25. Chapter 25
"So, you know where you're going?" Loch asked Khule as they rode steadily down a forest track east of the inland sea.
"Yes, used to live in these woods. Thought it best we slip away from the city this way. We'll be clear to the east by nightfall."
Berlas kept his eyes out through the trees. The Ranger from Ithilien was their best eyes in the forests. The trees were old firs, of a sort that didn't grow readily in the west. Even though it was a sunny day, it was dark and shadowy under the tall boughs. How this enclave of trees survived for so long in a land of axemen was something to wonder about.
As if Khule knew what Berlas was thinking, he said, "Sacred lands we cross. Be careful not to disturb anything. We are allowed to pass on this track, but let us not go off it."
Wulgof, who had been well ahead of the rest, had dropped back and in hearing Khule, said, "What do you suggest we do then. One of these behemoths decided to lay itself down across the track. We can't ride over it, and from what you say, we can't go around it either."
Khule dismounted and walked forward. Looking for sign, he paused, then turned to wave forth the others.
"We can go around to the left. A crude path has been consecrated and will be safe for us."
They carefully made their way around the great crater and roots of the old tree. They even managed to enjoy a brief stirring of the air to break up the stillness under the trees.
"Do you get the feeling that some of these trees are watching us?" Loch asked as they rounded back onto the old track.
Berlas nodded and Wulgof smiled, saying, "Ah son, you're from Dunland, have ye not heard the tales of old?"
Loch grunted and said, "No, who was going to tell me?"
Wulgof said, "You have heard of the trees of Fangorn, yes? Well, tales had it that the west was filled with trees and shepherds, but the men from the sea came and made war on them, and turned the trees into ships and houses and such. They did not listen to the voices and permit some to thrive, but cut down each and every one. Our people lived in the trees, and the men from the sea drove us back with the trees, where now only a few remnants clung to the valleys of the mountain streams that poured down from the melting snows of the Misty Mountains. These trees are watching us. They remember."
Loch moved a bit faster. They would be out of the wood by nightfall, but they would not have a fire. They would dine on some of the fresh foods they acquired from the Prefect's stores. Maybe it was Khule's knowledge and skill, or maybe everyone knew where they were and kept clear, but they ran into not one soul on their day's trek. The darkness was complete, and before the first watch was set, they talked a bit.
Khule said, "Note this in our report… things are very quiet… almost too quiet."
Berlas had taken to keeping a log of their journey, keeping notes and such. Hanasian would appreciate it if nobody else.
"Duly noted," he said as Khule pondered, nodding acknowledgment.
Khule then said, "Well change up the watch tonight. Loch, you have first. I'll take second, then Berlas, then Wulgof."
"Why the change?" Wulgof asked.
Khule answered, still pondering his thoughts, "Because I want our youngest and sharpest eyes and ears open early this night. I'll watch after, and if nothing happens by then, it will be a quiet night."
"You suspect something?" Loch asked as he looked about the dark.
Khule answered, "No… well perhaps, but its probably nothing. You just stay aware, but don't move unless you absolutely have to. Come get me if something seems imminent."
Loch nodded and his eyes stared across the rolling grassland. He looked back toward the wood that stood black against the starlit night to their west. A cool chill settled over the land with a slight north breeze, but by the second hour all was calm. Dew was starting to form light ground fog started to cover the land. When Khule awoke, He found Loch looking off to the west. He didn't even flinch with Khule's silent arrival. Loch was learning company life well. He could smell a brother approaching.
"What do you make of that over there?"
Loch pointed toward the woods, and Khule leaned forward as if it would help him see further. Over by the edge of the wood, a small glow could be seen. Maybe embers from a fire, but Loch did not see any being lit. There was also no smoke rising. Khule dropped his satchel and took his knife out.
He said, "Sorry Kid, you'll have to watch a bit longer. I'm going for a closer look."
And within seconds, Khule slid from sight into the gathering fog. Loch was a bit worried and wondered if he should wake Berlas or Wulgof, but he stayed in place and waited and watched. As it grew close to Berlas's watch, Loch thought he heard something. He nearly ran Khule through when he appeared but stayed his hand. Khule was wet with dew and his own sweat.
"Just as I feared. We're being tailed. Not sure what the glow was, as I wasn't able to get close. But no time to worry about that. Quietly wake the others and we'll walk out leading our horses. We need to move…"
And in the early morning darkness, the four moved on silently yet swiftly with Khule leading the way.
The morning light found the Prefect sitting outside looking east smoking his pipe. His chief warden came with the last pouch of it.
"Hopefully more will come with the party coming from the west, but I think they will have other concerns than pipeweed. I thought we had a store of it?" The prefect said at the news.
His warden mumbled something about it being used up, but he was troubled, for he was sure he had stowed several pouches from the last keg before he traded it to Khor many months ago….
"I take it the King's scouts have left?" The prefect asked.
"Yes sir, early it seems, though nobody noted their movement," his Warden answered.
He didn't say that he noted it and sent some men to shadow them. No word has come back from them though as they seemed to have lost their trail almost immediately? He needed to send runners out for them, and to get word to Khor…
"I would have liked to have spoken to the leader... Khule again, but no loss. Did we send anyone to follow them?" the prefect asked.
His Warden answered, "I did send some trackers to follow but they sent word that they disappeared almost immediately. I hope to have word from them soon."
It was then the Captain of the Easterling Gondor Legion called, and the Prefect dismissed his Warden with instruction to see if he could find more pipeweed. The Captain was grim.
"What is it?"
The Captain spoke, "It seems word in the legion is an army from Gondor is coming?"
The Prefect scowled and said, "No, not an army, just the Company that was here before."
The Captain nodded and said, "I see. I'm just a bit concerned."
The Prefect stood and asked, "What is your concern? Speak freely."
The Captain scratched his bearded chin before speaking, "Well, of late things are unsettled. The Legion seems to be content but there is talk of wanting to do more. I'm afraid this idea from the east may be affecting the men. They want to follow in their fathers footsteps, and I think many will desert to the east, or try and join the company. Already a few have deserted."
The Prefect foresaw trouble and it seemed the situation was deteriorating faster than he expected. He always thought he had agents in his house, and even more so now.
The Prefect nodded, and asked, "And where does your loyalty lie?"
The captain fidgeted and said, "I support the Western Clans and they wish to have peace with the west. But this may be seen to be best served by joining the ones who fought here before."
"I see," said the Prefect.
The Captain continued,"Well, joining the Company still serves the King. And it is known that they are sent where the fight is, and this appeals to many of the warriors. Many wanted to follow Khule before but they were too young. They have not forgotten."
The Prefect thought a bit. Maybe he could use this to his and the King's advantage. He said, "We'll discuss the options when the Company gets here. They may be rewarded should they stay in line now."
"I will let them know," The Captain replied, and with a salute he left pleased with this outcome.
He hoped the men he sent out in search for the four Company men were successful.
Khule and Loch were quite tired, having not gotten any sleep the night before. Berlas and Wulgof were a bit more alert, but they didn't know the land. They all were exhausted when Khule called for a rest in an old barn.
Loch went out as soon as he lay down in some old hay, used to sleeping rough. Khule leaned against the wall and dozed off, keeping an ear awake in typical company fashion. Berlas watched, and Wulgof made up some of the dried rations for everyone to eat. Their horses enjoyed the old hay in the barn, and for now, they hoped they were out of sight. They would move on again after nightfall.
Not far off, a squad of men had watched. It was one of the younger soldiers who said, "It is him! He is in command of this squad of men!"
His sergeant hushed him, but he and the other ten guys were excited. They were all like-minded and wanted to report back to the Captain that they had found the Black Company men.
The sergeant said, "Our squad, who we see as our clan, have risen in the Gondor Legion, and as a squad we will go forth. Even the one who runs word back to the Captain will be with us. Seth, you were last to join us, so it is up to you to get word back. Then, return as fast as you can. I do not know how this will go, but we will have advantage in numbers. Seth, you go now. The rest of you, with me!"
Seth set out quickly, knowing he had the most important errand. What the Captain did with the news he didn't know. He just wanted to get back. Had the four Company men remained a day at the Prefect's quarters, it would have been harder, but it seemed this was the opportunity so many wanted… he ran faster.
The sergeant set his men save one in order and they walked in step straight toward the barn. The lone man scurried along a slight fold to their right, getting a good view of the rear of the barn. He would be able to see if any slipped out, though the westering sun was starting to throw long shadows.
Berlas noted the movement of men, down to the detail of the runner heading out. He didn't see the flanker but he assumed there would be one. When he saw the approach of the ten men, he tensed, then had Wulgof wake Khule.
"Khule, I think some friends of yours are coming to visit."
Khule silently watched the approaching men from the barn door.
"Mmmm, they walk in step like Easterling army regulars, but just off enough to show they are not veterans."
Wulgof frowned and Berlas asked, "What do we do?"
Seeing they were well outnumbered, and more could be close, Khule realised it would be futile to either resist or try to slip out. He sighed as Loch now joined them at the door.
"Invite them in. If all goes well, maybe we can have a fire tonight."
In the time approaching deployment, activity became frenetic within the Black Company. Few beyond the Old Company knew where they were going to. Training, supplies, finalising squads and weeding out any obvious unsuitables all had the Old Company up to their ears with things to do. Hanasian poured through intelligence reports from Rhun over the past two years. Videgavia took up the record keeping and general day to day ordering of preparations. Farbarad remained on the look out for any hint that a New Company brother or sister was anything other than they appeared to be.
Mecarnil thought he had a streak of good luck. Despite being abysmally busy training apprentices and tending to the expanded Company, Rin adhered to her responsibilities and undertakings without complaint. He handed her a battered old history tome on Cardolan and expected it to be tossed at his head or onto the fire. Instead, she not only read it but memorised it! He suggested she attend any meetings concerning the selection of Cardolan's Prefect and expected to have to drag her there. Rather she attended voluntarily, punctual and properly presented, well informed as to the candidates and prepared to offer well reasoned opinions on their merits. No curses, no disappearing acts, no arguments, no bribery. It certainly made his lot easier, and about time too is what Mecarnil thought.
Yet as busy as it was, it was running like a smoothly oiled machine. A commander with Hanasian's experience knew that this would come to an end. It had just gone too cleanly for too long. There were the usual pre-deployment hijinks. Hanasian did not anticipate that his wife was the master mind of the whole affair but he was unsurpised to learn of Molguv's involvement. Excepting Rin, all made a clean escape and this was the plan. His wife was discovered dangling from a rope mid way between the embrasure of the seventh level and the level the Company barracks were on with the purloined goods on her person. A neat diversion for the City Watch. Hanasian found her in the city jail, busily working on the lock with the concealed pick kit she had smuggled in. The city guards were prepared to one of the nobility. They were not about to turn her clothing inside out, or treat her roughly. Hanasian knew where they would have had of searched to locate that kit. She was the perfect diversion, for of them all, she would receive the best treatment and have the best chance of escape once captured. And, Hanasian knew, with the stunt Rin had planned it was certain that someone would be captured.
Were it not the night before deployment, Hanasian may have been inclined to leave her there. This was precisely the sort of stunt he expected of the Dirty Three. But, Hanasian did not have plans for the night with these men. He had plans for his new bride, the woman who was trying to break out of lawful custody at that moment. He settled into a shadowy alcove and watched her work. She muttered things under her breath and expertly manoeuvred her tools.
"Why won't you give? You're a standard lock, nothing special. I've met your kind before a dozen times or more..."
"Rust," suggested a gap toothed man helpfully through the bars between their cells.
Then, a satisfying pop. Rin swiftly stowed her kit out of sight again, cracked open the cell door and slipped out on silent feet rather pleased with herself. She almost padded into Hanasian in the dim light. He was not a cruel man, but he enjoyed the expression of open surprise on her usually composed face. Rin was not an easy woman to unsettle.
"For a moment there, wife, I thought I may have married your brother. What possessed you to break Faramir's office?"
"And out again, and Faramir's and not Aragorn's," Rin pointed out.
Hanasian heard her pride in her accomplishment in her answer and found himself exasperated.
"Vid asked me to train the women. Tonight was a... graduation exercise. Did they all make it back?"
"That's my girls," Rin said fondly.
"Mecarnil will have a fit," Hanasian said and Rin shrugged coyly.
"Mecarnil doesn't have to know, does he?" she asked, wide eyes aimed squarely at him.
He knew what she was doing. Was absolutely aware that she was using her attributes on him in the knowledge that he greatly appreciated those attributes. And, despite being aware, her ploys were working. Those eyes! He could happily drown in them.
"I left Faramir a note, explaining," she said winsomely.
"As a matter of principle, this can't happen like this all the time," Hanasian persisted, unable to look away from her, "You can't bat your lashes, wind a strand of your hair around your finger and press into me like that and expect I will capitulate."
"Just this once, perhaps?" she asked, voice soft now and that devious smile of hers twitching at the corners of her mouth.
Marriage, Hanasian concluded, was enjoyable and he knew this would not be the last time. Rin's smile broke free outright when she saw an answering twinkle in his beguiling grey eyes. Hanasian grabbed her hand and whisked her out of the jail with words of debts being settled in a manner of his choosing. Though Rin thought she might like that very much indeed, she wisely said nothing of it.
Instead, as she was towed through the city streets and dusk, "Why didn't you leave me there?"
"It's the night before deployment," Hanasian replied, intent on their destination for the evening.
"I'm ready to go, the Ducklings are too," Rin persisted and Hanasian turned to face her.
She cocked her head, open curiosity, and he could she had a number of questions lined up as per usual.
"Because, it's the night before deployment," he repeated more slowly, particular emphasis where it belonged.
Understanding dawned in her expression then and he was pleased to see her questions fade. After all, they were newly weds. There was more than one way to work off pre-deployment nervous energy and it would be some time before they had any privacy to speak of. There was a private dinner, and then the matter of that special something he had been saving for a night like this. Saving for his thief, his wild love, his wife. No time to waste!
When Wulgof woke Loch, the younger man woke with food on his mind.
"No, not breakfast," Wulgof replied to Loch's rumbling stomach.
Yawning, Loch rolled to his feet and stretched out his spine. He hadn't been asleep nearly long enough and it wasn't fully dark yet.
"Company," Berlas offered him by way of explanation.
Loch nodded and headed for the ladder to the hayloft. He scrambled up that, more squirrel than man, cracked the smaller door at the rear of the barn, and spotted the flanker. Loch whistled this fact to the three men below, nocked an arrow in readiness.
"Ready for anything, nothing hasty," Khule said as the men outside continued closer.
They halted outside, still in formation and hailed Khule by name. Khule blink in surprise, Wulgof scowled in eternal suspicion and Berlas shrugged.
"Who wants to know?" Khule asked and was given a name in return that meant nothing to him.
"Have they got breakfast?" Loch shouted and Wulgof rolled his eyes.
"We do!" said the leader of the men outside.
"Good enough for me," Loch muttered upstairs.
Berlas shook his head, convinced that the scout would do just about anything for just about anybody if there was food or ale involved.
"Just you at first, for a polite conversation. No sharp edges," Khule said and the leader outside inclined his head and approached slowly, hands held open and out to the sides.
By the time the man reached the barn doors and slipped through them, Wulgof and Berlas both had their swords drawn but tips resting on the ground. The man peered at Khule intently, eyes bright in the dim light within the barn.
"It's you. Khule," he exclaimed, staring openly.
"Do I owe you money?" Khule asked, not entirely in jest despite how the man's face split into a broad smile.
"You joined the Black Company," he said.
"Aye, as did those two leaning on their swords now," Khule warily replied.
"And that third with a bead on my man," said the other, "Do you command the Black?"
"I lead this lot," Khule said, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
"Would you share our fire this night, Khule? You and your men. Would mean a lot to us if you would."
"And why would you share hearth and food with us?" Wulgof asked leerily.
"Because he is Khule," the man replied and Khule signalled Wulgof to silence.
"Gladly, we welcome our fellow brothers," Khule replied, falling back on the old rituals, and with that the man slipped out and called instructions to his fellows.
Wulgof was swift to query Khule's decision in the man's absence.
"Was that wise?"
"We'll stay on our toes. Don't drink the mares milk, and you should be fine," Khule answered.
"What's wrong with the milk?" Loch's asked from the loft.
"It's the sorriest case of hero worship I've ever seen," Berlas commented and eyed Khule, "What's the history here?"
"It's nothing. I just don't like killing people I don't have to. Simple as that," Khule said uncomfortably.
Little more could be added for those outside entered the barn. A fire was started, a meal was prepared and through it all, men stared wide eyed at Khule as if they couldn't believe their luck. Berlas and Wulgof hoped things wouldn't go sour when they learned that Khule, like any other man, had clay feet. Loch was preoccupied with the food. Of the Black Company quartet, it was Loch who struck up conversation and laughter and the other three were able to glean much from what Loch was able to prise forth with his amicable manner.
A moment of peace before the storm… Hanasian and Rin took the opportunity to withdraw from the hectic intensity that was this expanded Company. With everyone having orders to carry out before morning, they managed to slip away to the city where Hanasian had a room in the palace. There, he held out something that hung gracefully from a hanger. It was something he had had made for her, but wasn't ready by the wedding day.
So he said, "I don't know if you will like this, but I'm sure I will. Anyway, this is for you."
He gave her a kiss as she took it from him.
"I'll go try it on!"
It was of two parts. The first was a white long gown, very light but satiny smooth, ever so slightly transparent. It clung to Rin's curves and flowed free in the breeze as she walked, teasing Hanasian with glimpses that only became hidden when he looked harder to see her features. The second part was a whisper thin wrap that went around it. Long-sleeved, it added another layer of mystery to her curves in a subtle. The feathery trim was a distraction though, and it seemed they wanted to fly free. Next time, he would omit the feathers. Still, he concluded, he was indeed enjoying the sight. Desire for his wife filled Hanasian as she drifted towards him.
He embraced her and kissed her long, letting his fingers slip ever so slightly over her silken clad back and shoulders. This soon led to evermore intense kissing and soon they fell to the bed. His fingers found her wetness, soaking through the gown and making it further transparent. He gripped it and pulled it tight around her, and kissed her hard. Rin had been busy herself. She worked him out of his breeches and boots, and he helped shed them. She was going to remove her wrap but he prevented it, kissing her and pressing himself to her. He teased her with his hardness as it slipped up over her with the light silk between them. Her gasps and his growing intensity had it slid up her thighs just enough for him to slip into her tightness!
They both nearly exploded then and there. But their lovemaking went on and on, with his hands pushing her feet up by her head. He slid in and out of her with an intense ease that she squeezed hard. Faster and faster he started to move, pounding her with each thrust. She started panting and gasping, and this pushed Hanasian over the edge. He exploded with such intensity that he slipped out of her. Sliding up over her, he splashed her a little before slipping back into her to finish unloading. Both panting hard… he collapsed atop her and they held each other. After a few minutes Hanasian raised up and reached for a flagon of water nearby. Drinking some, the drops that escaped fell onto Rin and turned yet more of her gown translucent. He held the flagon to the side so she could drink some of the cool water. Soon after they both were sound asleep, entwined together in the late summer evening.
The morning seemed to come all too soon for Hanasian. Waking with the first sign of daylight, Hanasian extracted himself from Rin's embrace and she rolled away with a moan. Now only wrapped in her gown, and feathers fitfully drifting here and there over the floor of the room, Hanasian stroked her flank.
"Time to arise my love. The day begins," he softly said to her.
Rin's response was not unexpected. She grunted and burrowed deeper into the covers. Hanasian began, then, considering extending their time alone further. However, the outside world was not inclined to make an exception on the newly weds this day. Hanasian's thoughts were interrupted by a tap on the door.
"Message from the King. He needs to see you right away!"
The voice echoed through the door before Hanasian got to it. He pulled the door open, and the messenger handed him a parchment with the King's seal on it.
"Your orders. I think there has been some change in plans made overnight. Please hurry, he wants to see you forthwith."
"I'll be there shortly," Hanasian grunted and with that, the messenger departed with a salute.
Door closed, Hanasian turned to look over at his wife. Rin had stirred, curiosity rousing her and she had her head resting in one hand as she studied him expectantly.
Hanasian said, "You best get ready. I've been summoned to the King's chamber. You are welcome to come along if you so choose, but I think he wanted me there moments ago."
"You go my Love," Rin said, "I'll get ready and will meet you on the field."
Hanasian had pulled on his dark grey leather breeches, and cinched up his dark grey leather vest. He didn't bother with a shirt and stomped his boots on. His belt with two knives and a couple pouches attached was all he had on when he left to see the King…
Hanasian arrived at the King's chamber, and was summoned to enter.
"Welcome my friend," Aragorn said distantly as he sat looking out a window facing east.
He did not turn to greet Hanasian. Looking at the light upon the King, Hanasian could see that he had not slept.
"M'Lord. I came as quickly as I could. Pardon my appearance, for I was expecting to take to the field by mid morning. Even now the men are gathered for their morning meal."
Aragorn stood wearily and turned. To Hanasian he appeared much older than when he last saw him. The only other time he had seen such a dramatic change in him was when he battled with Sauron with the Palantir. Then, the greyness came to the edges of his beard and hair, and lines spread toward his eyes from his temples. Now he was a bit more greyer, and getting out of the chair seemed much more of a burden to him. But he quickly shook it off, and came to Hanasian and clasped his forearm. He was again himself.
He said, "It appears I have misjudged the stability of the east. With our recent troubles in Harad, my eyes did not look as hard as they should have. Then when I did, my vision was obscured. So too when I used the seeing stone, as if the lost Ithil stone was preventing me from seeing. But last night I awoke with a fear that something was amiss, and I sent my will into the stone to see clearly into the east.
"There was a power there that I had to wrest with. Not like that of the accursed Dark Lord, but one strong enough that it took most of the night for me to completely subdue. It remains a mystery to me, but I can see that trouble brews to a boil even now in the east."
Hanasian took a deep breath. Grim tidings and the Company was to set out today for the east. Hanasian asked, "Any word on my men which set out east?"
Aragorn paced a moment before coming to a standstill, "Yes, they are well, and they know that their eyes and ears are my eyes and ears. An interesting development had occurred though. It seems that the Black Company has become legend among the young warriors since you were last there.
"They seem to think Khule is a great general and they rally to him. He seems to take it all in stride, and has used this to recruit a whole company of Easterlings under the banner. But I wonder where their loyalties lay. As for Khule… Videgavia said he was a solid commander. What say you?"
Now it was Hanasian who paced a moment before he answered, aware of just what might hang on his words.
"He was quite useful to us when we met him in the east, and with some things he had to do then, made some powerful enemies. I question not his loyalty, and I am sure he has reason to be doing what he is doing."
"That is what I hope. Berlas, Wulgof, and young Loch seem to be going along with it. But that is not the least of our worries. There are undercurrents across Rhun, and this isn't some fear driven rebellion such as we had in the south recently. This is much deeper.
"So I have summoned the army to prepare, and I've sent word to King Eomer that his aid is needed. You will go today as planned, but you must make haste. For I fear we may be too late to stop that which is coming."
The sun had broken over the eastern mountains as Aragorn and Hanasian spoke and poured anew over maps of Rhun. They discussed the clans and loyalties, and the undercurrents if restlessness that was working its way through the land. The loyal government was eroding. The young warrior class either deserted the Guard and went away east to join Khor, or it seems had banded together in the guard under a code of the Company. Sending Khule in and with word that he has returned to the land of his birth, may have emboldened this group. But it was too early to tell.
Finally, it was time to go. Hanasian took two parchments from the King as he prepared to leave.
Aragorn said, "Take care of yourself, Hanasian. Give my best to Lady Rosmarin."
"And please give my best to your Lady, Queen Arwen. Namarie."
Hanasian made his way to the camp, looking for his beloved. It seemed everyone was in order, and the new recruits could even keep time. Hopefully most of them come back.
Only a day after the Company set out that the situation in the east seemed to melt. The Prefect was assassinated by a poison dart as he ate breakfast. Three senior clan chiefs were felled by internal rivals. It seemed the revolt had tipped its hand, either by chance or by plan. Regardless, chaos quickly ensued.
The four Black Company men had a good evening talking and eating. They even got some rest while one of their number kept watch. It was relaxed. The next day dawned clear and quiet, this peace broken by a young runner steaming in full speed. The youth spoke to his sergeant in their Easterling language; the sergeant became concerned. Khule too took note, and he signalled to Wulgof that things were going sideways quickly. That said, Khule was impressed that the sergeant kept his men well ordered.
He said to Khule, "This is our runner. He went to get word to our captain that we had found you. It appears he got word to him, but this morning the Captain fell. There has been some sort of uprising. The Prefect and some chieftains have been assassinated; fighting in the ranks of the guard erupted. Fortunately the code of the Company had prevailed with much loss. The instigators were crushed at the palace and around the lake, but things remain uncertain."
Wulgof looked out the back as he said, "I knew something was up when we were there. I could feel it."
Khule hushed Wulgof and Loch took to the loft to regain his vantage. Khule mumbled, "Great, This is just great. No sooner do I get here then a civil war breaks out."
The sergeant said to Khule, "It seems the guard of the code of the Company is coming here. Word of you has reached them, and they all want to join."
Khule rubbed at the stubble on his cheek and said, "I don't have the authority to accept them into the Black Company...."
Wulgof cut in, "Extraordinary times sometimes calls for extraordinary measures, and I think this is one of those times. Besides, if you don't accept them, it is doubtful we will live to see the end of the day. We'll have to worry about the details when our Company gets here... if they get here. "
Khule thought about it, and with the first troop marching over the rolling hill coming into sight, he made a decision. Standing up on a step, he said to the dozen Easterlings assembled in the barn, "Right, attend well. You want to join the Black Company? That is good. There are oaths of loyalty to the King of Gondor and rules you will need to know about. We'll go over all that later when time permits. For now, I will swear you all in as honorary members until we get the rest all sorted out."
Each man in turn starting with the sergeant gave a nod and a salute of their fist over their heart. Wulgof whispered to Khule as they did this, "Honorary members?"
"Aye, the Cap sort of did that for Loch and Rin after Tharbad if you remember. Kinda gave them a trial period to decide. This is a version of that sort of thing," Khule said in return.
Wulgof looked unsure, but sighed and said as he turned to face the new honorary members, "Extraordinary times."
Khule said to the Easterlings, "Alright now, We'll do the same to your colleagues when they get here, but I'll need you to make sure they are one of your order. We don't let just anyone in."
"It will be so. We know each other, and have code words to verify. Much has been put into place secretly," the Sergeant said, and he barked some orders to his men and they all filed out of the barn and lined up.
Loch got Khule's attention and held up the small banner he had taken with him, being the apprentice standardbearer. Khule gave him a nod, and he came down and affixed it to a broken length of lumber from the barn. He followed the Easterlings out, Khule, Wulgof, and Berlas after him. The four Black Company men stood in line behind the Easterlings as they watched the others soldiers approach. At first there appeared to be only another dozen, but all told, over fifty had gathered. They all seemed to have given a good account of themselves, and the sergeant seemed alarmed that he did not see certain faces among them. The captain was not the only one who fell, or so it seemed.
They set up camp outside the barn and set defensive positions on the hills around it.
Wulgof, observing this turn of events, laconically said to Berlas, "I guess they're on our side. I wonder what the rest of the Black will say when they get here to find we have expanded the company five-fold?"
"I hope they've done some recruiting as well. I would like to see some more westerners to balance this lot out," Berlas said.
Ever with an eye to the immediate, Wulgof added, "We'll see. Right now I just hope Khule can keep control of these men."
Berlas looked about and glumly replied, "You got that right."
The Company was in full swing when Hanasian first arrived at their embarkation point. To the untrained eye it seemed chaos. Horses, men, a few carts, dust wheeling about; Bear and Molguv were bawling out orders. To the trained eye, however, it was a military Company mobilising. It would take the better part of the day to get everyone across the river by ferry. Frea, Folca and Foldine's hard work in arranging horses for the expanded Company was finally on show. The horses were well chosen animals, the finest available for such purposes and, above all, militarily trained. Moreso than a few who nervously rode them onto the ferry. The carts were the first things across the Anduin.
These held the heavier supplies for the Company was not going secretly but in open force. They held spare weaponry, water and other essentials. A number of crates held vital medical supplies and Rin protectively hovered like a hawk by them. She would have followed them over had Hanasian arrived earlier and had she known what was closing in on her. She had been so very well behaved and compliant, but she was NOT going to wear that wretched plate armour under any circumstances. Her chain mail was bad enough despite the padded under tunic. How she hated the stuff. It was heavy, noisy, hot and it caught at her hair. It made it difficult to move as nimbly.Yet, she knew enough to pick her battles and so had arrived wearing it and both Cardolan Rangers had been pleased with that. Was it not enough?
Rin stood on the bank, hand shielding her eyes from the glare of sun on water, and watched the last of her supplies go across. She had retained few empty spaces, for in field harvesting. The land they would travel through would offer such things that she would be foolish to pass by. She'd already issued out a list of things for the Ducklings to acquire as much of as possible along the way. Nettles of all sorts, a variant of the wondrous aloe plant and a several other things besides. Things they would need to treat the saddle and foot sore Company in the days to come. Her reverie was disturbed by a firm tap on her shoulder and Rin twisted about to catch an eye full of plate armour.
"No," she said flatly, not bothering to find out who held it.
"You have to," Videgavia said and watched her eyes narrow.
Rin turned back to face the river, muttering all sorts of unladylike things under her breath.
"Doc...will you just put it on so we can get under way. They had it made special for you, see. Custom, so it will be more comfortable. Please?"
"Comfortable," Rin snorted derisive amusement, "It's iron. Comfort is the last thing it is. I will not wear it, Videgavia. I won't! I refuse! No. I will not wear it. No."
There was a clatter as Videgavia set the armour down on the bank. It dawned upon him that the two Cardolan Rangers, now nowhere to be seen, had known that Rosmarin would refuse the armour. Could he get away with stuffing her inside it? Perhaps...if he had four assistants to hold her down... and eyes in the back of his head for her inevitable reprisal.
"And, what's more, it think it's wretched of them to send you to do their dirty work. Where are they, eh?" Rin grumbled.
"Hiding," Videgavia sourly said, wishing he had thought more carefully about accepting this task.
He eyed the woman standing next to him sidelong a moment. He could see the glint of chain over her leathers. She wasn't completely unprotected. Mind you, she was also nobility. Royalty. Were he in Farbarad's or Mecarnil's shoes, he wouldn't want to explain to the court why an arrow or errant sword swing had felled a crown princess. Videgavia expelled a long breath.
"Look, just tell them it's far more perilous to put it on at this moment," Rin said, voice thoughtful as her idea took shape.
"How do you figure that?"
"Water. The last thing they need is for me to drown crossing the Anduin, wearing needless armour."
Videgavia brightened at that. She had a point, the crafty woman. He liked crafty women.
"And once on the other side?" Videgavia asked.
"What will be, will be," Rin replied evasively, even more devious than before.
He eyed her sidelong again. Well, less he knew the better. Videgavia nodded, satisfied with this arrangement and moved off. Hanasian's found half of the Company on the far side of the Anduin and most of the other half in the process of joining them. By the time he located Rin, only a few remained for the final ferry to the far shore. Hanasian quickly relayed his tidings to those there and a veritable war council was held on the spot.
"We move fast then," Videgavia surmised and Hanasian nodded his assent.
"Have to...no telling how long it will take the larger force to mobilise and civil war already seems likely," Hanasian replied.
Frea washed his hand over his face at that. Civil war...a truly abominable sort of war.
"Rin, you know anything about this?" Frea asked, scanning Rin's face for some further information.
She shook her head slowly, clearly worried now, "Not a thing. I've not dreamt a thing about Rhun. Glimpses of Loch, that's all. I'm blind as the rest of you."
Rin's swaying braid held a white feather in the weave of her pale golden strands. Hanasian plucked it free, a reminder of fairer and happier things than war. He knew the night they had just spent would be one he would remember to the end of his days. He tucked the feather into his fist but not before Rin spotted it. The soft hint of a smile told him it was the same for her.
"What will be, will be. We've dealt with such things before without the benefit of foresight. We can do so again," Videgavia announced quietly.
"Civil war...messy," Molguv said, rubbing at his face.
Rin's thoughts bubbled with the beginning of an idea. This war would be fought on a field wider than that of battle. It would be a fight for the hearts and mind of the populace. For that, they needed a particular type of warrior that the Black Company had. She was suddenly pleased at her stockpiling of supplies. Enough for Company and Rhun, at least those they met on the way, if she was judicious with their use and they could replenish as they went. Hearts and minds...hearts and minds. No time to get into that now, however. They needed to get across the river and on their way quickly. Loch was in the middle of a civil war and it would take weeks to reach him. Instinctive fear skated through her at that thought.
Soon enough the final ferry was on its way to the far shore. Mecarnil and Farbarad had headed across earlier with Bear to help him maintain order on the opposite bank and to clear away the landing path to ensure they could depart swiftly. So it was, on the final crossing, a tremendous splash was heard off the port side of the ferry. The very side Rin happened to be standing at, watching the river speed by. Ripples spread out and her face was very carefully neutral. Videgavia eyed the Company Healer a moment and chose silence. He didn't see her toss the armour overboard.
When they disembarked and finally formed up, the Company set off into what remained of the day. Not an hour into the ride did Farbarad knee his mount towards the Company Healer.
"Where's your armour?" he asked and Rin's eyes widened innocently. She'd been pulling that stunt on him since she was a baby and he could almost predict what she would say next.
"You know, I haven't the faintest idea. Perhaps it was left behind in that final flurry."
Farbarad nodded at that, unsurprised. It was against such eventualities that he had packed separately another set of armour. But, he'd keep that up his sleeve so to speak, for a time when it was really needed or she really irritated him. Rin watched a mild, amicable smile slowly spread over Farbarad's features and was well pleased by this response. Mission accomplished, she concluded with satisfaction.
They pushed at a reasonable rate that day, pulling in after dusk to set up a cold camp. Deployment was always a tedious, laborious, affair. It was for good reason that soldiers through time have reviled this necessary chore of service. The road to Rhun was a particularly long one. When Hanasian broke open the green ribboned parchment and learned it was now permissible for the Company as a whole to learn of their destination, over one hundred groans and moans were heard. Long as the march would be, it would prove a valuable opportunity. It would give the greener members a chance to learn essential military routine. It would give them a chance to conduct larger, more complex exercises. Rin made the most of such things to weave her Ducklings through them, fine tuning the delicate edge a medic or healer must walk on the field of battle. It was all pretend, all under ideal and predictable conditions. Still, it was better than nothing and maybe, just maybe, this drilling would provide enough habit to get them by in reality. In the terror, the bedlam, the blood and fear of real battle, habit and instinct could save lives. It could be the only thing left.
Understandably, things were a little awkward with the Company. Molguv and Bear routinely despaired of the New Company each dawn and dusk. There were stragglers, those out of formation, those who fell asleep on their watch. There were those who had yet to figure out the difference between a march, a field trip and a holiday. There were those whose faces shone insufferably with the gleaming light of adventure. Best to knock that out quickly and so a punishing pace was set for everyone and it worked, at a price. Each day, at dusk, those needing assistance were dotted through the Company. Each dawn, soldiers grumbled harder about having to get up and continue on. No mutiny, of course. Still, the gloss was being worn thin, mile by mile.
A week into the march, the Company halted for the night. The Old Company were wearily working through hobbling their horses and establishing camp and pickets without complaint. Those of the New Company still with the energy to talk were groaning at another set of aches, pains and blisters. Rin and her Ducklings trawled through the Company, setting to rights what needed to be and only that. There were resources to be conserved and no one rivalled Rin for frugality. Aside from plate armour, she was not a woman to waste anything. Not the slightest scrap. Protests and exhortations bobbed after them from those deemed not miserable enough to require intervention. Gratitude and relief followed in their wake from those who were miserable enough for treatment. Still, as carefully as she husbanded their resources, a week at this pace had exhausted some supplies and a concerted harvesting project on the march was now required. That was a difficult feat to muster if they continued marching at this rate.
Preoccupied as she was with such practicalities, the Dream caught Rin by surprise. She was sitting cross legged by the camp fire, leaning comfortably against Hanasian as she remeasured bundles of dried herbs. The next moment she was elsewhere, unaware that her head had sunk against Hanasian's shoulder and her fingers had ceased their movements. This, in itself, was not unusual. Another weary soldier by the fire. However, Rin's eyes were not closed and it seemed as though she did not draw breath as she stared fixedly at the dancing flames. A signal from Folca alerted Hanasian, who was engrossed with his journal. Aside from this moment, no one at the fire moved or made a sound.
Rhythmic creaking. The smell of brine and pitch and wood. The snap of sheets and the high pitched whine of lines thrumming in the gathering wind of a storm. The half light of sun filtered through angry clouds. The sway of a rain slick deck. Then, disorientation as she lurched onto steady, soldi ground. The sound of desperate panting, air gargling wetly in the back of a throat. It was properly dark now, was the storm that bad? No, night - red sickening, leaping, dancing light. Fire. Fire in the night and the iron tang of blood, fresh, and of terror. Then, something glistened. Streaked with gore and sweat and a gruesome mud made from blood and dirt. A man's arm, straining as he reached ahead of him into the terrible gloom of that night. In his fist, her eyes travelling along the bulge of sinew and muscle and tendon and bone, a rag...on a shard of a plank. No...the sickening firelight illuminated it a moment. Not a rag. The Standard. The gargling, straining breath. Whispering something over and over and over like a prayer. 'Please, please, please.'
The camp fire gave off the pungent scent of burning herbs. Rin's reaction had been visceral denial. She lurched away from Hanasian's shoulder and pushed everything in her lap away in refusal. No. It cannot be. It will not be. Rin's heart was pounding and her head swam. That arm, that fist, she knew almost as well as her own. It belonged to Loch. Hanasian stroked her back, trying to restore some calm.
"Not good," Folca surmised.
Rin shuddered and drew her knees up to her chest for warmth. Her shoulders were hunched defensively and her brow furrowed.
"Keep this quiet," Hanasian warned those around the fire, aware that the Company was worried enough.
"Doc, what did you see?" Foldine asked, leaning towards the fire the brush the last of her herb bundles from the flames and add it to the pile he had already saved from a fiery end.
"I saw battle, war," Rin replied tersely before her jaw bunched and she closed her mouth resolutely.
Those at the fire exchanged silent gazes and Rin was permitted her silence, for now. Much later, as they settled into their bed rolls for the night, Hanasian felt Rin's hand steal into his own. Her fingers felt cold, despite the warmth of the night. He lifted her fingers to his lips, and as if that were some sign, she drew closer and clung to him. He let her settle there a moment.
"Long ride tomorrow, my love. Perhaps Molguv's special reserve would ensure you rested tonight?" he quietly murmured into her hair. Some distance away, the bird call signal from one of the Company sentries confirmed all was clear.
"I'm not sure that it would help, dear heart," Rin sighed. Hanasian was reluctant to pry, but he heard the tremor of distress in her voice still.
"Can you yet speak of it," he gently asked.
"It was Loch...it was bad. Battle gone bad. He was clinging to the standard, pleading - begging it seemed. He sounded injured. I do not know if this has already happened or will happen...it wasn't clear. A night time battle gone bad...and ships on the wings of a storm, hastening. I do not know whose and I do not know to which shore or port."
Hanasian stroked her hair, smoothing the tangles from the day in the saddle. After a while he felt her breathing even out and then, the harmless twitches of harmless dreams. He lay there, studying the stars overhead for a long while. Civil war, glimpses of doom past or future. He hoped Aragorn and Eomer's army had mobilsed by now and they would reach Khor in time to prevent whatever it was Rin had seen. The ships...what connection those? On such thoughts was Hanasian carried to sleep, his wife's body warm where it nestled against his own.
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.