of sight, hoping he had not just sent her to her death. Dauremir was either going to be surprised and very happy to see her, or surprised and not so happy when Caila finds him. And find him she would, for Caila’s tracking abilities were good for all that they were still developing.
Hanasian turned Calia’s spirited mare to the north and made his way down the steep embankment. The rocks rattled behind him as he sprinted the horse out onto the still snowy flat. He wanted to make speed and he read the horse well. She was a fast one. Hanasian was guessing at a good place to cut back south. He had seen it on vague maps and so he sought the easiest way. The chill air was growing ever colder by the day here in Forodwaith and it would be too soon before winter’s grip held this far northland in its sway. Working back up and southwest, Hanasian did his best to avoid the worst of the rocky ridges and peaks that reached westward called the Mountains of Angmar.
If he stayed north and followed along them west, it would lead to Carn Dum where no man wished to go. Mt Gundabad was his mark, and hills of the Ettenmoors. With a diligent search and only passing it once, he found the one canyon that cut through these mountains with the least rise. The rocky outcrop shielded its opening from sight in the grey mists, but could be seen easier while moving back to the east. Though the days grew ever shorter, Hanasian was blessed with clear and relatively warm weather through the waning days of summer but for the one day he passed the canyon.
He rested the night at its mouth, knowing the season was quickly turning of autumn which could last a mere days here before the winter winds and snows started. When he awoke in the morning to fog, mist and greyness, he made haste south up through the canyon. He made good headway despite having to dismount and walk his horse up some rocky slopes. Finding a place to rest after the night fell was difficult, and Hanasian started moving south as soon as there was enough light to see. It was this morning that the first rain and wet snow blew in from the north. Winter had come to the Northern Waste.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The company scouts made good time to their designated points. The second and third both found only supply, and a lot of it. Most was sorted through and taken, with the rest hidden well away. It wouldn’t be found by any who had left these caches, and they noted that it had been some time since anyone had been there. They hoped the hoarders had gone south and were wiped out in the southern battles. They met up at the foot of the valley as they watched the declining weather form over the Mountains of Angmar to their north.
The first was led by a young Rohirrim sergeant that Berlas thought had some leadership potentia. This would be his first small unit command. They moved easily along the high reach of the Mitheithel to its headwaters, where the trickle of the waterfall fell from high over the cliff wall that was the Misty Mountains. They searched caves and crevices but found little. There was sign that the Moricarni had been there, but not in quite some time.
The fourth under Sergeant Sticks missed their primary route and they ended up going north up a deep ravine just to the east of the cliffs of Mt Gundabad. Their timing was good, for the second and third had made good time on the edge of the valley, and met the fourth when they emerged from the ravine. They found nothing. No sign of caches and no sign that anyone had been there in decades.
The fifth led by Sergeant Flint had the hardest route, having to traverse several ridges as they went west then north around the west side of Mt Gundabad. They collected several caches of food but nothing else. As with the other groups, they found nobody. Their only enemy was the route, and this set them well behind schedule. The deteriorating weather added to their hindrances. Surely by the time they got to the far point, the sixth would in position, for they had an easier way to go at the edge of the lowlands to the west.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hanasian was tired and hungry, and had no idea when he would ever eat again. Forodwaith gave very little for a man to eat in its short summer. There was a reason so many maps just called it the Northern Waste. He was unsure how things went with Dauremir and the young woman he had sent forth toward him. He hoped the best for them, but he really had no time to care. It was strange what came to mind in times like these. Hanasian had traversed the narrow passage through the Mountains of Angmar and crossed the valley into the hills of the northern Ettenmoors. The young horse was easily distracted by the green grass of the valley floor, and Hanasian was glad for the heavy low cloud and mist. Though he could not see the hills south, so to could he be seen. Still, he estimated he would still get west of where the Shadowy one would be, even if he had moved. It was a gamble to do, but one he hoped would pay off.
He had gained the edge of the Ettenmoor Hills, and soon discovered he was well west of where he thought he would be. He saw a flicker of light in the greyness, and the heavy scent of wood-smoke hung in the air. He dismounted the horse at a low break, leaving the horse to forage much sought after and needed grass. He waited for nightfall before moving forth toward the camp. The glow of the fire could be seen flickering against the rocks and the scrub as he crept up toward the blaze. Whoever it was, they had no night discipline. He could see nobody on watch. Climbing up to the edge of the flat where the fire was, he lifted his head and the fire came within sight. He could see nobody nearby the fire or anywhere within its light. It blazed bright, so it had been recently stoked, and there was a kettle hanging with water just beginning to boil. Hanasian stayed in the shadows and watched. He may have alerted them but there was no sign of anyone. Maybe when the kettle comes to full boil, someone might appear.
He didn’t have to wait long. The boiling pot drew out someone. They moved ever so cautiously, sword drawn, turning and looking slow. A second figure followed, watching behind and ready with a short sword. Whoever they were, it was clear that it was not their camp. They had paused on the far side of the fire and turned slow, looking hard. Hanasian remained frozen and blended in with the rocks he was behind.
It seemed like he came from the sky, dropping down from a rocky ledge above the flat. A tall figure dropped down and kicked the kettle of boiling water toward the two who were for the moment surprised. The man in front quickly leapt toward the attacker, but the one that was following did not move so fast as they were looking away. The water hit their hand and arm and they cried out as the sword dropped from their hand. A knife flew toward them and hit with a thudding sound and they fell back. The attacker paid them no further mind as he turned toward the other who had tried to impale him with their sword.
A ring of steel told of the move being deflected, and they fought hard. Hanasian watched close, and with their turns in the firelight, he recognized the man as the shadowy one whom he sought. It was time for him to join the fray while he had an ally in the fight. Hanasian stood and sprinted up and leaped onto the flat from the rocky ledge, sword drawn. The shadow knocked the other man back with a blow, and turned to access the new threat. Now faced with two sword-wielding opponents, he parried Hanasian’s first lunge. But it gave the other man time and he hit the shadow with his sword. His turning saved him from serious wounding, but wounded he was, and he knew he had to get himself out of this situation.
Hanasian was pushed back and nearly stumbled over the fire pit, but corrected his fall. He glimpsed at the fallen one that was before him. It was a woman! Caila! She looked very much dead with the blood seeping out onto her leather vest from where the knife had sunk in to her. Hanasian now knew the other man was Dauremir. If she was indeed his wife, he will be sorely grieved by her fall.
Hanasian got around and stabbed at the shadowy man, rending his cloak and splattering blood. But he spun so fast that Dauremir’s killing blow missed, instead he fell forth, taking a hit from the shadowy one in the neck at the edge of his leather collar. He staggered forward, but not before getting his sword tangled in the legs of the shadowy one, causing him to stumble. Dauremir fell face first down by the rock where his wife lay.
Hanasian wasted no time and turned on the shadowy one, keeping him on the defensive and managing to severely cut one of his arms. This time the shadowy one stumbled over the fire pit. Hanasian wasn’t expecting it and his lunge only caught the shadowy one slightly in the side. But the Shadowy one hit Hanasian in his right leg, causing him to fall to the side hitting his head on a rock. His vision blackened, and he knew he would be finished if he lost it now.
He struggled to his knees, and he saw Shadow rise in the firelight. As he stepped forward to finish him, he screamed and fell back. Hanasian faded and fell forth on his face. He was sure he saw someone behind the Shadow take him down, but could not be sure. He fell away into either death or dreams and visions…
Hanasian’s eyes opened to light. It was grey, cloudy, and cold. Rain was falling lazily upon him. He had a bad headache, and his leg hurt badly.
”Just like Bree, except I’m not on fire this time,” he mumbled to himself.
He pulled himself up to sit and realised that he had a crude bandage on his head, and one on his leg. His vision was blurred, but he looked up to the sky to let rain hit his face, and he wiped his hand over his eyes. He looked again to see the fire they had fought around was out, with only grey mud in the ring of rocks. He looked past that and saw legs and boots. Hanasian stood, so dizzy that he nearly fell, but he righted himself to take a stunted step toward them. There lay Dauremir, with legs coming out from under his cloak. His head lay in the lap of Caila, who was wrapped still in Hanasian’s old cloak.
She stared out past him, not really seeing Hanasian’s unsteady approach. He sat down hard next to her, but she didn’t even flinch. Hanasian might think she was not alive had it not been for the steam that rose from her. But there was no steam coming from Dauremir. She sat there staring, slowly running her fingers through his hair.
Hanasian said, ”Caila … you’re alive! I saw you dead!”
She went on as if she did not hear him. Hanasian turned and grabbed her hand, Dauremir’s hair among their fingers. He leaned over and looked into her dark eyes and squeezed her hand.
Her wet lashes fluttered heavily. Then she blinked and seemed to look into Hanasian’s eyes. Wherever she had been, she was back now.
Hanasian told her, ”Caila, I need you with me! Do you hear me?”
Her lashes again fluttered as her head started to drop. Hanasian squeezed her hand and put the palm of his other hand gently against her cheek, lifting her gaze back to him.
”Do you hear me?”
He said as he lightly tapped her cheek and cupped her chin. Moving to follow her gaze, he brought it back to him.
”Caila, I need your help. Stay with me and we’ll see to this. Are you with me?”
He lightly tapped her cheek again. At this she reached up, grabbed his hand and squeezed tightly. Her fingers wound around his other hand to match and she nodded weakly.
”He’s dead!” she whispered, shuddering, ”Why?”
Hanasian held her to him, aware that she would need to grieve before anything else could be done. She sobbed brokenly and it was difficult for him to bear. How had his wife sobbed, his children, and who had comforted them? Finally, Calia pulled back and gazed down at her husband. She stroked his lifeless cheek.
”You must go now, my beloved.”
Hanasian leaned back and Caila lifted Dauremir’s head from her lap. She slid herself out from under him and pulled the cloak around him as she lay him down on the ground. Hanasian could see her rent leather armor and the blood soaked tunic. While she had clearly tended to him and Dauremir, she had not tended herself. A knife had pierced her left shoulder, clearly causing her a great deal of pain. Hanasian could see that she had used Dauremir’s tunic for his bandages.
”You’re still bleeding! I though I saw you dead, so how you live and breath now is beyond me. Allow me to see to this,” he said.
Hanasian picked up his knife out of the mud and wiped it clean on his leg. Caila flinched when he cut away at her leather vest. He looked into her glazed eyes and it seemed to calm her. He peeled back the collar of her tunic to expose the wound where the knife had been. It wasn’t as deep as it appeared as her vest did its job well, but it still bled slowly.
”My apologies, lass,” he said as he tore off the sleeve of her tunic to use as a bandage.
”You know you have taken a wound near to your heart, but your leathers have turned the blade just enough to save your life. I must clean and dress this.”
She turned her head away and closed her eyes as she nodded slightly, braced for the pain. He cleaned it as carefully he could and while it elicited a low moan of pain, Hanasian was still impressed with the young lady. She bore the pain better than many a man who had served in the Company. He dressed it as best he could in the dirty field environment, remembering all that he had learned before in battle, and he had observed Rosmarin say and do when treating battle wounds on the field. As he worked, Hanasian wished his wife were here now. Her steady hands would do a far better job than he was. The thought popped into his head, as they had been doing since his path first crossed with Calia, before he could stop it. It brought sharp sorrow like a knife to him. He blinked against sudden tears and banished the thought from his mind. This had to stop, until the Shadow was dead!
Close as the wound was to her heart, Hanasian suspected Caila would survive it. He would have stitched it if he could but he had nothing to hand for such a task. The burns on her hand and wrist would likely heal without scarring. She was in shock, broken by the death of her husband Dauremir, but Hanasian considered what little he knew of her spirit and determined that Calia would likely live through this terrible ordeal.
His thoughts turned again to the Shadow. The events that he knew and remembered kept running through his head. What had happened to him? Hanasian knew that the Shadow would now hesitate to kill him when he was down but now there was no sign of his foe. He was sure he seen the man hit by a blade and fall but where was his body? Only Caila could know, for it must have been her that struck that blow and saved his life. He would have to ask ask in time but right now the young woman was grieving. They needed to prepare her husband for burial and they needed to do it swiftly as they could. But exhaustion took hold, and they both fell asleep leaning against the rock.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The sixth unit managed to round the hills and they climbed up to the highlands a bit early. Ravenclaw deemed it would be best as the way up was the easiest, and they would have a vantage point to the west and some to the north. He knew the fifth would be coming over the hills, and the combined second, third, and fourth would be either coming around the hills from the north or crossing the hills from the north. Right now, they would just settle in and wait and listen. Ravenclaw got everyone set for a rest before he addressed his group.
”I’ll need you two Rohirrim archers ready at all times. You will alternate resting, and will be ready to move when needed. You’re our only long-range threats we have. Points, you will be in charge of the forward observers. I want you to go with Echo and Looksee, and take a few of the others and go up to that high point up there. Take Fleetfoot with you to run messages. The rest of you set up perimeter here and keep watch. All of you, be careful what you shoot or swing at. We are expecting our comrades in the other groups. We don’t want to be killing our friends.”
They all nodded, and moved to get their position set. There was no sign of any of the other groups that night.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hanasian awoke to a dying fire. He got up but soon discovered couldn’t walk very well. His new wound had aggravated the old one and he felt like he had now had a painful log for a right leg. But it did not keep him from digging up the fire pit with the sword he had found laying there. It was work breaking through the hard rocky ground, but the rain helped soften it some. Hanasian removed his leather vest, set it aside, and wrapped himself in his old cloak.
He gave Dauremir’s cloak to Caila with the vest and said to her, ”You need to put these on. It will give comfort and some protection, and keep you close to him.”
Caila wasn’t at first willing to bury Dauremir with the old cloak but she saw the wisdom of what Hanasian was saying. She nodded, and Hanasian then pulled Dauremir into the grave he had dug. Caila leaned down and kissed him before pushing some muddy soil onto him. Hanasian saw to the rest while Caila wept and turned away. When Hanasian had finished covering Dauremir, he arranged a pyre of rocks over him. At his head he pushed the sword he had used to dig with into the ground. It was the Shadow’s sword and his knives were there too. One Caila had pulled from herself and used against him. The other lay discarded to one side.
Hanasian needed a rest, and he sat back against the rocks and let the rain splash against his face. Caila approached him and sat down beside him. In Hanasian’s large vest and Dauremir’s cloak she seemed small and frail. The strength and stamina within her, though, was more than her stature might reveal. Hanasian sighed and looked up at the heavy clouds overhead.
”What happened, Calia? Where is your husband’s slayer? Tell me what you know.”
She lifted her hands and covered her face, then pushed back her limp wet hair back over her head.
She said, ”I know little of the battle, for I was burned and knifed before I could do anything. Dauremir was fighting as I fell. I hit the ground hard and I remembered no more until my eyes opened. I saw him then, staring at me and trying to speak. I saw the attacker turn and lift his sword, and at first thought I too was done. But I saw in the firelight that he was looking away, stepping toward where you lay.”
Calia paused then and shook her head, ”I do not know what came over me. I pulled the knife from my shoulder and lunged at him. I slashed at his legs, cutting him deep behind the knee. He buckled, and I thrust the knife into his back. His elbow hit me hard in my face and he cried out. But I kept my grip on the knife and pulled it out of him. His blood spurted out onto me. Then jammed it into him again and he fell. I remember no more. I must have passed out.
“When I awoke, there was no sign of him. He was gone. I followed the blood trail and it led over the ridge. Then I saw you laying there so I did what I could for you. Then, I only wanted to die to be with my beloved husband.”
Hanasian was amazed at what Caila had done. If she had wounded the Shadow as bad as she said then he could not have gotten far. Hanasian knew he would have to look around before it got dark but for now, he dug into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a strip of stale jerky.
”Here, you chew this. I will have a look. When when I get back, we will need to move away from here.”
Caila took the meat and gnawed at it with a hunger unique to grief. He didn’t tell her it was the last one. Instead, Hanasian got up and limped over to where she said the Shadow had gone over the ridge. There was blood all right. And it looked like he didn’t go over with much control. There were signs that he had fallen or tumbled.
He would have to go down and see what he could find. He looked about the area and found a satchel with a little food in it. The Shadow didn’t seem to be better supplied than they were, but every little scrap would help. Hanasian came back to the flat where he had left Caila, and she had summoned the two horses she and Dauremir had rode on. Hanasian’s horse was overjoyed to see him and Hanasian greeted her fondly.
Once in the saddle, he looked over to Calia, ”You have inherited your husband’s horse, so let us go and see if we can find your mare. I hope the Shadow one hasn’t found her first.”
Caila led the horse to where Dauremir was buried, and the horse sniffed the ground and snorted a few times. Caila stood before the grave, and knowing she had to depart, she removed the gold ring that had a white stone upon it. She knelt and buried it under a rock and wet earth. She let her hand rest bon the rock for a time. Then she sniffled and wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, stood and mounted Dauremir’s horse.
Hanasian led them down a steep scrabbly way and came to the bottom of the hills. He could see blood, even though the rain tried to wash it away, and he proceded slowly so as to not miss further sign. Wounded as he was, Shadow was a master of escape. They soon discovered that he had found Caila’s mare. It appeared he had set off west toward the Hills of Angmar. The man was bleeding badly to leave such a track. That he could even mount a horse wounded like that was astounding. Unfortunately, darkness was closing in around them and the rain showed no sign of letting up so Hanasian looked for a place for them to rest.
He found a spot where the high rocks overhung the ground, and it was not as wet as being out in the rain. It was shelter enough. They hobbled the horses and kept them close, and the two sat and leaned against the somewhat dry wall. It was not long before they were fast asleep.
When first light came, they were huddled together and shivering. Winter was advancing fast in the North Country, and with little food and no fire, they were hard pressed to move. They pressed west and at midday found Calia’s mare trying to eat the nubs of dead grass. They brought her in, the mare’s coat daubed in her rider’s blood. While he Shadow was not there, Hanasian did not have far to look.
A few paces to the north, crumpled upon the ground, was the master of the Moricarni – the man they had taken to calling Shadow. Hanasian dismounted and studied his fallen foe. Shadow was pale, but somehow still alive.
”It ends here,” Hanasian said as the man kicked in a feeble attempt at escape.
Hanasian drew his knife and leaned over the badly injured man ”I would leave you for winter’s wolves if I could be sure you would die.”
As he adjusted his grip for the killing blow, Calia appeared at his elbow and stared down at the man.
”My husband sends his regards,” she hissed, crouched and slid one of Dauremir’s knives across the man’s throat.
Shadow had lost so much blood that he could not even manage a decent spray. It bubbled, dark and thick as all life left him. The last thing he would have heard was Calia wretching beside him. It was clear to Hanasian that the young woman had never killed before and he hoped she would never have to again. Still wretching, Calia then took the dagger Shadow had wounded her with and plunged it deep into the man’s chest. Barely any blood emerged from that wound.
Calia spat several times to clear her mouth before she snarled, ”The wolves may have his rotting flesh, if they are so inclined.”
She stood, tottering and Hanasian had to catch her even though he felt as though he had just fallen from a great height onto his head. All the years, all he had done, all the longing and grief for the loved ones he had abandoned and the rage at those who would do them harm. He had had been playing this moment in his head over and over. He had seen it many times, in many different ways, but never this. He did not know if he felt relieved or robbed.
A gust of wind blasted past them, soaking them with the drizzle it carried and giving them a chill. Hanasian stood and took Caila’s hand
”Come Caila, we have far to go and little to sustain us, and winter is biting at our heels even now.”
They silently mounted their horses and they set off south even as the grey drizzly clouds pushed along the ground toward them. They would make their way around the north Ettenmoors, for Hanasian knew he could find shelter and supply there. But it would take some days, and they had little food for themselves and very little could be found along the way for the horses. With the fog and low clouds shrouding them most days, Hanasian at least didn’t have to worry too much about being seen.
What Hanasian didn’t know was that the Company had been active as far north over the summer. Before the onset of bad weather and winter, it would be most likely they withdraw south. It would be a wise decision not to winter over this far north. Hanasian didn’t know they were up that far, but he and Caila approached the western escarpment of the Ettenmoors. It didn’t take long before he found an abandoned company camp. In style typical to company and ranger both, small caches of food and dry tinder were stowed. When he was Captain, he always encouraged this on a small scale. Hanasian thought about Molguv and his taking this to extremes hiding his loot. That had paid off a few times, but not usually for Molguv.
Unfortunately Molguv had not up here hiding things, or they would have beena bit better off. Taking the cache, Hanasian gave most of the food to Caila, who ate while he looked about to read the signs. The company had only pulled out a short time ago, and knowing their tactics, he knew that some would be left at strong points and watching to their rear for movement. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had already been spotted. Only the low cloud cover and mists kept eyes from seeing too far. Hanasian considered where their first one would be, and as he considered their path, he was torn between shadowing the company withdrawal south and bypassing their strong points, or to stay as far away from them as possible. Calculating the supply he had and what he found, he considered his preferred option to make his way west. He could make it unhindered, if only just, and not considering unusually bad weather conditions.
But what of Caila? Where is it she now goes? But for the day they had met by the spring, he had learned nothing more of her. He never again got to talk with Dauremir, and Caila had been quite silent in her grief and anger. He went back to where she rested and tended the horses.
He said, ”Caila, the days grow short and the weather harsh. Though it would seem the way to go would be south to stay ahead of the freezing weather, and follow and even find the Company of … Dauremir’s old comrades, I feel my path does not lie that way. I would like to make haste west to Fornost, or to Evendim for the City of Annuminas.
“The road would be long and there will be winter chill and hardship with supply before I get there. My coming will be unlooked for and may not be seen if I go alone. I wish to go there for reasons that are many, but for one most of all. But I have to ask of you Caila, where does your path now lay?”
Caila stood unmoving, petting the nose of her horse. She looked south, then west.
”My path has always been to find Dauremir. It was what led me to Dale. I have found him, and I have laid him to rest. I have slain his murderer. I have no path now. I have nowhere to go. If west is where we are to go, then I will go with you.”
Hanasian looked at her, knowing she was beginning to suffer remorse from the recent events. Her grieving had only begun. She also had no idea what it would take to get across the northern steppes in winter. He was a fool himself to even think of trying by himself, let alone with another.
He asked her, ”Where is it you come from?”
She answered, ”The hills of Rhuadur.”
“Why do you not return to your home?” Hanasian asked, aware that he had to tread carefully if he wanted Calia to divulge more of herself.
While she considered his question, he looked about and deemed it safe for them to rest there for a time. Caila’s stare told him she was swimming through the few years of her life, and trying to decide to confide in this greying scarred man with the squinting eye and a noticeable limp. She looked at him hard and tried to decide if she had ever seen him before. There was a vague sense of familiarity at times to his face, but when she tried to focus on that, it slipped away.
She said, “You ask a lot of questions, yet I have yet to learn your name.”
Hanasian took a deep breath and nodded, ”True on both counts. I’m not giving my name. You don’t have to trust me and I don’t have to ask questions. I didn’t trust your husband fully, but only because of his reluctance to tell me who followed us.”
He paused then and gave her the harsh news, ”I cannot take you west, for you would likely perish. Besides there is little supply for such a journey for one, let alone two.”
“I am as hardy as anyone, even an ageing Dunedain man who will not tell me his name!” Caila replied scornfully, glaring at him.
Tears sprang into her eyes and it softened her expression sooner than she wished. Hanasian considered her for a moment.
”I am sorry for your loss, Caila. I did my best to make it not so. If you make your way south, you will come into contact with the Free Company probably within a day. You tell them old cap sent you to them, and they will likely be kind to you. But be prepared for many questions, many more than I would ask. Perhaps we will meet again, and I will tell you my name. Now, I’m going to make my way west.”
Hanasian turned to mount his horse.
Hanasian didn’t hesitate and soon in his saddle. He down at the tearful, young lady that stood before him, appearing.
Caila went on, ”… I’m sorry… you may ask, and I will answer your questions!”
Hanasian checked his satchel and made sure all was secure. He had little as he left most with Caila on Dauremir’s horse. He made ready to ride.
Panic filled Caila’s voice as she grasped his boot and said, ”Please hear me! I owe you much, even my life! I only wished to know the name of the man who stood fast with my husband and I. I will not ask your again! I do have family! There is someone else I seek. I will tell you all! Please stay?”
Hanasian turned his horse around as Caila fell back. Hanasian waited for her to pull her dark wet locks from her face before he pointed to a crevice in the rocky ledge.
”Neither you or I would get too far down our paths this day. We will pass the night over there. You can tell me of yourself.”
Caila breathed a sigh of relief, clearly fearful of being left on her own here. Hanasian, too, was relieved that his bluff had worked. It was not wise to leave her alone in such country, and he would not have done so, but nor did he have any alterative bluffs to elicit the information he needed to help her. It was only her brave but foolish naivety that led her to go alone to seek her husband. She had no fear of the unknown. Nor could Hanasian know the current mood of the Company and how they may react to finding a lone rider on their tail, or if they would listen to anything they said. And there could be Rangers about in these parts. And though much more restrained now than in the days of the War, there was still evil that lurked and the rangers meted out swift, deadly attention to.
Hanasian dismounted and said sternly, ”Go get your horses.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Looksee climbed up with a waterbag and sat on the rock next to his comrade.
He asked, ”What are you doing Echo?”
“Knitting. What do you think I am doing up here on this point?” Echo answered irritably.
Looksee fell quiet as Echo tried to focus his hearing again. He finally shook his head and took the water bag from Looksee.
Looksee, eternally curious, asked, ”Do you hear anything?”
Echo shrugged as lowered the water, “I would like to say yes, but when I think I hear a voice, I try and listen harder and all I hear is the blasted wind. Yet since you said you thought you saw a something moving in the greyness the other day but you couldn’t be sure, I’ve been hearing things. A voice, maybe two.”
“Different to the ones in your head, you mean?” Looksee asked with a grin and then, “You tell Ravenclaw?”
Echo shook his head and said, ”Can’t go running to command every time we think we see or hear something.”
“No…” Looksee agreed and added, ”My gut says that there is someone or something out there, and the Moricarni have been known to be stealthy.”
Echo put a listening horn into a rock cradle and set his ear to it, raising his hand to keep Looksee quiet. After a few moments, he removed it and took a bit of rolled up cloth and stuck it in his left ear. Looksee gazed at the rocky landscape below.
Echo slid back down the rocks he had been perched upon, ”I think we should talk to Sergeant Ravenclaw. He’ll know what to do. The low clouds keeps you from seeing anything, and the incessant wind keeps me from hearing clearly. I might tell him I thought I heard swords clashing the other day as well.”
Looksee grunted, ”I hope he isn’t too mad at us.”
They got Fleetfoot to take the messages to Ravenclaw and he was indeed angry, but not for the reasons Echo and Looksee feared. He had sent the best out in hopes of gaining an advantage. But then they don’t say anything for days! All Ravenclaw could do now is hope that the fighting was not the third and fourth units that they still awaited.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Once the horses were settled and Hanasian was sure they were out of sight from any high ground, he came and sat next to Caila who was deep in thought.
Once he was settled, she began, ”My family is a poor one. Father was gone most of the time working and my mother worked hard to feed us.”
“Us?” Hanasian cut in and Caila nodded.
”Yes, I have a sister. She’d ten now. I have not seen her in many years. When I was twelve, I was apprenticed as a maidservant to a family of better means. I don’t know what my parents agreed to or the arrangement they thought they had made with this family. Whatever the case, I was for all intents their slave.
“It was into my second year when Dauremir came to the house as a guest of the family. He did not care for how I was being treate, and said as much to them. He was told that it was not his concern and Dauremir spoke no more of it. I thought he had forgotten, ceased to care. It was only later that I discovered that he had sought out my mother. A contract had been signed, and Dauremir could read.”
“An indenturing contract? I believe that is illegal in the Kingdom of Arnor!” Hanasian cut in, aware that this was something his wife had been working on in tandem with Aragorn for some time now.
It was an odious practice that both were determined to stamp out. Caila looked at him in surprise. The land of Rhuadur had long been beyond control of the Men of Westernesse, and it seemed to hanasian that many ill practices were still in place there.
Caila said, ”Illegal or not, it happens. Even if it is not allowed now, no one has put an end to it. I fear my sister may have met the same fate. I have not word from them since I left, but I did learn that my father died in a construction accident far to the south.”
Hanasian nodded and winced, ”Tharbad Bridge. Many workers of skill came for work from all over. Some perished in its construction,” and his wife had been beside herself over it on each and every occasion, ”Again, I am sorry for your loss. Do you think your mother and sister are still alive?”
Caila shrugged and swallowed, “I like to think they are but I do not know.”
She swallowed again and Hanasian handed her his water bag. She took a big gulp from it and some splashed down her chin. She gasped and coughed, but recovered.
Hanasian took the water bag back as Caila went on, ”I know my mother was not well when I left. If she had died, I would know not what became of my sister.”
Caila paused and closed her eyes, took a lock of her hair that hung limp by her ear and twirled it with her finger, ”As for me, Dauremir found a clause in the contract that after two years, should I marry, then my service would come to an end. I did not know why he came by the house often, but before he left, he would look at me and give a rare smile. It was not long before I was smitten, even though I barely knew him.
“Perhaps it was the freedom he represented. A foolish child’s hope to escape my horrible life at that house. When Dauremir did not come by the house for a couple months, I feared I would not see him again. I didn’t know that he had agreed to take me as wife. On the day my second year was done, he arrived and we were wed.”
Hanasian kept his eyes on Caila as darkness closed in around them. He didn’t say anything, but he was thinking of the burnt villages and houses that he had come across when he was wandering Rhuadur.
He asked, ”What was the name of your home village?”
Caila took a deep breath and said, ”It was a small place called Ostinand. Do you know of it?”
Hanasian swallowed, but remained still. He did not wish to tell her that the place was burned to the ground and there were only the dead that lay about. The nearby village of Duinand had met the same fate. He could only hope that some may have gotten away and survived. May be it would have been a saving stroke for Caila’s sister if she did get indentured.
He nodded and said only, ”Yes, I know of it. Go on if you please.”
Caila seemed buoyed that he knew of her village. But she was perceptive, and could tell that the name did not bring with it good memories.
”I did not know if Dauremir truly loved me but that did not matter to me. He took me to Bree… Archet, and settled me there. But he hardly ever came home. He made sure I had work at the small inn and he would stop in for a night every so often but really, I was alone. After some time when he did not come by, I set myself to seek him out.
“With little to follow, I found myself in Dale. I had a little experience working at the Archet inn so I was able to find work. It was only by chance that Dauremir came into the inn. I nearly dropped my platter of flagons for I wanted to run to him. But I had to serve the tables, and when I was done, he had gone. I made ready to follow him again but I was unsure of many signs. Then you caught me.”
“That explains a great deal indeed. You were doing well I would say,” Hanasian said as the chill wind blew misty rain down upon them.
They could not have a fire to keep warm, for they could not chance it. They wrapped every cloak and blanket around them to ward off the cold.
He then said, ”You obviously managed to find Dauremir after we parted.”
“Oh yes! And those last days were the best. Our talks and… well, I think he really did love me,” Caila shuddered as she began to cry.
Thinking of him brought back the pain. Her grief was well and truly heavy. They soon fell into a restless night of exhausted sleep that came to an end all too soon. Hanasian jumped awake, and was to his feet quickly. Caila fell and started to wake slowly with the rush of cold.
”What is it?” Caila asked sleepily.
Hanasian slapped his hand over her mouth and with a slight hiss, she understood that they needed to be quiet. Hanasian had her sit quietly and he crept out to where the horses were. They were slightly agitated, but he calmed them with his presence. He stood by the opening of the crevice and listened close. The wind and the rain had given up their incessancy, and the night was so quiet. Too quiet. He went back and gave Caila a hug, whispering ever so slightly in her ear.
”We need to be absolutely silent. People are on the move, and they are skilled in stealth. Step softly with me toward the horses, and when we mount up, ride hard due west.”
They moved slowly together and readied the horses. It wasn’t until they were mounted that one of the horses snorted, breaking the silence of the night. They set out in a gallop through the dark.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Voices could be heard, and after the initial surprise, the two archers the Company had in the patrol fired their arrows.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Dauremir’s horse screamed and veered away. Harder they rode, for their only chance was to out range the archers. The sound of hooves grew fainter as they separated ever further.
Hanasian felt a sting in his right shoulder and he slumped forward close to his horse’s neck. He heard Caila cry out in pain and then heard a tumbling in the dark. He pulled up and turned, dismounting. Caila’s horse screamed a death wail, and Hanasian found Caila not far away. He thought her dead but she kicked her leg as he approached and reached for him.
Hanasian lifted her to his horse, and mounted behind her, holding her from falling. His shoulder ached, and the arrow stuck through the front of his shoulder and he had to be careful not to jostle Caila into it. He rode west with speed even as arrows sped and fell nearby. For night shooting, they did quite well in getting all but his horse. Had there been more of them, he and Caila wouldn’t of had a chance. He knew a pursuit was likely imminent as soon as they got mounted. He pushed his horse hard, all the while trying to keep Caila from falling and keeping himself in alert. The arrow wound burned, but there would be no attendance… not until they were well away west. He could only guess his direction, for the clouds had again closed in and the rain soon fell steady. It was their only cover until they reached the North Downs.
”Stay with me Caila! Stay awake! We have thirty leagues before we come to the first breaks of the North Downs. What we find there I know not. But I hold to hope that places of old still remain.”
Caila gave a moan and squeezed his hand with hers. She heard him.
”We need to stop… I’m going to be sick…” she breathlessly warned
Hanasian could not stop, and with so little to eat there was little for Calia to bring up from her stomachOnce Hanasian found a fold in the rolling land, he stopped and they dismounted. It was time to tend their wounds again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There was only confusion. Ravenclaw had the men move in the night to see if what was heard was maybe their guys. The horses breaking with riders had indeed surprised them, and the two archers let loose with well-aimed arrows as soon as they were sure that it was not any of their guys. They could not pursue as they had no mounts, but it was then that the third and fourth came up. They had more archers and they sent volleys out into the grey morning mist.
”Do we go out there and see if we hit anything?”
Ravenclaw looked into the lightening grey morning.
”No, we will return to our high ground, and maybe we will get a break in the weather and be able to see. If not, we wait two or three days for the other groups to rest up a bit, and we return to our base camp. Berlas will be wanting us back before the weather turns bad.”
“This isn’t bad?” Looksee asked, looking up at the sky where the incessant drizzle fell, ”I forgot what it was like to be dry.”
“Well, we will have tents when we get back. I don’t think this rain will relent any time soon. If the other groups are willing, we can start back tomorrow,” Ravenclaw said.
There was some grumblings of relief, and they thought no more of who they had encountered. Had Ravenclaw know it was Hanasian his men nearly killed, he would have been surprised indeed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A thorough cleaning and bandaging of their arrow wounds was done. Though the danger to both Hanasian and Caila could have been serious, the wounds turned out not to be so. The big loss were horses. They only had the one now, Hanasian’s, and only the one bag of water and little food. They rested for a time even though the drizzle had turned to a steady cold rain. Caila’s sickness seemed to pass but she could not eat. After drinking some water, she lay down in the wet grass and went to sleep heedless of the rain.
With many leagues to cross before the high ground of the North Downs, Hanasian knew they had to move. But Caila was sound asleep, and his horse really needed rest, and here was green grass that she could not stop eating. He tried to discern if they were still being pursued but neither saw nor heard anyone chasing them. Hanasian gave his horse and let Caila sleep.
They had gained the North Downs in the fog, and the two found shelter where they stayed a few days. They both cleaned up some in a stream, and Hanasian pondered what he would do. With Shadow dead and most of the followers defeated by the combined strength of the Company, the Rangers, and from Dale on the east side, Hanasian considered how to reveal that he lived. It was something that he thought of so much. With each passing of someone, he hoped maybe he would be recognized, but with his limp and his scars and his hair cut so short and what he had was grey, he looked nothing like the man who had ridden away from his home and his family a few years ago.
In friendly lands now, they would have to travel openly for there would be many soldiers, rangers and villages there in the North Downs looking for anyone suspicious. Hanasian managed to procure some good oats for his horse, clean clothing for Caila, and a reasonable cloak for himself, and they set out west through the North Downs toward Fornost. The days were cold but for a few days they were dry. Caila had taken a hard blow to her head when she was thrown from her horse, and she seemed to have withdrawn into herself since. She said little and frequently felt unwell.
It was a cold night at a camp under some trees that Hanasian guessed what was happening. He had seen it before, six times. As they sat by a fire, Hanasian tended to the venison he had gained, and they would eat well this night. Caila ate a little, seemed unsettled and then became sick. Hanasian nodded and counted the days he could remember. As Caila drifted in and out of sleep, Hanasian sighed. He missed Rin so much. A last memory he had of her was being just like this. He wondered how they were and how his son was doing. He’d be two years old now, walking and talking and laughing. His own little person, and a complete stranger to Hanasian. He had missed it all.
When Caila awoke and was ravenous for absolutely anything, he told her ”Lass, those last days with Dauremir may indeed be the best. You must know, by now, that you are with child.”
Caila had not known, but the realization had a profound and immediate effect. The darkness that had haunted her since the day she had slain Shadow faded as hope began to glimmer in her eyes. Her life had just tilted on its axis once again, but this time it brought her purpose. Hanasian watched her as she went to sleep, knowing he had to get her to Formost and to somewhere that would be safe and she could eat well enough to give herself and the unborn child a chance in this world.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rhuadar – IV – 57, 24 Hithui
I will keep this brief for there is little to report and it is wretchedly cold.
The Company has conducted sweeps and patrols of Rhuadar since the battle of Erulaitalë (still it haunts my sleep). There is little show for their efforts. If Moricarni remain in Rhuadar, they are scattered, divided and leaderless. But, then, so were we once. Moreover the Company has thought the Moricarni extinguished before and been proven wrong.
For all of that, my sense is that the Fornost attack marked a tipping point in the campaign. The Moricarni must have thrown every agent they had spent years trickling into Western Arnor to accomplish it. Rangers of Arnor and Cardolan both report not a trace of them now.
Is it indeed possible that Hanasian lives still? I overheard the Lady’s brother discussing it quietly with his wife in Imladris. Loch maintains that it is the only answer that fits the puzzle. Certainly there was no tactical merit to their actions over the past summer. Could their hatred for this man have blinded them so thoroughly?
Whatever the case, the patrols continue. No stone, here in Rhuadar or Western Arnor, will be left unturned.
Rhuadar Campaign Command
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Annuminas – IV – 57, 2 Girithron
Speculation is a soldier’s lot. A Ranger’s too, truth be told. There are too many empty hours in the wilds.
I hope care is being taken to ensure this speculation does not reach the Lady of Cardolan’s ears. She has endured enough, by anyone’s measure. Know this: I would not have tormented the Lady with tidings of her husband’s demise if I believed them to be false.
Who can say what led the Moricarni to believe Hanasian lived. That they do is clear enough. And while it seems to us their actions were foolish, the Moricarni succeeded in taking all but one of Cardolan’s senior rangers.
The Lady must remain in Imladris with her children. I have informed Elladan and Elrohir accordingly that she is not to leave, under any circumstances, until this matter is finished. Lady Rosmarin will not be returning to campaign command and nor will she act as my envoy. I have no need of an envoy in any case, given my presence in Arnor.
If the Moricarni have any strength left to them, I expect they will attempt to move against the Lady a second time. Any such attempt must be disrupted early. Send any Cardolan Rangers in Rhuadar still to Imladris.
My scrutiny of the Rangers of Arnor is reaching its conclusion. I have found no other like Garrimond. It is possible the Moricarni lacked the resources in Western Arnor to infiltrate the Rangers beyond him. There, speculation Eldarion. It serves a purpose but must always be kept in check.
Expect a re-supply before spring’s end.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Winter had set in fully and the snows fell in a lazy dance when they came in sight of the new Fornost Erain. Even now, work went on in the chill of the grey day. The lookout saw them approach as the horse walked slowly through the light cover of snow. They appeared as one, with Hanasian having wrapped his cloak around them both. They came to the gate where an old soldier stood, ready to meet visitors. Hanasian looked the old man in the eyes and hesitated. Caila looked down at him and smiled slightly. Hanasian dismounted and stood before the old soldier, waiting for him to say something. But the old soldier didn’t ask questions.
He instead said, ”I see yours has been a long hard road. The lady looks cold. Seek the Varda Shroud Inn and ask for Duema. Tell him Massuil sent you. He will see to it you are looked after.”
Hanasian wanted so much to reach out to the old Ranger, for he must have surely recognized him. But Massuil turned about and retreated into his little notch where he shielded from the snow and rain.
Hanasian nodded and said in a throaty rasp, ”We thank thee sir.”
They made their way up the road and found the inn. The boy who tended the horses looked at the poor animal and cringed.
Hanasian said to him, ”She has been through a lot, crossing too many miles with too little to eat. Tend her well.”
The boy looked at the silver coin Hanasian tossed to him. It was one of Molguv’s Bree stash. There was enough of the Haradian’s ill-gotten profits to pay for the inn for a few months. Here he would make his home while she sought for tidings. He needed to know who was in Fornost and most particularly, uncover any word possible of his beloved wife.
To sleep with a roof over their heads would be strange after so long. Caila’s last bed inside had been in Dale. Hanasian’s was in that dank cabin south of Dale. After a hearty dinner of stew and bread and hot tea before retiring. Sleep reached out to them Hanasian made himself his bedroll on the floor by the door, ever alert and ready. He watched Caila drift into a deep slumber. It was good to see her resting in peace.
Leaving the room, he silently shut the door as returned to the common room. Looking around the smoky haze, he saw Massuil sitting in a far reach of the room. He walked slowly across the floor, trying not to let his right leg hinder him. Coming to the table, he saw that he had two flagons before him. The old ranger waved his hand at the second chair, beckoning Hanasian to sit. Once he had complied, the second tankard was slid across the small wooden table towards him. Hanasian studied the old man as he drew back his snowstained hood.
”Back from the dead I see,” Massuil said flatly, ”I heard talk that you lived but few if anyone paid it any mind. That brother in law of yours was adamant. I see he was right.”
“Loch! Where is he?” Hanasian asked.
Massuil sipped his ale, ”Not sure. Company business and all. Last I heard, he was still campaigning in the Ettenmoors, though winter has seen many of them pull back south to Bree and the Forsaken.”
Massuil looked over at the stairs as Hanasian sipped the flagon. He made a bit of a face as the ale seemed stale.
Massuil set his flagon down on the table, ”What I do know is Ranger business. And so I have to ask why it is you are here with Dauremir’s wife?”
“You knew Dauremir was married?”
Massuil nodded, ”Dauremir was never really a Company or Cardolan man. He is a dedicated Ranger to the Kingdom of Arnor. We’ve lost word of him though. Can you answer this mystery?”
Hanasian took a drink of the ale, and he nodded. He told of the days with Dauremir and of Caila finding them. When he told of the fight and the final resting place of Dauremir, Massuil shook his head and there was silence.
Hanasian then downed his ale and said, ”I need to speak of Caila, for she slew the Moricarni’s master. Not I. I can still scarcely believe it. And…she carries Dauremir’s child.”
Massuil looked up at Hanasian and found him staring at him hard in return, ”Now, I need to know…. Where is my beloved Rosmarin, for I surely desire to see her.”
Hanasian blinked as dizziness took him. He tried to stand but he fell back into the chair. He squinted at Massuil who sat sipping his ale. Massuil said finally as Hanasian sagged onto the table.
”Well now…not Halasian’s son after all, and just as well. Fornost would not have been kind to you otherwise. The rest will come, all in good time, my friend. For now, you sleep. You are quite tired,” Massuil quietly said to himself before he signalled to two of his men to carry Hanasian out of the inn.
Massuil finished his ale, dropped a few coins on the table as he stood, and following the others out. Once they had Hanasian settled in the Ranger’s barracks, Massuil retired to his office and loaded his pipe. He was, on the whole, quite pleased indeed. It made for a nice change, as usually surprises such as the one that had ridden up out of the fog did not end so pleasantly. Once he had his pipe alight, he called for the man who led the rangers’ messenger corps.
He said, ”Send a message to Annuminas to the King, and also one to Imladris to the Lady of Cardolan. Tell them Hanasian is alive and well in Fornost.”
The man wasted no time on getting riders to go into the night. Meanwhile, Hanasian would be comfortable while he remained in one place. The messages sent, Massuil moved next to ensure anyone else who might have sighted Hanasian’s arrival with another ranger’s wife did not leap to the wrong conclusion.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Massuil met Aragorn at the entrance to the barracks but neither man said a word until they were within Massuil’s office. The old ranger began without preamble.
”Cruel as this has been, Hanasian may have been correct,” Massuil said, mouth twisting with distaste even as he said it, ”The hoax was not premeditated. While he suspected the Moricarni had regrouped, he had no idea they had come so far as to launch an attack in Bree.”
Aragorn nodded, ”I don’t think anyone expected that fire. But how can he possibly explain leaving his family, his wife heavy with his child, to grieve him as dead when he was not?”
“He feared the Moricarni would come for them. They were already in Bree, well into Cardolan, bold and aggressive. And, considering what happened at Fornost last summer, he was proven correct.”
“He did it to protect them,” Aragorn said, ”Is that what he is saying?”
“Aye. He went hunting the Moricarni’s master and, once the man was dead, set about returning that very day,” Massuil said and rubbed a hand over his face, ”Hanasian could have gone anywhere. Instead, he came here, asking for his wife despite the fact that he was exhausted and wounded. None of that sounds like treason against the Lady or Cardolan to me.”
“And Rosmarin? Anything further from Imladris?” Aragorn asked.
Massuil shook his head, ”Too early, Sire. The snow lays thick between Fornost and Imladris.”
“True,” Aragorn replied, thinking hard.
Massuil nodded, ”One last thing, Sire. Hanasian has paid a heavy toll to keep his family safe.”
“Your message said he was well.”
“And he is…but he is not uninjured.”
“Show me to him.”
Massuil led Aragorn to a modestly sized room, unlocked the door and let the king inside. At his arrival, Hanasian slowly stood.
Aragorn was silent for a long moment and then he said, ”Oh my friend, what have you done?”
The sorrow in Aragorn’s voice was palpable and Massuil softly closed the door on Hanasian’s reply.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The land between Fornost and Imladris was treacherous in winter. Snow and ice lay thick over the land and even the wariest, canniest traveller could be caught unawares by the ravenous elements and the creatures that dwelled within them. Wolf attacks had become rare since the fall of Sauron, but they still occurred on occasion. The long, harsh winter of 57 had seen their numbers swell and now, in 58, the cubs of yesteryear were grown and hungry. Lambs, children, even Westernesse kings had fallen to these hunters.
Alone in the wilds, the ranger bearing urgent tidings to Imladris, never even heard the wolves close. Such had been the shrieking of the wind that the ominous howls had been snatched away from the ranger’s ears before he could heed them. It was a lonely death, filled with the terror of claw and tooth and the dank musty smell of fetid fur. By the time the wolves were finished, ranger was barely recognisable as a man. As for the message he bore, it was lost too.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There was one last thing he had to do before he left. Hanasian strode into the inn searching for Caila. He had to tell her he was leaving Fornost even if he was itching to get to the road and fly east to his wife. There was a group of Arnor rangers, provided by Aragorn to speed his path, ready outside. He could not wait another day.
But for Caila, he’d have gone already. He’d not seen her since the day they had arrived but he’d heard she’d been asking after him as best she could. He’d not given her his name. In fact, he’d withheld a lot from Caila even as he had demanded her life from her. She was only in Fornost because of him. She knew no one here, even if the rangers would care for her. He felt accountable for her and he could not just leave her behind, forgotten and discarded.
Caila saw him as soon as Hanasian walked into the inn. She planted her fists on her hips and scowled at him.
”I’ve been looking for you!” she declared, angry, ”Do you have any idea how hard it is to find someone when you don’t even know their name?”
“Yes,” Hanasian replied, which was entirely the point of not giving his name to her.
Caila squinted at him suspiciously, ”You look different. Not so… old.”
“Fresh clothes,” Hanasian said, which was partially true.
The chief reason, though, was the fact that Aragorn had been tending to his many injuries, old and new, for weeks now.
”Caila, I don’t have long.”
“Where have you been?”
“That doesn’t matter. I’ve come to tell you that I’m going.”
“I’m leaving Fornost.”
“But what about me?!”
“Why not? Too dangerous? You said that last time and we got here.”
“This is different.”
“Because I am going to find my wife!”
Caila’s jaw swung open, ”You have a wife? How come you never mentioned her? How come I had to tell you everything there is about me and I know nothing at all about you? I suppose you have children too!”
“I have six.”
“SIX!” Caila’s jaw closed with an audible click, ”You must really like your wife.”
“I love her with all my heart and soul.”
Caila tilted her head to one side, ”You know, I think that’s the first truly honest thing you’ve said to me.”
Strictly speaking, that wasn’t true but the fact Caila saw it that way was sobering. She squinted past him to the common room windows.
”All those rangers out there, are they going with you?”
“Yes,” Hanasian said, already seeing where this was going.
”Then why can’t I? I don’t know anyone in Fornost! I only know you and you won’t even tell me your miserable name! What am I supposed to do here anyway?”
“You can’t just follow me around like a lost puppy, Caila. I am not your father. I have children of my own.”
“But you know I won’t be any trouble. I have my own horse. I could just tag along until I find something a bit bigger than Fornost. Are you going anywhere near Bree?”
Hanasian sighed heavily and his expression prompted Caila to beam at him in victory.
”I won’t be long!” she declared, ”I don’t have very much to pack anyway!”
And that, right there, was the first problem. Suitable clothing for Caila had to be found otherwise she’d perish. As a result, they did not get underway until the afternoon and Caila’s appetite for information about Hanasian had been whetted.
”Tell me about your wife. Is she like you or does she have a name?”
“Yes,” Hanasian said.
”You have a real problem with names, don’t you?”
“My name is Hanasian. My wife is called Rin.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Do you know what Eldawen means?”
“No,” Caila admitted.
”It was a name given to her mother before it was given to her. It is Elvish for elf maid.”
Caila was silent for a moment, ”So she’s pretty, then.”
“Was she supposed to be in Fornost? Is that why you had to get there?”
“I thought she was in Annuminas,” Hanasian stated, ”But I have since learned that my wife is at Imladris…the Last Homely House of the Elves.”
“Is your wife an Elf?” Caila asked and Hanasian wasn’t the only one to smile at Caila’s question.
“No,” and that was the end of the discussion for that day.
The thick snow upon the ground and the brevity of sunlight meant that the journey proceeded far slower than Hanasian wished it to. Nor could Caila spend hours in the saddle on end. Two weeks passed before they were even close to Bree and in that time Caila’s curiosity about Hanasian and his family only sharpened. Each time she attempted to broach the subject with Hanasian he swiftly brought it to a close. As a result, Caila decided to turn to the rangers that travelled with them.
After several attempts, Caila finally cornered an Arnor ranger one evening as they made camp.
”Ordinary folk don’t usually live with Elves,” Caila declared, ”So why does Hanasian’s wife?”
“For protection,” the ranger said and, at Caila’s frown, ”From the Moricani’s malice.”
Caila’s frown deepened, ”But the Moricarni threatened everyone, didn’t they?”
The ranger’s brow furrowed and he glanced to one of his brethren for a long moment. When the ranger looked back to Caila, she had no inkling of just how much she was going to learn. As the ranger spoke, Caila’s eyes centred on the secretive man currently trying to get a fire alight. He was still shepherding the fire along when Caila descended, fists on her hips.
”Lord Consort of Cardolan?!” she accused, kicking his foot as he knelt over the fledgling fire, ”And your wife’s a princess! The kind that people go about calling your grace, m’lady and your highness!”
Hanasian straightened at Caila’s onslaught and peered up at her in the weakening sunlight, ”This offends you?”
“I thought you were a ranger!”
“I am a ranger,” Hanasian replied.
”You’re someone that people like me have to call m’Lord!”
“That does not make me any the less a ranger. I’ll tell you what else I am: puzzled at why this upsets you so. What difference does this make to you?” Hanasian asked, peering past her to where two Arnor rangers were watched on.
Caila stared at him hard for a moment and then deflated, ”I thought I knew you. Just a little…and now I don’t seem to know anyone. Dauremir’s gone, my parents too. I don’t know where my sister is and…”
Hanasian could tell from the way Caila’s lower lip trembled that she was about to burst into tears. Exasperated, he ran his fingers through his hair as he considered what to do now. She began to sniffle as Hanasian shifted to sit on his heels. He watched the new fire’s tentative flames and then flicked his eyes up to where Caila stood, arms now crossed.
”Alright, then,” he muttered.
”Alright what?” she snapped back.
”I was a ranger before I met my wife. Served in the War with the king. Formed the Black Company of Arnor, now the Free Company of Arnor. Was its captain for a good while. In the king’s service we went to many far lands.”
Caila sniffled again and Hanasian looked up at her as he shifted to sit, ”You’ll be standing a long time unless you sit now.”
Warily, Caila sat and Hanasian continued on, ”I will not go into Cardolan’s sad history now. Suffice it to say that it was widely held that the line of kings had fallen in that land and its people scattered centuries before the War. When it emerged after the War that a royal heir had somehow managed to endure, the king sent me to locate Cardolan’s heir but it could not be achieved. We came too late and could not tarry. We were already hunting another foe: the predecessors of the Moricarni.”
Caila sat in silence, listening to all Hanasian divulged. He spoke of the seeds of the Moricarni’s malice and of how his path came to finally cross that of Cardolan’s heir. He spoke of Anvikela and her efforts to defend him and his family from the Moricarni. He spoke of the ambush in Bree that had nearly claimed his life. He recounted what he had learned after weeks spent with Aragorn and Massuil, melding together what had occurred within the campaign in Eriador with the efforts he had been involved in. When he finished, it was dark proper and Caila was chasing a nugget of potato around her plate of stew.
”So Rin…am I allowed to call her that?”
“She rather loathes the formal titles.”
“Rin has spent the past two years, longer, thinking you are dead.”
“But you are not.”
“No…although how long that remains the case depends rather on Rosmarin’s disposition. While necessary, the ruse has exacted a cruel price upon my wife and children.”
“You think she will be angry with you?”
“I left her heavy with my child and I gave her no token to cling to that I might yet live. I sent no message. I left no sign. The peril to her and the children came because of me and she has lost a man she thought of as a father to it. Her brother has been at war because of me. Her home has been uprooted not once but twice, Annuminas first and now Imladris, because of me. And through that all have been five children, for my youngest has yet to meet me, wanting to know where I was, why I left, why I haven’t come back, when I might return. Can you imagine it, Caila? I can not.”
Caila was silent for a long moment before she set her half eaten dinner down.
She quietly asked, ”What will you do?”
“Return to her,” Hanasian said, eyes on the pallid flames, ”Seek her mercy and forgiveness.”
“And if that does not come?”
He’d been wondering the same thing himself. His wife had endured much sorrow in her life. Robbed of two sets of parents, then the Wolf, the loss of an infant daughter and the supposed death of her husband. Aragorn had told him that his wife had become cold as a winter’s morn – as beautiful and as frozen. What joy she had she gave to their children, the king had said. She reserved none for herself. Her smile was rare and fleeting. She did not laugh, nor dance, nor sing. Massuil had warned him that while Rosmarin was finely tempered steel such steel might still shatter under the right conditions.
”I accept my fate, Caila, whatever it may be,” Hanasian solemnly answered and he said no more that night.
In fact, he spoke no further on this matter to anyone. All the same, his thoughts rarely strayed from it. He rehearsed what he might say when he saw Rosmarin next but could not settle on anything that seemed right. He wondered at how she might react. Elation, shock, anger and betrayal all came to mind and probably more still. He knew her to be unpredictable in such moments. In fact, what Aragorn had told him led Hanasian to wonder if he still knew his wife at all.
She had changed greatly from the woman that had haunted his dreams. She had risen to the demands of her circumstances and demonstrated considerable skill in both the stewardship of Arnor as Aragorn’s envoy and the leadership of the Rhuadar military campaign. Aragorn had cautioned him to tread warily. Rosmarin’s power and influence was now considerable. It stretched beyond the rangers of Cardolan and beyond the Free Company of Arnor to the hearts of Arnor’s people, including those of Arnor’s rangers. Hanasian’s own brethren would understand, the king said, but would harbour little liking for the toll Hanasian’s ruse had exacted.
Aragorn had told him of his wife’s injuries and he wondered at the extent of her recovery. It had been nearly six months since she had been located in Rhuadar. The king had said Rosmarin was showing signs of becoming restless in her confinement at Imladris. Massuil had sent word the day Hanasian had arrived with Caila in Fornost. It was entirely likely that he would meet Rosmarin as she makes her way to Fornost for surely tidings such as Massuil had sent would draw her out from Imladris. Try as he might, though, Hanasian had no idea where he might even begin with reuniting and reconciling with his wife.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There was not so much as a giggle to be heard in response to Rin’s call and the closer she neared to the river bank the heavier the stone of dread in her stomach became. Hayna was fond of running off and hiding, delighting in leaping out to surprise those who went searching for the ebullient child. At two years of age, the rascal could scamper away with surprising swiftness and fit into the tiniest of nooks and crannies. Imladris was filled with such places, and Rosmarin had gone to some length to warn Hayna away from the banks of the Bruinen for his own safety.
But a mother’s instinct drew her towards the river now whilst her rangers combed Imladris’ grounds. As she searched, she sternly lectured her thoughts. Hayna knew better, she told herself. He’d never gone to the river bank alone before. The swift water made him anxious. One of the rangers, Caeros or her new Wolf, would find him tucked away under a bed, safe, warm and dry. She was being unnecessarily grim and maudlin coming this way. It was only because Hayna’s birthday coincided with a particularly terrible moment in her life that she came here now. She would not find her son floating down the river or washed up upon the shore. She would not! Surely life had been cruel enough as to spare her that horror.
Still, while she attempted to steel her nerves and keep her wits, Rin could help but scan the shores and churning waters for her son’s tiny body. When she did not see any such nightmare, she was lightheaded with relief. She set the palm of her hand upon her chest, steadied her thoughts, and began combing the banks for a muddy, sodden, mischievously grinning toddler pleased at having outwitted his elders yet again.
”Hayna, you come out right this instant young man! If you do, you’ll get some of Elrohir’s pudding. Your favourite! Quickly now…before I change my mind!”
Still there was neither giggle nor rustle of movement. Nothing surpassed Elrohir’s pudding as far as Hayna was concerned. Not even his mother’s embrace could hope to match such a delight as that. This had to mean that Hayna was not here, Rin told herself, but still she could not bring herself to abandon her search.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Bruinen ford was empty. Neither Elf nor ranger were in sight. Puzzled, Hanasian paused on the banks. Rosmarin had not met him on the road and now with the ford empty Hanasian wondered if his wife would refuse to meet him entirely. Everything he had envisaged had not included this. How could he hope to reconcile with his wife if she to see him? What was he to do then? Set a one man siege of Imladris and wait her out? While he paused, Caila had wandered off. Hanasian had noticed that she had decided to stay with them all the way to Imladris but he’d been too preoccupied to worry about what that might mean. Her path in life was her own to choose in any case.
Hanasian stared up at the path ahead. It sloped gently upwards from the Bruinen and curved around to the left. Higher still he could see the graceful sweep of Imladris’ rooves. The rangers loosely scattered around him were silent, waiting patiently with him. He was considering sending a party of them ahead when Caila wandered back. She was not alone. A child with bright auburn hair was upon her hip and, when he saw the rangers, his happy face broke into an even wider smile.
The little lad stretched out his hands towards the nearest ranger, hands open and grasping. He began to squirm upon Caila’s hip and so she surrendered him before he wriggled out of her grip all together. As Hanasian took this in, the weak winter sunlight became impossibly, searingly bright. The bright auburn hair, the shape of the lad’s face, and his apparent age all fitted a drawing Videgavia had brought to him. This was the son Hanasian had never met, the child named for his brother, and just as he realised this they heard a voice calling for the lad.
Hanasian would recognise his wife’s voice anywhere. It was lower than usual for a woman and now he heard threads of anxiety as she called her son’s name. At the sound of his mother’s voice, Hayna stuffed his fingers in his mouth all at once and grinned devilishly, well pleased with himself. The ranger holding the child brought him across to Hanasian. Hayna studied him, wide grey eyes filled with curiousity. Thoughts reeling and heart racing so fast that it was skipping beats, Hanasian took his son into his arms. Hayna wriggled at this change of circumstance, clearly familiar with and fond of rangers, but when his mother called again the lad giggled and peered over Hanasian’s shoulder in the direction of his mother’s voice.
Hanasian felt his son lean into him, so sure that this strange man would securely hang onto him that he practically hung over his father’s shoulder to watch for his mother’s arrival. And if that wasn’t too much, his mother rounded a boulder on the bank and came to a sudden halt, half way through Hayna’s name.
Hanasian whipped about to face her as Hayna lisped, ”Boo Amme!”
The morning light fell over her face, startled at first but now slipping into shock. The colour the chill air had brought to Rin’s cheeks was fading now. Aragorn had not been exaggerating when he had said even the delicate golden warmth of her hair had fled her. It fell in a river of silver now, gathered up into a thick braid that spilled over her shoulder and fell like a rope to her hip. The ruby velvet of her gown was stark behind it, the colour so deep as to be almost black. She had her skirts clutched in hands gloved against the cold and her eyes were wide as oceans. A man could drown in their stormy blue depths. He had happily done so many times over.
Rosmarin drew back instinctively, her eyes moving swiftly from the rangers that stood at their ease to the man that held her youngest child. Hanasian’s voice had died in his throat. She was more beautiful than he had recalled, tall and fey. His mouth was dry and his heart was in his throat. He could see from the rapid fluttering of her pulse at the base of her throat that Rosmarin’s heart was galloping. Hanasian watched her take in Caila, weighing the young woman up and then move back to him. Even from here, he could see that her finely drawn jaw was locked. She was confused and alarmed both and Hayna’s good cheer started to leech away as he perceived his mother’s distress. He restlessly squirmed upon Hanasian’s hip and so he set his son down upon the river rocks, took Hayna’s little hand in his own, and slowly approached Rosmarin.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Why were the rangers just standing there, doing nothing? Who was this man with her son? Who was that woman? Rin’s thoughts scattered like a flock of starlings before a hawk. Never once did they coalesce in the same pattern. Why did that man look familiar? She had seen him before? If so, why did she not know his name and why did he look like he was about to have an apoplexy now? Rosmarin scrutinised the man who held her son by the hand. He bore no weapon, but then he had her son.
His clothing, whilst travel stained, was in good repair. His hair was iron now, and short as if shorn recently, but she could see it had once been dark. The line of his nose and jaw was familiar and his eyes were those of the Dunedain. There was a compelling quality to his features, something more than merely handsome. She did not know if it was comforting or threatening and once again she looked to the rangers and saw they were still doing nothing.
Aragorn had completed his review of the Arnor rangers, or so Eldarion had told her when the crown prince was last at Imladris. Surely, if this many traitors were to hand then the king would have uncovered them? Why had she come without anything beyond the meagre knife she kept in her right pocket. Still the man advanced and she found that all of a sudden the boulder she had just rounded pressed into her back. She had nowhere else to go unless it was into the river, and in any case, this man had her son! She could no more flee than she could throw herself at him and attack. And then, almost shyly, the man smiled at her.
Her heart lurched as if it had fallen out of the bottom of her chest. She began to tremble immediately. She knew that smile! She had dreamt of that smile and the man who owned it only last night. He had worn it as he ran his fingers through her hair. He had so loved to do that, she thought, and as she did so breathing became something Rosmarin forgot to do.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hanasian released Hayna’s hand and sprang forward. River rocks, worn and smooth, skittered beneath his boots as he closed the distance. He caught Rosmarin by the narrowest of margins. As he laid her down gently, Caila caught him up.
”That was close! Those rocks would have dashed-“
“Yes!” Hanasian said swiftly before Caila could finish her statement, ”I know.”
Hayna climbed onto his mother and laid himself out to listen, ”Amme sleep.”
“You said she was pretty,” Caila continued, studying Rosmarin from her vantage above Hanasian's shoulder .
”Amme sleep!” Hayna insisted more forcefully.
Hanasian paid Caila scant regard as he felt for his wife’s pulse and found it racing along.
Hayna gave Caila a reproachful glare and placed a chubby finger to his lips, ”Shhhhhh! Amme sleep!”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The light that prised through Rin’s lashes was faint, as if the hour was late or the curtains drawn. When she opened her eyes, she saw not the open sky but the ceiling of her room in Imladris. Over the past six months, she had studied it very well indeed. There was not a carving, whorl or motif that she had not explored whilst recuperating or during the many long, sleepless nights that were her lot. The nightmares had stopped suddenly but they had been replaced by jarring dreams of a different sort. The kind that left her breathless and filled with aching sorrow for a man she would never again hold in her arms. She had thought herself reconciled for the long years ahead alone. She had though she had come to accept the empty bed, the empty chair at the table, and all the many moments that would not be shared as their children grew up over the years. But her dreams had said otherwise and now…this.
She had discounted Loch’s tales of his own dreams as exactly that, tales. Could what she thought she had seen on the river bank really be? Soft movement nearby altered Rin to the fact that she was not alone. Then came the sound of water being poured. Rose soon came into view, dark eyes concerned and a glass of water in hand.
”You must be thirsty. I always am after a terrible shock,” her brother’s wife told her.
Rin pushed herself up to sit, still a little dizzy, and accepted the water. Both she and Rose watched the glass shake in Rin’s hand for a moment. It was an effort to drink without spilling it onto the bed. Rin set the glass down in her lap and stared at her feet. They were bare. Someone, Rose probably, had removed her shoes and covered her in the light yet incredibly warm blankets the Elves of Imladris wove. She was determined to uncover their secret for blankets such as these would work wonders all over Arnor. Rin blinked at her thoughts. Why was she even thinking of that now?
”You’re still quite pale,” Rose said as she sat on the edge of the bed.
”That’s normal, then,” Rin replied and at that Rose reached for a hand mirror and held it up.
”You’re white as a sheet. And see your pupils? They’re so wide that your eyes might as well be black,” Rose stated sternly and then lowered the mirror.
Rin stared at the mound her feet made and tried another mouthful of water. Her hands still shook like Hayna’s favourite pudding.
Rose asked, ”Do you remember anything from the river?”
Try as she might, Rin was not sure what she remembered. Her thoughts kept skittering away every time she attempted to piece it together.
”I was searching for Hayna,” she said and frowned at her feet, ”There were rangers, Arnor, and a girl.”
“Caila,” Rose supplied, ”She’s been quite cooperative. Very eager to help.”
Rin frowned at Rose’s statement, ”Caila?”
“Yes. You won’t know her. She’s never met you before today. She knows your husband, though, through a Rhuadarian ranger you’re unlikely to know.”
“How do you know this?”
“Camaroth has both Caila and Hanasian in his keeping. Your new Wolf has had a busy day of it.”
“Husband,” Rin echoed, belatedly.
Everything about Rosmarin’s demeanour suggested the woman was in shock as far was Rose was concerned: her pallor, the glassiness of her eyes, her disorganised thoughts and strangely flat reactions.
”You were on the river bank, looking for Hayna, when you saw Caila and the rangers,” Rose prompted.
”Hayna had wandered off,” Rin said, veering off, ”He’s been doing that more and more of late. I wonder-“
“Rosmarin, your husband was on the river bank,” Rose said bluntly, ”You know that, don’t you? You recognised him?”
“He smiled. He had my son,” Rin whispered, staring at her toes, and took a faltering sip of water.
Rose eased out of the room a while later to find Camaroth waiting beyond the door in the hall. The woman shook her head at the new Wolf of Cardolan.
”She’s in shock,” Rose told him, ”It’s hard to get anything coherent out of her. I think, though, she knows it is Hanasian. There is no explanation for her reaction otherwise.”
Camaroth was a difficult man to read. Of average height, the Wolf of Cardolan had a nondescript appearance that meant he could blend in most anywhere and a skill for masking his thoughts matched only by his mistress. That, and his ability to speak Dunlendic, ideally suited him to his new position. Right now, however, Rose could not ascertain what was happening inside the Wolf of Cardolan’s head.
”Both Sons of Elrond and the Arnor Rangers say as much,” Camaroth said, ”I see no reason to doubt their word.”
“What else do they say?” Rose asked at which Camaroth shrugged.
”You were there.”
Indeed Rose had been. She had watched both Slippery and Camaroth quiz the girl named Caila and Hanasian but Rose had left early to ensure that Rin did not wake to find herself alone. Of course, the Wolf would be aware of that, which led Rose to wonder why he was being obtuse now.
”If I were to look in on Hanasian, in what state would I find the Lord Consort of Cardolan?”
Camaroth looked at her flatly and then dismissed the question, ”The same state, perhaps a little warmer, than he arrived in.”
Rose’s brows rose and she gazed at the ranger for a long while.
”You want more, speak to the Sons of Elrond,” he told her.
Naturally Rose did precisely that. She found the Lords of Imladris with their heads bent, a rapid discussion in Sindarin well underway. She could not understand Sindarin properly yet, found the language difficult and slippery, but even so their discourse fell away.
”Lady Rose, I trust-“
“Her grace is in shock, naturally, but otherwise well,” Rose interjected, cutting off Elladan’s question impatiently, ”But you knew that well enough. What of her husband?”
“Quite well,” Elrohir told her, ”Is there any reason he would not be?”
“I encountered the Wolf of Cardolan on my way to see you,” Rose told them and at that the brothers exchanged a coded glance.
”Ah…yes…there has been some tension but that is behind us now, the matter closed.”
“What tension?” Rose inquired.
Elladan smiled politely, ”Nothing to worry over, m’Lady.”
Thus Rose was fuming by the time she found Slippery. The small Gondorian woman had kicked her boots off and was staring into the hearth with a glass of wine in her hand when Rose pushed into her room.
”Oh, I could do with one of those,” Rose sighed wistfully, at which Slippery waved at a sidetable.
”There’s more than one glass. Help yourself. Don’t drink it all, though. I fancy Doc could do with some herself. How is she?”
“Rattled. I’m not sure wine, even this stuff, will help,” Rose said as she poured a second glass.
”It’s Elvish …lifted it from the kitchen yesterday,” Slippery said as Rose sank into an empty armchair with a sigh.
”Not even Elvish stuff,” Rose said, sipped at the glass and then held it up thoughtfully, ”Though, it’s probably worth a try.”
Slippery snorted at that, ”If it’s that bad, best to wait a day or so. Doc’s dangerous enough right now without being drunk as well.”
“Speaking of dangerous, what happened with Camaroth today?”
“The Wolf?” Slippery exclaimed and Rose could tell the Gondorian was getting ready to fob her off.
”Look, I just want to know what happened after I left. Is it really so difficult a question? Did Camaroth kill Hanasian or something?”
Slippery’s eyes darted to the fire and she sipped nervously.
”No…no…ah…Well…” she fumbled and then she sipped again, ”Things got a little…hot shall we say? Yes, definitely heated…But everyone is still alive and well and it’s all behind us.”
“Slippery-“ Rose growled, ”Just. Tell. Me. What. Happened!”
Slippery pushed out a sigh, ”Look…put simply, Camaroth wasn’t sure that he was getting the truth.”
“I know…I was there when the Sons of Elrond told him that Hanasian was who Hanasian said he was! You came in from speaking with the Arnor Rangers and said the same thing. I want to know what I don’t know, not what I have already seen for myself!”
“Alright! It’s been a busy day and I’m tired. You left not long after that and that’s when the Wolf decided that if Hanasian was who he said he was then Hanasian was guilty of treason against Cardolan.”
“I know…on account of Hanasian being Consort….offical role, that. The Wolf said that he had abandoned his position and misled Cardolan’s crown – Doc – and that amounted to treason. And, at one point, the Wolf went so far as to suggest Caila’s child did not have a Rhuadarian father…if you know what I mean…” Slippery sucked in a breath, ”Hanasian kept insisting if that was true then he’d not come back with Caila in tow, much less allow word to be sent in advance of his arrival.”
“We didn’t receive any word,” Rose said.
”Precisely,” Slippery said and washed a hand over her face, ”It was a mess and do you think the Sons of Elrond could be found then? Of course not!”
“Where were they?”
“Speaking to the rangers of Arnor that arrived with Hanasian and Caila, as it turned out. They affirmed Hanasian’s story as the truth. Finally showed up – but not before Camaroth had drawn his sword. He’s been a ranger of Cardolan for a long time but I’ve never seen him that angry before.”
“Yes, thankfully. You know the ironic thing…if Elrohir had not intervened when he did, treason would have been committed – by Camaroth.”
Rose stared at Slippery and then at the glass of wine she held in her hand, ”And now where are they – Hanasian and Caila?”
“Hanasian is awaiting his wife. Caila was off exploring Imladris last I saw and the rangers of Arnor are keeping to themselves doing whatever it is rangers – Arnor or Cardolan – do at Imladris. Thinking ranger thoughts and doing ranger deeds.”
“What a mess,” Rose said and then sat up in her chair, ”The children!”
“Caeros has them in hand. They’re none the wiser for now. Not sure how long that can last but for now, I’ll take whatever peace I can find no matter how transitory it might be.”
Rose lifted her glass and drained it, ”I think you might need to acquire another bottle if you intend to use it for Rin.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hanasian was unable to sleep but he was stretched out upon his bed all the same. The sun was fast sinking and his thoughts were ablaze just as his hearth was. His son’s face repeatedly returned to his mind’s eye, open and curious and filled with innocent wonder. The little fellow was clearly a happy spirit, possessed of confidence that the world was a safe place that was his to explore. It was a marvel that such innocence was possible given the upheaval of his life and it was a testament to the efforts made by his mother. A ferocious pride swelled in his breast each time he thought of that but it was followed by other creatures soon thereafter.
Hayna’s innocence was something his mother had held but briefly in her early years. She had been only five years old when her foster parents had been slaughtered and since that time, her years had been filled with more hardship, privation and danger than they had been peace. He recalled clearly his promise to her. He’d made it the night they had wed. She had looked into his eyes with such yearning as he had sworn to bring her happiness and peace. She had trusted him. He did not know if she could ever do so again.
But if his wife was going to mistrust him, then it would be for his deeds and they were not what others had said this day. Camaroth’s insinuations stung deeply still. They called up everything Hanasian had sworn to himself he would not be. They represented everything his father had been – treacherous, duplicitious. Halasian had abandoned his wife and family and foresworn every oath he had ever made, including his marriage vows but his son had not.
He had returned to his family and kept faith with oaths given to king and his beloved wife. He was not his father and, on a day like today, the suggestion otherwise had struck him deeply. Still, even now, Hanasian detected an unwelcome, grudging admiration for the new Wolf of Cardolan. The man would serve Rosmarin well indeed even if he could never replace all Farbarad had meant to her. As for his wife, he had not seen her since she was carried up into Imladris. All he could now was wait.
A soft tap at his door turned his head towards it and he saw Caila peek through the crack. With a sigh, Hanasian sat and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He’d not given Caila a second thought and he only guess at how overwhelmed she must be. She was, after all, quite young and already bearing the heavy burden of grief and the knowledge that she was with child. She opened the door wider and slipped into the breach reluctant to enter the room properly.
”Either come in or don’t Caila. Whichever it is, decide quickly for the nights are cold even in Imladris.”
“I think it best that I stay here so no one misconstrues,” she told him and Hanasian sighed wearily.
He had hoped Camaroth’s accusations had remained between the Wolf and those in the room at the time.
”I am sorry, Caila,” he apologised but she shook her head and waved it off.
”Oh it’s not your fault! I think it’s just silly. Why on earth would they think that anyway? Have they not seen your wife?”
Caila, of course, did not know about Halasian. Had she, as any Arnor or Cardolan ranger did, then perhaps she would not have trusted him as readily. Hanasian was in no mind to explain his father to her now.
”Have you been treated well?”
“Yes! First a lady called Rose came to speak with me. Then I met Elves! They’re wonderfully strange. They spoke with me and I’ve been wandering around…this place is huge! So many rooms…so many books! I wish I could read.”
“Ask and they might well teach you,” Hanasian said.
”Really?” Caila asked, eyes widening and Hanasian nodded.
”So…that little boy, your son?”
“Hayna…he’s a happy fellow. Very strong willed! Have you seen your other children yet?”
“I am waiting to see their mother first.”
“There are matters to se-“ Hanasian’s voice fell away as Rosmarin appeared behind Caila.
”Settle,” Rosmarin said softly from the hall, ”There indeed are.”
Caila whipped about, ”Oh! I didn’t know! I…um…I-“
Caila fumbled into a curtsy, clearly unfamiliar with the movement. Rin caught her before it progressed too far.
”Sorry,” Caila muttered, flustered now, ”I don’t know how to curtsy properly.“
“And I hope you do not have to learn. My name is Rin.”
“Yes, I know! Hana-“ Caila flushed, ”Your husband told me so.”
Hanasian watched his wife arch a brow at Caila and realised that the reaction was familiar to him. Perhaps she was not a stranger entirely.
”You are speaking with Caila, Eldawen,” Hanasian said as he rose to his feet.
Rin cocked a brow a second time, noting that he had heard of the latest name she had collected. His wife seemed to have a knack for collecting names. It was something he would tease her about but he could not do so now.
”Yes, yes my name is Caila…Um…your husband…um…”
“I had hoped that I might speak with my husband,” Rin said smoothly to the flustered girl.
”Oh! Of course you would! How silly of me!” Caila exclaimed and nearly collided with the door and then Rin in her rush to get out of the way.
Rin turned as Caila hurried off to call after her, ”If you take the right turn, you will find the Great Hall. There is food and company a plenty. You will be most welcome there, Caila, I expect.”
“And I hope we might speak later, if you like.”
“Oh, yes. That would be lovely! Thank you!” said Caila, every farther away than before.
Rin turned back and shook her head and muttered, ”She’d rather have her teeth pulled through her nose.”
“Caila’s excitable but she’ll settle down soon enough,” Hanasian said and his wife considered him a moment before she stepped through the door and, unlike Caila, closed it.
”Does Camaroth know you are here?” Hanasian asked warily.
He did not want the Wolf of Cardolan to knock down his door and accuse him of anything untoward.
”Today little escapes the new Wolf of Cardolan and I am not equal to the task of eluding him. We spoke, briefly.”
“Then you know,” Hanasian stated solemnly.
Rosmarin nodded and looked to the hearth a moment, watched the tongues of flame dance there, ”Camaroth is newly elevated to his role. He will…find his way in time.”
"He will serve you well,” Hanasian said honestly and Rosmarin’s eyes moved to him and stayed there.
Still, she did not move from her position just inside his door.
”It is you,” she said, voice barely a whisper now as she searched his face, ”And this is no dream.”
Rosmarin paused and he could not say what ran through her thoughts now. Was she angry, hurt or happy? Was she confused, overwhelmed or bewildered? Did he repulse her? More to the point, how did he go about becoming a husband and father again?
”How do we do this?” Hanasian asked, surprised to find the question turned into actual sound.
Rin pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. It was then he saw she wore his rings still. She had been wearing gloves when last he saw her. The revelation struck him hard.
”The rings, did you take them off?” he asked, not sure why it mattered – only that it did.
Rosmarin lowered her hands and studied them. Her long, agile fingers spread before her in the air. Then she shook her head.
”Not when they told me you were dead. Not when I came to believe them.”
“How, then, do we do this?” he asked a second time and watched her lower her eyes to her rings.
”As we did this before,” she said, though it sounded more like a question than a statement to Hanasian.
When Rosmarin looked up at him again Hanasian asked, ”And how was that?”
What happened next was a blur. He was standing, heart in his mouth, one moment and then next he was falling in a tangle of limbs, utterly unable to stop himself. Heat flashed through him as her mouth found his. No soon had they fallen back onto the bed was she gone again. Reeling, Hanasian levered himself onto his elbows to find her face suspended in front of his. There was no question now as to what she thought or felt. The anger and dire warning in her eyes was as tangible to him as a knife across his throat.
”Never again, Hanasian. Swear it. On your mother’s grave. You will never do this again, or so help me….”
It was the first time he’d heard her say his name and it made his blood shiver in his veins.
”I swear it, Rosmarin of Cardolan. I swear it upon my mother’s grave. I swear it upon our children’s heads. I swear it upon sweet Míriel’s grave,” she gasped as he named their infant daughter, ”I will never leave your side again, beloved.”
Hanasian hoped that he had not changed so very much that she could not tell when he was speaking the truth. She stared at him hard, her gaze raking through his very soul and whatever she saw Rosmarin would never say. Whatever it was caused her to kiss him again, deeply.
”Admit it,” she murmured against his lips.
”Admit what?” he asked as he closed his arms around her and brought her close.
”It was a bad idea to go to Bree.”
Two years and longer still they’d been parted, Hanasian thought, and what Rosmarin wanted from him now was an admission that she had been right. All things considered, including the way she was nibbling his ear, he decided that she had probably earned that.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
| IP: Logged |
Rosmarin’s proximity was overwhelming. He felt like he was in a dilapidated, tiny boat that was tossed here and there upon the waves her endless sea.
His voice was barely a whisper in response to her statement, ”Yes, you were right. If ever I venture to Bree again, it will be with you or not at all.”
In fact he had no desire to return to Bree. Too many times had his duty taken him from those he loved. He had thought it necessary this last time but, now that he knew what he did now, Hanasian could not shake the sense that he should have remained. He should have stood with Rosmarin against the dangers that had found them. Regrets that he suspected he might never shake free of gnawed at him anew. Before they could claim him entirely, something he had discovered on the snowy trail to Imladris they were wont to do, Rosmarin shifted against him. His thoughts landed hard into the present and once again he was jarred by his wife’s closeness. He could barely look at her.
His fingers grazed over the lacing of her gown and habit carried his hands lower. Before he knew it, he had begun to unravel the silken cords. A sudden doubt pierced him then. He spent years putting this woman from his thoughts, or trying to at the least. Years. He had shed his skin as a husband and father. It was not something he could just put back on again. It was not as simple as that. Or was it? That last question sprang up as the shoulders of her gown slid away to reveal her bare skin beneath.
Hanasian swallowed hard, suddenly nervous, and lowered his hands from Rosmarin’s shoulders. He closed his eyes as her breathing caught in her throat. She knew something was wrong, he realised. Even now, her mind would be racing, determined to unravel whatever it was. He drew in a deep breath.
”How do we do this?" he asked of Rosmarin, ”I have a memory of my life with you, but these last years have been hard. Look at me Rosmarin. I am scarred by blade and flame. I walk with a limp. My strength has begun to fail me. My hair is grey where the burns-”
Rosmarin placed a long finger across his lips and then he was startled by a gesture familiar and strange all at once. She gently clasped his chin in her fingers and lifted it so that he had no choice but to meet her eyes. He had tipped her chin just so many times over their years together but never had she returned the favour. Until now. Hanasian felt his eyes begin to water. She was so fair, so bright to him, that this alone was sweet agony. Rosmarin released her hold on his chin to spread her hands along his jaw, cradling his face before her.
“These things,” she said very quietly, ”Matter not to me.”
She gazed at him intently, as if she were examining him for the first time. The memory of their first moment, outside Tharbad, jolted through him. He’d not even known what she was until he had plucked her up from the muddy ground. He’d be startled, to say the least, by the bedraggled creature that had squirmed from his grip. Half starved, the glossy madness of fever in her eyes, she had glared at him through the mud and gloom and rain so hard that he suspected she would have bitten him if he gave her half the chance. As they had peered indignantly at each other, he had known she was assessing him. He had felt her attention sweep through him and he had shaken her mostly to make her stop. The fact two purses fell out of her clothing and into the mud was entirely by the by.
She was assessing him anew now, here. Gone was the desperation and starvation and fever. Gone, too, was the fear. Mostly. He thought he saw some uncertainty still, but he could not be sure.
”We are none of us unchanged by the events of recent years,” Rosmarin added.
At her words, Hanasian’s attention was drawn to the small scar near her left eye. It ran almost vertically from beneath her lower lashes to the high precipice of her cheek. A very sharp blade, likely a dagger, had done that. He could tell from the precision of the scar. Aragorn had informed him of the attack upon her in recent months. A renegade Ranger of Arnor, forced to the biding of the Moricarni. His actions had revealed the first clue in Eriador that Hanasian still lived. The Ranger had been either very careful or very fortunate to not take her eye with his sharp knife and, in the end, he had paid for his treason with his life.
The small scar beneath Rosmarin’s left eye would endure: a reminder of the need for vigilance and a testament to his wife’s resilience and strength. Hanasian noticed, then, the growing flush to her cheeks. He blinked and then set the palm of his hand over her heart. Its steady, vital thud was unchanged and as strong as ever it had been. In turn, her hand settled over his chest.
”For as long as these hearts toll, will I love you husband. That much is unchanged,” she whispered and lifted her eyes to gaze at him through her long lashes.
Hanasian hesitation shattered then and he was no longer worried he could not show Rosmarin how badly he needed her. Now he was fighting for control. He pulled her into his arms with a soft groan and sucked in a breath as he buried his face against her neck. The intoxicating scent of her hair and skin was a memory no longer. This scent had returned to him time and again, despite his efforts to put Rosmarin from his mind. It had tormented him even as it had sustained him across the years. He had made the biggest mistake of his life and it had very nearly cost him everything he had loved.
But here, now, that was done. She was the rain to his bleak, desolate, merciless desert. Hanasian’s hands slid over the smooth silk of her bare shoulders as he kissed her long and hard. His world, his awareness shrunk smaller and smaller until there was only them, there, then. He did not want for anything else. Hanasian abandoned the oars of his rickety, leaking boat and surrendered to a sea he called Rosmarin.
The candles were close to failing by the time he surfaced again. There was no way to know how much time had passed. The sea was peaceful now and warm. Rosmarin lay beside him, on her stomach, head turned away. She was warm and she was still now, her dreams passed. But she had not forgotten him all the same.
One by one the candles failed until only the hearth lit the room. The soft light danced over an arm, hers, draped across his stomach. Lower down, she had a leg partially hooked over his. Hanasian was reminded of their time at Henneth Annûn together all those years ago. He smiled to himself, delighted by the unexpected happiness of this moment.
Rosmarin shifted and her arm over his abdomen tightened. He gently curved his hand around her forearm.
”I am here, beloved,” he murmured, ”Fret not.”
At that she mumbled something unintelligible into a cloud of hair they had worked together to tangle earlier in the evening by various means. Hanasian drew in a deep breath and let sleep take him as well.
With morning came a soft tap at the door that neither Hanasian nor Rosmarin head. It was followed by a pounding slap of a little hand. That too went unmarked by the two people within. The hour was still quite early but the door did not hold very long. Adanel and Hayna soon slipped through and hurried to the bed within. Adanel pounced onto the bed without delay but Hayna was not yet tall enough to accomplish such a feat without his sister’s assistance. By the time she had helped Hayna to climb onto the bed, both their parents had begun to wake. Rin grabbed at the slipping covers as Hayna gained the bed proper and this prompted Adanel to raise a dark eyebrow at Hanasian.
It was, he noted, precisely the same expression Rin was wont to use on him when questioning something he said or done. After that, though, Adanel gave him a coy smile and came closer to embrace him. Hayna, meanwhile, had proceeded directly to his mother’s lap to reclaim it as exclusively his. It was bound to be his favourite place to be, given his age. From that vantage, utterly secure, Hayna eyed Hanasian boldly while his sister bounced on his lap.
Adanel set to studying his hands next. She set her own against her father’s and observing how much bigger her hands had grown. Then she started to turn his hands over, inspecting them carefully.
Hanasian said to Rin, ”I have missed too much. Never again."
At that Adanel looked up at him sharply. Her grey eyes framed by her dark hair were solemn but there was no recrimination there. She looked over to her mother for reassurance and Hanasian saw Adanel’s mouth curve into a small smile. He kissed her soft, plump cheek and smiled back at her. He gave Adanel a kiss on the cheek and could not deny how relieved he was to receive such welcomes as he had. But even as Hanasian marveled at this, he knew that his older children may not be so forgiving.
The day was still young when Hanasian kissed Rosmarin at the breakfast table and set out to locate his elder children. Once outdoors he paused to look over the snowy landscape of Imladris. He’d barely taken a thing in yesterday. The grey morning offered a pale, trembling light. Lazy snowflakes wandered through it. Everything seemed still, as if waiting for something and soon enough he heard it too. Two lads, bundled up against the cold, came around banging wooden swords together. To Hanasian’s eye, it seemed equal parts play and training.
The boys eventually noticed his presence. Reluctantly, each muttering behind the woollen scarves that swathed their lower faces, they lowered their wooden swords and peered up at the windows and balconies of Imladris behind Hanasian as if looking for someone. One lad shrugged and then elbowed his compain and the pair bowed reluctantly. Hanasian could guess they were doing so only to escape a tongue lashing should someone be above watching. One boy clenched his wooden sword to his side with his arm as he fidgeted with a mitten. The other peered at Hanasian closely. Hanasian watched the lad’s eyes narrow. Sandy brows shot skyward and his pale eyes popped wide open then. He dropped his sword in the snow to slap the coat of the lad beside him. That made his friend drop his sword and the boy protested irritably, frowning at the other boy.
”You’ll get in trouble,” the frowning boy warned as his companion yanked his scarf down, ”Amme said to-“
“It’s Adda!” interrupted his companion, eyes shining locked on Hanasian’s face.
Worlin continued to gaze at him but Dorlith was a little slower. His frown deepened and the glance he cast to his father was sparing, intended only to satisfy his twin that he had looked before he set about telling Worlin he was mistaken.
”No, it isn’t,” Dorlith said to him but Worlin batted at his brother’s thick wool coat a second time.
”It is!” he declared loudly, pointing at Hanasian, ”Just look!”
“I did look-“
“It’s him!” Worlin insisted urgently but Dorlith bent to retrieve his wooden sword from the snow.
Worlin edged closer to Hanasian to peer at him anew, his own wooden sword forgotten behind him.
”Amme says we’re not to bother-“ Dorlith began to chide his brother but Hanasian cleared his throat in hopes that his voice might be familiar to them both.
”It is good to see you, boys. You have grown so much!”
Worlin squealed with recognition and shot towards him. Dorlith eyes widened for a moment before he hastened to follow his brother. Hanasian knelt to embrace them both. Dorlith arrived still with his sword and so Hanasian had to be careful indeed to avoid his son’s flailing wooden sword.
The boys squirmed against him, overjoyed and overexcited both. Once Dorlith dropped his sword again, Hanasian was able to embrace both sons properly. After a moment, they pulled back and eyed each other in the way the twins had almost from the outset. He recalled them swaddled in their cradle, eyeing each other even as infants.
As per usual, Worlin broke the silence first. Second to be born, Worlin had been working to catch his twin brother up ever since.
Worlin excitedly demanded, ”Tell us about the war, Adda!”
“We are going to be brave soldiers in the King’s Army! We’re practicing!” Dorlith added, determined as ever to outshine his slightly younger twin.
Hanasian hesitated as he thought and this only sharpened the twins’ anticipation.
Finally Hanasian said, ”War is not all glory and bravery. In fact, very little of it is. That is how most wars start, I think. These things aglow in the eyes of young soldiers.”
His sons gave him a quizzical look. Already Worlin’s nose was turning red.
Hanasian reached out to pull his scarf back up and continued, ”Have you heard of Folcred and Fastred? They were twin princes of King Foldwine of Rohan, where your grandmother Forcwyn was from.”
Dorlith and Worlin shook their heads and so Hanasian explained, ”They upheld the oath of Eorl of the Northmen and Cirion of Gondor in the founding days of Rohan, and they rode away with many men and spears with their father’s blessing. They were young and proud and strong, and went to a far away land to fight. For honour and glory. They were very brave.
“They held the Ford of Poros in South Gondor, but they both were lost, slain in their stand. They achieved glory that day for after the battle their deeds were spoken of with great reverence. But glory did them little good. It came only after they had perished and it lived only in their memory. Glory offers little comfort to the loved ones that mourned them.
"They sleep now in a barrow by the ford called Haudh in Gwanur. The glory they won was mingled in the grief of their father, sister and brother, and the people of Rohan.
“Glory is fleeting, lads, and it is nothing to lay your life down for.”
Both lads gazed back at him thoughtfully. Hanasian paused to study his twin sons. If they would pursue such a path then he would have them do so with their eyes open and a head clear of deceits like glory. He nodded, took up Dorlith’s wooden sword and stood. Hanasian peered down its edge and then moved it through the air. This was no toy sword. Someone, likely an Elf by the look of it, had carefully carved this to serve as a training sword.
Hanasian handed it back to Dorlith and noted that the lad took it up properly. Yes, he thought, definitely being tutored here in Imladris. Likely an Elf, for the Rangers here would be kept busy with other tasks. It was entirely possible that the Elf training his twins was the very Elf that had trained him in the years he had spent here at Imladris as a boy.
He considered his sons, both of whom looked quite solemn now as he had chastened them. In way, he supposed, he had.
”There is nothing wrong with the desire to serve your King and realm, lads. Practice hard, be diligent. Learn all you can of strategy and tactics. Blessed is such knowledge in times of need. Luckier still are those who never need call upon it. War always takes more than it can return.”
Hanasian considered the time he had spent away from them. It was a decision he had not taken lightly. The evil that had demanded it of him had taken away years he could never reclaim with his children and wife. It had changed them all in ways they could not yet understand. As his sons watched him closely, Hanasian realised now that perhaps he understood the grief his mother had held within her. He shook his head and smiled at his sons. There had been darkness enough in their young lives.
He said, ”We will talk more again later. You should begin your lessons for the day. Do you know where your sister Elian is?”
Dorlith was quick to answer, ”Off dreaming somewhere, most like.”
“Probably with a book in hand. We could go find her for you!” Worlin volunteered, ever eager to avoid lessons.
”No need, lads. I can find her myself,” Hanasian assured them and for a moment Worlin appeared crestfallen.
Then Dorlith eyed him and, in unison, both lads obediently chirruped, "Yes sir!”
When Hanasian had left, such obedience usually was the harbinger of future mischief but the twins were older now. They bowed, the very picture of politeness. Someone, Hanasian concluded, had spent a lot of time teaching his irrepressible sons aspects of decorum. Then the pair dutifully headed off just as bidden. Unfortunately, neither lad was aware that their father knew Imladris better then they did. Hanasian watched the boys run not to lessons but the training rings, oblivious to the fact that their father was well aware of what they were up to.
He shook his head as they vanished out of view around a corner. For the life of him, Hanasian could not remember being that excited to train at their age. But, then, there was a great deal he did not care to remember of those days. Hanasian turned his thoughts to Elian next. There were many places in and around Imladris where one could be alone even on cold winter days such as this. Which of them, though, would Elian choose? One in particular sprang to mind. It was quite dear to him precisely because it wasn’t easy to get to. In winter, it was even more difficult for the slopes could be very slippery. Guaranteed solitude. He set out for it.
At their estate in Cardolan, Hanasian had shown Adanel a place to make her very own. Elian, however, had found this one all on her own. It was a rocky outlook, the roof of which proving difficult but not impossible to cross in winter. Sure enough, he found Elian seated there. She was bundled in a thick cloak and furs to ward off the winter winds. If she heard his arrival, she gave no sign of it.
”A beautiful place is this: quiet and out of the way.”
From her height alone he could see that his eldest daughter had sprung up while he had been away. He suspected she would be as her mother, tall even for a Dunédain. Her head turned at his words. Elian looked at him briefly before she turned to look out over the valley again. He was struck by her uncanny resemblance to Rosmarin.
Elian said, ”We have missed you Adda… all of us. I didn’t think you would come back.”
Hanasian ventured closer to sit beside her and for a time he was silent as he looked out over Imladris with his daughter.
Then he whispered, ”I missed you all so much…”
Words seemed so inadequate and yet what could he say? He could tell her what had drawn him away and kept him there. He could talk about the Moricarni and what they had done. But, then, Elian probably knew about the Moricarni already. She did not need to be burdened by his reasons or his deeds. The faces that would haunt him to the end of his days were his ghosts, not hers.
Elian looked at him a second time, her expression hard . Hanasian sighed heavily, turned to his eldest daughter and held her eyes in his. He had to say something, he knew, but she spoke before he could.
”Adanel can’t see you like this. She perceives things. It will give her nightmares.”
Taken aback, Hanasian replied, ”Adanel and Hayna have seen me already. We had breakfast together, as a matter of fact.”
At that Elian rolled her eyes, ”Yes, but that was after…you had reunited with Amme. You are always happier then.”
Elian’s brash candour rattled him. Then it occurred to him that he knew whose daughter she was and really he should not be surprised. Hanasian nodded and held his peace at first. In a way, his daughter was right. He needed to take hold of himself. He needed to ensure his past remained there. It could sneak up on them again to steal irreplaceable time from them. Not ever again. And while he had been gone, Elian’s life had been turned on its head. She would be old enough to know that everything that had happened to her, her family and her mother had been a direct consequence of his past. Decisions he had taken long ago. His actions. And there was nothing he, nor anyone, could do to change that.
”You are right daughter. How could I not be happy? All I need do is look upon you, my children, and your mother in all her beauty. How could I not be happy? You give me such joy! I will do my best to show it.”
A little smile showed on Elian’s face as she nodded, seemingly content with his undertaking. She shifted a little closer and embraced her father. After that, they sat for a while taking in the view in companionable silence, Elian’s shoulder leaning against her father’s. After a time, they climbed down together to seek out lunch.
At the bottom, Elian asked ”Will you let me read your journals, Adda?”
Hanasian was silent for a few steps as he thought, ”In time, when you are older. Have you been reading the histories here in Imladris?”
“Yes, all of them! But the elves have a certain distant aloofness to their records. There is so much not said. Perhaps because they live so long?” Elian replied.
”Perhaps, but it that longevity that enables them to preserve so much. Many Dunédain records have been destroyed over the years, yet the Elves remember much.”
Elian nodded, ”Hanavia has been teaching me since we came here. He showed me the archive room at the library. He spends a lot of time there.”
“You and Hanavia are getting along better these days?” Hanasian asked, intrigued. The pair had always been close, but that closeness had spawned more than its fair share of arguments.
”Yes. He is different now. More agreeable. I like him much better. Better, at least, than those monsters Dorlith and Worlin.”
Hanasian smiled inwardly and strove to keep his voice level when he replied, ”Your brothers are not monsters but, I will grant you they have a certain demeanor. It’s entirely possible that the blood of their grandfather runs heavier in them. Still, if that is true, the blood of their mother will keep them true.”
Elian made no reply to that statement. Had Hanasian looked hard at his daughter’s face, he would have seen a secretive smirk there. Instead, he was watching where he put his feet in the snow.
When Elian turned to her father, the smirk had vanished, ”I’m going to find Amme now.”
She hugged him and set off, leaving her father to a landscape that twinkled whenever a ray of sunlight escaped the grey clouds overhead. Hanasian stood for a time before he decided that he would seek the library and hope to find his eldest son.
The small gates opened in the winter night for two horsemen. Beragil and Scout dismounted and shook off the snow from their cloaks. The gate sergeant looked them over. Once he had nodded, the two men made their way to the Varda’s Shroud Inn. The place was abuzz with talk of Hanasian and some girl. Beragil said nothing should any there discover he or Scout had known Hanasian was alive and not reported it, there would be questions to chew on instead of a meal.
They sat quietly in the shadowed corner and ordered ales, bread, and butter. Where was Videgavia? If Hanasian is here alive, where is Dauremir? They would have to report in soon. As for the girl, that was neither here nor there. Gossip, most like, of the sort small towns like Fornost were susceptible to. As they considered how best to proceed, Deuma the innkeeper walked across the common room with a weatherworn old man, dressed similar to them.
The innkeeper gesture showed the old man to a chair at their table. Once that was done, Deuma proceeded to draw some curtains before them. He moved some empty tables and set them by the curtains, making a new wall. Behind the curtains the three men sat in silence. The old man drew back his hood and pinned both younger rangers with a rheumy pair of eyes still sharp as tacks.
Massuil said in a muffled voice, ”It has been a long time since I saw you two. I know you were with Videgavia in Bree when you set off to on the King’s business there. I know you were with Videgavia when you drove off the Lady’s assailant this summer passed. That was well done, lads, by the by. Don’t think we’d have caught her up in Rhuadar’s wide expanse in time had you not tripped over her. “
“Still, good as it is to see you here, well and mostly hale, we have a problem. You see, you both seem to be tardy with reporting in.”
Beragil and Scout glanced at each other briefly and Beragil said, "We had unfinished business-”
“Shhh…. I don’t want to know your business! My best guess it was something stealthy Videgavia put you up to and that there is only a curtain!”
“We did report in to the Lady,” Scout objected, ”In Rhuadar. She was the campaign commander at the time, was she not?”
The old man grimaced at that, ”Videgavia’s report precedes you. Based on what he’s had to say, the Lady was in no fit condition for any such thing. Had she of been, I daresay you’d have both been questioned for your failure to report earlier. She’d been looking for you for nearly a year, did you know?”
The two rangers glanced at each other uncomfortably and Massuil shook his head, "Your commander doesn’t know yet that you’ve arrived, so let’s get to business while we still can. Hanasian came riding in here in much less stealth. He left here for Imladris only three days ago. Dauremir’s wife was with him.”
Beragil and Scout both looked surprised for a moment and then Scout cut in, ”Wife? I suspected he was married, but he said nothing of it. What of Dauremir?”
“He fell in Rhuadar. The Moricarni’s final victim, or so it would seem.”
Beragil and Scout nodded solemnly at the tidings and then Bergail asked, ”Final victim? It is done?”
“Hanasian was thorough in his report. The King and I both believe the Moricarni are defeated. Orders to stand down the Company have already been sent to Rhuadar.”
First Dauremir was dead, then the momentous news that their foes were defeated. In the bittersweet tidings, though, neither ranger could fail to be concerned at what else Hanasian might have divulged.
Massuil stood up and took their leave, ”Enjoy your food and ale this night, lads. Come the morrow you will report at sunrise to the local barracks. And if I were you, I’d not be late this time. You don’t want to be listed as deserters.”
Massuil pushed the curtain aside and gave Deuma a nod as he left.
Beragil leaned back in his chair as he took in Massuil’s tidings and then considered Scout.
He shrugged, ”So we report in sunrise tomorrow. Might as well make the best of tonight. It will last until then.”
A bucket of ale was ordered, and they ate as well as they could with the limited food that was available this winter. By the time the inn’s common room closed, they were far from sober. They wove their way together through Fornost’s frozen streets to the barracks. Dawn the following day found them huddled together under their cloaks, the flakes of the morning’s light snow dusting their hoods and shoulders.
”Rangers to me!” a gruff voice barked at them.
They rose, wavering, to their feet and blinked at the overly bright world around them. Heads pounding, Beragil and Scout spent the following three days accounting for themselves from the moment they had been assigned to Hanasian to now. Neither could conceal the fact that they had agreed to aid Hanasian to seek the Moricarni and neither could adequately explain why they had neglected to report Hanasian’s whereabouts to their commanders.
The local commander was not the sort of man to ignore such lapses. A failure to report coupled with the failure to report adequately were serious concerns in his book. Still, the King had given clear instructions on this matter. A number of pardons were to be issued, including to Beragil and Runner. Neither ranger received an official reprimand but neither did they escape the most unpopular duties and watches for some time to come.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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Hanasian walked slowly into the great library of Imladris. It was little changed from his recollection from his youth. The Elves were fewer in number than before but aside from that, scant else had altered since he was a boy. Certainly, the Keeper of Records greeted Hanasian as if he had never left.
”Young Master Hanasian! I am pleased to see you in my halls once more! I am told that you have been vigilant in your writing!”
Hanasian looked about as if wakened from a dream. For a moment, when first he heard the Keeper’s voice, he felt as though he were eleven years old again.
”Aye, honoured Keeper. I have written much. And much I have not.”
“Such is the way of the Edain. So little time you have, and so much of what you gain is lost with your passing. I fear this has become the way of the Eldar too, for those that yet remain in mortal lands.”
The Keeper’s voice faded into melancholy and in that moment Hanasian stole another look around the library. No sign of Hanavia.
The Keeper bestirred himself from his recollections, ”I have found some of the items you had asked me about some seasons ago. I suspect you were the age your son is now at the time you made your request. It wasn’t until Hanavia asked me the same question did I remember that I had put them aside. I had quite forgotten.”
He stood and turned to look over the shelf behind his great desk.
”I asked so much of you when I was boy. I cannot now remember what these particular items might be. Are they the historical records of Arnor?”
The Keeper sighed as he sat down ”Indeed. Very little that we had not recorded ourselves was saved here, or so it has been explained to me. This is particularly the case when the realms established by King Earendur’s younger sons are concerned: Cardolan and Rhuadur. Of Arthedain we were fortunate to receive some records from Fornost, those that survived the sacking. You would read what I had repeatedly, as if searching for answers. You were convinced there had to be more.”
“Yes, I remember now!” Hanasian exclaimed, “Is there more?”
The Keeper nodded, ”There are entire vaults of books, parchments, letters, and maps that had never been organized. I have only been the Keeper for a mere three hundred and five years.
“My mentor had been Keeper since Imladris was first established. He had served in a similar capacity in the House Celebrimbor before. He saved all he could from the sacking of Eregion. My mentor despised war, yet he marched with Master Elrond in answer to Gil-Galad’s call: the Last Alliance.
“When he returned he was much changed. He kept the library still, but organised little of the information we stored. He took me aside before the long hard winter and handed me the keys. Elrond watched from afar, grim that he had chosen to sail west. He had spent thousands of years wrestling with himself, and was never in peace. I hope he found it in Valinor.”
The present Keeper paused then, as if lost in his tale and distant memories. He paused for a moment and then blinked as returned to the present.
”Yes, I’ve only had a few hundred years as Keeper. In so short a time, I cannot say that I know all of what is kept here. I should have had you assist me when you were a boy. Now, with our waning, we all will soon go and all this will all be handed over to the keeping of Men. It will fall to those like you, and your son, to preserve it all.”
“Yes, about my son,” Hanasian cut in swiftly as he recalled the Keeper could and would talk through the night if left unchecked, “Is he here?”
Hanasian recalled discovering the vaults as a child. He’d only been able to get in there on occasion. Nothing was catalogued, and the records were stored in a way that offered no order or organisation that his young eyes had been able to discern. As a result, he’d found little of interest and once the door had been fixed, he’d not been able to get into the vaults at all. Still, if the Keeper had recruited Hanavia to assist him, Hanasian was willing to bet his son was down there even now.
The Keeper said, ”Yes, yes. He is helping me. He should be up here soon.”
Hanasian was silent as he debated whether to wait for Hanavia or go down to him. As he was wrestling with this, he heard faint footsteps approach behind him.
”Hello Father,” his son said in a voice that was both familiar and changed.
There was a chill to it that Hanasian turned to face, ”Hanavia my son! I haven’t yet seen you since I got here.”
“I have been busy,” Hanavia coldly reproached, “I have my work here, my studies and training.”
Hanavia walked passed his father to the Keeper’s desk where he set down dusty parchments he’d held in his arms. In this he was his mother’s son, from the icy breath of his anger to his formidable capacity to focus on the task at hand through it. His son would and could dismiss his father’s presence from mind if he so desired and, as Hanavia addressed the Keeper, that seemed very much to be what the boy wished.
”I found these in the first hall. They’re in what seems to be a mannish hand and there are more. I didn’t risk bringing them up as they are quite brittle.”
The Keeper closely reviewed the proffered records, ”My thanks, boy. You were wise to leave the fragile items in place. We will tend to the first hall, together, another time. For now, you are discharged from your duties here today.”
Hanavia nodded at that, robbed of his ploy to avoid his father for the present. He’d had most of yesterday, all of last night and half of today to consider what he thought and felt about his father’s return from beyond the grave. It had been a shock, and he could not help but compare it to another shock that came two years ago. Hanavia’s desire to be pleased by his father’s return unlooked for warred with a rapidly growing anger that he found difficult to put into words. Hanavia had managed to unravel that he was angry with his father’s sudden, cruel departure and inability to send word at any point that he yet lived. Yet how could he reconcile that against the man that stood before him now. He loved this man, idolised him. His father had been his greatest hero. Until now.
Hanavia drew a shaking breath and walked past Hanasian.
”Where are you going, son?”
“I am behind in my training,” Hanavia replied as he left the library, reasonably certain that if he just kept busy and kept moving that all this other difficult, painful and unpleasant business would resolve itself.
Hanasian sighed unhappily and looked to the Keeper. He found the Elf buried in the records Hanavia had retrieved. Such struggles would be something the Keeper would deem none of his concern. Hanasian nodded and followed his son out of the library. Hanavia could run, but he could not hide. Not in a place like Imladris.
A light snow fell as Hanavia walked out onto the practice ground. The clouds his breath made enfolded his head as he fell into a stance. His movements were clean and precise. As crisp as the crunching ground he moved over. That was what both his trainer and his mother had emphasised. Precision, economy, power.
Yet, as Hanasian quietly approached from behind, it was evident that Hanavia was not behind in his training at all. His son had lied to his face rather than confront his father. It was sobering thought indeed, for the boy Hanasian knew prized honesty above all else. The dull ring of his sword as he freed it alerted Hanavia to his presence and the boy turned to face him. He wore his mother’s inscrutable expression, his thoughts wrapped tightly and squeezed away. For a moment Hanasian was sure his son would wave him away or abandon the grounds as he had the library. Instead, Hanavia waved him in.
Hanasian slowly walked around him, stopped and turned to face Hanavia, ”You gave up your first advantage. When it snows it is best to have your back to the wind no matter how slight that wind is. You don’t want your vision obscured by snow.”
The criticism, warranted or not, stung Hanavia into moving and their swords rang as Hanasian lifted his to counter his son’s swing. Hanavia came at him fast. Relentless as he was, his technique flawless, Hanasian turned every thrust and swing. Hanavia was wasting his strength. Any feint Hanasian made was met with a block whether it was necessary or not. Still, it was evident to Hanasian just how far his son had progressed in this aspect of his studies at Imladris.
Harder and harder Hanavia pressed, with all the vigour of youth until at last he caught the back of his father’s hand. His blade cut through Hanasian’s glove and drew some blood. While it was first blood, it was not a serious injury. The cold made it hurt more than usual and it was not enough to disable an opponent. Still, Hanasian caught the ferocious grin that suddenly lit Hanavia’s expressionless face. This, Hanasian realised, was more than practice for the lad.
Hanasian saluted his son with his sword and they pressed on a second time. This time, though, Hanasian fought him as he might a grown man. Hanavia did not shrink from the challenge and this proved as brave as it was foolhardly. It was not long before he was bereft of his sword entirely. His father caught his hilt easily and ripped it from his hand. It landed on the snowy ground with a thud and, at that, Hanasian stepped back and sheathed his own blade. Panting, Hanavia stared at him as if he would pierce his father by his gaze instead of his sword. His cheeks were flushed with exertion and anger.
”I cannot forgive you! You did it for us, you said, but I do not understand! The pain…my brothers and sisters,” Hanavia shuddered with visceral emotion, “Mother…I won’t forgive you!”
Hanavia stiffly moved to retrieve his sword and Hanasian was sure his son would press the fight anew, charged as he was with the desire to inflict the pain he had felt and seen in those he loved. Instead Hanavia cleaned off his sword and, back to his father, sheathed it.
”I will see you at dinner this night,” Hanasian said, anything to prompt his son into speaking further.
Hanavia held his silence, determined to not give his father the satisfaction of an answer until he noted the presence of his trainer nearby. While not a word passed between teacher and pupil, Hanavia knew that he had been observed from the outset. At that, his righteous anger was shaken by a sudden seed of doubt.
He straightened his spine and half turned towards his father, ”Yes, sir.”
Hanasian inclined his head and at that his son stalked away, sword clutched tightly in his hand.
Well, Hanasian mused to himself as he considered his injured hand, that could have been a great deal worse.
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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The statement was as bald as it was calm and the man responsible for it met Rosmarin’s eyes squarely. Without compunction. Cammaroth waited for Rin to respond but she couldn’t. She was breathless and her pulse was hammering.
”Challenge it,” Cammaroth said next.
”The king’s pardon is his alone to issue! On what possible grounds might it be challenged?”
“Did he consult you before he granted the Consort his pardon?” Cammaroth asked, knowing well that Aragorn had not, ”The Consort’s actions affected Cardolan, and you, most keenly of all.”
Rin blinked rapidly, aware that things were fast unravelling around her. She had to act, swift and decisive.
”I do not make the laws,” she reminded the Wolf of Cardolan, ”They belong to the king. A man, I am compelled to remind you, that I have sworn my fealty to. And through me are you too bound. All rangers of Cardolan are bound by the king’s law and my oath. Repudiate that, then renounce me for I will not tread this merry path of treason you are set upon, Wolf. I will not!”
Cammaroth’s jaw bunched but he continued to stare at her. Rosmarin drew a deep breath and tried to steady her whirling head.
”I swore to uphold Aragorn’s laws and abide by his will. The king’s laws. The king’s pardon. It is issued and that, Cammaroth, is that.”
“Do you deny, then, that the bond of friendship between the king and your husband is one that is both long and deep?”
“Do you suggest,” Rin countered in return, ”That the king twisted his own laws for the sake of friendship? Is that the man you think our king to be?”
Cammaroth hooked his thumbs through his belt and considered her coolly, ”I suggest, your grace, that the king is keenly aware of the difficulty that would arise should you decide to put your husband away. If you should banish the Consort of Cardolan for his crimes against you, your heirs and the realm, fresh discord within Arnor’s largest realm would spring up. And the Free Company of Arnor is returning, is it not, fresh from the fight in Rhuadar?”
Rin sat heavily at that and something akin to compassion crossed Cammaroth’s face.
”I do not criticise you for so readily accepting the king’s pardon. But to let it go unchallenged…that would be a mistake,” he finished.
Rin closed her eyes and wiped a hand over her face, ”And if I refuse to challenge it?”
There was a rustle in the study that made her open her eyes. When she did, she saw that Cammaroth had bent his knee to her. One hand rested on the hilt of his sword and the other upon his bent knee.
”We will not abandon you, your grace. Our oaths, mine, hold true.”
So, not open mutiny amongst her rangers then. For now. Her skirts whispered as she rose and came out from behind her desk. Cammaroth lifted his head as she reached him and kissed the ring she wore upon her right hand. Her father’s ring. She’d refused to establish a council of her own, breaking with her father on that score, but she had one anyways. Of a sort. The Wolf of Cardolan rose to his feet.
”I know this places you in a difficult position, m’lady,” he admitted and Rin could not help but cock a brow at his choice of words.
Difficult? She was neatly caught between her husband, her king and her rangers and this the Wolf of Cardolan described as difficult.
”And we are grateful that you would hear our concerns,” he added.
Anything further was forestalled by her eldest son’s sudden arrival. Hanavia hurtled across the threshold of her study and collided with her hard. She swayed but managed to keep her feet by merit of the fact that the eldest prince of Cardolan wound his thin yet wiry arms around her. Hanavia shuddered with emotion that was already soaking through her dress where his head was buried.
Snow was fresh on the shoulders of his thick woollen jacket and his boots had left a muddy trail in his wake. Cammaroth lifted his brows in silent query and Rin nodded at the door. They’d need privacy for this and the Wolf of Cardolan gave it to them without delay. As the doorlatch softly clicked, Rin closed her eyes and tried to assemble her wits in a new direction.
By the time she stumbled towards her own room to change for dinner, Rosmarin was exhausted. Slippery had already laid out her dress. It was a simple matter of putting it on. Nothing more than that. And yet when Rin sat down on the edge of her bed to catch her breath, even simple things were proven to be too much. When Slippery tapped on her door and peeked within, she found the Lady of Cardolan sprawled across her bed and sound asleep.
When Rin awoke she immediately knew that hearth had been stoked and her shoes had been removed. A pillow had been placed under her head. She knew all of this precisely because she woke face down in the pillow and her bare toes were wriggling in the warmth of the room. As she lifted her head she heard a page being turned nearby. It was properly night, she saw through her rumpled hair. Candles and tapers had been lit throughout the room.
”The children have been fed and bathed. I told them that they could bid you a good evening if you woke in time,” Hanasian said from somewhere in her room.
Hanasian was in her room. Her room. Rin twisted about until she could see him. He had taken an armchair by the hearth and had a book upon his lap. Her husband was in her room. It felt…she did not know how it felt. Rin scrambled about to sit up upon her bed.
”What are you reading?” she asked, really for just for the sake of saying something vaguely coherent.
Hanasian closed the book. It had wide pages, like an atlas of some sort.
”I wasn’t reading,” he answered.
Rin had no idea what to make of that and before she could unravel it, Hanasian asked her, ”How are you?”
She smoothed her skirts out over her crossed legs, ”Well. I’m quite well. How was your day?”
Hanasian cocked his head to one side and considered her for a moment, ”Illuminating.”
“Things will get better with Hanavia,” she assured him and he smiled quietly.
”I know. They already have. Dinner was altogether pleasant, all things considered.”
She recalled then what Hanavia had admitted to her earlier, ”How’s your hand?”
Hanasian glanced at the back of his right hand as if he had forgotten, ”Naught but a scratch. The lad’s technique, though…”
“He’s been working very hard at it,” Rin said, ”Though not for any love of war, unlike his younger brothers.”
Hanasian nodded thoughtfully at that and then ran a hand over the cover of the book still on his lap, ”We will have ample time to discuss the children. Are you hungry? Rose tells me you missed lunch today.”
Rosmarin sighed, ”I was busy.”
“She told me you would say that too,” Hanasian informed her and set the book aside, ”It’s quite the bone of contention, I am advised.”
“Who else have you been speaking to?” Rin demanded, the question slipping out of her.
”Oh I’ve had a long conversation with Lords Elladan and Elrohir both today.”
“Was that before or after you interrogated Rose!”
Hanasian gave her no reply and Rin was left to ponder for a moment just what to make of everything. He walked to the door, opened it and spoke briefly through it. That done, the door was closed again and Hanasian returned to his armchair.
”Dinner should be along presently,” he said.
Rin sniffed at that, still unsure of what to make of their conversation. She fidgeted with the bed covers she sat on and tried to work out where to go next.
Ultimately, she decided upon, ”What else did Rose tell you?”
When Hanasian did not answer straight away she looked up and found he was studying her.
”She helped me understand what it was like. For you,” he said.
”Why couldn’t you ask me?”
“Would you have told me?” Hanasian asked in return.
Rin chewed on the inside of her lower lip and then shook her head, honestly.
”Doesn’t matter,” she replied, ”Done is done. You did as you thought best. As did I.”
“Then it doesn’t matter if I know or not, does it?” Hanasian challenged.
Rin sighed at the question but dinner arrived before she could work out a way through or around it. Hanasian set the tray down on the table and beckoned her to it.
”Please, Rosmarin. You need your strength at times like this.”
“And what of you?”
“I ate with the children at dinner,” he said reasonably and so she really had no option other to comply.
She crossed from the bed to the other armchair, settled within it and then selected leg of roasted chicken. Only then, as it was in her hand, did she recall something else of the day.
”The twins,” she started, staring at the drumstick.
”I know. I’ve spoken to the pair of them about today’s kitchen incursion. I suspect they were overexcited today. Understandable perhaps.”
“The two chickens they lifted today are but the latest in a procession of purloined treats. They were banned from the kitchens, by the head cook himself, only last month!”
“I also spoke with the Elf in question before dinner. Consider the matter addressed.”
“Addressed how?” Rin pressed, ”I’ve been trying to smooth those feathers over for-“
“I have addressed it. There will be no more stolen chickens or-“
“The Elf has a list, Hanasian. A list of every morsel of food those two have lifted since we’ve been here. I’ve seen it. It’s quite long!”
“Eat your dinner.”
Eat her dinner? Eat her dinner!? For two years, two long, aching fraught years she had managed all on her own and now he was here, in her bedroom, telling her to eat her dinner. She opened her mouth to voice her thoughts on the matter only to find her stomach growled loudly for her. Cheeks flushing, she dropped the drumstick back onto the plate and sat back in her chair to glare at the fire.
After a while, Hanasian said, ”At least the apple. Surely, so much has not changed that you no longer like apples.”
She heard a plaintive note to his voice that cut across her brooding. Rin reached for the apple upon the tray and her eyes finally recognised the book Hanasian had been reading.
Rin shot to her feet in immediate dismay, ”That’s mine!”
“I know,” Hanasian said, ”You’ve never been one to keep journals. Drawings were always your preference.”
“Who gave it to you?”
“Rose said it would help me understand.”
“She had no RIGHT!”
Hanasian asked, ”Have you read my journals?”
“Yes! Of course I have! But it’s different!”
Short of throwing herself at her husband and tearing her sketching book from his hands, Rin really wasn’t sure what to do. And even if she did that, what would it achieve? He’d seen the drawings already, like as not. Rin sat again, deflated but no less unsettled.
”How?” Hanasian asked a second time and she blinked.
”They were pertinent to the campaign, of course,” she replied, ”And you were dead.”
“Except I wasn’t,” he pointed out and her eyes narrowed.
”So, then, only fair that I read the journals you kept whilst you were dead. The real ones, mind you. Not the edited versions.”
“No,” Hanasian said plainly.
Rin gaped at him and then pointed at her drawings, ”You’ve seen those. You’ve questioned those around me!”
“No,” Hanasian repeated.
”Why?” Rin pressed but Hanasian sealed his lips together and she knew what that meant.
He’d be drawn on the subject no further. Rin could not help but wonder what her husband was hiding. Nor could she understand why he’d hide anything from her at a time like this. She felt as though he was lying to her, again. She felt as though he had invaded her privacy, aided by those she trusted. She felt overwhelmed, confused and hurt and angry all at once. Thus, when Hanasian bade her good night and left a short while later, she did not ask him to stay. It was much later when Slippery came back for the tray. By then Rin was back on her bed, knees drawn up to her chest and brooding up a storm.
”You’ve barely touched it,” Slippery exclaimed and then, when she looked at Rin properly forgot all about dinner and came to sit on the side of the bed, ”What’s wrong? Did you quarrel with Hanasian? Only natural that you might.”
Rin shook her head, closed her eyes but felt tears press against her lashes all the same.
”I made a mistake yesterday,” she whispered, ”A very big mistake.”
“Shhhhh, now,” Slippery said softly as she wound an arm around Rin’s shoulders.
Rin continued a little firmer, ”My children see it. My rangers see it. You do too, don’t you?”
“Don’t you go putting words in my mouth now,” Slippery replied, ”It’s late. I daresay you didn’t get much sleep last night and, from what I know, today has been awful. You’re tired, Rin. The pressure you are under now must be terrible.”
The words spilled out of Rin, ”Hanavia hates him! Elian’s angry with him! The rangers want me to challenge the king and banish him! He spoke to the Sons of Elrond about me today, Rose too. She gave him my drawings!”
Slippery clucked her tongue at that, ”She was probably trying to help.”
“She had no right! None!”
“No, she’d didn’t,” Slippery said, ”But for now, you’re best served by getting some sleep. Come tomorrow, things will make more sense. They always do.”
Some time later, with Rin’s sketchbook under her arm, she found Rose as the woman slipped from Hayna’s room. Rose started at Slippery’s sudden appearance in the hall and then her eyes fell onto the sketchbook under the Gondorian woman’s arms.
”Oh,” Rose said unhappily.
”Oh indeed. Have you seen these?” Slippery asked in a low voice.
Rose nodded, ”Yes.”
“And you thought handing over the bare soul of your brother’s wife to her husband without her consent or knowledge was a good thing to do?”
“He was trying to make sense of what had happened. He’s trying to understand his wife! It’s not like she’ll tell him. You know that as well as I. He has to understand if they’re to reunite. And that’s clearly what she wants.”
“Is it? Because right now, she has no idea what she wants. She was in tears, Rose. Tears.”
Rose’s head lowered at that, ”Truly?”
Slippery growled a curse under her breath, ”Look, just stop helping. At least until she’s made up her mind. And make sure Cammaroth doesn’t see her tonight. I don’t want to have to deal with what he’d do if he saw her in the state she’s in.”
“Of course,” Rose said meekly.
Slippery shoved the sketchbook at the other woman, ”And put that back where you found it!”
She left Rose behind then and set off anew. This door she found ajar and, coming from within, the sound of a woman’s voice. Slippery leaned against the doorframe and considered the scene within for a moment.
”And there you are, Mistress Caila,” Slippery observed as the young woman’s voice fell silent, ”Did you know I’ve been looking for you all day?”
“Ah…no?” Caila attempted to lie through her back teeth, ”Why?”
“Lady Rosmarin is keen to have a word with you. I believe she’s made mention of that before.”
“But I haven’t done anything to her. I told those rangers that. It isn’t what they said it was. The only child I carry is my husband and if here were here, he’d hold you all to account for the terrible things you’ve been saying!”
“We only have your word for it, Caila…and if we’re to take you at your word then I struggle to understand why you’re so reluctant to speak with the Lady Rosmarin. You have nothing to hide, after all.”
“None of this, Slippery, is Caila’s fault. None of it,” Hanasian said quietly.
”True enough, or we’ll soon see if it isn’t. Tomorrow, Caila, I expect you to attend the Lady Rosmarin before lunch,” Slippery stated.
“What if I’m busy?”[/I] Caila asked, lifting her chin, ”What if I decide to leave tomorrow.”
“You really do not want to make me chase you more than you already have,” Slippery said and then looked past her to Hanasian, ”Now, if you please, your friend here and I have business to discuss.”
Rebellion flashed in Caila’s eyes and she looked to Hanasian next, ”He is my friend. My only friend here. And, some might say, I’m his only friend too. Maybe he doesn’t want me to leave. Maybe he doesn’t want to discuss this business. Maybe-“
“Maybe you should-“ Slippery started but broke off as Hanasian held up a hand to forestall whatever glib and terrifying threat was about to arrive.
”Caila, I appreciate your help but I think I best if-“
“You’re not alone, here, Hanasian,” Caila interjected.
”I rather think that I am…and it is a prison of my own making. Please, Caila.”
Slippery waited until Caila had flounced her way unhappily out of the room and then slowly shook her head from side to side.
”You heard what Cammaroth thinks of you. You were there when he levelled his accusations. And here I find you, cosied up in your room with her? After, I might add, you’ve quarrelled badly with your wife!”
“I did not invite Caila here. I did not invite her in.”
“You did not send her away either.”
“She’s alone, Slippery. Widowed, with child and alone in a strange place where people she doesn’t know whisper nasty things about her.”
“Well, given what you’ve discovered about your wife’s experience in the aftermath of your supposed death, I suppose you can see for yourself what that’s like,” Slippery snapped.
”Are you here to berate me?” Hanasian asked wearily.
”Tempting. Sorely tempting. But no,” Slippery admitted with a sigh and then took stock of the man she saw before her, ”You’ve had a right day of it, haven’t you?”
Slippery shrugged, ”Never used to, you mean. The pressure she’s under at the moment is immense. The children, the rangers, the king and you, all pulling her in different directions. How much do you think the woman can bear?”
“I’m not trying to pull Rosmarin in any direction. Don’t you think I know how much she has on her shoulders? I can scarcely believe she managed to hold it all up on her own all this time. And with the campaign and envoy on top as well?” Hanasian shook his head slowly from side to side.
”I haven’t the right, yet or perhaps ever now, to assist her with the king or her rangers,” he continued, ”But I thought that I could at least be a husband and father to our children.”
Slippery let out a pent up breath, ”I know you spoke to Rose today. I know about the sketchbook too.”
“That,” he said flatly, ”Was a mistake.”
“She’s hurt and she’s angry and she’s every damn right to be, Hanasian. She has to learn to trust you again. Give her time. Show her patience. Be gentle. Do those things and you just might be surprised at what the extraordinary woman you married is capable of. She just might forgive you.”
“If you were her, would you?”
“I’d mount your head over my mantelpiece,” Slippery replied without hesitation, ”Then, perhaps, I’d consider forgiveness.”
The following day unfolded such that Rin saw very little indeed of Hanasian and that, on the whole, was a good thing. At least, she thought that was how she felt about it. She did succeed in finally sitting down with Caila before lunch for a talk. In fact, Caila had arrived almost immediately after breakfast, anxious to get it ‘over and done with’ as she said. When it became clear that she was not about to be accused of all manner of unsavoury things but, in point of fact, offered a position and a safe place to live, Caila left stunned speechless for all of half an hour. That ended when she informed Hanasian of the surprising turn in her circumstances that would result in the young woman being placed in the staff of his wife’s Annuminas residence.
”My own room and one for the babe too,” Caila said excitedly, eyes shining, ”And all I need do is help in the kitchens. No laundry. I hate laundry! Awful work! No taverns and wandering hands neither! Aside from that, my life and my time is my own, to do with as I please!”
“Consider, Caila, my wife’s retinue is sizeable and, when we’re in Annuminas, keeping everyone fed is no small task. Then there are her guests to consider.”
“Oh, I know! But I won’t be in the kitchens all on my own,” Caila answered, ”Why are you trying to talk me out of it?”
“I’m not. Your life is yours to lead as you see fit,” Hanasian replied.
The younger woman sniffed at his answer, ”It’s much better than some inn or tavern, I can tell you. You don’t get board there, for starters. And mopping up stale ale and all the other things that end up on the floors isn’t much fun either. I’ve a roof over my head, food in our bellies, a way to support myself and somewhere safe for the babe. I think Dauremir would be pleased.”
“I think so too,” Hanasian answered and that was that. Caila was now a part of his wife’s Annuminas household.
He went in search of her but found that Rin had already been subsumed by yet more work. A messenger with a fresh and apparently important missive from Eldarion had arrived and as a consequence, the Lady of Cardolan was not to be disturbed for any reason. Still, Hanasian did not want for anything to do. His children provided ample entertainment. Hayna, Adanel and the twins all wanted as much of him as they could get. Elian hovered nearby, watching but nothing more than that initially. Hanavia was like his mother, busy elsewhere and unable to be interrupted.
Thus the days passed, one leading into the next and in that time Rosmarin neither drew closer nor moved further away. Slippery had counselled patience. She had said that the right path would show itself to her and so Rosmarin waited. While she was waiting, the Free Company of Arnor were officially withdrawn from Rhuadar and provisions for their payroll, leave and the likely wave of retirement that would enure were made. Transport for those returning to Edhellond had to be organised.
Then there was the matter of her own household to consider. With the Rhuadar campaign ended and the threat of the Moricarni lifted, there was no reason for them to not return to their home in Cardolan. The head cook of Imladris’ kitchens would certainly agree. Yet, their estate had not been their home for a good two years. Most of her staff had come to her in Annuminas from Cardolan. As a result, she needed to make the estate ready for them again and she needed to establish an independent household in Annuminas.
In the midst of all of that she had her rangers to manage. While Cammaroth’s declaration of ongoing loyalty had not been untrue, the depth of their displeasure had intensified until she drew them all together and heard from each of them directly. Then she set about making her mind clear. It was a simple matter of law. The pardon, she told them, would stand unchallenged. On that very day did Hanavia finally relent in his enmity towards his father. It was a subtle thawing but perceptible all the same.
Spring found Imladris and through an open window did the sound of laughter float up and into Rin’s study. She rose from her desk and went to her window. Below, amongst garden beds that were emerging from winter’s long sleep, a game was underway. She could pick out the sound of her children’s laughter as they merrily skipped after a bouncing ball kicked this way and that. Slippery was down there too, Rose as well. So was her husband. All had their hands tied loosely behind their backs.
Rin paused for a moment to watch them and then considered the work that waited for her. All the shelves were emptied, their contents already being ferried back to Cardolan by those she had sent ahead to make it ready for them. What remained was on the desk. Broken mills and village drains that did not work properly. Bridges that got washed away in the spring floods. A boundary dispute between two farmers. An argument over who owned the local woodland. The usual fare. It never stopped and it was always important to those who wrote to her asking for her aid. She’d not done a progress this year and so all they had were their letters to her.
Still, somewhere between that horrible argument with Hanasian and this bright morning, months had passed. Her whole life could, and would she had discovered, pass with her at her desk. Or she could go outside and join her children. Her brother’s wife. They’d mended their fences. Her old friend. Her husband. She pushed the wedding rings around on her finger as she thought.
Patience, Slippery had said. Just wait and see. And here she was, watching her children laugh as they gambolled around their father. Was not this exactly what she had feared had been robbed from them. The ball went shooting across the lawn and splashed into a fountain. Imladris was full of the tinkling things. Dorlith scampered blithely after it, moving swiftly despite the fact his hands were pinned behind his back. He was in the fountain in short order, the reason for his volunteering in the first place. The cavorting and tomfoolery that ensued had them in uproarious laughter below and, to her immense surprise she found the sound of her husband’s laughter wondrous to behold. Then a bubble of merriment popped out of her.
She slapped her fingers across her mouth, startled. Rin had not laughed for years now. It was then that her path emerged before her, bright and straight and true as if it had been there all along. Shortly thereafter Rin found herself hurrying down to the garden. When she reached them, Dorlith and the ball had been retrieved from the fountain and stood, dripping, in a cluster of children and adults. Hayna spotted her arrival first and toddled towards her without delay. The others, though, paused as if wondering why she was there.
”We were just playing, Amme,” Worlin assured her.
”I know,” she replied, ”I could hear you from up there.”
“Sorry,” Elian said immediately.
”We’ll be quieter,” Hanavia promised and at that Rin wondered how indeed her children viewed her.
She nodded at that and realised that telling them that she didn’t want them to be quieter would only make it worse. Clearly, her arrival had disrupted their fun.
”Well,” she instead offered as brightly as she could, ”Enjoy yourselves.”
Her children murmured assent, and exchanged baffled glances with each other whilst she set Hayna down again. Rin flicked a brief glance at the three adults there and turned away. She resolved that she’d not hurry no matter how badly she wished to scurry away and so she mapped out a steady, slow path back towards her office. She was so intent on this that she scarcely heard the approach of someone after her.
”Goodness you’re fast when you want to be,” Hanasian puffed as he reached for her arm.
”I wasn’t running,” Rin objected.
”Stay,” he said, ignoring her statement.
”I have work to do and-“
“Stay. Just for a while?”
Rin let herself be turned back and she could see the others peering after them. The twins elbowed each other and began whispering as soon as they noticed she was looking at them.
”I’ll only spoil things,” she sighed, ”And you need this time with them.”
“So do you,” Hanasian countered, ”And I’m not asking for them. I’m asking for me. Do you have to argue everything with everyone?”
“Oh, so it’s just me then,” he observed with a quiet smile, ”Fair enough, all things considered.”
Rin frowned at that, uncertain of how to respond, and Hanasian sobered.
”I’m sorry, Rosmarin. I am truly, honestly, sorry. I didn’t just break your heart, I shattered it. I understand that now. I nearly broke your very-“
“Stop,” Rin said urgently.
“Stop! You cannot apologise for the rest of your life. No one can. You did what you thought best. It was a mistake. That’s all there is to it.”
“Then stay,” he wheedled.
”I can’t. Honestly, I-“
“If you honestly meant what you just said, you’d stay. I want you to. So do they,” he said and she chewed the inside of her lower lip as he asked, ”When was the last time you just stopped? And I don’t mean fall asleep at your desk, or into your meal, but just stopped? When did you last breathe, Rosmarin of Cardolan?”
She opened her mouth to answer but Hanasian was swifter, ”So help me, if you say you’re breathing right now….”
Rin closed her mouth for that was exactly what she had been about to say. Hanasian pushed a strand of silver hair back behind her ear, ”You know what I mean. Please don’t pretend otherwise. Just stop. Stay. Breathe.”
He tugged on her hand again and this time she let him tow her back towards her children. The twins cheered at that.
”Amme’s on our team,” Dorlith announced to the others.
”How come?” Hanavia challenged his younger brothers.
”’Cause she’s mean and we called it first,” Worlin answered, grinning.
”That’s fine,” Elian said, ”We get Adda.”
The way Elian smiled, just like her mother, made the twins wonder if their elder sister had not pulled the rug out from beneath them. Then Worlin nudged his brother with his elbow.
”That’s fine. You get Hayna too!” he declared.
Hayna gave them a smile brighter than the sun, ”Hooray!”
Meanwhile, Hanavia crouched to look his youngest sister in the eye, ”You’re with them, Adanel. You know what to do.”
“Not fair!” Dorlith howled in protest as Adanel strolled towards him with a devious grin mirrored on Hanavia’s face.
”You work with the cards you get dealt, kid,” Slippery informed the lad and bent to check everyone’s hands were still tied – especially the twins, ”You know the rules.”
“There are no rules,” Rin said as she held her hands out for Rose to tie back.
The two former Cats considered each other for a moment and then exchanged a nod. They split then, each with their teams, and the game kicked off anew. Though it was still spring, it did not take long for the heat to rise. This was particularly so for the one player that had taken the field in the multiple layers of clothing required of nobility. Even so, that did not mean that Rin welcomed the discovery that Hanasian had not only untied his hands at some point in the game but set them to ferrying her bodily to the very fountain Dorlith had been cavorting in earlier.
”Fountains,” she exclaimed as she squirmed in Hanasian’s grip, ”Are not made for games.”
“Why do they make fountains,” Hanasian thought aloud as he carried his wife closer, ”What actual purpose do they serve?”
“No! Hanasian, no! This is against the rules.”
“There are no rules. You said so yourself. And no,” he said finally as he paused at the fountain, ”It is not different when you say so.”
And just like he dumped her into the cool water. It was not deep and when she surfaced again, the water came only to her knees. But behind Hanasian her children were cheering. Hanasian was laughing and, to her enduring amazement, so too was she.
”Brigand! Lout!” she called him.
“Thief!” he replied, climbed into the fountain himself and kissed her, hard, right there in the lapping water.
”Are you breathing yet,” he asked against her lips as he unravelled the loose bonds at her wrists.
”No,” Rin replied as she used her newly freed hands to pull him back to her, ”Better try again. Only properly this time.”
From: Dancing 'twixt the stars | Registered: Apr 2002
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