28. Chapter 28
"So who's first?" Frea inquired as they gathered around a welcome fire.
The drip of the rain outside made him consider Folca a moment and then grin because cold and rain never failed to put a dint in his brother's imperturbable cheery facade.
"You, since you're so damn happy," Khule replied, "Who're the strangers?"
"That's Ravenclaw…and the young one I sent off is one of Doc's new medics. Not healers, of course, but the next best thing to one. Got three of them now."
"How's Rin?" Loch inquired, eager for news given that he'd not seen her for months.
"Same as ever and I tell you, Kid, you'd better start running now."
"She knows you told. The rest you can figure out for yourself," Frea informed him with a wide grin.
Loch withdrew to chew that over and to see, if all else failed, whether he could lay low with Runner's troop until the heat died down. Maybe a few years. While Frea and Khule exchanged information on the disposition of each arm of the expanded Company, Ravenclaw saw to getting food organised. Warm food would make a welcome change from the cold rations they'd been subsisting on for weeks, especially on a night like this one. He ventured out to locate Bells and was directed to a ramshackle room that was large and poorly lit. Bells was trying to remedy that and Ravenclaw could see he'd been busy weatherproofing it as well. A few people lay within, dwarfed by the size of the room and making the ratio border on absurdity.
"Expecting more business?" Ravenclaw enquired as he ventured in, skirting a puddle as he went.
Bells glanced over his shoulder, nails in his mouth and a hammer poised in his hand. The sight of food, warm food, gave the young medic the necessary incentive to finish boarding over a gaping hole in the wall above the rear window. A few rapid thumps, the clatter of a hammer being discarded, and Ravenclaw was soon left standing with one metal plate in hand.
"Thanks," Bells said moments later, voice muffled by the food in his mouth.
"Don't mention it. Seriously, this room is huge…and I passed at least four that had better walls."
"We'll need those too, make sure they know that out there."
Ravenclaw expelled a breath and glanced at the three men Bells had already placed inside the cavern. He shook his head. Ravenclaw stood to go and Bells hastened to his feet, still chewing.
"Before you leave, could you help me with something?"
"Sure," the larger man answered and Bells grinned in a way that made Ravenclaw wish he hadn't decided to be so agreeable.
By the time Ravenclaw emerged, missing both his cloak and his spare cloak, he had a head full of information that had to be relayed to whoever was heading back to the Company and a damp chill in his bones that he believed would not leave until Spring.
"How's he doing in there?" Frea asked as he returned to the fire.
"Fine, just fine. Someone going back to the Company? I got a skin full of messages from Bells for Doc."
"Bells can tell her himself when they arrive tomorrow. Where's your cloak?"
Ravenclaw growled something under his breath and chafed his hands in front of the flames, "They're all the same, you realise. Mad, cantankerous, argumentative, demand the clothes off your back and the sun from the sky."
"Aye…and they hold your life in their hands when you can't and give it back to you when you can again, no price demanded. If they want the sun, they can have it. If you tell Doc I said that, I'll break your neck."
Khule grunted agreement and Loch chortled from where he was stationed with Runner's group. Dorghat's tales of the Black Company transfixed the young men. Amazed, Runner turned to Loch and asked if it was true that the Company recruited women too.
Loch nodded and tapped his chest proudly, "Aye, my sister was their first and only. My sister, mind you, so careful what you say Dorghat."
"No, there more now," Dorghat interrupted and stared at his fingers as he did a mental tally, "There eight now."
"Eight?! HEY FREA, are there more women in the Company now?"
"Aye," Frea replied, winking at Khule as Loch let out a great whoop of delight and continuing with, "As I said, Khule. A great deal has changed since you lot took off."
Those outside had an uncomfortable night and there was no difficulty getting everyone going early. The light rain broke just before dawn only to return with greater fury an hour afterwards. If marching was unpleasant at the best of times, in the cold rain it was miserable. Donius earned himself not one but two kisses, one for each cheek, when he rigged up cover for those in the wagons unable to walk. He flushed bright in the watery light as the Company Healer spun away, calling a flurry of instruction out to her remaining two medics. One the wagons started trundling, the Company began moving out through the dreary day.
"We have to get this mess cleared up before winter hits," Videgavia called from his sodden hood across to where Hanasian rode.
They reached the city walls, dilapidated if compared to the brilliance of the White City, just after midday. Sitting cross-legged on a large boulder by the road was a figure in a weatherproofed cloak. Rain, fat cold drops, spattered onto his hood and shoulders. The outriders whistled a warning back to the column behind them and held up their hands, suspicious and wary. The figure lifted his head slightly and weighed the sight before him on the trail. Four drenched and mud splattered men on wet horses that flicked rain from their ears with ill concealed rancour and stamped their feet, demanding to be on their way to a stable somewhere. Foldine, Folca, and two he didn't know. Gondorians, by the look of them.
"Well…you could probably use a bath by now, but I would have thought you preferred warmer stuff than this," the figure said.
Foldine squinted through the rain. All he could see beneath the hood was a straggly, unkempt sandy beard.
"Have you anything useful to tell us, Kid?"
"I been working on that for ages! Anyway, streets are secure. You'll find us adjacent to the Prefect's Palace. They're expecting you and I already ate all the hot, fresh food and drank all the ale."
With that, Loch was off his boulder and capered back through the gates like a mad, sodden, puppet, slipping and sliding on the mud. Folca scratched at his jaw and issued the all clear and move on signal. Foldine muttered into his beard. The other two recruits, a woman called Nets for a reason no one understood and Sticks glanced at each other.
"Who was that?" Sparks inquired.
"Company Jester," Folca answered.
"If that toad has eaten all the food, I'll hang him by his heel and use him for target practice," Foldine grumbled.
"He was joking, surely. An entire city's food and ale?" Nets demurred.
"Jester and Gut," Folca clarified and kicked his horse forward and through the gates.
The scene inside was one the veterans had expected. It was grim and one they had seen before too many times. Most paid it no heed, braced themselves against it. The rain and chill did something to lessen the stench of decay but it could not abate it entirely. Bodies lay where they had fallen. Rin was singularly horrified and she became rigid in her saddle. The spectre of disease raised its deathly head and she kicked her horse forward as far as she could because there were things that needed to be seen to immediately. As a result, she rode straight past Loch, was out of her saddle and off in search of Bells before anyone else had dismounted. Sparks and Rocks were forced to scurry after her, packs bouncing as they rushed off. The rest of the Company was more orderly. They pulled up, dismounted, unloaded and filed off where they were directed to, perfectly content to be out of the saddle and the rain. The wagons pulled up and those within were unloaded in the large room Bells had earmarked. Rin paused on her way out again to inspect the direction of traffic. Momentarily satisfied that was in order, she went in search of Hanasian and Videgavia and anyone else she could find in charge.
She found the two men hunkered down with Khule and already in deep conversation around a fire that had been lit in a metal drum of some sort. Khule nodded at her and the conversation paused.
"Yes?" Videgavia inquired and she wasted no time.
"Those bodies have to be properly disposed immediately. I need a detail."
"There is an entire city out there, Rin. We don't have the manpower for that right now."
"I need that detail, Vid. As simple as that."
"Can it wait?"
Rin wiped her hands over her wet face, searching for some way to convey the urgency of the situation, "It already has and too long, judging from what we saw on the way in. How much time have we got? I don't know. I don't know if we're out of it already. I won't know until the first case presents, and then that will become a tide and we will have a plague on our hands and four or four thousand healers will not be enough!
"I need that detail! And quicklime…and shovels… That, or we camp outside the walls – several miles away and to the north, given the force of the prevailing winds of late. And food, it could be tainted. Supplies here will need to be checked. I need that detail!"
With that she spun away and was out in the rain again rounding up men for the unpleasant but necessary task. By nightfall, the immediate area around the Prefect's Palace had been cleared out and the causalities from Khule's detachment had arrived for treatment. Bells' selection of the large room was proven well founded. Time blurred and became indistinct the Ducklings and Rin. Word spread fast that healers were in the city, near the Palace. In the hour before midnight, the first civilian arrived and they spilled over into the other rooms that Bells had requisitioned. Civilians were kept away from military personnel. Any spare cloth was used to section each room, strung up as makeshift curtains to shield the majority of the room from the sight of what went on behind it. In public, they were calm, decisive, organised and in control. Behind that curtain, they were human again as they struggled their way through the initial onslaught. It was terrifying and exhilarating both. There were victories; particularly poignant when an old Palace Guard shuffled in with what appeared to be a mushroom which he said would remedy anyone still suffering the effects of the poisoned darts. He was right, and Bells actually capered about between the stretchers in sheer relief as Sparks clapped out a lively rhythm. There were defeats as well. The worst was a breach birth that Rin just could not save. Too late a frightened child of six had brought in her mother. Their father, as it turned out, had perished along with many of the loyal Palace guards. Just before dawn, the child had lost her mother and an infant brother as well.
Rin sat outside the room, numb and exhausted, staring at the wall of the Palace across the way. Someone had left a chair there. Her hands rested limp on her thighs and there was blood to her elbows and all down her torso. It was quite now, the worst of the initial set up done. Rocks led the child out, glancing at Rin as he passed. A few words passed between Rocks and one of the other Palace guards that had kept a vigil outside. The man placed a gnarled, battle scarred hand on the child's back and led her away. Rock's turned back to consider Rin. She hadn't blinked or moved a muscle aside from her jaw, which she clenched tighter, and tighter. Unlike the rest of them, she'd been working straight since early the morning before. One of the things that could be done behind the makeshift curtains was sleep and she had bullied all three of them into it.
"You should clean up, get some rest," he said, pitching his voice so that she could hear it and listening to it echo off the stones around them.
No response, so he started forward and tried to pull her up out of her chair. He got a response that time, but it was not helping things. Rocks stepped back, head canted and weighing up what to do next when she abruptly stood and shouldered past him. He returned to the ward and got back to business while Sparks and Bells snored behind their curtains. Rin found Hanasian hunched over by a candle, pouring through reports and scratching out notes. They'd taken what had once been a hall of some sort as barracks and around men and women snored, dry, reasonably well fed, warm. She didn't say a word but something made Hanasian look up from his study. Gone was the mask. Absent was the control. Fragile, distraught, exhausted and lost now. Silently he stood and drew her further in. The slightest pressure on her shoulders and she sat suddenly. He rummaged through his packs for cloths and began cleaning away the clotted blood she was covered in. As he worked, she closed her eyes. Her shirt was ruined and he peeled it from her. The chain mail she wore beneath gleamed in the candlelight.
"Too much. You do too much," he murmured, thinking she was asleep.
"I serve," she replied, words slurred around the edges by her fatigue, "As I swore I would."
"A little moderation, every once in a while, is that too much to ask?"
No answer then, because she had fallen asleep sprawled against him. He gathered her up, reached for his papers and continued working until morning proper came. He left her to sleep through breakfast. By lunch he had left with a small patrol to get a direct look at the northern line himself. By mid afternoon she was up again and back at her work in a shirt she had borrowed from his pack. The rain had abated, but clouds hung heavily overhead. Hanasian stood on what passed as the northern walls of the city and studied the sight before him. He could see the Company standard that Wulgof and Berlas had raised. Further ahead, a darker mass on the horizon.
"They're massing," Khule observed from beside him.
"Where's Khor in all this?" Videgavia asked and Khule shook his head.
"No word to be had of him. Could be he's there, or not. The Sagath are…divided."
"Nothing new, in other words," Hanasian said quietly.
"Nothing new," Khule affirmed.
"We need fresh information; numbers and factions. Else we're fighting blind," Videgavia said.
"Aye, it's time the Black got on with the business we know best," Hanasian said as he turned away from the horizon and started back down the stairs at a jog, "Company meet tonight – inner core only. Spread the word. Khule, bring Wulgof and Berlas back for it."
"Aye, Cap," Videgavia and Khule said in unison.
It was the first time since Minas Tirith that the Company was together in one spot. The 'Old Crew' as they referred to themselves now. Hanasian, on Loch's recommendation, had Runner and his messengers be the watch around the room where they met. Their youthfulness had set them apart in their extreme loyalty and enthusiasm, so who else would be better to have as a guard? Outside, a handpicked dozen of Khule's Easterlings and the new Company of Minas Tirith were set in position, and the rest were bivouacked on opposite sides of the Prefect's Palace. The Palace Guard held steady around the palace and the other Easterling units held the front line north of the city.
Hanasian looked about at the eighteen faces and gave a slight smile.
"It has been a long time since we all gathered, or so it seems. It is good to see you all here this night."
He looked at each in the eyes for a moment. The Company had changed so much in such a short time. If only this small crew was the Company still, the course of action from here would be dramatically different than what was to come. But with the Easterling corps that Khule brought in, and the Gondor corps that Videgavia recruited on the advice of the King, they had nearly a hundred and fifty members now. Before the fighting commenced for them, they were near two hundred.
Hanasian said, "You are the core of the Company, and though some have not been with us much longer than all the new recruits from Gondor and Rhun, you were in on your own merits. There will be things we here will be the only ones to know for now. Those of the new Companies that show themselves to be trustworth will be brought in. There are already a few who have shown their worth. If any of you have any who you think are worthy of more development in the Company, then come speak to me about them. Unfortunately most will be just grunts, and will likely be casualties when we move. So you will need to take the necessary precautions for any you take to."
Hanasian started to walk around, looking at the members. His wife sat on a barrel, oddly enough wearing her chain mail. She seemed distracted, her concerns were elsewhere, but she rested while she could.
He shook hands with Videgavia, one of the veterans of their last Rhun campaign. Loch leaned against a pillar, moving a small knife about in his hand with exacting control. The kid looked like a veteran already. A nod he gave when he looked up to see Hanasian looking at him. Wulgof sat next to him, and Berlas next to Wulgof. They seemed to have made some unspoken bond having had come east before the rest. Khule sat alone, already thinking of who out of his company he would like to see live. Next were the Southrons… Mulgov and Morcal, and clustered by the fire were the Rohirrim. Frea, Folca, and Foldine sat and in the flickering orange light they looked similar. The Rangers stood apart slightly, relatively relaxed in their charge for the heir of Cardolan in their midst. Mecarnil and Farbarad eyed just about everyone outside this group with suspicion, but within this group there was no such doubt.
Belegost, the engineer brothers Donius and Daius, Bear, Anras, and Belegost sat around in an arc that brought Hanasian back to Rosmarin. She looked up at him, and unspoken words with an embrace of shadow went between them. He paused and wondered if he still had what it took to do this. He wanted to right then run off west with his love, leaving the rugged life of the Company behind. Maybe when this was done. Maybe… he turned and stepped up onto a large block
"I know it is hard to know them, but try and know their nicknames. I want to record their deeds in the histories. Khule, if you can get the names of those who had fallen in your Company before we linked up, it will be appreciated. I think the others would like to know they are remembered. Vid has done pretty well with the new recruits from Gondor.
Now, the plan. The Gondor regulars will push against the rebels to the north, and with the pressure on, they will likely retreat somewhat. There is rumour that King Bard II has sent his son, Prince Bain II with an army east into Rhovanion to hold the Easterling rebels from moving west. But there are always rumours in war. If it true, it will be a blessing. If not, the Gondor army will hold and squeeze. The horsemen of Rohan and the loyal Easterling Gondor legion will assist them in this. Our job is to deal with the as-yet unknown situation in the east…."
Khule cut in as he stood, "It is not unknown. Khor is out there and he likely has an army of some strength. But my brother is at best unpredictable and plays his hand close. It was how he was even when we were under Mordor's command."
Hanasian let him finish before continuing.
"I was getting to that. Videgavia told me it was the area that concerned the King before he sent the four of you out. It is what we will continue to do now. We go the early morning the day after tomorrow. There will be an attack against the rebels by the Gondor regulars and we will form the right flank of that force. The Gondor legion will be with us and they will press ahead while we slide off to the east as darkness comes. So there will be a hard day of fighting, as this will not be anything easy. It will be a full infantry assault, and with it will come death, wounds, and confusion. We will need to try and keep our core together as best we can.
"Bear, you will be hold back with some of Runner's kids to get enough supply for a week moved east. The men going forward will carry their usual supply for three days. We will be reduced in numbers when we break, but how much will depend on several unanswerable variables. Now, you all get some rest, and get me the names of those you want to look after to me tomorrow. "
Hanasian walked over to Rin and took her hand. There was little else they could do for those in this city. It will be up to the local guard.
"Come my Love, let us get some rest too."
She slid down off the barrel, her mail clinking somewhat. As much as he wanted to, he didn't ask her why she was wearing it this night.
The meeting did not end simply because the Captain had departed with the Company Healer. In fact, their absence meant that another matter could be dealt with. It did not take long because all within the room were in agreement. The Captain and Healer could and would do what they could to look after others. Better to instruct the sun to stay abed or the stars to turn their faces than to attempt to suggest to either individual otherwise. By the time the meeting properly concluded, they had agreed that come what may, two people would emerge on the other side if it were the last thing those gathered accomplished. They had agreed something else as well…the less said of their arrangement the better, lest either one take exception to it as one or the other were likely to do.
Hanasian's hand was warm around her own, strong and steady. They walked the area that the combined Company now occupied, each quiet with their own thoughts. Rin's mind shied onto something new every time she tried to settle it. She was distracted, knew it and little liked it.
"Your mind is so busy I can hear it ticking like a hobbit's fobwatch."
"You're a fine one to talk," Rin replied and he smiled, because it was true and because she was deflecting him.
They walked a little way further, nodding at those who acknowledged their passing. So much galloping through her mind, she scarce knew where to begin. Battle, real battle. Different to anything she had experienced before. Bigger, more frightening. How to prepare for that? How to prepare for the fact that there would be people that would be dead for no other reason than she could not reach them in time. It would be bigger than any strife she had encountered prior to the Company, bigger than Tharbad or Harad. She felt overwhelmed by it and she knew now was not the time for the Company Healer to get a bad case of the jitters. She had three medics and the entire weight of the Company depending on her to have a steady hand, a cool head. She had no way of knowing if she would be equal to what would come. The sheer unknown enormity of it was, frankly, terrifying.
"Medics and Cats," she said, murmuring really.
"The title of your Black Company diary?" Hanasian inquired, squeezing her hand and spotting a brief smile illuminate her features.
"No, those I want to get through. The Ducklings, the Cats…and as many as possible. All of them."
"Ah, well, no small feat then. Rin, you understand that it is inevitable that everyone will not get through."
"Yes, but I do not have to like it. I know we will try our best and that for some, it will not be enough."
For a night that was to be restful, their conversation was taking a decidedly unsettling slant. And she hadn't even gotten to the bottom of what had set her mind spinning like a top. They had to hop over a puddle and when she landed, her chain mail made a distinct jingling noise. Oh, she hated that noise! And it rubbed despite the padded undershirt, dug into places she rather it didn't, and weighed her down. Hanasian glanced down at her mail discreetly, and again decided not to say anything. She knew he wondered, though. It was too early to say anything. Such things were always uncertain so early on and they were hardly in an ideal setting. She could be wrong too. However, perhaps there was a way to broach something important, and related.
"My love, do you recall Henneth-Annun?"
"Frequently, more than once a day," he murmured, lips brushing her ear and making her shiver as a result.
"Ahhh," damn her scattered thoughts, "Remember how we agreed that we would know when it was time to go West?"
"Of course..." Hanasian replied, his mind now spinning because what if she said that time was now?
"I think we know," Rin continued, cautiously scanning his expression and finding it guarded.
"Yes…after Rhun. Do you not sense it?"
"Ah, yes. Of course… Are…are you certain it is not now?'
"It seems right to wait until after this, else we would abandon them mid campaign and I do not know if I could ever forgive us for that. Could you?"
"I could not," Hanasian said, both relieved and a little disappointed at the same time.
"Then, is that what we will do? After Rhun will we go…home?"
The way she shaped the word, the way her eyes had become deep blue pools, the hope that lit her face. He cupped her face in his hands, heedless of who might look on, and kissed her deeply.
"Yes, my love. We will go home after Rhun, by the fastest road and horse available."
Rin stretched on her toes to kiss him soundly, relieved that at least this was in place. The rest would have to unfold, she would have to wait and hope for the best. Until she knew either way, she'd wear the damn chain mail regardless of how it caught at her hair and yanked strands from her scalp. And, tonight would be theirs and theirs alone. She took his hand and pulled him along towards their rest, their calm respite before the mighty storm that awaited them all.
News that the Black would be deploying and the disposition of its personnel were disseminated carefully and promptly amongst the wider Company. The night passed without incident, or at least incident that found its way to the Captain and Healer. The next day was predictably busy with preparations. Weapons, armour, gear, immediate supplies checked and re-checked. For Rin, in addition to all this she saw to arranging the care for those still in the makeshift wards that would not be coming with them. It was an important responsibility and one that required considered judgement.
It would prove to be an uneasy night for most of them and Hanasian or Rin proved no exception. They moved out prior to dawn, during the darkest period of the night, and were in position as planned arrayed along the side of the units that would assist them to push forward and fade east under the mantle of battle confusion. It was an ambitious gambit. Rin glanced to Loch. He had a white knuckled grasp on the Standard and the tension in his shoulders told her that he was as nervous as she was even if he didn't look ready to run screaming for safety. He kept rubbing at his jaw. She knew it was his tell. He was worried.
Rin swept her eyes over the Company's many faces and names, until her eyes rested on Hanasian. They had said their words in private, away from everyone else. Oh she loved him so. There had to be hope, and for her he was it. He would get them through. Then the horns that signalled the start of the attack split the dawn. It had begun and shortly thereafter, the world as she knew it broke apart. The sound as those on the front engaged was like nothing she had ever heard before. Savage, ferocious, steel, screaming men, thumping on shields, the hiss and whistle of spears and arrows, the shriek of pain, the terrible wet sound of bodies collapsing. Yet, in what seemed to be utter chaos, there were threads of order and even logic.
The Company moved in unison, pushing forward with those around them. Momentum was the key. It was like a bloody dance, on a floor crowded with the dead and the dying. It was the most terrible thing she had ever seen and the scale of it was monumental. And through this, somehow, she and her medics had to ply their trade. Impossible! Just impossible, or so she thought until she saw the first one go down, and then there was no time for thought. There was only action.
The Rohirrim were singing, voices fell and bright with battle lust as they fought and slew. Loch's laughter told the Company around him that his bloodlust had taken him. The fighting was intense around the Standard and he was in the thick of it. Hanasian, Videgavia and Molguv divided their attention between directing those around them and waging their own battle. Medics and one healer darted, weaving in and around and in between and delivering punishment to any rebel who sought to target one they had tended. Still, for all that, there were losses as Hanasian had told them there would be. Rowdy, Nets, Stillwater all fell that day.
By mid afternoon, they had crept their way forward and now only had to maintain position until darkness fell. The rebels would not permit them to remain untested and so even this was punishing. Time blurred, the hours stretched and time and again Rin would look for Hanasian and he for her. The dread abated somewhat and the battle dragged on. Later in the afternoon, the rebels tried their hand at a particularly cunning tactic calculated to unnerve and unhinge the Black Company. They began to target the women of the Company.
The tactic failed, partially because the Black Cats were most ferocious when cornered. The response the rebels earned from their targets took them by surprise, for the women were not the softer marks they had believed them to be. What is more, the Black Company men swiftly perceived the tactic and nothing could better galvanise them better. Thus, in the closing stages of the day, the fighting became vicious and savage despite the exhaustion of those who fought.
Blood was everywhere. it was on everyone, and stained the ground dark in the waning twilight. Hanasian had managed to keep the pressure on and it seemed the rebels thought the Company would be the focal point of the main attack. In this they were successful in that it allowed the Gondorians to push into their flank and inflict heavy casualties. For their part, the Company fared well, though not without loss. Of the old company, Anras was slain, as was his picked recruit Sandals. Donius suffered a wound to his arm yet fought on. Loch had a gash above his eye but it didn't seem to trouble him. It was his first battle scar to mark his young face. Belegost deflected a death blow down and seriously injured his foot.
Of the new Companies, the Gondorian recruits suffered the worst in the loss of their number. The Easterling Company fared better due to discipline and training, but still, they now numbered less than seventy. The Gondorian legion of Easterlings were not enthusiastic about the fight, but Wulgof and Khule with some others managed to prevent their retreat. They moved forward as the rebels began to yield. Hanasian seized the opportunity and began pushing his combined Companies towards the east. Part of the Gondorian company set themselves into defensive positions as rearguard under the command of Mulgov while the rest slid away in the darkness.
The Black finally stopped in a field two hours past midnight. The Easterling Company had gathered around Khule there and Hanasian knew that the Black was exhausted from the day's battle and the protracted march afterwards. Defensive watches were set in all directions and many hoped that the rearguard would reach them soon. With the Company now largely at a standstill, Hanasian saw that Rin was diligently tending the wounded that required attention. Most were not life threatening injuries, but could become so if not properly dealt with when the opportunity arose. As a gamble, he sent east a small band of Easterlings, many of them Runner's squad, led by Loch. Though they were boys, Hanasian and many of the others considered them men after their steadfast valour in battle. Berlas accompanied them as well and their orders were to probe east, watch and evade. Unless imminent death confronted them, the small band was not to engage in battle. Hanasian hoped they would return within a few hours.
For most of the others, it was time to rest, sleep, eat, sing, pray, talk or whatever gave them some comfort after the rigours they had endured. It was a day of days for the Black Company. Hanasian tapped Videgavia as he walked by.
"Look Vid, they are a company... all of them!"
Videgavia looked back over the field of shadows. Hanasian went on, "They were seen as the 'New Company', the Easterling or the Gondorian Company. Now they mingle as one Company. It is something that being brothers in arms in battle does to one's soul. May they have peace of mind this night."
Videgavia took a harder look. Another page of the history of this Company has started.
The longer he waited, the harder this was going to be. Working side by side with her for months now, he was struggling to remain as detached as he needed to be. He was a professional. He knew that in order to perform his role he could not get attached to his target or his employers. The longer he spent, the harder it was to fight that grudging regard that threatened to bubble through. After the day that he had just had, and what he had seen, a genuine admiration had taken root. It had been battle, and he'd experienced their like before. But never as a medic, juggling the lives of others with your own at the same time. She had seemed utterly fearless, pressing in where the most sanguine of warriors would have hesitated without a backwards glance, working with flawless concentration. And, when their foes had started to target their fallen, such ferocity and valour had been unleashed and still more when they started to target the women of the Company later in the day.
It was impossible not find yourself respecting someone like that. Though she had seemed fearless, he knew from working so closely with her she had been as frightened as rabbit caught in a snare. It was natural, especially as the lives of her husband and brother hung in the balance with her own. That fear did not diminish his regard for her, however. It only served to feed it, because she had triumphed over it. The regard he felt towards his target extended more broadly to the wider Company, particularly those considered the 'Old Company'. Not a single one in that number he would not be delighted to serve beside under different circumstances. The extent of the betrayal was starting to gnaw at his gut. No matter how he looked at it, it was a great mess and he had no clear idea how to extricate himself from it.
Just as he was starting to nod off on the back of such pleasant thoughts, someone tapped his shoulder and mentioned something about Belegost. He climbed to his feet and followed Foldine to where the soldier was sprawled. There was an interesting mix of men gathered around Belegost. Molguv joined Wulgof and Foldine and Belegost was not in a good way.
"I'll be fine," the man insisted as a shuttered lamp was uncovered to permit a fragile beam of light onto his mangled foot, "Just some blood is all. "
"Blood, and half your damn foot man," he answered, taken aback by the severity of the injury.
It was a marvel that his foot remained intact, given the angle of the injury.
"This is bad, Belegost…really bad….Doc needs to take a look at this."
"She's busy. You do it."
"That's the thing. I'm a medic….you need a healer…either Doc sees this now or she'll be amputating later. Either way, she needs to see this."
"I'll go get her," Wulgof said and disappeared into the night.
All he could do was compress the bleeding, because it wouldn't do to have Belegost bleed out. How long had it been? How much blood had he already lost? Rin would ask him these things. There was a calculation that could be done, she said, based on the size of the person. The range of her knowledge was stupendous. She brushed it aside as just something that had to be. She had told him and the others that a healer working in remote locations had to have advanced knowledge of a range of matters in order to function effectively. He had no idea how she crammed all of into that head of hers and he was slightly in awe of it all. Wulgof returned just as he was working out the final calculations and, as he had predicted, she immediately demanded the information.
"Almost there," he muttered, busy performing mental contortions and as per her usual self she did not the patience to wait and instead asked Belegost when he had taken the wound.
"Ah….well then, what the devil are you doing still conscious?" she answered, having snapped out the calculation in an instant.
"Sorry, Doc," Belegost dutifully said, sounding sleepier by the moment.
"A little light, so I can get a visual map," she asked, setting her hands on his ruined foot.
Foldine cracked open the shutter and if she was horrified she hid it behind that professional mask she said they needed to wear. He could see why. All three of the men were watching her expression like hawks, waiting for some sign of disaster. Instead, all they saw was cool control. She nodded and Foldine closed the shutter on the lamp.
"Won't you need that for stitches," Wulgof inquired, confused.
He knew, however, that stitches were not what she was going to do. Rin didn't answer Wulgof. The task she was engaged in was extraordinarily complex. She'd tried to explain it to him once and it had bamboozled him utterly. There was only one way he knew how to elucidate it to others.
"She's not stitching him up. She's doing something…else."
"What?" asked Foldine.
"Nearly impossible to explain…suffice it to say that what she is doing is the difference between us medics and a healer…and the difference between Doc and any other healer I ever met or heard of for the last two hundred years, give or take."
"Whaever she's doin', it don't hurt no more," Belegost slurred.
He knew it was an elven technique that she had seized upon and then pushed into new bounds. Experimental, she had said, difficult. Brains were impossible, and the maze of hands, shoulders and knees almost so. Flesh too, given the network of muscles and ligaments and nerves and flesh to be knitted together. She had said it was knitting, but she didn't use needles. It required an intricate knowledge of anatomy and the sort of skill that was rarely seen in mortals. For that reason, she had said she would happily part with one of her kidneys for the chance to study the principals of the elven technique from an Elf or, failing that, an elven library. Whatever she was doing, it was as remarkable as it was difficult to understand. For Belegost, he knew it likely saved his life. In field amputations rarely ended well. Best case, Belegost would never be able to soldier again and would be unable to walk unassisted. A man needed his toes for a great many things. Worst case, infection and gangrene would kill him in a slow, torturous, ignominious way.
The only sign that it was done came when Rin shifted position and removed her hands.
"Took longer than it should have, Belegost. I am sorry. I am just…tired…" she said.
Belegost, however was too addled by loss of blood and the remarkable thing that had just happened to him to respond. Rin, a shadow in the night with the faintest of starlight caught in the pale prism of hair not smothered in blood, pushed to her feet as she said she'd need to check in on him later. She managed to get no more than three steps when her legs melted beneath her. Wulgof was faster than he had expected and managed to catch the healer before she hit the ground hard.
"I got you, Doc...," the Dunlending said kindly as he caught her weight.
Rin murmured something, her head falling to one side against Wulgof's shoulder as Molguv lent his aid. Together, they managed to walk the Company Healer back to where Hanasian had stretched out a bedroll beside his own. Hanasian stirred, having only just lay down himself to catch some rest.
"Too much again?" Hanasian drowsily asked as the two men disengaged themselves from their Captain's wife
"Wouldn't be Rin, otherwise, right Cap?" Wulgof asked as Molguv pulled up the blanket over her.
"Probably not," Hanasian agreed.
Bone tired, he pulled close and was relieved that Rin showed some sign of awareness as she nestled in. If she had truly exhausted herself, he'd have to lash her to her saddle in a few hours. Hardly a desirable state of affairs given their current status. Rin managed to wind herself around him, clinging to him fiercely. That she could, after what she had witnessed, was a wonder in itself. Though they were both bruised body and soul, and covered in the grime of battle, he was warm and whole and alive. A wonder, a marvel, her hope made flesh. Never would she let him go again.
It was shortly before dawn before Loch's scouting party returned with little to say except that the lands seemed sparsely populated and no military activity had been sighted. But nor had any trace of Khor been uncovered.
On a ship, far to the east, a cowled figure stirred after many hours spent still and quiet.
"Could it be as simple as this?" he whispered and glanced at another woman who had been restrained for her own safety and that of others.
"Old blood…powerful blood…coming to us…No need for us to…I had thought he had no kin, but now there can be no mistake. A healing, outright, and a mortal…royal blood, untainted. Could he be so unwise to send such a one to us, or has our obfuscation been more successful than we could hope for?"
Outside the cabin, another heard this and wondered at what he had unleashed in acceding to his shadow's counsel… and how it might be blocked. The Order could not be permitted to restore their mad priestess. It would mean the ruin of civilisations on both shores. Yet, he had no men of art to set against them. He himself was just a soldier… and history was clear. Against the Order of the Blue Wizards, even the descendants of Numenor could not hope to prevail…
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.