24. Chapter 24
Hanasian and Rin seemed to have lost themselves to the world. The time they had together, every moment of every day, through the sun and rain, and the moon turning its face about, blessed them both in ways neither could properly imagine. Making passionate love day and night as they pleased, drinking in each other at every moment. Life couldn't get any better than this.
But with the moon coming around again, both knew it was time to return to Minas Tirith. As much as they wanted to forget the world and live happily in each other's arms, they both knew it wasn't to be.
"My dearest beloved...." Hanasian said as he held Rin and looked in her eyes, "Forever will this happiness live within me. A blessing of Eru you are to me. For though my life before knowing you was well, it is now fulfilled in your presence. I Love you Rosmarin, ever and always."
He embraced her and kissed her long. He didn't want this time to end. But as appointed, the carriage arrived, and a messenger came to Henneth Annun summoning them. It was time to go.
The journey back was in itself relaxing, for it seemed the two had not one care in the world. They went a different way than that they had taken to arrive, for the bridges of Osgoliath was newly opened. It was nice to be able to ride and not have to board a ship to ferry across the river! They spent two days in Osgoliath, seeing the city return to life from the devastation of the war. It was here on their second day that a visitor came calling.
The man seemed noble, but was rough dressed with a few day's growth of a beard. Still, Hanasian recognized him right off.
"My Chieftain! It is a pleasant, yet disturbing surprise to see you here."
Hanasian bowed with his greeting. The door closed and the hood went back. Aragorn had come to Osgoliath as Strider. Unrecognized except by a few, he looked grim.
He said, "I hope the time away together was blessed. You both look happy and relaxed."
"We are at that! We thank you for the leave!" Hanasian said, but he did not smile. Rin too could see there was something on Aragorn's mind.
Aragorn went on, "I thought I would greet you here, and therefore have a chance to tell you all that has happened since you left a month ago."
Hanasian was deep in thought. It all was coming back now, "Tell me it isn't really bad."
Aragorn nodded and said, "I would like to tell you that, but I will let you judge for yourself. You will find when you get to Minas Tirith that some of your Company will be gone. Khule, Berlas, Wulgof, and Loch have taken this task in hand and I think they will do well. I sent them east to be solid eyes. I've been leaning on your second, Videgavia, rather heavily and I think he is quite a good leader of men. He's stern them, but given he has recruited over a hundred men, and a few women, to the Company on my order, he has performed well. The veterans refer to the recruits as 'the New Company', and the southron Mulgov is in command of them. Mostly young adventurers and the old veterans of service. Many of the veterans have taken up as corporals to help train the others. All up, it seems they are a good bunch. Now you know that the company you return to has vastly changed from the one you left. May all be well."
Hanasian nodded as he took this all in. Loch on a special mission with Khule and Wulgof. What could go wrong with Berlas with them? Hanasian shook off the thoughts of it, and resolved to ask Videgavia about it at the next Company meet upon their return.
They set out for the city the next day. Strider had likely slipped out during the night, and was again King Aragorn in the morning. Hanasian worried about his friend, hoping he got to sleep on occasion.
As they approached the city, Hanasian could see men working with weapons in the field. He fought back the temptation to take a side trip over to see them. He would let them be, and would be at the evening meet.
He turned to Rin and said, "Well my love, we are back."
Over one hundred people added to the Company of Arnor. Some were training under the tender hearted bellowing of Molguv and Bear. The barracks looked filled to the brim. Nearly one hundred and twenty people and one Healer. Rin's mind had been performing contortions since Aragorn had mentioned that back in Osgiliath. She'd not missed the flicker of amusement as her cousin brushed her thoughts either. Funny was it? How was she supposed to sort out two separate Companies, Old and New? It could require her to simultaneously be in two places. Not to mention the logistics of adequate supplies for that many potential patients. The increased likelihood of misadventure and the consequences. Well, until her brother, Wulgof and Khule reunited with Molguv that risk was somewhat diminished.
Hanasian had turned to her and said something, but she couldn't tear her eyes off the proliferation of Black Company uniforms and all that it meant. True, a return from the peaceful bliss of Ithilien to anything approaching daily routine would be jarring...but this?
"I think we should hurry up and get a family started," she muttered as she looked about her.
After all, had she not said they would know when to go west? Is this not now?
"Well and good, my love. Only not right here," Hanasian replied, smiling ever so slightly as he pressed his lips to her brow.
Their arrival had not gone unnoted. Videgavia was approaching at speed from one direction and Farbarad was approaching at speed from the other. They converged on the pair.
"Am I pleased to see you!" Vidgavia said earnestly, reaching for Hanasian's forearm.
"I hope you're ready for this," Farbarad said to Rin.
"You've been busy, Vid," Hanasian replied as his second turned to greet his wife.
Videgavia pulled back to study both Hanasian and Rin's faces. They were suffused with a positively ridiculous amount of delight.
"I'm not the only one," Videgavia replied dryly as he took them both in, "Though, I have to say you must be mad to return. I wouldn't, unless wedded bliss doesn't agree with you two?"
"Agree? Look at them, Vid. It's almost nauseating," Farbarad chuckled and then glanced at the barracks behind their backs.
Someone in a window was waving.
"What are you looking at?" Rin inquired, eyes narrowing as she studied the Ranger's intent expression.
Farbarad and Videgavia exchanged a brief, almost guilty glance.
"Cap, lots to discuss. Meeting?" Videgavia inquired of Hanasian, who nodded his assent.
"Excellent, then, Doc, need to talk to you about the new female recruits," Videgavia said as he moved to stand with Hanasian.
Farbarad meanwhile had deftly placed his hand under Rin's forearm and begun to steer her towards the barracks.
"Now, just wait a moment," Rin protested.
"I'm afraid I can't do that. Take my word for it, Doc. Better to get this over and done with quickly," Farbarad replied, nodding at Videgavia and Hanasian.
The two men watched Farbarad's attempt to escort the Company Healer in a dignified manner descend into a brief scuffle over who owned Rin's forearm half way towards the barracks. Healer and Ranger faced off, scowling at each other for all they were worth and then Farbarad said something quietly that seemed to have an immediate effect. Rin drew up to her full height, picked up her skirts and veritably steamed towards the barracks. Farbarad, who was left now in the dust, turned back to shoot Hanasian and Videgavia a truly wicked grin and then hurried after her.
"What was that about?" Hanasian asked mildly.
"Oh, I'd say he offered to cart her in over his shoulder," Videgavia replied initially and then realised Hanasian was probably asking a deeper question, "Oh, the ambush Mecarnil and Farbarad have been planning. That's what that is. Cardolan business. The pair have been run ragged by it and they can't defer it any longer."
Hanasian nodded and decided that he'd give Mecarnil as much time as needed to sort that out. He turned to his second and then frankly asked him if he had lost his mind.
"Khule, Wulgof and Loch...those three...and only Berlas to maintain order," Hanasian said.
"I kept Molguv back and that, I can tell you, is the lynch pin of that unholy cartel. Besides, the Khule that set off was the Khule we recruited years ago. All business, as was Wulgof," Videgavia replied, quickly falling in to stride beside his captain as they conducted their meeting ambling about to see whatever it was they could see of the Black Company of Arnor.
"This, Mecarnil, had better be good!"
Rin's opening statement arrived before she did, but Mecarnil was prepared for it. Long years in the field, the Ranger had mastered the fine art of the ambush. Once the healer had entered the room he waited in, Farbarad at her shoulder, she pressed on with her barrage.
"And, I want to know something. How did you know we would be arriving today? Hmmm? Or have you just been sitting in here waiting for something to hatch?"
She crossed her arms under her breasts, lifted her chin and dared him to return fire.
"Oh, use your head woman. Aragorn told us," Mecarnil replied calmly and enjoyed the way her mouth opened in surprise.
He had found his way under that icy wall she used to such devastating effect. In this time, Farbarad had found a comfortable arm chair and installed himself in it. He set to packing his pipe, long legs stretched out before him. He nodded at Mecarnil and Rin did not miss that. So, they were in on this together, were they? Mecarnil flicked a hand at a stack of parchments.
"What are they?" Rin asked
"Matters you need to attend to as soon as possible, Rosmarin. We've waited, through mutual agreement, until after the wedding. It would be perilous to wait longer. Oh," Mecarnil said as her mouth opened with another question, "Before you ask, agreement between Farbarad, myself, Videgavia and your husband."
"Yes, it was his idea, if I recall correctly. Now, shall we get to it?" Mecarnil inquired, taking pains not to appear over eager, "I have the ink, quill, wax and your seal prepared. A simple task of signing. It need not take more than a handful of minutes."
"Signing what, precisely?"
"I can take you through them one by one, if you like. Why don't you take a seat here and we can get started."
Farbarad could see just how hard Mecarnil was working to remain calm and unperturbed and it seemed to be effective. By contrast, Rin seemed uneasy. It was a complete reversal of roles. Mecarnil selected the first paper and began to take her through it but she read for herself anyway. Her eyes flowed like a mountain rapid over the words faster than Mecarnil could explain. He was mid-sentence when she dipped the quill in the ink pot and signed. Mecarnil's expression registered a brief instant of surprise as the seal was affixed. He picked up the second document and began again, shooting Farbarad a pleased and grateful glance which the Ranger accepted placidly in his arm chair. This approach had been his idea, and it was working, but the true test would come with the final three documents.
There was relative peace in the room for a handful of minutes, until they reached the more contentious documents. Farbarad watched Rin's expression go dangerously smooth and inscrutable. She set the quill purposefully down.
"No, absolutely not."
"Rosmarin, this comes from the hand of the High King himself. See his mark there, and there."
"It could come from Eru, still the answer is no," Rin replied flatly.
Once, when faced with such implacable obstinacy, Mecarnil would have sought to reason and cajole and debate. This time, the Ranger nodded and it was time to commence the ambush.
"I see. That is your final word?"
"Very well. Farbarad, if you would be so kind?"
Farbarad strode smoothly out of the room. He returned with two city guards, who eyed Rin hard in the way of city guards across the land when faced with a potential custodial acquisition.
"Rosmarin, Black Company Healer, otherwise known as Erían of Cardolan?" inquired one man.
Rin felt a familiar frisson of nervous agitation skitter through her. True, she wasn't in an alley somewhere with someone else's food or valuables stuffed under her clothing. Still....she had long experience with such a scene. She knew that look and she knew that tone.
"Rosmarin, Black Company Healer," she replied, choosing to remain seated and eyeing the window behind Farbarad's recently vacated armchair.
"Rosmarin, we have reports that you were engaged in several acts of public nuisance some weeks ago, at particular impost to our personnel."
"I have no idea what you are referring to," Rin replied and the guard unfolded a piece of paper with details on it.
"Ah, well let me enlighten you. To start, there is the matter of bathing in a public fountain."
"Ridiculous! There was no bathing. We - I mean I fell in and I got out again. Is that an offense?" Rin countered, swiftly correcting herself to avoid dragging the two woman that had been with her at the time.
"And there there is the matter of the public disturbance created in the Harlond."
"I was never in the Harlond!"
"No, but some twenty three naked Dunlending men were. All claimed you had defrauded them of their shirts and breeches in a crooked game of chance and then led them on a merry chase through the city until you managed to lock them into the Harlond. Took us nearly three days to clean up the mess. Twenty three independent witnesses."
"That's twenty three separate counts of theft...or, if you consider the shirts a separate offense to the breeches, that would make it forty six instances of theft...and then there is the matter of the crooked game..." added the second guard.
Rin focussed on breathing. She needed to breathe. Forty six theft charges...she could barely remember their faces and it had been that damn elf and dwarf who started it. Besides, taking their shirts and breeches was mild, compared with what such men had taken from her and Loch. Calm, she needed rational thought. As Rin sat in stone cold silence, Mecarnil and Farbarad exchanged a brief grin of victory over her head and the guards continued on.
"Lastly, there is the matter of a theft from those who watch the city walls. In that, we have three bracelets, a silver-"
Rin's composure cracked at that. She shot upright and began elucidating a great number of points all at once and all rather loudly. The guards returned the favour and soon the office was a scene of shouting and gestures.
"Why don't you arrest the dwarf and elf? They incited all of this. All of it! Up to their ears in it, the both of them! Too important and powerful for you to take a shot at, are they? 'I'd like to see you try,' the elf said. 'Take their breeches and I'll give you the rest of this bottle,' the dwarf said. Where are they?"
"Oh, so you do remember now? Suddenly recalled something, have we?" a guard countered and Rin's mouth snapped shut a moment and then she continued on, selecting a new argument.
Into the midst of all this walked Videgavia and Hanasian. Farbarad had a grin from ear to ear, and Mecarnil looked like a cat who had recently acquired a bird dipped in cream. Rin was leaning over the table, both fists resting on its surface and arguing for all her worth.
"You know, all of this could be avoided if you just sign the papers, Rin," Farbarad said into a lull and Rin whirled about, eyes blazing.
"Extortion! That's black mail!"
"That's necessary, Rosmarin. It is as simple as that. This document is necessary for the orderly succession of rule and the integrity of the realm. This document is necessary for the appropriate governance of the former realm of Cardolan. And this document will ensure that whoever is out there plotting foul deeds, your children will be protected," Mecarnil said placidly as Videgavia escorted the two city guards out to thank them for their performance.
"No, no, no! Arrest me! Fine! NO!"
Farbarad placed a hand on Mecarnil's shoulder and the man walked to stand by Videgavia.
Farbarad passed the three offending documents to Hanasian across the deak, who read them swiftly.
"Rin, I know you gave up the throne...signing the succession document for the high throne places you just in front of Faramir. Aragorn has a son, a direct heir already, and daughters. The likelihood of you being saddled with his throne is as high as Loch deciding a write a treatise on the art of fish tickling. It could happen, but it's not very likely," Farbarad explained.
"If you don't sign it, my love, then you will remain a device that could be used to rally opposition to the rule of Aragorn and his heirs. This is what he meant when he said he could not unmake your lineage," Hanasian said quietly and set the document on the desk between them.
"And we promise not to call you Princess," Videgavia added as husband and wife exchanged a silent glance, filled with meaning obvious only to them.
"Especially Frea," Videgavia finished.
Then, with a sigh, Rin picked up the quill and grimly signed the document. Princess of the realm! Absurd! Ridiculous! At least it named Erían and not Rosmarin. She could always drop that name entirely. It had yet to feel like hers anyway. Incognito, she'd like to see them try to find her should they need to. There were a million ways a person could conceal themselves out there in the broad wilds and rolling dales.
"This one will set in place a Prefect over Cardolan. It doesn't have to be you, but at the least you do have the right to veto whoever it may be. Consider what could be done to restore safety to vast tracts of that land. Consider your own experience."
Rin signed again as she set quill to the decree.
"Would have to be a remarkable individual to sort all that out," she muttered darkly, "And that is the voice of experience talking. As for this last....this seems to me to be continuing a tradition that I understood to be required for the royal line of Cardolan. There is no longer a royal line of Cardolan and I will not willingly or accidentally create the perception otherwise."
"In this, I agree with my wife," Hanasian added, "Have not either of us earned the right to live our lives and raise our children without the constant presence of watching eyes?"
"Rosmarin, in the days leading to your wedding, a score of assassins arrived in this city. Their patrons varied, some known and some unknown. You were the target of some, Hanasian the target of others," Farbarad reported
Rin was shocked by this. She lifted her hand to her mouth and her eyes sought Hanasian's.
"It gets worse," Farbarad said and at that Rin moved out from behind the desk to seek Hanasian.
Once she had reached her husband, Farbarad continued with his grim task.
"The chief reason they failed was your uncle. Cullith cleaned Minas Tirith's house, by means no one in this room would sanction but perhaps can, at least, understand. Cullith went further, though. He scoured the countryside in the weeks. When he turned himself in, he claimed to have dealt with many rebels against the kingdom and Cardolan. This has been verified independently. He took over thirty lives."
Rin felt physically ill at this. Thirty lives, thirty lives! Her stomach twisted. She had been to hamlets smaller than that. Every man, woman and child, dead by her uncle's hand under her name. She clung white knuckled to Hanasian, face emptied of colour.
"Where is he?" Hanasian inquired as his wife attempted to recover her equilibrium.
"Dead...murdered in his cell before he could be questioned. It is our belief he had uncovered something sufficiently dangerous to prompt him to turn himself in - to bring it to Aragorn's attention. The king shares that belief. We do not know what, and we may not uncover it in time.
"In light of this, the king agreed with our assessment that the peril is too great to you and your children to abandon the tradition of a bonded Ranger just yet. Not, at least, until we can be certain the danger has passed," Mecarnil stated.
"Is it truly so perilous?" Hanasian quietly asked.
"There is nothing I would put past them," Farbarad said vehemently, eyes flashing with a long harboured anger.
"While you remain with the Company, nothing need change from our usual caution. However, if these men remain at large and their hand unplayed when you depart, you will not go alone. We will not intrude. We are well versed with such a role to conduct it unobtrusively," Mecarnil said.
"That would strip Videgavia of two experienced men at the least, and Rangers at that," Hanasian replied, turning to study his second.
Videgavia's eyes flicked from his captain to the woman on his arm as he chose his next words.
"I would not be able to live with myself otherwise," he stated.
Rin pressed her forehead against Hanasian's shoulder and breathed in his scent. She wanted freedom and this seemed to be a cage...and yet what price her freedom? Hanasian's life, their children? She lifted her head, cupped her hand against his cheek and their eyes locked. Then, she lowered her hand and crossed to the table to sign the final document.
"Now, get them out of here before I burn them," she growled as she set her seal to the last parchment.
Farbarad complied, swiftly gathering up the papers and heading out. There was silence in the room for a handful of heartbeats.
"We're back, love," she sighed at Hanasian.
"If we keep this up, we'll reach the Prefect tomorrow," Wulgof said, massaging the sole of his left foot.
They had a small fire going, for there was little to be gained by concealing their presence now. All four had acquired mounts and local clothing. So close to a settlement, many camped in the surrounding lands. They blended in by appearing just another party of travellers. In this land, no one asked too many questions of people they did not know, and so they were left to their own devices. In the weeks it had taken them to reach this far, they had seen little of note. Rather, a general uneasiness had imperturbably grown with each passing day.
Berlas had taken the first watch. Wulgof would take the second, Loch the third and Khule the fourth. They had fallen into a routine, each occupying essential roles. Berlas was a skilled ranger, accustomed to the sort of terrain in Rhun from his service in Ithilien. Moreover, he knew a great deal of the language and customs, given the increasing number of Rhun people flowing through the lands before and after the war. Wulgof was a hardened, experienced soldier. He worked tirelessly, did what he was told, offered careful opinions only rarely. He often took the rear or point, equally valuable in both positions.
Loch was the least experienced campaigner. For all of that, he was a superb hunter and scout and he had an ineffable manner that could disarm and charm the most taciturn. Despite his size and strength, and the fact that beneath that sunny exterior lay a simmering rage, he somehow managed to bring some ease to those around him. He was also welcome comedic relief, intended or otherwise, and the one most likely to try his hand at something inadvisable of all the four. As for Khule, he was commander and master of the people, culture and language. They all followed his lead without him even needing to say so. Something in the way he was with them, rarely seen in the Company. More than that, he possessed a darker set of skills that no one wanted to test out. Assassins were not men lightly crossed.
"Put your boots back on. Otherwise, none of us will live to draw breath by morning," Loch replied.
Both Dunlending men had the sun darkened look of Rhun now. Loch's lighter hair could be easily explained away. Many children in this land had mixed heritage, by choice or not. War could be a terrible thing, and its aftermath left more than bodies and scars. By contrast, Rhun was a far more welcoming place for such children. Starved of people by the war, they did not quibble over whether the next generation had unwatered Rhun blood in their veins. All of this turned in Khule's mind as the two Dunlenders exchanged quiet jibes with one another.
"Why didn't you come to Rhun?" Khule asked in a lull, catching both by surprise.
"You and your sister," Khule added by way of clarification.
"Why would we?" Loch replied.
"Far less trouble over your heritage. Many a village would have welcomed two healthy people, two sets of able hands. Particularly Rin's," Khule replied.
"There were no shortage of people happy to offer Rin a place in Rohan either. I'd be damned if I sold her into that. Saw for myself what it reduced women to. Forgive me for a sentimental fool."
"No, I don't mean that...I meant her skills. The mortality rate of the people in Rhun of simple things, easily prevented, it catastrophic. They would welcome her as a healer, not as a - well, you know what I mean now," Khule amended as Loch's face took on a familiarly dangerous feral quality.
"Oh," the man rumbled, rolling his shoulders and stowing his wrath, "Well, in that case, the answer is simple. We didn't know, Khule. We didn't know Rhun might be easier or harder. And, in any case, getting there is no easy feat. It's a long way on foot, without shoes or a map or any real idea of your destination. In any case, I'd be surprised if anyone would have welcomed us as children. Another two mouths to feed? I think it was hard for everyone, no matter where they lived. Rhun, Rohan, Dunland. Another two mouths is another two mouths. Simple as that. Maybe, had we of known, as adults we might have tried our luck. We were already in Edoras by then, and you know how that turned out."
"The cheese," said Wulgof to the fire.
"Oh, I gave her a hard time over it, but it was time to leave in any case," Loch said after a moment's reflection.
"Why?" Wulgof asked.
"We were too close to...well let's just say it was getting increasingly difficult for us to work off our lodgings. Brianne had an eye for recruitment and it had fallen on Rin."
"I don't know how you managed it, Loch. It's not an easy life, that one, but to refuse it when it offered a roof and food," Wulgof rumbled, "I know many a man and woman who have not been able to chose as you and Rin did."
"Easier to do when you saw the aftermath. Rin would return each day with a new tale of woe. And, we did not manage to keep our noses entirely clean. I think Khadre, one of Brianne's girls, was a source of considerable education for Rin."
"Khadre...a familiar name," Khule said
"Yes, a woman of Rhun if I recall correctly. Popular within Brianne's stable, for all the wrong reasons. Rin frequently had to see to her. They struck up a friendship, as women do I suppose. Khadre let slip that she had started to teach Rin some dances one morning and Rin went bright red. That's when I knew it was time to move on. I took the Meduseld assignment the next day."
Both Wulgof and Khule's eyebrows rose, but they wisely said nothing of the discovery that the Company Healer knew a great deal more than strictly proper for a woman of her heritage. The sort of dances Khadre would know were not the sort of dances a Dunedain princess should.
"Why even take board at Brianne's in the first place?" Khule instead ask, even as the image of Loch's sister in the Harad silks dominated his mind's eye. Now he knew what had taken their Captain so long in that temple and why it was the Captain smiled in a particular way when he had emerged, fortunate man.
"Better than the alternatives, believe it or not. Meduseld isn't the only job to turn sour. We took a job a few years earlier, proved to be more to that than first met the eye. We got snagged, of course. No one robs an assassin, especially not Treagon."
"A lie," Khule said flatly, dismissing it out of hand.
"Not at all. You saw what she mixed up on the ship back to Umbar as I did."
"It's not possible."
"It is. We were sent in to retrieve his book. Rin was only fifteen. I couldn't fit through the opening, so she went in. Treagon was waiting."
"If it was true, you'd both be many years dead," Khule insisted.
"What can I say? Perhaps the man had a hard time killing a fifteen year old girl. That's what I thought at the time."
"I can think of another explanation," Wulgof added and Loch nodded.
"Yes, well even after he took her on as an apprentice, it still didn't dawn on me. Took six months for me to figure out what was happening. She refused to go. Insisted it was deepening her knowledge as a healer and that he was perfectly honourable. I saw the gleam in his eye eventually. He saw a perfect student, someone to bring in yet more gold, someone no one would suspect, someone who could get into and out of places he never could. And he enjoyed instructing her too much. Still, for all of that, she took more from him than he bargained on."
And, with that, Loch smiled and leant back. He stared at the sky, arms folded beneath his head.
"Can't be his heart. Man doesn't have one," Khule said.
"She took his purse, his book and a plethora of skills on the fine art of fighting with daggers. Oh, and she's wicked good with poisons and potions, for all of her talk of surgery."
Wulgof grunted a dry bark of a laugh.
"And I wanted to teach her how to throw a dagger. Treagon's only apprentice..." the man said and Loch grinned up at the stars.
"Yeah, she had a good long chuckle at that. We both did."
"What about you, Loch? Did you happen to study under a master assassin?" Khule asked and saw Loch roll over to his side.
"Have you given any thought to what you'll do with yourself, now that she's making her own path in life," Khule asked.
"Not especially. What happens, happens. I'm with the Black. That's how it is. She'll always be my sister. Simple as that," Loch said.
"You know her life will take her in a very different path now, don't you?"
"Not just that," Wulgof said and at that Loch rolled back to face the fire.
"She'll live much longer than you, longer than most of us in the Black excepting those of Dunedain descent," Khule explained.
It was clear from Loch's expression that this thought had yet to occur to him. He chewed it over, rising to a seated position.
"Wulgof, mind if I take the second watch?" he asked after a while.
Wulgof shook his head and so Berlas was relieved by Loch instead of Wulgof. Berlas found the other two men in silence around the small fire. Conversation remained at a standstill through the remainder of the night and into the dawn. As predicted, they reached the Prefect by late afternoon and found the man and his compound in the grip of preparations.
"Black Company, I have been expecting you," the Prefect said, surveying the four dusty and nondescript men that stood in the yard, reigns still in their gloved hands.
At a gesture, the four horses were taken for tending and the men were following the Prefect into a relatively quieter office. The sun was a brilliant gold, searing shafts stealing in between louvres that had been cracked to admit what breeze there was. The four men removed their gloves and outer robes and gratefully accepted a cool earthen mug of sweetened water.
"It appears we arrive at a busy time, Lord Prefect," Khule said, the sound of men outside carrying into the office still. "I was not aware that word had been sent ahead or that we had been marked."
"You were not discovered. The King.... he sent word of your approach and I have been looking for you. Yes, you have arrived at a busy time. Word of your approach was not all the King sent. He has, at last, seen what appears to be a military build up along the eastern coast. It is pushing towards us, gathering up momentum. To what end, I do not know. The tribal leaders here are uneasy. They speak of war, fomenting rebellion. Their leader is known to you, I believe. He has made no threat, sent no signal of his intention."
"I would expect nothing less of my brother," Khule replied, gambling that the Prefect already know of the connection.
"Brother? Is that what he is?" the Prefect replied, looking surprised.
"Half-brother. I have not seen him for many years. So, forces gather under his lead, to an unknown end. Your ears are filled with whispers of war and Rhun's warriors have been left idle for too many years. It seems we have arrived here to gather word the King already has."
"Not in vain, I am told. Aragorn is sending the Black Company to follow. Much expanded. We cannot sit here and idly wait. I am told to offer you a choice. Remain and wait for the rest of your Company, or push on ahead and see what you uncover.
"I'll leave you with that to consider. There is much to do to prepare a compound and civilian settlement for possible siege," the Prefect said by way of dismissal.
Another officer, this one senior, showed the four Black Company men to their quarters. Each sat on the corner of the cot, pleased to be out of the sun and yet with itching feet.
"So, wait or go now," Berlas said into the silence.
"I didn't come all this way to make their beds up and light a lantern for the rest of them," Wulgof growled.
"Besides, the sooner we start out, the sooner we can have useful intelligence for them when they get here. It's what they would do in our steads, isn't it?" Loch added.
"My guess is that the Prefect already has some intelligence. There is a lot of preparation going on out there on a mere chance. A lot of labour, a lot of supplies, a lot of coin," Khule observed.
"Intelligence he won't share...because of Khor?" Berlas asked.
"Possibly...or because the Prefect can't verify it," Khule replied.
"Well, that's that then. Unverified intelligence is next to worthless," Wulgof said and the other three nodded.
Before dawn the next day, their four cots were abandoned though their departure was unmarked.
To Hanasian, it seemed Rosmarin was both relieved and bothered by the business she had done. There was a certain weight lifted from her, but there seemed to be a different if lighter load put on her. Her mind was obviously pondering what it all meant.
Videgavia was more than happy to hand the leadership back over and Hanasian fell back into the captaincy well. It seemed to him that he had fallen into a month-long sleep and dreamed of the extreme happiness he felt while away alone with Rin. Watching her addressed her stocks of herbs and liquids and pondering in deep thought made him smile. They were together, and now that they were back and the official business was taken care of, a load seemed to have been taken off of him as well. It was also good to get Mecarnil and Farbarad back from their seeming endless concentration on Cardolan. Timely as well for there was work to be done.
With the new recruits working day in and out on the regimen of soldiering, some few fell out. As they did, some few late to the call or showing keen interest in joining were vetted and some joined in. The number remained around one hundred. These first several days under Mulgov's iron hand managed to draw out their various proficiencies, and Hanasian made sure these strengths were recognized and developed. Those that were good with the bow were assigned to Foldine, who was probably the second-best archer in the company. The best, Berlas, wasn't available. Those who had a tact for close knife work were assigned to Videgavia. Those who had a sense of subtle agility were assigned to Mecarnil. The brothers Daius and Donius took a few of the less physical recruits who had various useful skills of hand and mind, like writing, navigation and languages. With training come minor accidents, and with Hanasian keeping his eyes out for anyone who had special skills, he did his best to best fit them. Rin tended most of the wounds, but she couldn't be everywhere. So it was that three recruits who showed some ability in tending wounds were brought to Hanasian's field tent one afternoon.
"Welcome. Give me your names please."
The four stood, taken aback by the casual demeanour of Hanasian's after the strict dogma that Mulgov used. Did he want their names, or their Company tags?
The a tall skinny man from Lebannin, spoke first, "Sparks."
Hanasian nodded and looked at the next Gondorian recruit. Taking the cue from the first man, he gave his tag as well, "Rocks"
Hanasian was already looking at the third, who was a big man with exotic looks.
Hanasian paused and eyed him carefully before saying, "I see… you can go back to your assigned unit."
Hanasian pondered the man for a moment before looking to the last recruit. A short youth who had an innocent look in his eyes. He stood as tall as he could and said,"Bells… well, it was Two Bells but it seemed to have gotten shortened already."
"I didn't ask you to explain it, just give it. Why do you want to join this company Two Bells? Adventure? You ever kill anybody?"
A clicking swallow was heard as his mouth opened and closed in silence.
"Very good… Vid has gone over the rules well. Now, you three are here for a reason. It was reported that you stepped out to tend to wounds some of your comrades had suffered. It shows compassion if not the skill however small. You will be…"
A noise was heard outside, a voice grumbled as it approached. Hanasian cracked a slight smile as he recognised it. Soon it could be clearly heard that it was about the situation….
"… how does anyone get in the way of a practice spear throw? They line up in a row, count down...what, did they not see him standing there? These men will slice each other up and it's me that is running to and fro trying to keep them from bleeding to death…"
The tent flap opened and closed, and Rin stood daubed with blood stains and looked rather harassed. She paused as she saw there were others in the tent.
Hanasian seized the initiative immediately right off, "You know our healer Rin. Rin, meet your apprentices."
Rin had not expected that there would be others in the command tent when she had received word of Hanasian's summons. In the walk from her last patient, she'd been turning over her plan to manage the much expanded Black Company. The sticking point was the time and expense of the plan. Farbarad had been at her to resume training. Every day, morning and afternoon, he told her she needed to train. Unfortunately, every day had seen Rin up to her ears in blood, strains, sprains, broken bones and bruises. So she had not had to point out the obvious to Farbarad. All she had to do was gesture around her and he would shake his head and move on with his business. Were the apprentices his idea or Hanasian's? Hanasian had not breathed a word of it.
She surveyed the three faces. One, a child's hope still in his youthful face. Another, a bean pole of a man. A third, a veritable impassive lump. Her eyes went back to the youth and she found herself wondering what would show in his face at the end of a terrible day of gore, killing, death. A chill of premonition skated down her spine and she rolled her shoulders to free her thoughts and corral them back to the present moment. The youth swallowed hard, and had started to sweat. She frowned slightly, flighty healers were bad news, and then realised she had been staring at him.
"Apprentices," she repeated, bringing her eyes to Hanasian and noted the small smile on his face.
"I am a benevolent commander," he intoned, smile growing as she raised an eyebrow at him and returned for a second look at the three apprentices.
"I wonder if they might agree with you when all is said and done," she murmured, "I'll admit, three apprentices is a much better idea Hanasian."
"You had other plans?"
"Well, half formed...problematic. I had thought to train the whole lot of them in basic things, add a small kit to their pack....but the Anfalas boys would need to come up with over one hundred kits and as for time to train so many...three is much more manageable. Why these three?"
One of the recruits was careful to keep his smile from his face as Hanasian and Rin discussed the merits of the apprentices. For days he had been wrestling with the problem of legitimate proximity. His target was well protected, deep in the bosom of the Black Company. When she wasn't working, which seemed rare, she was in the company of her husband or the inner core of the Black Company. It would take him months to penetrate that inner core, presuming the right circumstance emerged to differentiate himself from the horde of new recruits. Worse, his target was not the sort of woman to just idly strike up conversation and she was more strongly reserved than any siege wall around people she didn't know. Only last night he had considered becoming one of her patients, as that seemed to him to be the only way to obtain legitimate proximity. Something sufficiently serious as to require protracted treatment. It was a bad plan, because it would require him to move far more swiftly than he had prepared for.
And now, for something no more than slapping a quick bandage on a bleeding Gondorian woman. It had been an unconscious decision, one born of years of military service. Spend enough time in the field and you acquire enough knowledge to serve yourself and your fellow soldiers well. True, those around him were not colleagues, but there had been nothing gained by having the small female recruit bleeding out there on the training ground. As her apprentice, his problem of legitimate proximity would be solved. A fortuitous advance, this one provided by Hanasian himself it seemed. Yes, best not to smile and to observe all he could. The interplay between husband and wife was crisply professional. There was something about them that told him they were deeply attuned to each other. The smooth flow of their conversation, small gestures and expressions. The discussion ended and Rin turned back to consider her recruits.
"Right...you can stick with me until I know what you can't do."
"I don't need a nursemaid,"
"Excellent,""Because we're fresh out of those. Only thing more dangerous than a sword is a healer who thinks they know more than they do. You'll stick with me, boy, or walk. I don't care which. So. What. Will. It. Be?"
Two Bells would have taken a step backwards if he thought he could get away with it. The Company Healer had drawn very close and had jabbed her index finger into his chest to punctuate her final words. She was taller than him, and in her blood and dust smeared uniform she made a formidable sight. Two Bells was entirely unprepared for her and at a loss as to what to do about it. She was Company Healer and his master, or was it mistress now? She was married to the Company commander. She was a princess, if the talk was correct, and she looked like she would and could happily strip his skin from his bones with a flick of her wrist. Two Bells swallowed hard and decided to remain put and silent. The other two men had acquired a certain small, appreciative smile. The very same smile, Hanasian noted, that Frea and Wulgof acquired after successfully baiting his wife.
"Rin, stop playing with your food," Hanasian said fondly after a moment and Rin stepped back and shot him a truly devious grin.
"Oh, why? For years I dealt with cantankerous, crabby, irritiable masters. It's character forming," she demurred, now calm again.
"Will they do, Doc?"
"We'll know by days end, judging how training is going again. You three, off to Donius or his brother. Tell him Doc wants you kitted up. Hook needles, gut, bandages, antiseptic. Once you have those, join me with Molguv's group."
Rocks turned for the opening of the command tent first and the three new apprentices, Doc's Ugly Ducklings as they would be called by day's end, filed out of the tent.
"Oh, thank you my love," Rin breathed now that no one was on hand to observe.
Hanasian heard the weariness and relief in her voice. He rose and approached her and she leant into him gratefully.
"You should have said something earlier, Rosmarin," he said into her hair.
"I wasn't convinced I had a good solution, and I didn't want to trouble you. You've been as busy or busier than I, Hanasian. Last thing you need is me throwing half baked ideas and complaints at you on top of everything else. You are a benevolent commander, and I am a benevolent wife."
A clearing of a throat saw the two spring apart like scalded cats. Rin whirled to see a tall figure just inside the tent opening, shrouded in a worn grey cloak.
"I trust I am not intruding," Aragorn said, pushing back the cowl of his cloak and noting the way his cousin's cheeks flushed slightly.
Slightly behind her, Hanasian seemed to be smiling as he executed a brief bow.
"I have work to do," Rin said and started to edge past her king and towards the way out.
"Before you escape, Rosmarin. Thank you for signing those documents. Tell me, have you been sleeping well?"
Rin was startled by the initial intensity of Aragorn's gaze but she overcame her surprise and strengthened her will.
"Yes, sire. I have."
"No troubling dreams?"
Rin shook her head, and said nothing of what had skated down her spine before. She didn't know what it meant, what it may indicate. Anything further was interrupted by the sound of Molguv bellowing her name. With a rueful smile, she took her leave and left Hanasian with the king. Aragorn seemed quiet and Hanasian left him to the privacy of his thoughts. Then, after a moment, he shook himself free of them and drew out parchment from beneath his cloak. They bore a familiar seal on them and there were different coloured ribbons. One, green, indicating that the orders could be opened here and now. Blue told Hanasian that there was further instruction to open on the road. Aragorn extended both to him. Hanasian took them, turned to the table and poured out two cups of cooled water. Rin had taken to dropping herbs in their water. This batch had a sweet, wholesome taste to it.
Hanasian broke open the parchment with the green ribbon as Aragorn relieved his thirst. He lowered the cup and uttered a word that Hanasian didn't recognise.
"Your wife's work," Aragorn said of the water and Hanasian nodded, distracted.
"So, back we go, sire," Hanasian replied, finished scanning the orders and Aragorn gravely inclined his head.
Hanasian folded the parchment. Rhun, there again...All he could hope was that it would end better this time than last.