29. Chapter 29
Loch was distressed. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. Yes, they scouted thoroughly, and no, they had little to report. But it all just didn't feel right. He should tell Hanasian, but he thought he would rest a bit and think it over. He was quite tired after a battle then a long-range patrol. Something just wasn't right. It was Runner who set it all in motion, waking Loch with word that one of their squad had not returned with them. It suddenly all made sense. Runner said he only knew the man for a short time, but had no reason to doubt his loyalty.
Loch said to Runner, "You know, Dhorgat didn't return either, and that worked out in our favor. Somehow, I don't think this will end so well. Gut feeling. You must come with me to the Cap."
Runner, always eager to be close to the core of the Company, followed Loch closely. He took the time to tell Loch that one of his men had a suspicion about one of the medics. Loch stopped and asked him more about this, but Runner didn't have anything solid to offer. Still, Loch would remember, and thought he should keep a closer eye on his sister when he could. Right now, he was concerned about their missing man.
"Cap… I have a follow-up to my earlier report."
Hanasian was writing, but set down his quill when Loch arrived. Rin was nowhere to be seen. Hanasian could see Loch was disturbed and said, "Go on."
Loch paused, then said, "Runner here has reported that one of our number on patrol did not return with us."
Hanasian said, "You know men go missing all the time. Usually in battle, but on occasion on night patrol. Do you fear for his life? Or is there something more?"
Yes… well, no sir" Loch stammered, he went on, "It's my gut, sir… something doesn't feel right."
Hanasian has more than once went with his gut in the past, and there was no reason not to hear Loch out. He said, "Tell me Kid, what is it you are feeling?"
Loch shifted his weight and Runner drew closer, not sure he should say anything yet. Loch went on, "Well sir, it wasn't so much that we saw or found nothing, but we should have. Whoever was out there, didn't want to be seen or found, and left no sign. But things were too neat if you know what I mean. And with our man not returning…. Well, I think it is just not really how we see them."
"You get any rest Loch? No, of course you haven't. Your mind is too busy going over everything. If you can manage a short nap before sunrise, I'll send you out with some of the Gondorians. Fresh eyes may be needed. Vid, get Plants, Birds, Rocks, and Things together at first light. Dhorgat and Loch will accompany them, as will Wulgof. Khule and the second Easterling squad will follow as their reserve muscle."
Videgavia questioned Hanasian, "Sir? Rocks?"
"Yes, our missing man may be hurt. Besides, it will do the meds good to get out."
Videgavia questioned again, "The Easterlings as the reserve force?"
Hanasian nodded and said, "Yes, the rest of us won't be far behind."
Videgavia nodded and left to make sure everyone received their orders and knew what to do at morning light. Hanasian ordered Loch to stay and lay down to rest, even if he didn't sleep. He wanted to make sure he gave it a good try. It must have worked, for the scout was out within minutes of lying down. Had to be exhaustion.
A call went out that a runner was coming in. He was from the Gondorian army to the west. A general offensive would be starting, and assisted by the men from Dale in the west, and the Rohirrim will push their eastern flank and cover the rear of the Black Company as they pushed east. Their orders were to find Khor, and talk with him. Hoping to find out what his intentions are and what his loyalties are concerning Khurg. They would be ready for a fight, but hoped they could avoid one.
The next morning at first light the advance squad set out. Loch had managed a couple hours sleep and was there with Runner. They slipped east in stealth, followed by Khule and the second. Soon after, a mixed brigade of Easterlings and Gondorians moved out. The rest of the Company moved slow behind them as they spread their hold. The rearguard kept vigilance against the rebel north, watching the eastern flank of the Rohirrim just as the Rohirrim watched the western rear of the Company. But there was no threats to their positions. The rebels likely had other concerns with the Gondorian army pushing them north and an army from Dale pressing the rebel western flank. For all intents and purposes, the rebellion that started with such precision and surprise, was really no more than a grand prison break for Khurg. Though the destruction and suffering of the Easterling people was high, it didn't seem to be of a concern to Khurg, as it was not when he was in power before. They were on the defensive now, and things would stabilize now in western Rhun with the protection of the Gondorian army. But the unknown factor remained in the east. The Company would push east to the Sea of Rhun, and beyond it. The wood on the eastern side would prove to be tough, for it would be a tough order. And as usual for this time of year, it started to rain.
Meanwhile, far to the west in Bree….
A cloaked man dismounted at the inn east of Bree. He had heard from his grandfather the Forsaken was a place where Halasian could be found in years passed. It would be a start for his search. He looked at the place and sighed. Doubtful anyone would be there, but it didn't stop him from having his dagger ready. He forced open the old door, and it squeaked back after he entered. Inside appeared deserted, but not unused. Just not recently. Lots of history here. But any clues he had hoped for were long gone. Just the ghosts remained. Yet some of them seemed to whisper to him. But there was nobody there he could talk to. He would have to go to Bree now.
The next day he arrived in Bree. Talk was words were passed at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, so he made his way there. The evening spent talking to old timers and youngsters alike, proved somewhat useful, if tiring. He would rest in the comfort of the inn this night, and will ponder the information he had gained. He hoped to learn more at morning breakfast. Depending on what else he hears, it would decide his road in the morning.
She had to snap out it. She had known what to expect anyway. The stabbing pain that drove her to wakefulness after a scant hour of sleep was not a surprise. Despite the mail and armour and leather, battle had delivered sharp and repeated blows to her abdomen. She had known what would follow then and there. It was done. The pain had ebbed after a time and now aching hollowness permeated her. She needed to snap out it. There was no time to spare for self indulgence. Hanasian was deeply worried as it was by this campaign and he needed to focus on the Company for all their sakes, as did she. She would have to tell him later, after all of this was done. Or, perhaps it was best if she said nothing at all. What purpose would be served, she wondered. Her cloak was sodden, her metal and leathers chilled. She shivered hard, pushed this all aside and focused herself on things more constructive.
In the seven days since battle, she now had a thorough assessment of who was still in fighting shape. There were injuries that could be seen and still others that took time to emerge. At least eight had seemed profoundly shocked in the immediate aftermath and she had since revised that number to six in the subsequent days of observation. They could not be placed on the front again, for their own safety and that of those around them. She was worried about Loch as well. Something had darkened in him, become shadowed. There were still the glimpses of his reckless, relentless optimism, but he had changed and he had little time to discuss such things with his sister.
Something was amiss, and everyone knew it. Despite this, the break gave men a chance to recover their stamina and strength. Belegost was coming along nicely indeed, as were a number of others. Talk was rife with speculation of what lay ahead and around. Talk of an ambush, a gathered force under a supposedly iron fisted and highly regarded commander, Khule's brother. Yet Loch ran the patrols far and wide, sometimes reinforced by Berlas and Khule's hand picked men for greater range. Yet they found nothing and this only served to increase general tension and unease.
Farbarad squinted through the rain at the heavily wrapped figure that rode ahead. Everything about the way she sat her horse, the set of her shoulders, they way her head drooped, her protracted silence, worried him deeply and he knew he wasn't the only one. He glanced sideways at Mecarnil who shook his head.
"You'll get nowhere with her. She doesn't answer. Not me, not Hanasian. Barely eats. She isn't sleeping either. Just works and broods, day and night."
Farbarad drew breath to reply but a stupendous concussive boom knocked the air out of him and everyone else. It sounded like the sky had literally cracked open. People cried out in instinctive fear, crouched in saddle or on foot and, when Farbarad next looked up he saw that Rin was no longer in the saddle. She was on the muddy ground, writhing. He threw himself from his horse with a shout and Mecarnil immediately dived down to locate Hanasian. There was another terrible explosion from far above and Farbarad thought Rin would crack bones so hard did she twist. She was panting hard, her eyes rolled beneath their lids and she was moaning deep in her throat, a primal sound of abject terror. Hanasian fell to his knees with a splash and tried to steady her thrashing head. Bells and Sparks arrived and a small crowd was growing around them.
They scattered when the earth they stood on started trembling and growling. There was a deep ripping sound, wet and savage that thrummed through them. Horses screamed their fright and up ahead Videgavia saw great swathes of the earth tossed violently into the sky. Rin had managed get a hold of Farbarad's arm and she nearly broke it as she screamed, back arched rigid. Blood seeped from her ears and then she went utterly limp, shaking like a leaf in the wind.
"What the hell was that?" Farbarad asked, shock and fear making his voice savage.
Both medics shook their heads, Sparks still measuring the frantic galloping of her heart, "A fit? A coincidence? Never seen nor heard of this before…and neither has she, I'd bet. Her heart is slowing. Whatever it is, seems to be passing."
"She's cold as ice!" Hanasian said, stricken as he cradled his wife's head.
"Company, we pause here for the night. Donius, where's that wagon cover? And any spare blankets or bedding. We can't risk a fire, and Doc would have our ears we delivered up a whole field of people shot through on her account. Now move, people, move!" Videgavia bellowed.
The shocked Company flinched and then began to scramble, glancing either at the sky or the ground in fear as they went.
"What was THAT?" Khor asked, appalled and not the only one in the tent to be so.
It was crowded with his various officers and their dark eyes were flat with naked fear. Dhak's expression was grim, as were most of his men. However, there was a cadaverous man with a rictus grin who was delighted and he was soothing a young woman, as mad as she was beautiful to behold. She was incensed.
"There, there…not too much. You are thirsty yes….but for now this little is enough and it will not be long," the man crooned as he smoothed back dark sweaty strands from the woman's brow.
She lapsed onto her couch, mewling like a distressed kitten. Khor found he was shaking. Yes, he was terrified but the urge to take out all their throats then and there seemed liable to tear his restraint apart.
He bit hard on his growing rage and fixed his attention back on Dhak, "Again, I ask. WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!"
The extent of the Easterling's distress could not be more apparent to Dhak. Khor was a quiet man, a thinker, a man of control. It was stamped upon him, right down to the close-cropped and immaculately trimmed beard that shadowed his lower face in precisely maintained proportions. Dhak's throat was dry, his stomach twisted in fear himself. That small display had been truly horrifying. What the Order could do with immediate contact did not bear consideration.
"A demonstration, as promised, of the power you have allied yourself with Khor. Just a small insight of what our people are capable of. The armies of Gondor, Rohan and Dale beset your land. What you do about it, with such allies as us, will require careful consideration. No commander takes the field without a full grasp of his…resources."
"Enough. No more for today. Leave and take that…" Khor bit hard on the urge to denounce the woman a witch, "woman with you. This is a command tent. Suitable accommodation is available elsewhere."
The sorcerer's eyes were sharp, but he merely nodded and more of these foreign devils that he found himself in bed with stepped forward to lift the now twitching woman up. Officers and officials spilled out of his tent and Khor turned his back on them all, reached for something stronger than water and poured out a healthy measure with shaking hands.
"Khor, this cannot be. It cannot. You have seen what they can do. How long did your people suffer under Sauron's yoke? Would you be willing to shoulder another to merely throw off Gondor's control?"
"A thousand more years under Gondor's heel would be kinder than the few weeks under Khurg's freedom, and as for your Order!" Khor spat, back still to Dhak, and drained his drink in one movement before continuing, "What do you know of the Black? Little, I would guess."
"Even less than that."
"And so…you come creeping into my tent to implore me to ask the Black Company of Arnor to turn around and run like whipped curs home."
"It must be, or you risk setting a new dominion over the throats of your people and mine."
Khor sighed and said "Have you any among your number you would trust with your first born son?"
"What do you propose?"
"Be ready to depart by sunset and mark me well. Speak of this to no one else you will be torn to pieces before you can draw your next breath."
Khor's mind was afire with calculations and possibilities after Dhak's departure. The Black did not recruit women. Of that he was certain. Perhaps this was all part of a wider scheme. His allies were as fractured as his own people. Would this prove advantageous or disastrous? Who was the pawn here? Games within games. In any case, all he really needed was a clear shot on one woman (either the witch or this fictional one they said was the source of her atrocious power) and then this new evil would be defeated. After that, he'd deal with Khurg. As he expected, Khirue edged into his tent with silent questions in his eyes.
"Continue preparations here, be ready, be watchful, but do not move out until I, and only I give the word."
"And the foreigners, Commander?"
"Watch them closely. If any follow us, you know the signal to raise. Even in this rain, the oil grasses of the Sagath plains will travel faster than sound itself."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In the Undying Lands, Manwe sat in his high tower and stared east. He was troubled. Sworn away from meddling in the affairs of men, it grieved him that some decisions they had made were now affecting them in this age. A hand caressed his shoulder and he pressed his to it. Varda stood behind him and watched eastward now with him.
"You sensed it too?" Manwe asked Varda, and she squeezed his hand and said, "Yes. I felt it as if it had hit me."
Manwe caressed her hand and sighed. He asked her, "Were we right to send them? I know that at the time Sauron meddled and caused much grief in the lands, and in our wisdom we sent forth the Istari Maia into the realms of Middle Earth to oppose him. But was it the right thing to do?"
Varda ran her hand about his neck and came around to stand before him/
She said, "Beloved, what has been done is done. We pondered this long before sending them. We chose as best as we could. Only Mandos spoke that ill unseen may come to pass from our deed. In the end, only Olorin succeeded in what we hoped they would do. Alwendil did not fail, but became lost in the beauty of the lands.
"Our biggest hope in Curumo failed in the worst way, becoming a traitorous ally of Sauron. Alatar and Pallando … I opposed sending them both. As friends, they were bound to each other, and they faded into the lands without word."
Varda's eyes sparkled as she gazed into the east.
Manwe sighed again and said, "Until now. This was my greatest fear… that one would mingle with the children. We had warned Melian to no avail when she wed Thingol, but thankfully this led not to much ill. But Thingol was of the Eldar. I always feared that if one of the Maia mingled with the second born that it would be ill. And it has come to pass. Are we responsible for this? It will wreak havoc on the age of men."
Varda took Manwe's hands and he stood. Together they stood hand-in-hand in silence, gazing deep into the east seeking knowledge.
In time, Varda said, "My many eyes will watch, but I feel that we may have to act to bring this to an end."
Manwe sighed again, and after some time, nodded slightly. He said almost in a whisper, "I will call to council the Valar."
Varda's kiss on his cheek soothed him, and they walked down the tower stair in silence.
~ ~ ~
The Company was shaken. They had stopped after the spectacular event that seemed to strike down their healer, Rosmarin, of Cardolan. The position was defensible, but it could be better. It would be better also if the rain, lightning, and thunder would subside. Each flask and following deafening clap made everyone jump, as they were not able to get the one that made the ground shake out of their minds. Everyone was on edge.
The eastern reach of the Company was just north of the Sea of Rhun, and Loch, Runner, and Berlas held watch on a knoll. They were joined in time by Mercarnil. He slid into the trees that provided as good a shelter that could be expected, and he said, "Should be glad these trees didn't get lit up by that lightning. High ground, trees that had obviously been hit before. Anyway, have you seen the stars tonight?"
"STARS???" Loch said surprisingly before continuing in a quieter voice, "Nothing but grey dark clouds, rain, and the lightning you mentioned."
Mercarnil pointed to the north, and the others looked. Mercarnil said, "Haven't seen them so… active."
A small part of the sky had cleared and the few stars there seemed to burn much brighter than any of them had known. A bright streak crossed over there and for a brief moment lit the ground up. Then a gentle, soothing breeze came from the west and the rain stopped. The clouds reclaimed the sky and the stars could be seen no more, but a sense of calm had fallen upon the four. Loch strained to see the stars as the clouds closed. They would not feel rain again until the early morning. Marcarnil said, "It felt as if Ebereth was watching us. If it were so, may she bless us."
Loch asked, "Ebereth?"
Berlas nodded, and Runner looked puzzled but interested in hearing about it. Mercarnil went on, "Yes, the Lady of the Stars. Tales of old spoke of her beauty and her power. The stars of the sky are her many eyes, and with them she sees and knows. And if her concerns are turned toward something, her eyes sparkle with intensity. From what I just saw, I would say she is watching. This could prove good or ill for us."
"Well, I will hope for good." Loch said. Mercarnil smiled at him briefly and said, "Yes, I do as well. Now you go see your sister. I know you are concerned. I'll take your watch."
Loch, instead of arguing to the contrary, took leave and set off back to where his sister rested. He had hoped she was well, and whispered as he walked in the dark, "Ebereth, please watch over my sister."
A gentle breeze blew around him, warming and drying., and it seemed a whisper could be heard though he did not know what, if anything, was said. He stepped a little faster toward the wagon where his sister lay.
What Loch had hoped to see when he gained the wagon was his sister awake, conscious. She was not. Hanasian sat by her side with his hands wrapped around one of hers. He did not appear to have moved since Loch had last seen him. Farbarad was on the other side, mashing lumps of vegetables in the steaming cup of broth. Farbarad was determined to get some sustenance into her, awake or not. Hanasian had been exhausting himself trying to rouse her with some sort of Dunedain thing Loch did not understand. Farbarad glanced up as Loch climbed into the wagon bed.
"No change?" he said and both men shook their heads.
The scrape of Farbarad's knife against the tin of the cup continued, "Mecarnil says Elbereth is watching. Is that true, do you think?"
"We can hope so, Loch," Hanasian said wearily, lifting one hand to smooth already smoothed hair on his wife's head, "Wherever she is, I hope the Lady of the Stars watches over her."
"Isn't she here?"
"No, Loch. She is not," Farbarad said, finally satisfied that the broth was smooth enough and had cooled enough.
Loch watched as the two men attempted to feed his sister. It was a painstaking affair. Small mouthfuls and then Hanasian would gently apply pressure to her throat, stroking until she swallowed. Without her armour and chain, she looked much diminished to Loch's eyes. She had seemed so…vibrant when he had seen her for the first time back at the city. A whirlwind of busyness and preoccupied as per usual, and vibrant. She had glowed. Farbarad and Hanasian persisted at this for at least half a cup. In all this time, she made no movement of her own. What if she never woke up, Loch wondered. She was rarely idle by choice. In all their years together, it had been her putting him back together. She was rarely ill herself and usually managed to avoid all manner of mishaps that he failed to. Again that warm whispering wind curled around him and he glanced at that patch of clear sky ahead. Dancing stars. Farbarad set the mug aside with a grimace.
"I hate this. How can you bear it?" he asked of Hanasian, loathing the fact that this was an enemy he could not see or defend his charge against.
"I do because I must."
"You're both exhausted. I can sit with her if you like," Loch said.
"Kid's right. An hour or two would do us both good. He'll wake us if anything happens…and keep the visitors to a minimum," Farbarad said.
"Visitors?" Loch inquired.
"She's to be left in peace, Loch. Doesn't matter who they are. Noone aside from you, Vid, Mecarnil and the Ducklings are permitted into this wagon,"Hanasian said, a little louder than was necessary for a small knot had gathered again after observing Loch arrive.
"I'll see to it," Loch replied and watched as Hanasian bent, whispered something in his wife's ear and pressed his lips to her brow.
The wagon softly swayed as both exhausted men alighted. He heard them settle under the wagon bed. Loch edged a little closer to where Rin lay. She was swathed in many blankets and cloaks. There must be more than a few shivering Black Company men and women out there. It was quiet…and he wasn't sure how it started. Only that it did. He found himself talking to her, because she was too still, and he craved something familiar from her. Old memories, stories, jokes, there were so many of them because she was all he had in this world and he had shared nearly every moment of his life with her.
On the knoll, the darkness gradually relented. Dawn in the east was a stupendous thing. Mecarnil was transfixed by the sight of the rising sun. It seemed to emerge from the depths of the sea they were abutting, rising over the distant island in its heart. There had been no news from camp. That mean nothing had changed. It had been a day, a night and now another day. At a guess, no matter how attentive they were, they would have as long again before she perished. His eyes burned with fatigue. Hanasian would be devastated, the Company would be. Brother after brother had come by, searching for some sign that their Healer was unharmed. Theirs. She was theirs. She was Hanasian's. She was Cardolan's. She was Loch's. No wonder the woman fought so fiercely sometimes just to be let be. He should have put his foot down. He should have spoken to Aragorn. Rhun was a dangerous place. She had no business being here. She was all they had left of Cardolan and she had walked unopposed into one of the most dangerous lands and for what? The Company had gotten by without a healer before. That damn oath of service. He had hoped to dandle whelps of Cardolan on his knee, not this. Farbarad looked upon her as a daughter, always had. No sooner had he managed to pull the ruin of Cardolan's ambition together again was it now disintergrating…and he no clear idea why.
Mecarnil scrubbed at his face, heeled his eyes. One of the Easterlings, the young one Loch called Runner sidled up to him.
"Aye, of the North," he replied, attempting to gentle the weary growl of his voice.
"Something you should see, yes?"
"If you say so, lad," he said, once again wondering why they insisted on place questions on the end of statements in this part of the world.
Runner led him stealthily down the knoll and into the tall grasses that swayed on the shore of the sea. It's soft susurrations provided cover for the noise of their passing. In time, Runner led him to where Berlas stood. Berlas was not alone and Mecarnil could only stare in shock a moment. An Easterling, and three others that most definitely were not Easterlings at all. Those three stared back in equal amazement. Mecarnil shook himself out of it. Runner was looking at him expectantly.
"Yes, Runner. I should see this," he confirmed and Runner's chest expanded somewhat.
"Mec, I should make some introductions," Berlas said tensely, his crossbow trained on the Easterling who was standing quiescently, dark eyes sharply observant.
"This here is Khor," Berlas said and Mecarnil grunted sourly, "Sorry, Commander Khor. Apologies for my manners, Commander. With him are three…allies…I thought you might recognise them, but they said you wouldn't. The one standing next to the Commander is called Dhak."
"Well now, Commander, you've gone and found yourselves some unlikely allies from far afield," Mecarnil said, peering at the three Dunedain faces.
Khor's sardonic smile emerged, "You have no idea how far, Ranger."
"I have never seen you before. You are not of Arnor. Nor of Cardolan. I know both better than the backs of my hand. And so, Rhudaur?"
Dhak shook his head, his face taut, "No, such names…realms I presume…have no meaning, no relevance from us. We hail from the sea….south."
"South?" Mecarnil's mind was spinning now and he was too tired for this, far too tired for this, "Black? Faithful?"
"Neither…but we have little time to discuss this now. There is a healer in your number... trueborn?"
Berlas's hands tightened on the stock of his crossbow instinctively. Yes, Mecarnil thought gratefully, not a single one of the Old Company that he could not place his absolute faith in.
"Yes," Mecarnil grudgingly replied, his bleary eyes narrowing.
"A woman?" Khor pressed, leaning forward.
"What of it?" Berlas snapped and Khor wisely relaxed back.
For all of this, Khor's face lost it's habitual sardonic cast and became troubled.
"A woman of noble birth…royal?" Dhak inquired, incredulous.
The early dawn was split by the ring of Mecarnil's sword. He had it out and pressed against Dhak's neck in a fluid, instinctual movement, all fatigue fallen away.
"Queen of Cardolan by birthright, Crown Princess of the High King's Court, cousin to the High King, Black Company of Arnor's Healer and wife of it's Captain. What interest is any of this to you?" Mecarnil snarled.
Khor's face when from troubled to chalky white as Mecarnil spoke. He glanced at the one holding the cross bow, a man of Gondor by the looks of him, and saw that vengeful glitter there. Oh, the Black Company was notoriously protective of its own and well he knew it. But this was the wife of its Captain. And she was kin to the High King. All thought of assassinating her vanished into thin air. Hanasian and the Black Company would tear Rhun to shreds, and what was left would then be utterly ahnilated by this high king. Khor did not need a blood feud with either man.
Meanwhile, Dhak was speaking, "She is sorely beset, yes?"
Khor groaned…the man's questions were going to get them killed and with them would go any chance Rhun had at peace.
"We can help. We know why. We wish to stop it. We need to see Hanasian," Khor said urgently, adding, "We have no hand in this evil, and we share a mutual interest in its defeat."
The Ranger's sword did not waver, but the Gondorian passed his cross bow to Runner when Mecarnil flicked his eyes to him, and was soon off. When he returned again, Khor was not surprised by the fact that the Gondorian brought others. A familiar face in the Daleman, eyes glittering dangerously, and a giant of a Southron. Under careful escort then were they taken into the camp of the Black Company of Arnor. A hasty camp, made out of necessity. Scowls, dark expressions, a camp bristling with steel and enimity…and a wagon. In front of it stood another two familiar faces. One was Khule, his brother's face inscrutable as ever. Hanasian's expression was stamped with the mark of having his wife cut down by some unseen foe. He looked as perilous as he was, more so than his father had ever been if the circumstances were right and it seemed to Khor that nothing would be more treacherous than to attack the woman Hanasian had taken to wife.
Berlas was his usual stoic self when he came to Hanasian, who was seeing how Rin was doing and quite worried. Maybe he wasn't thinking as clear as he should, for he had a headache that throbbed with every noise. Berlas tapped him on the shoulder and as Hanasian turned his head, a quick sign of Berlas' fingers told him that his attention was needed on an urgent matter. He left the cover where Rin lay, and duties of care were given to Rocks and duties of watch were given to Hamoor. As they had walked over to a watch-fire, both Berlas and Hanasian made signs that those they passed of the old Company recognized, and with stealth, they slid away to join the two at the designated fire. Khule signalled some of the Easterling Twelve that were nearby to watch their meet, and they quietly took up positions around the fire some distance away.
Berlas said, "It appears that Commander Khor and some of his visiting friends have come to talk."
"Khor? You sure?" Hanasian said cutting in.
Berlas went on, "Well no I'm not sure, but it was how he introduced himself. Khule will have to make a certain identification. But Cap, the three with him are a creepy sort, if you know what I mean. Their appearance is not like the Easterlings, but more like Farbarad or Mecarnil, or you and me. And one who must be their leader asks to many questions about Rin."
Hanasian flashed signals around, and a fair party led by Videgavia was soon off to answer Mecarnil's summons.
As Mecarnil waited for their arrival, the intense stand was too long, and too silent. The Easterling and his three visitors were not allowed to move, and some words passed between Khor and a couple of the Easterling companymen.
Mecarnil said finally as two of the Old Company arrived, "Khor and friends, we will take you back to see our Captain."
Videgavia turned to Berlas and said, "Mulgov, you get who you will need to keep a tight watch. Keep Runner with you. If anything odd is sensed, you send him fast."
Mulgov signalled for some who came with him to spread out and take watch. Mecarnil invited the four to walk with him and Videgavia.
As they came into camp, Hanasian walked up slowly with Khule by his side. Neither said a word until Hanasian turned to Khule. Khule then said in the Rhun dialect,"Greetings brother. You are looking well, if stressed. Who are your friends?"
He then turned to Hanasian and said in Westron, "He is who he says. Captain. Don't know who these others are though. I'm sure the commander will explain."
Hanasian nodded, still grim and silent. Some simple flicking of the finger told Khule what to do. In full military custom, he stood tall. He then began formal introductions.
"My Captain, meet my older brother, Commander Khor of the fifth Legion of Rhun. Commander, I present you to Hanasian of Arnor and Rohan, Captain of the Black Company, a Free Company of the West."
A bow from Khor as he said, "Former commander of the fifth, as my brother is former commander of the ninth."
"Yes, of course," Khule replied. He then looked at the one standing next to Khor. Dhak stepped forward slightly and bowed slightly, saying, "I am Dhak, from east of the sea."
Mecarnil had stepped aside Hanasian and said in Sindarin, "He is the one asking questions of Rin. I don't like him or his associates. Do we treat them as guests or prisoners?"
Hanasian whispered back, "Both. They will be guests as they are here for some negotiation, so we will allow for their comfort as visiting dignitaries. But keep them all, especially Khor, well guarded. Khule has indicated there has been some grumbling amongst the Easterling legion of our Company about this turn of events. Nothing we need to worry about, but we don't want anything happening. It will be best for us if Khule and Khor can make some sort of peace between them. So for now we will show them to a quartering tent, and we will prepare for a formal council."
With a wave, preparations were set in motion. Hanasian then went over to his guests and shook Khor's hand, saying, "It is an unexpected surprise that you have come to us Commander Khor. For it has been, in part, your activities that have drawn us here to Rhun once again. As I, and my King, wish to know your intentions, I also wish to know your purpose in coming here to us. We will speak of this, and of what you seek as well in a council. But right now, you must be weary."
Hanasian started to lead the guests to the tent prepared for them. Dhak, having been observant, said as they walked, "We have great interest in your people, and we have great fear of some of our own. In this we wish to speak, yes?"
Hanasian looked over at Dhak and his two silent countrymen and said, "Yes, we will discuss these matters shortly at council. For part, I will wish to speak to Commander Khor alone, and I will speak to Dhak and your party as well. We have great interest on your people, for it seems that there may be a kinship long sundered. But now we rest. I have matters to tend to before we meet again."
The four were shown into their tent, and several of the Gondorian legion took up positions around it. Nobody was going to come or go until council. Hanasian made his way back to where Rin was being tended to. Hamoor was on vigilant watch and Hanasian sent him to join the Gondorian guard around the guest's tent. Hanasian entered and caused Rocks to jump.
Hanasian said, staring Rocks down, "Is there a problem?"
Rocks fidgeted and said, "Uh... no. Just didn't expect you back so soon."
Hanasian thought Rocks was trying to conceal something, when he heard a soft voice.
"Is that my husband I hear?"
Hanasian, forgot about Rocks and came to Rin's side. He said as he took her hand, "Yes! It's me! I'm here love."
Rin didn't try to move except for her eyes. Soft and glowing, she asked, "What happened?"
"What do you recall?" Hanasian asked gently, picking up her hand again and stroking the long fingers.
What indeed, Rin mused, attempting to collect and assemble her recollections into something approaching a rational arrangement. Pain, brutal and savage and frightening. Then it's sudden absence and the vacuum and emptiness it left behind, a chasm that she drifted like a mote of dust. So cold and vast. Then, music like she had never heard before. Impossible to describe, impossible to recreate, otherworldly and achingly beautiful. Inexorable tugging, like she was been drawn by a tidal surge and powerful voices. Many of those…and with them came pain because it was too much. A coruscating light and messages echoing and rolling around the inside of her skull. She did not belong there. She had to be sent back. They were coming. They were coming. They were coming.
Where was there? Who were they? No, it made no sense at all. Yet her limbs felt as light as feathers and she felt uncommonly whole and rested. She glimpsed Rocks studying her from over Hanasian's shoulder and she tightened her fingers around her husband's as she shook her head. She had no way to make any sense of it yet.
"There was some sort of attack, a power of unseen force, that coincided with your collapse. You fell from your horse, under the sway perhaps of this force, and you were greatly distressed. That was yesterday morning. You have been unconscious ever since,"
"A fit…bleeding from ears and nose…significant drop in temperature and escalation in pulse…and a possible concussion from the fall. How many fingers?"
"Four, one, three…oh, enough Rocks. I am not concussed."
"How do you know?"
"Mostly, because I say so."
Rocks inhaled deeply and then pushed the breath sharply out again through his nose. Then, grumbling, he climbed down out of the wagon. A crowd was gathering and he was forced to shoulder his way past. Farbarad's hand halted him, planted in the centre of his chest. The ranger was clearly exhausted, pushed to his limits. He and Mecarnil had been huddled together since the visitors arrived, speaking in Elvish as if the rest of them could not be trusted.
"Is she conscious?" Farbarad asked tersely and Rocks' head jerked assent once.
"Yes, yes and not concussed because she says so," he snapped back, shaking off Farabarad's hand and pushing past the pair.
This announcement rippled through those assembled, mostly Old Company men with some exceptions. Rocks had spent enough time in military units to know that word would spread faster than wildfire. Already the Dunlending was on his way to find Loch and Frea was on his way to find his brother and Foldine. Bear, Berlas and Belegost, the three B's as Rocks thought of them, were looking pleased with themselves as if this development had something to do with them. Mecarnil and Farbarad were already climbing into the wagon and, short of room in there now, Videgavia was leaning over the rear of the wagon tray.
"Simply, enough is enough Rin,"
"This can't continue,"
"What are you talking about?"
"Well, I'll be out of this wagon as soon as my commanding officer permits me. Then it will be freed up for proper cargo again."
"No, not this wagon. I mean Rhun! I had my concerns about this and I held my tongue at first. That was my error and I'll not make it a second time. This is too dangerous and we simply can't-"
"That's enough," Hanasian interjected and Mecarnil looked unhappily to Farbarad.
"No, it's not actually. He's right. We can't-"
"Enough…Mecarnil, Farbarad…enough. This is our last campaign. Rin and I plan to depart the Company once it is done,"
"But only when it is properly done. Not a moment before," Rin insisted.
Mecarnil's brows rose and his head swivelled to consider his colleague. Farbarad looked desperately relieved.
"And I hope that you will accept the captaincy, Vid."
"More talking," Videgavia said, lip curling in distaste, "An honour, Hanasian…but I am not certain I am ready for it…or if the Black will accept me."
"I am, on both counts, which ought to count for something don't you think?" Hanasian replied steadily.
There was a silence at that, thoughts tumbled in heads and Videgavia rolled his shoulders.
"Right, well, if we're to finish this, then let's finish this. You want to speak to Khor first, Cap?"
"Aye," Hanasian replied, lifted the back of Rin's hand to his lips and began to make his way out of the wagon.
It was then that Rin began to move and was met with four men shaking their heads.
"Oh no…and don't even try it. You might run roughshod all over your ducklings, but it won't take with me as well you know. You're not going anywhere until you eat something and prove to me that you're fit to move. Do you disagree, Captain?"
"Not at all," Hanasian replied as Rin scowled, and continued his way out of the wagon.
He left his wife with her two keepers and headed for Khor's tent. Videgavia and Khule entered with him and interrupted the Easterling's restless pacing. If Khor had been discovered looking uncertain, he was quick to mask it. He clasped his hands behind his back, squared his shoulders and stance so that he was able to meet the gazes of the three men levelly.
"Commander," Hanasian began, nodding, "You have interesting allies and have come to us at an interesting time."
"Captain…neither one of us has the luxury of time to expend, so forgive my forthrightness. I am not a supporter of Khurg and the plan to free him did not involve me or have the support of my men. You may have been told differently and you will need to decide whom you believe on that count,"
"There has been word of rebellion, connected with you and your gathering of disaffected men from the tribes, for some time now,"
"Of course…and it came from the Prefect, who was likely informed by men who gathered his intelligence for him…and was not the rebellion that saw Khurg unleashed again one that came from within the Prefect's compound? I gathered the restless young warriors…it was that or have Khurg's supporters gather them up. The Prefect was poorly advised by men keen to see him fall. He was losing support. An alternative that was not Khurg was required. That is all."
Khor had been about to move onto his next point however something happened to forestall him. He blinked, unable to quite understand or look away. Spun gold, tumbling and dishevelled, over long lithe limbs clad in the ubiquitous black leather of her Company, the delicate structure of her face, and most of all those searing blue silver eyes. Storms…storms of sky or sea that raked over him and seemingly through him. She was not alone, of course. The dark haired ranger he had already encountered was in her wake, chagrined.
"I told you, Mec, I'm fine now. Honest," the woman said as she fully entered the tent.
Khor's brows climbed as he glanced at his younger brother. Words were not needed. How did anyone get anything accomplished with this about?
"You get used to it,"
"Commander Khor, it appears you are meeting the Black Company Healer, Rosmarin of Cardolan," Videgavia said slowly, as unhappy about this as the dark haired ranger was, "Early."
"So it seems,"
"Who told him?"
"I remembered something. They're coming. That was what I was supposed to tell you. They're coming."
"Well, I thought the Commander might know,"
"Whoever they are, I hope that they can manage a feral witch and her litch of a wizard. That is why I am here…and it is why Dhak accompanied me. If we do not stop them here…then we will have the distinct pleasure of watching a new Dark Lord or Lady take shape. I have no desire to watch history repeat itself. One War was more than enough, Captain, was it not?"
Khor's mouth sealed in a thin line as he stopped himself from speaking further, shaken by the way the woman's scrutiny seemed to pull things from him. Perhaps it was her lofty Dunedain blood, the very blood Dhak said enabled the witch such terrible powers. With a start, Khor realised he had spoken that aloud. Hanasian's wife was staring at the thin, delicate skin of her inner wrist and the veins that ran so close to the surface of her creamy skin.
"I think it's time for that council,"
"The sooner the better. Witchcraft is an anathema to our people. I do not long how long Khalid, my second, can hold the men in check," Khor said and cursed, "Is that what you are too? A Dunedain witch?"
"No!""No I am not! I am not, do you hear me Commander!"
With that, she withdrew, fled really from the tent. The four men inside followed her out and the command was given to summon Dhak and his two companions for the council.
"I believe you've made a new friend,"
"She's of royal blood? I expected…no, I am not sure what I expected,"
"Could be worse. You could be missing your purse and not even aware of it," Khule said inexplicably.
There was little time to question him further, however. The council was about to begin imminently. Dhak and his two men joined Khor as people gathered around them. Hanasian held up a hand for silence and Dhak's eyes found the woman that stood just behind her husband. The three men said something to each other that Khor did not understand, but those who understood archaic Aduanic did. Then, all three men dropped to their knees right there. Khor was not the only man surprised by this.
"Them too? You told them too? We had a deal, Mecarnil!"
"I don't know what the hell you three think you're doing," she growled.
"Allegiance, we seek to swear allegiance,"
"Oh no you don't. Not here, not me, no way. No."
"You are of the High King's court, no? Crown princ-"
"First I am accused of being a witch, which I am NOT, and now this?! Look, I don't know who you are or what you're up, but this is not how it works. Right?"
Rin glanced first at Hanasian, then Mecarnil and Farbarad. All three men looked perplexed and her relief at having cut the stranger's pronunciation of that ridiculous word faded. Farbarad was scratching at his head.
"Well…by rights…you're probably the high ranked official member of the court in Rhun, so it might,"
"Company, we will first hear what Commander Khor and his companions have to say or request of us. Then, we will discuss what our response will be. It would seem that we confront powers beyond the mortal ken,"
"Wizards again. I lost a battle under one fighting another, we had to deal with another in Harad and now this? I have had my fill of wizards," Wulgof muttered darkly and beside him Molguv grunted. The council had begun.
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.