14. Chapter 14
They headed inland some in hopes the overgrowth would offer shelter from the storm. There was rain, lots of it. Lightning too, every handful of seconds it seemed. Thunder chased each bolt that lit the darkness, and for a time it seemed instantaneous. For all of this, the wind did not follow. The air hung thick with humidity and it couldn't be stirred. The only good thing about the rain was it was cooler than they were and it washed the sweat off some. The heat of the close air and jungle evaporated the rain almost as quickly as it fell, making the air even more steamy and nearly impossible to breathe.
The company buckled down and took it in stride. Full battle dress, packing their provisions with them, and making time. It could sap their strength quickly, and Hanasian was concerned about the returning wounded. Bear was getting better, but didn't really need this strain. Most of the northern boys who recently joined didn't like it one bit. Neither did the old hands who had been here before. They just knew about it enough to expect it. Only Molguv, Morcal and to a lesser extent Khule appeared unaffected.
It was a relief when the storm front finally passed them over, cutting the rain back some and permit a cool breeze off the sea. Despite the conditions, they had come far and had met no resistance. In fact, their surprise was complete. It was time to allow a rest.
An hour passed and most sat and slept with an eye and an ear open. Hanasian and Loch stood watch. The kid seemed to be taking it all in well, and was showing what he had in him. So too was Rin. She checked feet for blisters and treated them as best she could, and only after tending to everyone did she rest her eyes. Hanasian made a few notes to write into his journals later. The company as it stands now is a good one. It wasn't the hardened veterans one and all that he had led into the south or east in years passed, but a new breed. A mix of those old aging war horses and young adventurous youth. Some only heard tales of the great War of the Ring, and sat by the fires while their folks told of kin who fell before the gates of Minas Tirith or battled before the gates of Mordor, or under Mirkwood's eaves. Yet the discipline he asked for and knew would be needed to get these men through to a new day had paid off already. Hanasian was proud of these men, and proud of his bride to be. She was full of grit, and surprises as well. Yes, he was a very fortunate man.
Hanasian drifted into a waking dream of life with Rin without the duty of the Company. It was a nice break from the reality of their situation. He shook it off when a blast of wind rattled the water from the trees and onto them. They had gotten used to the rain, and they didn't seem to notice it gradually tapering off to almost nothing, being replaced by a chorus of steady but diminishing drips from the tree leaves. Hanasian signaled Loch, who was starting to pick up some of the hand-sign, and he also got the attention of Wulgof. He also got Bear's attention, and he came to take Loch's place on watch. Hanasian drew the other three close and whispered,
"Wulgof, you take Loch and go ahead about half a league to make sure the track is clear. Take Farbarad and Anbor with you. Go."
Hanasian had Frea's attention, and he, Khule, and Videgavia arose without word and faded into the bush to the southeast of the track. The rest remained in slumber, with Mecarnil keeping note. Hanasian remained at his watch, ad silence fell all around them. Hanasian wanted eyes and ears out before and beside his approach. Though they managed to gain good distance under cover of that storm, things would be quieter this following day, and they would have to be quieter as well.
It was just before dawn when Loch, Wulgof, Anbor and Farbarad arrived back at camp. They reported to Mecarnil and Hanasian they had come across a camp of smugglers, determined the threat as minimal and slipped around them without trouble. Anbor stayed to keep an eye on them while the others went farther down the track, and when the others returned to him, he reported they moved west toward the sea. They were likely off to meet a smuggler ship. They would have to beware of them when they moved north.
The rest of the company quietly emerged from their slumber. The cold camp only offered the dried meat and fruits for breakfast. Though it was not raining, the skies were thick with it and the air and humidity had returned to its unmoving self. They set out with Wulgof in the lead, Mecarnil following, and Loch with the standard following next. Hanasian checked each one as they passed, and let Farbarad bring up the rear as he slipped in behind Rin. He squeezed her hand, gave her a nod and a smile as they pushed forth after the others.
They all were silent, with barely a noise from the leaves brushing against them as they went forth. A slight pause when Wulgof reached where they had sighted the merchants earlier, and the way was undisturbed since they had been there last. Two men, Berlas and Bear, split off down the track the merchants had used and set watch while the rest passed. They fell in as rearguard as Farbarad passed. It was some time before Hanasian broke noise discipline and whispered to Rin ahead of him.
"Feet. This will be hard on their feet, especially if it doesn't dry soon."
Rin nodded as she studied the feet of the man in front of her. Miles and miles loaded down in wet boots will take its toll. They will have to rest again around the noon hour, but with the uniform grey and sticky air, it was hard to determine time. Hanasian would have to give it his best guess.
He was getting ready to pause for an hour when word come from Loch that a small village was in front of them. They all took position on the track with a ten step spread between them, and every third man faded into the jungle to form a defensive buffer. Hanasian came forward with Rin to have a look-see. A few people, a couple armed men, and all quite unsuspecting. Mulgov and Morcal came forward and said that it was a settlement well south of a bigger town that was where they suspected the rebel leader was at. Hanasian gave word that they would pull back several hundred yards and fade into the jungle to rest. He would set out a few men to scout ways around, and be ready to move shortly after they get back. It should be about an hour. The rest proved to be tough, for the rains started again.
Rin hunched her shoulders against the rain and felt it sluice beneath mail, leather and her shirt. Everything was damp, save the stuff she had tightly wrapped to keep the water out. She resisted the urge to check on it. Opening the pack and peeling back the wrapping would not be a good idea in the midst of a deluge. The rain came in large, fat drops that seemed to fall like stones and slap down on everything and everyone one. It was cool, yes. It provided noise cover for their passing. But she chewed over the impact it would have on the health of the Company like she was gnawing at an old bone.
She cast a glance to Hanasian, who had drawn up his cowl and curled beneath it to take some rest. He hadn't rested since they came ashore, along with a number of other key men of the Company and she wasn't happy about that. Feet… she'd passed out little jars of salve. They needed a barrier between their feet and the incessant water. They needed sunshine and a place to dry out more. However, Rin was a realist. In this place, they were not about to find a idyllic clearing on a balmy summer day to sunbathe feet and clothing until they were nicely dried out. So, it had to be the salve. She already had her eye on a number that were limping. At least she'd sorted out the insect problem. That additive to their water had proved effective so far.
Rin stared down at her own feet. She had her knees drawn to her chest with her arms wrapped around them. Only her boots peeked out from the hem of her sodden cloak. They were caked in mud. Mud could be useful, if it were the right kind. The re-appearance of the scouts broke through her silent musings. They were back early and they were missing two of their number. Elcarlas and Foldine slipped back into camp and made for Hanasian, who had woken at their return. They said not a word in their report and once more Rin cursed the fact that she hadn't cracked enough of the hand signals to understand what was being reported. After a brief exchange, Hanasian signaled that they would move out and Rin stood. Another river of water gushed down her spine as she did so. Foldine edged towards her and peered at her intently for a moment. Then he beckoned. She followed him as he re-traced a path back the way he had come. The Company was following.
After ten minutes of trudging through sodden jungle in the rain, Rin discovered what Foldine was leading her towards. She saw the other two scouts standing around a third figure that was propped against some unrecognisable tree. Gian and Dias stepped to one side and Foldine took up position behind her as she crouched by the fallen man. One of the rearguard if she judged the remnants of his uniform correctly. He was close to death, pierced with crossbow bolts she had seen herself on that chaotic night by the Poros. His eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow and fragile. She had no idea how he had hung on. At a guess, he'd been like this for more than a day. The bolts were deeply embedded and she had a sinking sense that there was scant assistance she could offer. He'd lost too much blood, was too weak, and if she removed those bolts, she'd kill him outright with a hemorrhage.
He barely stirred as she checked him over. The barest whisper of undergrowth told her that the rest of the Company had caught up. His eyes opened then. He was neither a young nor an old man. He caught at her hand with surprising strength and then glanced over her shoulder to men that stood behind. Rin felt a hand on her shoulder and she looked up into Hanasian's face. He could see that this was a soldier fallen beyond her reach. The man tried to say something that was difficult to discern. Blood bubbled on his lips and his voice was weak and soft. She could sense the unshakeable stillness of death hovering. Hanasian knelt closer to the man's face and bent to listen closer.
Rin felt the soldier gather his failing strength for one last effort. All she could do was to push down the pain. She heard his breathing and voice ease a measure as she did so. Then, she felt the wrench as he lost his battle with death. Most healers disengaged prior to this, as it was a truly horrible sensation. She did not, for he had still been talking right until the last. She stared at the hand that had caught hers. Bloodied and muddied, it no longer held the tension of life. His eyes were vacant, open, sightless and Hanasian leaned back. The rain continued to fall. Molguv had crept up by now and she heard him whisper that the jungle would care for him. They could not afford to delay and bury him.
She reached and closed the soldier's eyes. She did not know his name. She always knew the names of the people she came to, but not this man. For a reason she could not define, this angered her. Rin removed her hand from his limp one and washed it over her face to gather her wits. Foldine and Gian moved the man away from sight. She saw Gian mark the tree for later. They would return to bury this man when this was done if they could, no matter what the Haradian had said. Another signal from Hanasian and they were on their way once more. The rain intensified as the day washed towards night.
The frequency of patrols was increased as visibility diminished. The afternoon melted around them. Time itself was becoming a slippery creature. Morcal continued to point them north east. They met no one as they pushed their way forward. The further they pushed north east, a leaden weight grew at the back of Rin's skull… death that was not death, many non deaths lay ahead of them. After the soldier on the track, the taste of it was fresh in her mind. She was not the only one to sense it. One glance around confirmed that those of the Company with Dunedain descent also sensed it to varying degrees. It made them edgy, jumpy. This only worsened until they found the town Molguv and Morcal had mentioned.
The rain had beaten at them through the night, drumming on their heads until an hour before dawn. The jungle had become quiet then, like it was holding its breath. They had slowed, cautious, and crept the final way until Wulgof at the lead signaled for a halt. The town was teeming with armed men even at this hour. But that was not all. It was surrounded with undead men who had been left to ring the town. They did not need food or water or sleep. They did not need protection from sun, heat or rain. Their presence hit Rin like an anvil dropped from a great height. She doubled over beneath its weight and felt her anger coalesce into a cold rage. It made her want to retch and her skin crawled in disgust. Even the non Dunedain of their number could sense it now.
The town was girt in horror. Morcal and Molguv were pale despite their dark skin. The undead were tribesmen who had refused the call to arms. Some of them were kin. They stood in formation, condemned to this nightmare existence, their families slain to the last child for their disobedience. So many men, the numbers of the slain in their wake beggared comprehension. Hanasian signaled to move back and spread out. By the time dawn arrived to dance in clear skies, the Company were again hunkered down. Loch, Videgavia and Molguv bellied off, knives between their teeth, like snakes through the jungle floor. Anbor, Berlas and Elcarlas climbed trees to set watch from a higher vantage.
Hanasian moved through the line, checking on men. They were grim, angry, tired and worried. This was as much a test of their discipline as any battle would be. Rin too made the rounds to do what she could. Even Mecarnil looked as miserable as he must have felt. Farbarad had lost his warmth. He pressed something into her hand before she moved on to check on Hanasian, who had at last settled into position. She paused to study the object. It was a small, wooden bird that had once been brightly painted and now was worn and faded. The wood had a smooth, glasslike sheen, for much handling and there seemed to be small tooth marks, as though some child had chewed on it. It made her want to cry. She did not know that she was holding a piece of her childhood.
Startled, Rin looked askance to Farbarad. He merely closed her hand around it and nodded at her, before he returned his gaze to his sector of the watch. It had a reassuring weight in her grasp. Rin tucked it into a pouch and moved on to check on Hanasian. She concluded her rounds by pressing her lips to his brow and then settled in to position. Rin pulled the small bird back out again. She turned it around and around in her hand and realised that this had been how the wood had become so polished and worn. Rin wrapped her fingers around the bird's shape and stared out at the town's fell guard. She still had that cold rage burning within, but somehow the undead's effect was lessened on her. Rin glanced to Hanasian, and considered asking him if they really had to take the rebel alive. She was not the only member of the Company considering disobeying that part of their orders as they waited for the three scouts to return.
Hanasian watched and pondered the available courses of action. Not many of then offered much comfort. The only thing comfortable was the fact it was cooler and dryer, with the sun giving its warmth in just the right intensity. When it started to feel too hot, a racing cloud would pass in front of it offering a few minutes of shade. It was an opportunity to dry the feet though, and Hanasian ordered those who managed to keep their boots dry with leather wraps around their tops to keep watch while the others took the time to seek a moment of comfort. It was tricky, for one did not want to get caught out of their boots in a surprise attack.
They had been so successful on their infiltration that they still held full surprise. As yet they had not had to slay a single rebel, so none of their number had gone missing. Things had gone so good in fact, Hanasian had a brief moment to ponder what it was he was overlooking. Sooner or later they would have to ante up. Until then, he worked out a plan. He called together Mecarnil, Videgavia, Folca, and Khule to put it forth.
"Here's our situation... the town has a considerable number of armed men who appear to be some elite guard. They all have an old Numenorean insignia that I last saw when we took the ships sailing from Umbar. So this is no pressed mob of conscripts. They will not be easily fooled, and if they are surprised, it will be short-lived. As yet, knowledge of our whereabouts is unknown, and so we will have that in our favour for our initial move. Here is what I propose we do."
Hanasian squatted down to a patch of wet dirt by their feet, and the other three did likewise. He had to quell any rash movements that may be spurred on by the obvious massacre that had occurred. The sun and the cooler winds from the north east did nothing to assist him. The stench was starting to rise from the dead and this further agitated his company. Hanasian used his finger to show their line of movement. He guessed two ways to get into the town could be used, and they would use both.
"I'll need one of you to volunteer to take some of the hardiest with them to infiltrate through the dung gate. You will have to make your way over to our left and through some of those ditches that hold some of the slain, and crawl under the wall where the sewage runs. I will do it if nobody wishes this detail."
"I will go," came words from one who had walked up quietly. It was Wulgof. Maybe he is starting to think more like a sarge. Hanasian paused as he looked up. Wulgof made it easy and squatted down with the others.
"Good, you will lead. Take Berlas, Anbor, Farbarad, Foldine, and Belegost. By the time you get done crawling through all that mud & dung, nobody will be able to tell you are northern whiteys. Of the three groups, you will likely be the first in."
Hanasian calculated the timing, and nodded to himself, then went on.
"Mecarnil, you will take Frea, the brothers Daius and Donius, Anras, and Gian, and will move around to the east and find the water source. You should be able to enter that way, and if not, you can disrupt its flow while the brothers figure out a way to get you in.
"I'll take Loch, Videgavia, Khule, Mulgov, and Morcal and we'll work our way straight in on the track. The jungle is thick enough to offer cover, and the last hundred yards we'll work at appearing like merchants. Mulgov and Morcal will go in first, followed by Khule, then us three. Not sure what scrutiny we'll get, but we'll hope for the best.
'Rin, Bear, and the rest will come with us as far as the edge of the bush, and will wait there as our reserve. Any questions, observations, comments, changes, better ideas any of you have to offer? If not, this goes to the rest of the company."
A few comments were offered up, and it was agreed that only Mulgov, Morcal, and Khule would go to the gate, for they would get little questioning of they appeared as merchants. It would be a stretch for the rest of them. Also, it was suggested that Rin go in with them. Though her appearance would be exotic for these parts, a demonstration her skills along with an explanation from Mulgov would easily get them in. Healing hands were a lost art among the Black Numenoreans, and they are considered sacred by the Haradrim. With the blending of the two cultures throughout the last two ages, some strange beliefs and superstitions have emerged.
The evening came upon them, and they gathered for a cold meal. Hanasian laid out the plan and reluctantly agreed to Rin's going in with the gate infiltrators. With their assignments given, it was Wulgof who set out first. Mecarnil set out shortly thereafter. They had the farthest to go. The rest worked the mud and dirt on to offer as much cover as possible. If the plan worked, then Hanasian and the reserves would be able to walk into the city by the gate without raising any alarms. That was ... IF everything went according to plan. It was all now in motion.
Timing at night was not an exact science, especially when there were no clues from the sky. The sunset brought with it something they hadn't considered this far south at this time of year.... cold. Apparently an unseasonable chill wind had blasted its way south, and it had brought freezing temperatures and frosts as far south as Anfalas, Befalas, and the southern reaches of Ithilien. The air had lost it's freezing temperatures by the time it had gotten down to where they were, but the fact it got that far south was indeed a rarity. What it did was create a ground fog to rise after dark, with all the warm rain that had fallen there recently.
As the hours passed, it grew thicker, and visibility was almost non-existent. That wouldn't be too much of a problem for those going up the track, but for the two groups flanking the town to the east and west, it became very tricky. Wulgof, having dealt with fogs in Dunland and Rohan, knew his way through it. In fact, it helped keep them concealed from any watch on the walls. What it did do though was slow their going. Mecarnil too knew fog from the north, but unlike Wulgof, they were moving through thick bush and tree, and had no high landmark of a watchtower to use. Mecarnil guessed his way and turned to the town when he thought he had gone far enough.
Hanasian sent forth Mulgov, Morcal, Khule, and Rin, giving her a quick kiss and a squeeze of her hand as she left. How did it come to be that he was sending his lady in a most dangerous mission? She was company, and she was who he loved. The turmoil inside of him as these two battled each other within was a hard pill to swallow. He watched them go into the mists and out of sight, wondering if he would see her again.
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