1. Chapter 1
Dunland - Fourth Age, Year 16
A fair country of green hills and glens within the Enedhwaith was Dunland. Its beauty was fiercely defended by the Dunlendings, who dwelt in scattered villages as a wary, secretive and hostile people. People who had for two Ages endured persecution from the descendants of the Three Houses of the Edain despite their Aduanic descent from the House of Haldor of the First Age. The beauty of the land and was lost on the small band that now pressed north in the quiet hours before dawn.
Away from the villages stood a small farm. It was simple, a humble cottage and a barn that the riders nervously pulled up to. One horse bore an empty saddle. A woman, tall and beautiful with the stamp of Numenor upon her features slipped into the barn. Her hair was pale and her eyes were the blue of a northern winter sky. She carried a basket that she clutched protectively to her chest. She had forseen this, as was her gift, and yet been unable to dissuade her proud husband from his path. In the nearby cottage a man, his wife and three year old son slept undisturbed. Their son dreamt of catching frogs and of swimming in the nearby spring.
The woman entered the barn on quiet yet weary feet. Within plough horses whickered and chickens fretfully circled on the floor. The woman passed them all by, finding a clean stall. The hay within still held the sweet, clean scent of a bountiful summer. She knelt and laid the basket carefully down, taking care to disturb nothing. Tears traced shining paths down her proud cheeks. By the doors, a man hissed a warning to hurry. The woman bent and whispered to the basket,"I will come for you." Her heart had already died with her lord and husband, Bereth. Verawyn left her hope in the basket.
The heavy sound of racing hooves roused the farmer from his sleep. He peered out the window into the pre-dawn murk. A man of Rohan, he knew the sound of a war party. Dunlendings rode by and the man released a breath he did not recall holding that on this night, they hunted something or someone other than himself. He returned to the warmth of his bed and his wife, unaware of how the lives of all within had veered.
Nine days later a weary and mourning band of men made Imladris at dusk. With them were two horses with empty saddles. The Dunedain of Cardolan carried yet another sorrowful tale. Their lord, his wife and baby heir had been lost on the road to Minas Tirith, under unrelenting Dunlending attack. Cardolan had no other.
Year 18 of the Fourth Age, Dunland
"Not too far, and look after your sister," Lochared's mother called after him. Loch scowled as his sister grinned triumphantly up at him. The imp had followed him and she was going to ruin his day.
"You do that on purpose," he grumped at her. Rin screwed up her face and blew a raspberry at him and then giggled, delighted with the sound. She clapped, sunlight dancing on pale silken hair and spun about, intent on becoming a bird. Always fascinated with birds. It made absolutely no sense to Loch. He heaved a sigh, collected his sister and set off.
"I'm going to catch it anyway," he muttered. Rin chirped at him and flapped her make believe wings.
The sandy haired boy trod a well worn path down the gentle slope of the hill his home perched atop. At the bottom gurgled a contented stream, fed by the mountain springs further to the east. The annual melt had passed and the stream was lazy and gleaming with promise for a six year boy. He set Rin down on the far bank and looked about. Where to begin, he wondered. He was going to catch the two legged monsters that his father sat up late talking to his mother about when they thought he was asleep. Rin darted away, pealing laughter as she chased a lazy summer butterfly.
"Shhhh, you'll scare it," Loch admonished her. Da always said that you had to be very quiet when hunting.
"Shhhh," Rin echoed at him, smiled and then darted gleefully behind a flowering shrub with another object, this time a moth, in her sights. He rolled his eyes at the sound of her bird talk.
"Silly girl! That's not a bird," he shouted after her, pulling his sling out of his back pocket.
When Rin blew another raspberry and giggled, Loch decided he'd had enough of silly little girls and set out on his quest. He carefully stalked along the edge of the gurgling stream, following its curve and on the look out for the two legged monster he was intent on catching because it made his mother cry. Maybe, in a few years, his sister would more fun. Right now, he had grown up work to do that a three year old couldn't possibly understand.
Rin danced happily after moths, flying between the flowers and chattering to no one but herself. A break in the trees overhead permitted a particularly glorious golden shaft to strike a luminously flowered shrub. It's bright blue flowers shimmered at her, enticing.
"Ooooooh," she said with genuine appreciation and pretend flew all the way over to inspect it more closely. The child sat in the sun and began picking flowers.
Elladan held his breath and crept for a closer look at the child. She was intently focused on the flower with the raw curiosity of the very young. Three summers, Elladan judged. Elf or mortal, children were largely the same so early on, with the delicate golden hair of her mother. Rin held the flower up to catch the sun and make it gleam. She giggled, a liquid sound of untempered delight. Elladan had a moment to study her face. Her mother was there, Elladan realized with growing joy. The same winter blue eyes stared at the flower. After two years of careful searching, she had been found!
The child very nearly ate the bright blue flower right before Elladan's eyes.
"No," he said firmly as she placed it in her mouth. Forced to reveal himself, Elladan stepped forward.
Rin stubbornly closed her mouth, thinking her brother was again telling her what to do. She stared at boots, big boots, and her eyes followed them up, getting wider as they went until she looked square into Elladan's face. Then her face crumpled as the unpleasant taste of the flower hit her tongue. Rin spat it out, wiping at her tongue and spitting blue flower petals in disgust.
"Charming," Elrohir said. Rin clapped at his appearance, plucked a flower and held it up to him.
"Do they all do that, you suppose," Elladan asked his brother. Elrohir shrugged, and it became evident to Rin far below that she would have to take stronger measures to give the pretty man a flower. She got to her feet, crumpling the flower she had plucked and frowned at it in consternation.
"Is it her?" Elladan asked and Elrohir studied the girl closely. She was engrossed in selecting a new flower.
"She looks uncannily like the Lady Verawyn, she doesn't have the look of Dunland, and she's the right age." Elrohir replied."It's her." She was also well fed, well clothed and clearly well cared for. Someone had taken her in as a fosterling.
Rin chose the new flower and plucked it. "Don't let her eat that," Elladan warned. Rin had no such intentions. It belonged to the pretty man to eat.
She ran to him, flower held aloft in front of her. Elrohir bent and accepted it.
"I think she likes you better than I," Elladan said. Rin blinked at Elladan and returned to the bush, that was starting to look particularly denunded.
"What now, brother? We can't just take her," Elrohir said. Rin presented Elladan with his very own flower, stood back looking very pleased with herself and dusted off her hands like her mother and father did after they finished a job.
Elladan shook his head, "No, and for now she has been kept safe. We will send word to Aragorn. This is a matter for him."
Rin's sharp squeal of displeasure and the sound of her crying elicited a rude curse that Loch had overheard his father say when he dropped the firewood on his foot.
"You do that on purpose," he shouted in frustration, turned and followed the sound his sister was making in ever increasing gales. He found her sitting on the grass next to a bush she had stripped nearly bare of flowers, sobbing wretchedly. Petals were stuck to the front of her tunic and in her hair.
"Don't eat them! Why must you always eat everything?" Loch shoved his sling in his back pocket, picked his sister up and trudged back up the hill to return her to his mother so that he could get some proper work taken care of.
Year 20 of the Fourth Age, Dunland
The men milled about outside. "Come out Strawhead! Come out and play! Do you fear us, Strawhead? Do you hide behind your woman's skirts" they chanted. There were six of them and they broke into rough laughter.
"Don't," Romil pleaded with him. "Don't go out there!" Frochard could hear the dread in his wife's voice.
He glanced over to where his children sat, quiet and pale, and then out the window again. "I must," he said. "Or they'll be back again for their sport. Perhaps when I am not here." His wife's hands grabbed his arm hard as she peered outside again. Fear made her usually warm brown eyes cold and flat.
"Does the Strawhead think he can hide," the men called.
"Hide the children, block the door with the table and do not come out unless they have gone and I call you out. Do you hear me, woman?" Romil nodded and clung to him.
Frochard gathered his children up in one armful and pressed his face to their hair, breathing them in. Loch watched his father kiss his mother before opening the door and striding out, noting that his father went to meet the men empty handed. His mother slammed it behind him, bolted it and pushed the table against then.
"Help me," she said to her children, who stood in the centre of the cottage like frightened deer. "Tip everything over! Make a mess, a big mess. It's a game! Help me play the game." Rin shoved a chair and looked to her mother for approval.
"Yes, good girl, that's it. You too Loch…" The wood pile, the pots and pans, the beds and bedding, the shelves and the food, all the chairs tumbled around the cottage until it was transformed into a melee of utter confusion.
"Now for the next part! Tuck yourself down very small there and no matter what, no matter, stay very very quiet. Can you do that?"
"Yup," Rin said brightly.
Eager to please her mother and earn a smile to lighten the sudden grimness, she hopped into the tiny niche by the hearth. Her mother leaned in and pressed a hard kiss to her foundling daughter's cheek. Loch warily climbed in after her and she kissed him too.
"Remember, Loch, quiet. You must both be quiet. Not a peep, not a whisper, not a single sound." Loch nodded solemnly and made himself as small as he could next to his sister, who wriggled to give him room. Loch wrapped his arm around her and placed his hand over her mouth. Outside the men had stopped laughing. Their father's voice fallen away to silence.
The sound of breaking glass made Loch jump and Rin began to quietly cry. He tightened his grip and swallowed hard. Wildmen tumbled through and their mother stumbled back with a startled gasp. One sheathed his sword in his belt, charged forward and dealt Romil a cracking blow that sent her to her knees. He smiled down at her, picked up her arm and dealt her another. The other man cleared the mess blocking the door, jerked it open and the others strode in. Not a single word was spoken through what happened in that cottage.
Romil did not beg or plead for quarter that would not be given. This hatred was ancient and ran deeply. The men tormented her cruelly in grim silence and united purpose: to punish her for taking in a Strawhead and betraying her people. The men used every punishment at their disposal against the woman in that cottage. Rin and Loch saw it all, hidden away in the corner by the hearth. It took the men hours to sate their blood lust and tire. The man that had broken through the window first spat on Romil as she lay naked and broken on the floor, battered beyond recognition and struggling to breathe. Her lungs gurgled with each breath she fought for.
He bent over her, and slashed at her throat in a final attack that ended her battle for life. The men stood back, staring at her body.
"The brats," one said, raking the tattered cottage with his coal dark eyes. "Stream at the bottom of the hill," said the man as he re-sheathed his knife. "The boy and girl are always there somewhere. We'll flush them out. " The sound of their horses making their way down the hill was the sound of thunder to Loch.
After what seemed like an eternity, Loch stood up in the ruin of his life. At his feet, his sister had curled into a tight ball. The two legged monster he'd been hunting had found him instead. It was time to run, Loch knew. He pulled his sister up and settled her on his hip. She clung to him. Loch edged past his mother, trying not to step in her blood too much. His eyes were dry and they stung, but he couldn't find the tears. Loch ran quickly away from the cottage and the stream in the direction his Da had always told him not to go. He ran until he couldn't hold his sister any more in his aching arms.
"Come on Rin, run," he said as he put her down. They would have to quiet and cleverer than ever before. This time it wasn't Loch doing the hunting. The two legged monsters were hunting them and now he understood why his parents feared them so. It would be three years before Rin could speak another word.
Fourth Age - Year 21 Southern Dunland
"Please," Loch said. Desperation made his voice quiver.
The woman looked over her shoulder through the doorway she stood in to the warmth inside and then back to the small, pinched face of the boy that peered up at her. He looked to be of age with her own son, who was fat, warm and sated inside. This waif seemed to hover in the darkness and despite his sandy hair, she could not stop the ache of her heart.
"Close the damn door, woman," her husband growled from within.
The woman reached for something before she stepped out and closed the door. She passed the bread, still warm, to Loch. Loch clutched it his thin chest. The woman ignored the ache of her back and knees and knelt to bring herself level with the child. Winter was already riding in the winds. It would throw it's chill cloak over Dunland soon.
"Child, if my husband finds you it will mean your end. Do you understand me?" The boy nodded. He understood only too well how his blended heritage was so loathed through bitter experience. Around his legs, a small face of a girl appeared. She was little more than a babe, the woman realised. The child looked up at her before being drawn to the scent of the bread her older brother held.
The woman sighed, "Ah, where are your parents, eh?" The boy blinked sudden tears that started to crowd his dark eyes. The girl however simply stared at the woman anew, with eyes too old and too sad for one of such tender years.
"I know you're living under the common room floor boards," she said as her heart relented. "Go further in and you'll find the warmth of the hearth and the worst of the winds will not be able to reach you. But do not be found in Spring. Do you understand, boy. Do not be found!" Loch nodded.
"Thank you," he said, collected his sister and walked away from the inn's back kitchen door.
The woman watched them disappear around the corner, there to wriggle back under the boards. Her heart ached but there was little else she could do for them. If her husband didn't kill them outright, others soon would if they were discovered. She could not place her own children in such danger. She straightened slowly and walked back into the kitchen as her husband barrelled in from the common room. He set down a tray laden with empty crocks and tankards and fixed her with a glare that she was entirely equipped to ignore.
"What's doing out there," he demanded and flung a ragged towel sodden with ale over his shoulder with a sodden slap.
"Barking dogs," she replied blithely. She collected an empty tray and pushed past him to continue clearing the crowded tables.
Fifty miles to the north, three Rangers stood outside an abandoned farm cottage. Nearby, the eerie moonlit gleam of a skull and bones scattered by scavengers boded ill for those that had once lived within. The cottage gaped, windows smashed and door hanging absently by one hinge. The absence of life already marked the building with disrepair and neglect.
Inside the cottage, a fourth Ranger and two Elves looked about. One held a torch, as they looked about the ruin within. More scattered bones, a woman's by their size, and old blood daubed the floor and walls. The torch was doused and the trio inside returned to the three standing outside. The faces of Elrohir and Elladan were visibly pale. The fourth Ranger, Hanasian, walked behind the twins and shook his head to his brethren that waited by the horses.
"Anything," one of the waiting men asked. Elrohir gathered the reins of his mount ."Nothing you'd care to see," he replied heavily.
The woman's bones and the blood had told a terrible tale. Hanasian glanced again to the skull, a man's, that gleamed under moonlight.
"A man and woman," he added quietly and grimaced. "Their deaths were not easy."
"We should have taken her with us when we found her," Elladan said. Elrohir already sat ahorse. In the darkness he could still see the child in the summer sun, smiling up at him as she pressed a flower into his hands. The others mounted up.
"Then Cardolan is indeed lost," said a Ranger: equal parts of question and statement. Hanasian shrugged.
"There is no sign of any child to be had, alive or dead," he replied. Elrohir blinked. Had they not before thought Cardolan extinguished, only to have this child emerge?
"It may yet be too early to say," he softly mused.
Hanasian informed his king directly, his path taking him to Minas Tirith as he pursued another quarry. It was winter when he reached King Elessar. They sat on a stone bench in the early morning, staring at the winter dormant white tree and discussing the disappearance of Cardolan's child queen. It remained uncertain if the child would ever emerge, and likely that she would not. Even had she been found, what then? Arnor could ill stand the divisions that had seen the realm falter before.
The King folded the report and stood. There were many unanswered questions in his realm. Some of them required answers today. This was not one.