12. Chapter 12
The "Night Explorer"
The Desert Moon... Hanasian remembered the place. Indifferent thoughts passed through his head as he watched the shore grow farther away, attempting to watch Rin to the last. But to everyone, Rin was beside him. This strange woman was taking her place. He looked again to the shore, and his wary eyes watched the movement of the people as they drifted into the night. He was at the same time filled with joy that Rin wished to have him as her husband, and saddened that they will be apart for a time. He had to hold it in, and he sucked it up and was once again the captain of the company.
He allowed everyone try and rest before sunrise, but he got little. The new day brought with it a loneliness he never thought he would have, but he held hope that the time would pass quickly. He set to work with the newest members of the company to try and take away his thoughts. The brothers of Anfalas were already hard at work making sure their blades were sharp, and Anbor joined them. Loch came by and tossed them some oil to keep them from the salt air, and set to work in helping sail the ship. Unlike the voyage down from Mithlond, this one was more sombre. They were unsure of their reception in Umbar, and prepared to go in as hostiles. Mulgov quizzed and explained the ways of the south to those that had not been there. Wulgov made a good sergeant, breaking in the newbies with drills and sword work. They seemed to take it all in stride.
The day passed and the night saw the moon a bit farther up in the sky at sunset. Hanasian wrote the names of the new recruits in his journal, and noted that Bear and Foldine were not yet in a condition to battle freely. Bear especially. Any harsh moves on his part could set him back. Yet he seemed in a jovial mood. Wulgov spent his free time trying to gain Freafoc's favour and interest. But she despised Dunlandings, and was instead interested in Mulgov who seemed to her exotic. In a few days time she would be in a city of exotic men. She would likely turn and head back north when the ship set sail home.
Hanasian prepared plans for their landing at Umbar. He would come in flying the banner, letting the city know that the Black Company had arrived. He would seek out a couple people he had known and employed the past time he was there, and Mulgov would call on his contacts. They would march through the city and set up camp on the east side. It would be easiest to keep watch on the roads that go south and northeast from there. Depending on what they find out there would decide his next moves. He had an idea what was involved with this insurrection, but not knowing how deep and how far it has progressed until they got there mean that they would be going in essentially blind. Of course, the northern and eastern paths would provide him with his earliest glimpse of Rin.
He watched the moon sink away before he put away his pen. He had closed the night with some prose while thinking of his bride.
Gentle breeze, dances with your hair. I see you, but when I reach for you, you are not there. Yet I feel your warmth, inside me, and I know that we dance together, in our hearts and dreams.
He flicked a dry leaf he had picked up over the railing and it drifted down into the dark sea.
"Goodnight Rosmarin," he whispered, and turned to go to his bunk.
Tomorrow would come too soon, and it would be much like today. He just had to make sure everyone was ready. Hanasian was wishing he had five of his best men with him, but he had three, no four, and a couple good, but disabled hands, along with three of unknown quality or quantity. Things could be worse. Things can always get worse.
The Harad Road
The further they pushed along the Harad road, the greater their watchfulness became. The additional men provided by Faramir were welcome. It was a difficult task they had to fulfil. Seven hundred mounted men had to be shielded so that, in turn, those on foot could be shielded. The army of the Reunited Realms and Rohan was a southward thrusting spear and its tip was Black and Green. Southern Gondor had long been a disputed territory. Successive tides of war, from south, east and west, had ensured that the population was now sparse. Gone were the agents that had once served Sauron. Their descendants now remained, and they were not welcoming to any force. At best, the patrols of the Black and Green were met with thin tolerance. The tension, therefore, steadily ratcheted up as they neared the Poros. That place, for the Black, had an unhappy history.
Despite this, the combined companies worked well together on the whole. Patrols swept about and any hostiles intercepted well before they reached the seven hundred men behind them. Contact with the forces behind them was maintained as far as was necessary. If the combined cavalries of Rohan and Gondor had to slow, then so too did the spear's tip. Some days they moved far. Other days seemed to crawl by. For Rin, it was a largely tedious affair. There was little call for her skills, and under her present cover that was just as well. Had a significant incident passed, she would not have been able to sustain her cover as someone who is not a healer.
Rin's bright disguise prevented her from riding patrol on the basis of Mecarnil's strong, unrelenting opposition to the prospect. She had suggested that she could assume her usual garb to ride out and resume her costume upon return. Still Mecarnil opposed her. Rin found herself relegated to simple tasks. She could cook, repair equipment, gather firewood, stand watch, sleep, eat and ride – provided that veil remained in place at all times. This, she had been informed by Mecarnil and Folca both, was how things had to be at least until the Poros. Of the Green, Faramir was the only one who had guessed her identity and he kept that to himself. Rin found herself ill at ease amongst the Green. They were strangers to her, soldiers, and she found herself struggling once more against that bone deep fear. The suspicion was mutual. To the Green, she was a Southron turncoat now acting as guide. They tolerated her because they had to.
The Black was determined to prevent any ambush at the Poros. History would not be permitted to repeat. On the night before they would cross the Poros, Rin realised that every member of the Black, including Mecarnil's latest best friend, was out on patrol along with most of the Green, including Faramir. That left her alone with three Green rangers, all unfamiliar to her. Neither Rin or the rangers were well pleased with this state of affairs. They sat at a safe distance. Rin maintained a silent vigil until she had to face a simple reality. If she did not sleep now, she'd fall off her horse tomorrow. She resigned herself to an uneasy night, a keen longing ache for Hanasian, her brother and indeed any familiar man of the company echoing through her.
Rin wrapped her bedroll around her as a thin shield against the three strangers nearby. Her thoughts slowed and returned to Hanasian. Rin sighed, picturing his face, hearing his voice, recalling his scent and the solid feel of his presence. A thrill eddied through her as she recalled his proposal. She slid into sleep on that memory, searching for Hanasian in her dreams. What she found was something else entirely.
The landscape was unfamiliar and strange to her. It was thick, damp, cloying, drowning out ground and sky, claustrophobic. It was hot. It was a jungle. The jungle was silent, unnaturally so. In the midst of a small clearing, only recently made it seemed, stood a monster and a man. He was tall, and wore armour that had clearly been fashioned with a clear purpose: to inspire fear. It was an effective contrivance. What little clothing that could be seen through the armour was coloured the dusty red of dried blood. He wore a coronet of cruel iron spikes. Worst of all were his eyes: pale grey, lifeless eyes like all the hope, humanity and kindness possible within a person had fled long ago. He had a predator's eyes to prove it. He was a man and a monster all at once.
Around him there were soldiers. They wore armour too, but it was scavenged piecemeal stuff. They held loaded crossbows that they pointed towards the spongey earth. She stood in front of the monster with three other men. They had no armour and no weapons. They stood wearing defeat and the ragged remnants of a uniform, but not fear. They had pale skin that had been tanned and weathered by the sun. Their faces were hollowed by resignation and privation. Their shoulders were slumped. These three, however, did not cower or quiver. The monster spoke in a harsh language that was incomprehensible to her. The officers around him then raised crossbows and she realised to her horror an execution was underway. Rin drew breath to scream. The man next to her lifted his head and glanced through her.
"Verawyn?" he asked, startled. She could not answer him in time.
An instant later there was the sickening sound of the quarrels meeting flesh and bone. The men around her, including the one who had spoken her mother's name, crumpled to the muddy floor of the jungle. The monster started speaking again, this time it was a fell chant that turned her blood to ice. She could smell death, new and old, and a perversion of life force and power. It mingled with fear, viscera, decay, mud, water and new growth. She was pulled out of this horror by a ranger. He wore a green cloak and a terrified face and he shook her hard.
"That was Haradi. You'll not ensorcell us, witch! Get rope!"
She was disorientated and stunned at first, conditions that did not last long. A dark memory surfaced from Dunland and Rin realised that history was set to repeat. It all happened so fast. A fist and a sharply applied knee had the first ranger howling and down. A second closed faster than the first and her dagger was in her hand before she knew it. He swung for her, the same blow that had levelled her foster mother all those years ago and begun the nightmare she'd witnessed as a child. Rin lashed out in sheer desperation. The second man grunted in pain, his forearm opened in a long gash. Then an arm, like an iron band, closed around her throat from behind. She knew panic as she struggled for air and then darkness collapsed upon her from all sides. It was fast and effective. The witch was subdued. She sagged like a rag doll, dagger falling from nerveless fingers. Mardoc had her stretched out on the ground in moments.
"Hands and feet both… and we'll need to gag her. Faramir can deal with the viper in our midst," he said dispassionately. The other two, one bleeding badly, set to binding her as instructed. Mardoc set to unwinding the veil so as to gag the witch. When a pale fall of tangled hair emerged in the firelit camp, Mardoc frowned. He'd seen that hair before. He unwound the veil faster, stomach twisting.
"Something wrong," the bleeding ranger asked.
Mardoc uncovered a fair face that was not the face he wanted to see.
The bleeding ranger's exclamation was punctuated by a spear that had been hurled into their midst. Its shaft shivered with the force used. The the man who had thrown it wore a black cloak and an enraged expression. Frea was not alone. Khule had his sword out and he was running, face a cold mask. Mardoc rose with the other two and wisely stepped back as soon as they could.
"Ambushed again," Frea snarled, "This time from within!"
"We didn't know who she was! We thought she was a haradi witch. She was chanting something in their tongue, the words had a fell power. When we sought to restrain her she became maddened!" The ranger that spoke first was truly shaken and confused. He had a black eye rapidly forming.
"You'd better start explaining yourself before Mecarnil gets back in, or he'll have your heads," Khule said.
Frea knelt by the unconscious healer and swiftly sliced through the rope at her wrists and ankles. He collected Rin up, bitterly angry, and returned to their fire. Khule sheathed his sword. Mardoc took up the explanation, setting out events for Khule in a dispassionate, unadorned tone that spoke of the truth. Khule returned to the fire with a clear understanding of what had happened from their perspectives.
"They got more than they bargained for. Mardoc's stealth is the only reason she didn't do more damage. They really believed her a haradi witch," Khule said. He could guess what had provoked such a response from Rin too, based on what Loch had let slip.
"A genuine error then," Frea grudgingly allowed, squinting over at the three rangers in deep conversation with each other.
"So it appears…. Though how Doc knows haradi is beyond me."
A soft hitch in Rin's breathing ended their speculation.
"Easy, Rin. We've got you now," Frea said as her eyes flew open and started to recoil. Both men could see her searching for her assailants. She saw only them. Relief was in her expression then.
"What happened, Doc?" Khule asked. Frea helped her to sit. Her head throbbed viciously.
"Asleep… dreaming," she replied, cautious to not emphasise the second word lest she be accused of witchcraft. "Then… I don't know. It was a blur, fast. I thought they-" Rin's words shut off suddenly.
"Like Dunland, Doc?" Khule guessed. Rin rounded her shoulders protectively and nodded, silent again.
"Mistaken identities all round then," Frea said. Inexplicably, Rin climbed to her feet.
"Now what?" he asked, mystified as she walked to her gear and retrieved her pack and then started for the three rangers. Khule and Frea both stood and followed her. One man had been bandaging his own arm.
"I think I may have sliced one of you open," Rin said as three faces stared at her apprehensively.
"Come to finish the job? Wouldn't blame you if you did," he said, eyeing the two men that appeared at her shoulder. Rin shook her head and studied the growing blood stain that spread on his self applied bandages.
"No… if I wanted that then I'd leave you to your own devices. Blood loss, infection, muscle damage… all I'd have to do is wait."
The ranger considered the matter. He and his two rangers had set upon a woman in her sleep and assaulted her. That woman was a member of the Black. She was of royal descent and thus a member of nobility and if that wasn't enough she was related distantly to their High King. He held out his arm, a veritable olive branch, and she set to work. It was at this point, Mecarnil rode in. Frea peeled away to intercept him. Rin was busy stitching and Khule was keeping an eye on things.
"What happened?" Mecarnil asked as he swung out of the saddle.
"She had to ditch her cover. Training mishap ," Frea replied. No member of the Green would pull Rin out of her bedroll again before thinking twice. The thought made his mouth twitch in a grim smile a moment before he sobered.
"Would Rin know haradi?" Frea inquired.
"Not as far as I know… but there's no telling what she sees and hears at times, like her mother that way is my guess. Remember the downs?" Frea nodded and Mecarnil continued, "All those years left to her own devices, there's no telling what she's learned along the way. Her education, I can only presume, has been unconventional at best.
"I think she may have dreamed something, like the downs, again. It could be important for our mission, if you can get it out of her. She's typically tight lipped about it."
Mecarnil grinned at the challenge. He had just the man in mind for that.
In the end, Mecarnil didn't need his perfect man. Farbarad was finding it difficult going in any case. Since her identity had been revealed on the banks of the Poros, Rin was difficult to catch alone. Mostly, she was dealing with the needs of the Black and Green companies. Then word spread that they had a healer in their midst and she was dealing with the needs of the seven hundred men that followed. One healer, seven hundred men: it meant that she was scarcely idling time away for him to approach her for a friendly discussion. Like most healers, Rin did not take kindly to interruptions to her work. On the occasions when she wasn't working, she was usually eating or sleeping.
It took another three days to reach the River Harnen. In all, this column of the Black had been on the march for a week before they reached and Near Harad proper. Rin had no one to rotate her duties with. Naturally, she put the needs of her company first without prompting or conscious thought. These men were the nearest thing to family for her, aside from Loch. Rarely Rin managed to slip away in search of fresh supplies. Farbarad tried for these times, but invariably someone found her before him. He saw her deal with these in her usual direct manner. She was not interested in alliances of any sort and lacked any political ambition with the same singular intensity that her father had when it came to entertaining political ambition. He saw her chase away one envoy with a small branch.
Mecarnil had selected Farbarad as his number one man for Rin in the absence of Hanasian or her brother for one simple reason. Farbarad had known Rin since her birth. Indeed, he'd been assigned to her prior to her birth. She'd quickly wrapped the Ranger around her infant fingers. He had no family of his own and took his duty seriously. Bereth was a distant man at the best of times, particularly when he realised his heir had the temerity to be a girl. Farbarad was the adult male Rin spent most of her time with in that first year. When she had been lost, Farbarad had been hit hard. He'd returned to Pelargir seeking his last chance at redemption and found a great deal more than he had ever dared anticipate. This was the child for whom he had fashioned toys. This was the child whose forlorn cries had stalked his dark moments and dreams since she was abandoned in Dunland and lost.
There was so much to say, and Farbarad had yet to find a way to broach the matter. So, he waited and watched and wondered at the twists and turns of his life. On the far banks of the Harnen, Rin's curiosity finally got the better of her. She sought out Mecarnil, unaware of Farbarad's connection to her past. She caught Mecarnil on his way back in from patrol.
"What happened to the other two Rangers?' she asked as he reigned in. He was momentarily surprised by her question.
"The other two that survived Dunland with you. What happened to them?" she expanded.
"We went our separate ways. I sought out Hanasian's company. Durfinin went south, I think. Last I heard he had signed on with Aragorn's men in Gondor. Where he is now I do not know. Farb-"
"Durfinin? Could he have been sent south? Could he be there down in Harad, part of that rearguard action?"
"Possibly, why?" Mecarnil asked, thinking that it was just the sort of assignment that appealed to a man intent on punishing himself for his transgressions. Durfinin had taken Verawyn's death hard. He doubted that the ranger could ever forgive himself.
Rin chewed her lower lip. It was for good reason she never spoke of her Dreams. She'd seen what happened to women accused of witchcraft. Mecarnil watched her wrestle with herself. He kept his peace. Hanasian was quite successful when he waited her out. When she spoke again, Mecarnil felt a flash of victory. At last, she'd decided to cooperate with him. However, as Rin spoke of what she had dreamt, his good cheer faded.
"Was that him?" she finished with.
"Durfinin knew your mother better than all of us. He'd been assigned to her since she first was betrothed to your father. It's him, I think. You've seen the rebel, Rin."
"How do you know it was Durfinin? Could be the other one."
"No. It wasn't."
"Because he's here, Rin. He's Farbarad."
"There's two of you with the Black now?" Rin asked, startled by this revelation
"Yes. In any case, it would seem that you've seen Durfinin perish, or how he will. Terrible as that may be, what you've learnt of the rebel is important. Aragorn must be informed."
"Won't he ask questions about how we know this?"
"Naturally… is that a problem?"
"Not for you, I suppose. It'll be me at the stake when they find out."
"No one will do that, Rin."
"Easy for you to be confident. Easy for you to say."
"Firstly, no one would be foolish enough to mistake you for a witch. Rin, this is in your blood as much as healing is. It's not sorcery or witchcraft or any such nonsense. Secondly, they'd have to go through us to get to you. As Frea and Khule have already demonstrated, that's no mean feat."
Rin absorbed all of this without further comment. Believing the matter to be resolved, Mecarnil set his heels to his horse to seek out Aragorn. The fragile note of Rin's next question made him hesitate. Intensely private and familiar with how the world can exploit any hint of weakness, she'd always hidden such vulnerability from most of them. Mecarnil could think of two she had permitted past that inner wall of hers: Loch and then Hanasian.
"Do I look like my mother?"
"So much so that I thought you were Verawyn's ghost when I first saw you at Bree. It's no wonder Durfinin mistook you for her. I hope that in sighting her, he may have died with some measure of peace. When you're assigned to someone and they perish while you live, it is difficult to bear. It haunts you."
"Who were you assigned to?" Rin intuited her question from Mecarnil's tone. He spoke from experience.
"Your father. When Cardolan first began to teeter, royal heirs were assigned Rangers to safeguard them. It was this practice that enabled them to survive in some way after the fall of the Last Prince. You, however, managed without us."
"The healing and the… dreams… is that from my mother or my father?"
"Both. Your healing comes from your father, although you are unusually strong. Stronger than him, certainly, and likely strongest of your line. The dreams comes from your mother. The future and past spoke to her frequently, almost daily. This doesn't seem to be as strong in you."
"Thank you," Rin said, meekly.
Mecarnil could only wonder how many questions she had. Like as not they had mounted over the years and no one had been able to answer them. She likely did not know even when she had been born, or what her first word had been. Farbarad did, and if she let him she might learn. If she let him. It was clear she was struggling with the reality of who she was and it would take time to sink in. Rin turned away and Mecarnil was free to press on. He did so, pausing only to pass one simple message on to Farbarad.
"She knows," he said to the Ranger.
Ultimately, Aragorn found the tidings confirmed his chosen course. In a counsel of all commanders, and his cousin, it was decided that the rebel was indeed of Black Numenorean descent and likely practising his forbearer's arts. It had been unlikely, to Aragorn and Faramir's thinking, that greed and glory would have been sufficient to rouse the tribesmen of the south into open rebellion after two Ages of war under Sauron's yoke. Fear, sorcery, necromancy would be a powerful goad. Taking an army to face such a man would be a disaster. Through attrition alone, their opponent would gain sufficient numbers to overwhelm them if he could marshal the dead. No amount of training could induce soldiers to fight their own dead comrades. It would be a rout with atrocious consequences.
The best course was to defensively ring Umbar and send their finest covert operatives south with all haste. The rebel had to be brought down and the tribesmen sent home well before he reached Umbar and the ample supply of fodder for his necromantic perversions. This resulted in another change to orders. The Black was to ride hard for Umbar and get south with all haste. Last reports had the rebels following the coast to avoid the arid interior of Harad. Elfwine's riders would pick up the slack left by the withdrawal of the Black.
"One sorcerer we can take, Sire, but the tribesmen are another matter. We do not have enough men," Mecarnil observed. Rin, who had fallen silent, found herself under renewed scrutiny. She hoped she was not being sized up for a stake.
"Still have that ring," Aragorn asked her. She nodded.
"No big concessions. Be guided by Hanasian and Mecarnil. Do what you think is right. Sue for peace on my behalf."
Rin added her voice to those protesting in the tent around a detailed map of Harad. Faramir, however, was quiet as he cocked his head and studied Rin carefully. That sealed it, as far as Aragorn was concerned. They rode out hard through the next dawn, a Black arrow for Umbar. In their midst was an increasingly worried woman. She was no diplomat. She had no experience or grounding with this. If she failed, how many of the men of the Black would perish due to her ignorance and incompetence? She wasn't fit for this and she was surely only be a liability.
"Stop thinking so hard. You're giving me a headache," Frea observed in his own dour way. "Besides, I thought you'd be happier now we'll reach Umbar faster and there's less work to do."
"Now who's thinking?" she replied. Her heart did indeed soar at the prospect of reaching Hanasian sooner. It had been eight days already. He'd have made Umbar now. But how long would he love her if she failed in this and cost him his men? The thought made her quail within but she kept that firmly to herself.
On the Night Explorer
The days on the ship were passed with drills. More than usual. Going into Umbar with the unknowns too many to count, Hanasian wanted his small detachment to be ready. The weather cooperated for the most part, only becoming choppy one morning with contrary winds. But everyone managed to hold it together… even Loch. The kid had the making of becoming a good sergeant leading the new men through their paces.
Each night, Hanasian sat alone writing. He made sure all was recorded, and hoped Mecarnil kept note of what their party has done these days. He would incorporate it sometime in future days if given a chance. Maybe Rosmarin will have her own words to add? … Rosmarin…. He missed her more than he could say. The only thing he could do was to keep his mind focused on the task at hand. But before turning for the night, he would go to the rail and look out over the sea towards the north, as if he could somehow catch sight of her as she rode towards Umbar.
My Love, I talk with you as I see your face in the reflection of the moon off the water. May it be that all is well with you, and the days pass without incident til the day we meet again.
They were now two days out, and Hanasian ordered drills in full battle dress. The heat of the sun grew in its intensity as they pushed further south. He was relentless, and made sure they men had enough water. The grumbling of the old hands, contrasted with the quiet determination of the new hands to not disappoint. They all gave everything they had. Even Bear worked at some moves. He was ready in mind, but his body healed on its own time. Still, the days seemed to bring a renewed vigour to him. As they days passed and they drew closer to their destination, a grimness overtook the men. Wulgof and Mulgov both became serious and quiet. Jokes were all but non existent these last days. Loch drew close to them and took to heart their demeanour. He too took on a quiet seriousness that was rather unlike him. Hanasian noted it all, and seemed pleased that the mix of new and old have come together in good cohesion. They were as ready as they were going to get.
The favourable winds pushed them forth, and the captain said they would port a day early.
"Captain Hanasian, you will be ready to disembark come sunrise?"
"Yes, we'll be ready. I'll need the two-wide gangway. We'll disembark in formation."
The captain nodded and slipped away. That evening Hanasian told each member of the company that he wished them health and long life, and made sure they took rest early, for they would be up and ready before sunrise the next day.
The sun pushed its first signs of dark blue up in the eastern sky. The faint light found the nine men in two lines of four with Hanasian out front. They had been called to alert, and watched the dim lights of the haven of Umbar approach. They were coming in quiet and fast, and the captain of the ship picked his landing so that they could get off quick. Few on the docks stirred, and when the ship tied off, the gangplanks were thrown and Hanasian led the men off.
"Company, ready yourselves. Be alert, keep eyes, ears, noses, and any other sense you may have alert. We'll go forth with weapons in hand but sheathed. Mulgov will take the point as soon as we clear to the wider street. Ready … go… double time!"
They set off in step, rapidly coming to ground. Loch and the new recruits looked every bit as grim as the veterans. Hanasian led them down a tight alley from the quay, and anyone who was out this early stepped back in surprise. Seeing armed men was nothing new in this city of the Corsairs, but seeing one as intense seemed to take them off guard. Hanasian paused as the men went by. Mulgov took up the point and kept them going, and Hanasian fell in at the back of the line next to Wulgof. Hanasian smiled as he realized that Wulgof put Loch in charge of the Standard. The kid did not fail in looking impressive following Mulgov. The Haradian wasted no time moving them through the city. Everyone would know that the Black Company had arrived.
Past the center of town, they were joined by a unit of the local guard. Men of mixed race in red and black attire tried to impress the newcomers of their ability. Yet they seemed more suited for a parade than a fight, and Hanasian saluted their commander but did not pause. They fell in behind the company. Molguv wanted to get them outside the city where they could watch the approaches. Another unit of locals joined the first, and Hanasian for a brief moment became concerned about their numbers. Even a poorly trained and organised army can still win on numbers, if they got inside their opponent's minds. It was up to Hanasian to keep the grimness and intensity up, and so far the new men showed no sign of fatigue.
As Hanasian planned, Mulgov led them out to the east of the city proper where they set up camp by a clump of trees. It was then that Hanasian and Mulgov met with the commanders of the locals who had followed them. Also, some grim soldiers of Gondor joined them. Their captain briefed them on the situation.
"It is good tidings that the Black Company have arrived in such haste. Your presence will make a difference I know. Yet I hoped there would be more of you."
Hanasian said nothing of the rest of the company, and he let the local commander continue
"As it stands, the rebel have a strong base in the south, and seems to push north into areas where they enjoy some popular local support. But this support is fleeting, and in a couple instances we have managed to halt and cause them to pull back. But that is unfortunately farther in the east. It seems the southern coastlands are more apt to join the rebel. They are primarily families of the old Numenorean order who still despise Gondor. Most of the common people are indifferent, having lost too many sons in wars far away. It is here that we are faltering."
Maps were brought out, and Hanasian asked about certain aspects of the methods of attack the rebel used. Too familiar… they should have been more vigilant when they were down here before. This time it would be taken care of. Hanasian made some suggestions on defensive tactics, and in parting the commander of the army of Gondor said to hin in Sindarin,
"These people cannot be trusted. Their local guard will look impressive and make the right moves, and individually or in small groups they can be good fighters. But they don't have the stomach for the ill deeds, and there are surely spies amongst them. Your presence will be reported as soon as possible."
Hanasian nodded. He knew. All too well. Still, he would try and use them and engage them. Best have close to keep an eye on them.
The day ended with little drama. The locals drifted away at sunset, and the company along with about fifty of the Gondorian garrison camped and kept watch. He sent the men out on night patrol to get a feel for the terrain. The next day they pushed out a bit farther, setting up a defensive perimeter each time. It could come in handy should they find themselves falling back to the city. The third day after arriving, the company had their first engagement. It wasn't really much, a shower of arrows fell on them from behind as they rode back to camp. They never saw the rebel, and no casualties were taken. It was just a signal of their awareness of the patrol's presence, and freely available arrows that they had in store presumably.
Little else happened as they held their line. Hanasian got a feel for the locals and which ones were trustworthy enough to assign a part of the line. Finally, word had come that mounted riders were approaching.
On the road to Umbar
Full gallop in battle gear was hard work. When the heat and the length of their ride south from the River Harnen was added, it was bone numbing. They paused only to spell their horses. During their first pause, they found themselves suddenly caught in an ambush that had startled their most eagle eyed. Videgavia had not even seen them coming. Mecarnil had insisted on full battle dress from that point onwards. There was no distinction between soldier and non soldier. There was simply alive or dead. The choice was as much Rin's as anyone else's. She chose alive. She started counting the steps to Umbar as a way to keep herself awake and alert.
The intensity of opposition increased as they drew towards Umbar and the coast. Frea found himself privy to the basis for Loch's claims about Rin and her ability with a bow. Once she knew what to look for, she was keen eyed, swift and uncannily accurate. Rin had never used a bow on anything other than game before. She felt decidedly queasy about the use she put it to. It settled over her like a greasy blanket, just below the layer of dust and grime from the road. Better the bow than the knife, though. She could not bear to belly through the night searching for targets with a knife between her teeth like Videgavia and the others could. She was a healer. She had to draw the line somewhere. Her conscience drew it there, for now.
"First kill?" Frea had asked her. Rin shook her head, rebraiding her hair, lips firmly sealed together. It wasn't, yet she wasn't about to get into that grim tale at this point. What troubled her is the ease with which she had sighted and gotten off that shot. She'd sunk three arrows into him to be certain, each one a kill shot. He had been young. Not a boar, not a stag, not a bird… a young man. Thankfully, there hadn't been enough time to think further on it.
They had paused after the moon had set on that last night. Folca and Mecarnil agreed that one last, solid thrust should see them through to Umbar's Dawn Gate on the eastern side of the city in the next day. The air already held the unmistakeable salty tang of the sea. Umbar… Umbar mean Hanasian and Loch. Videgavia and Berlas had already set off with their knives between their teeth. Rin didn't mean to fall asleep. True, they'd barely slept for three days such had been the peril. She started awake and nearly sunk a left hook into Frea's jaw for his trouble.
"My fault. Should know better by now," he grumbled as he jerked himself backwards out of reach. "We're riding out, Doc. You good?"
She stood, nodded and retrieved her horse. Gian too had taken the time to close his eyes and squeeze some rest out of the pause. Videgavia and Berlas had returned to report. There was still resistance out there, but not as thick for some reason. There had been sign of their camp sites, nothing else. They pulled up just past dawn. Mecarnil dug out a second Black Company Standard. Frea and Folca adorned their spear hafts with pennants of a similar design. Rin was directed to unbraid her hair.
"I want them to know we've arrived," Mecarnil said mysteriously. So it was that they rode the last leg. Cloaks flying black beneath the sun, plate and mail gleaming silver, standards, pennants and hair dancing in their wake. Ahead, a defensive line was sighted and there was the sister standard amid Gondor's men. The Black was reunited by late morning. The line parted to let them plunge through at speed, closing after them. Mecarnil signalled for a halt, slid from his saddle and approached Hanasian with Folca. Both men formally saluted before Mecarnil clasped Hanasian's forearm in greeting.
"All present, all well, Captain," he reported without delay. What he did not speak of, but did covertly indicate, is that orders had changed. Loch passed the standard to Wulgof unceremoniously and literally pulled Rin the rest of the way out of the saddle when he decided she was taking too long to dismount. The anxiety had had been carrying around within him broke. She was safe after all. Relief flooded through him.
"You smell like horse," he observed, a ghost of his grin returned as he squeezed her as much as her battle dress permitted. She was all chain mail and leather.
"So do you…. But I have an excuse. What's yours?" she replied as he set her back on his feet and resumed the Standard.
He walked away, grinning to himself, and followed Wulgof, Khule and Molguv. Mecarnil, Folca and Hanasian were already approaching where the rest of the newly returned Black stood. Rin watched him walk towards her, transfixed and feasting on the sight. She had ached for this moment. In her dreams, she had not been wearing mail, nor a thick layer of dust from the road and her hair had not been wildly tangled. Nor had there been fifty of Gondor's soldiers for an audience.
"Captain," she said, as he neared, and echoed Mecarnil's formal salute. Her heart drummed beneath her mail and leather.
"Healer," he replied, returning the gesture. She wasn't sure, looking back, who broke first. All she knew is that one minute she was standing by her horse and the next minute she had her arms wrapped around the man she had just saluted.
"Found you, my love," she whispered, cheek pressed to his jaw, and breathing his scent deep into her lungs. But this was not the place for a lover's reunion. Both gathered themselves and stepped back. For Rin, it was as though a missing limb had reappeared again.
"Cap, is it safe to take counsel here," Mecarnil inquired once the pair had separated. Hanasian glanced about. There were locals about, studying what was unfolding with close interest.
"Time and place, Mec," Hanasian replied in Sindarin and Mecarnil nodded his understanding. It took another twenty minutes to secure the line and permit key Black personnel to pull back.
"Hope you've got that ship still, Cap," Mecarnil said once this was done, 'For we'll need it or another as can be gotten."
His report halted as a Gondorian captain arrived. Hanasian waved him to continue and so they did, in Sindarin. Rin stood quietly, watching and listening to what was clearly an elvish language dance around her. She studied faces and men, and watched those of the Black move about. Bear and Foldine both appear to have further recovered, though Bear still moved stiffly. That was to be expected. The new recruits seemed to have settled in remarkably well. The two brothers Hanasian had taken with him were working on something they had scrounged up.
Though she stood in the middle of a knot of armed, highly capable men, shoulder to shoulder with her captain, Farbarad was hovering as closely as protocol permitted. Videgavia was hovering too, habitually watchful. He was scrutinising the local men that supplemented the forces, face an unreadable mask. Mecarnil updated Hanasian in typical brusque style. He didn't go into detail. That could wait for later. He did mention that the king had sent them ahead, further was known of the enemy and that Faramir's Rangers, Elfwine's Riddermark and Gondor's Knights were hot on their heels. They'd faced increasingly sturdy opposition that had recently melted away. Gondor's captain looked well pleased with such tidings.
Details on necromancy, foretellings, urgent deployment south to assassinate the rebel and the use of whatever means, diplomatic or otherwise, to press peace back on the southern tribesmen of Harad remained unspoken.
"There's more to this than can be said, Cap, just at this moment," Mecarnil finished with. Hanasian nodded and considered the best path to take. They'd need to fall back once the defensive lines around Umbar were established. That would take a day or so to dig in, now that the Black was reunited.
"Fall out along the lines. We'll need them dug in. Mecarnil, take the left flank. Folca, take the right. I'll take the centre here with the good captain."
"Forgive my impertinence, but what of the woman?" the Gondorian captain asked, nodding in Rin's direction and somewhat confused by her presence in military garb.
"Have you any healers?" Hanasian inquired. The captain shook his head, weighing up the wild haired woman in a new light. Hanasian switched to Westron to announce the disposition of this element of his company.
"Doc will be located with us centrally," he said. This Rin understood and it brought her attention back to the men she stood with.
"I can patrol outlying positions if necessary," she suggested and Both captains nodded.
Just like that it was back to business. There were no windswept embraces, nor showering of rose petals, nor the swelling of sweet music. She simply fell in step, pulling her gloves back on and collecting her weary horse, to follow Hanasian and those men who were bolstering the men already assigned there. Loch was there, with Wulgof. Farbarad had managed to wriggle in. She frowned faintly at that. She didn't need a watcher nearly as much as the Black needed a soldier and he'd signed on to serve the Black, not her. Frea, Folca and Gian headed off to the right. Rin marked the direction the men moved off in for future reference. Mecarnil, Khule and Berlas headed off to the left.
"It's like they just went home all of a sudden," one of the men at the central position said.
"We need intelligence… but we have to grab one of them first," his fellow observed.
As it turned out, finding one to question was easier said than done. For the experienced hands, the sudden quiet after days of escalating tension only suggested something bigger brewed. It was a case of waiting for the other boot to drop. For the inexperienced, it was either a welcome respite or utterly dull.
Wagers of raids, in overwhelming numbers, sprung up along the lines. This helped while away the time through the rest of the day, the night and the following morning. Not everyone needed to find something to occupy themselves. Rin, for example, found herself dealing with the usual influx. Word of a healer spread and like magic, she was wading in people who needed her services immediately. Some of them were genuine. Most were curious. She managed to winnow through the chaf by sunset and deal with the genuine cases by midnight.
By that point she was so fatigued she felt drunk. The fact that she couldn't walk a straight line hampered her further. Her battle gear started to weight more and more until it threatened to topple her outright. It was Farbarad who noticed how she weaved between patients, struggling to walk or stand. Unlike Mecarnil, Farbarad didn't waste time attempting to reason with her. He went straight over her head. Hanasian ordered her to down for ten minutes. Fatigue did the rest.
Loch found her slumped face first over her packs, so deeply asleep that no amount of shaking would rouse her. He managed to roll her over and dropped her cloak atop her. At some point Hanasian found her during the night. She wasn't aware of this. All Rin knew is that when she woke, his arm was flung over her and she felt like she had slept well for the first time in weeks.
Shortly after daybreak, fresh troops arrived from Umbar and this provided Hanasian with an opportunity to fall back to Umbar. Clearly, there were further tidings afoot and in any case half of the Black company were exhausted from their headlong race to reach them. Such fatigue would kill them, one way or the other. The signal went out to those securing the left and right flanks and the Black pulled back with the defensive lines in as good a shape as possible.
They made for the Dawn Gate, and once through the city's walls pressed without delay for the "Desert Moon". Umbar had a rhythm that was vastly different to northern and western cities. Early mornings, late afternoons and evenings were busy times. For those new to Umbar, the presence of so many on the streets so early was a surprise. Rin could see the flicker of pickpockets weaving through the crowds. Hawkers cried for custom, and the smells and sounds were both familiar and utterly alien. Traces of Numenor survived in the buildings and in some of the faces visible. However, Harad, Khand and even Rhun held sway here.
Umbar was a port divided into quarters, according to the four heritages found in the city. Where the quarters converged was a large open space, the main market where everything imaginable and many things that were not were available for sale. If it had value, if it could be bought or sold, it could be found here in Umbar's central bazaar.
What struck Rin most was the number of male faces. She didn't realise it at first. It wasn't until they really hit the morning crowds that she noticed how so many of the visible faces were men and boys. Then, she spotted the serene passage of a person veiled from head to foot. A woman, she guessed, from the height and build. Was it liberating to be so invisible, so protected from the scrutiny of others or was it claustrophobic. She couldn't decide which.
The Desert Moon sat like so many inns and taverns at the eastern cusp of the grand bazaar. Molguv was first to dismount and he disappeared inside. He re-emerged with several stable hands, arrangements made. Though it was not yet midday, the heat and humidity was already building rapidly. A storm was expected to blow in from the sea by mid afternoon.
The company dismounted, retrieved their gear and found the cooler dark interior of the tavern a welcome change from the dazzling brightness and colour of the bazaar outside.
"One hour and we'll meet - Company moot," Hanasian directed. Men rumbled assent. A whole glorious hour. Rin followed Hanasian to their room. He'd barely gotten inside and set his gear down when he heard her curse in passable Haradi. Hanasian turned to discover she had already managed to discard any plate and was trapped midway in removing her mail corsolet. Her entire upper body had vanished within its depths and she hopped up and down trying to dislodge it.
With a faint smile, Hanasian stepped forward and pulled the mail the rest of the way up and over her head.
"I've been itching to do that for days," she said with a rueful smile and rolled shoulders now free of the weight of steel.
"Oh how I have missed you, my love," she confessed as he set the mail aside.
"And I you," he returned, cupping his hand over one soft cheek.
Now that her hands were ungloved, Rin removed the ring that she had kept around her neck and settled it home once more. One whole hour...
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.