34. Chapter 34
The host that travelled west was sizeable, far greater than Rin had anticipated. The days grew colder and shorter and the distance they could cover shrank as a result. Yet they attained the eastern reaches of the Iron Hills before mid-winter all the same. Here they would split. Most would press south, for Rohan and Gondor. It was snowing that day and the wind whipped it about them. It was a fraught day. It was the day men bid their captain farewell and returned to lives they barely knew. It was the day that they left their brothers, and one sister, to face uncertain tides in Lake-Town. It was also the day that Rin's secret was discovered.
It had not been easy to conceal it. So many men, kings in their midst, meant the host travelled warily and eyes were watchful. It had taken all of her abilities to come and go as needed after meals. The nights were by far the worst. The watch set was vigilant and the smell of food cooking had driven her to find some way through them. She had lost count of the number of times that she had nearly lost her dignity and her privacy as well as her stomach. Rowdy was the worst of them. He had an unearthly ability to sneak up on people and a knack for arriving at precisely the wrong time. Rin suspected the man knew. She could only suppose his silence was habitual rather than any sympathy for her wishes.
If this was not enough, Aragorn made the most of his time with his cousin. She found herself spending large tracts of the day in his company as he did what he could to fill in all of the education she had missed on courtly matters. Rin was prepared to admit to herself that it was actually interesting. However, it was difficult to concentrate. She was frequently light headed and distracted, and not only because she found it impossible to keep food down. Her mind drifted between what lay ahead at Lake-Town and beyond, how she might control her stomach and what she would do once she got her hands on the benighted fool who had called this morning sickness. Morning! Probably a man, she concluded. Over all of that, however, her mind dwelled on her husband.
She knew he faced a difficult transition and she felt a profound sense of guilt that he did because of her. It's what all the Old Company men had said before they had left. She didn't doubt them. Would he be happy, content, to stay at home? This was a man who had wandered the wide world for longer than she had been alive. Now he faced a very narrow set of horizons, or so she thought, and now this…the timing was singularly appalling. She wrestled with this and, until she found an answer to her satisfaction, she resolved to say nothing.
Aragorn was a perceptive man. He knew Rin to be an intensely private soul and she kept her own counsel with such success that it drove those closest to her to distraction. He was pleased to note she slowly thawed towards him. She was, after all, kin. He saw glimpses, only flashes, of what lay behind her walls. He had known from the outset that she was of dangerous intellect. Distracted though she clearly was, she proved able to absorb the information he conveyed to her. As the days passed, she smiled a little more often. There was one occasion where she laughed outright. The loss of her brother had struck her to her core, but he was confident she would emerge stronger than ever in time and he said as much to her husband on the day their party divided.
"Time, Hanasian, and patience. You have an abundance of both, and she will not give up on you. The woman you know will return to you. This will not overwhelm her."
Hanasian nodded, relieved, and the two men squinted through the snow at where the subject of their discussion was sorting things out to her satisfaction.
"No, no, no, Bear! It is not nearly too heavy or large for you to take with you. Mark my words; by the time you make Rohan, you'll be glad of it. Now pack it, unless you want me riffling through your possessions!"
Bear was easily two times her mass and stood a head higher. Despite his age, he was the very image of a formidable veteran warrior. He stood in the snow by his horse as Rin bustled around him, exasperated and amused. Then, he lifted his shoulders in a resigned shrug. Rin, by that time, had opened one of his panniers and was boldly pawing through it, making room. He very gently, but firmly, picked her up and set her to one side. What he said to her could not be heard, but she smiled at him brightly, he melted somewhat and then ruffled the top of her head. She swatted at his hand and he chortled at whatever she shot back at him before she moved onto the next Company man preparing to depart south.
"This matter at Lake-Town…I need not tell you great care will be needed. I have prepared letters to request aid is made available to you. I have spoken to Eomer and he has readily agreed to make men available to ensure those you capture make it to Minas Tirith for trial," Aragorn continued.
"Thank you, sire. We'll make for the Gilded Lantern and proceed from there."
"These men will recognise Farbarad and Mecarnil, and likely you. It is well you take Frea and Folca with you. Will anyone else come?"
"They all would, given the chance. Rin insists this is not a Company matter. Suffice it to say they do not agree. That said, Rowdy has volunteered to take Berlas' place and, truthfully, he is most welcome along with others that had decided to volunteer irrespective of what Rin thinks. A larger force will attract too much attention and scatter the men we seek to apprehend."
"You mean to draw them out, bait them?"
"Aye," Hanasian replied grimly, clearly uncomfortable, "That has been her plan from the outset. I hope to track them down before it comes to that. We have enough men to lay a good net in Esgaroth, and we know covert work well."
Hanasian's attention drifted to his wife. She was moving from horse to horse and, in the snow, she appeared at that moment to be winter incarnate. It hung in her pale hair like a jewelled crown, it brought a fetching flush to her cheeks and it made her eyes sparkle in a way he had little seen since Loch had perished.
"I've questioned Rocks on several occasions. I believe the man has told us all that he knows, and he believes it to be the truth. That said, we cannot verify the intent of this conspiracy," Aragorn said, "I have given the matter no small amount of thought. These are rapacious men, and the only conclusion I arrive at is truly evil."
Hanasian's gaze returned to Aragorn and found he was unusually troubled.
"What is it?" he asked quietly, his stomach twisting.
"There can be only one reason they desire her alive and healthy. Royal heirs have two purposes. The first, to rule, is one she has set aside in a public manner. The second remains; and that is to produce a successor as soon as possible."
The enormity of what Aragorn suggested left Hanasian aghast. His face paled and Aragorn watched his old friend grapple with horror and anger.
"But…why? Even were they to succeed, what difference would it make?"
Aragorn sighed, for it was a dark matter he spoke of, "If they declare her of unsound mind, they invalidate her decree to dissolve Cardolan's throne. Clearly, they know she will never accede to take it up herself. They would take the child they force from her, mould him to take the throne. As you said, these are desperate men."
Aragorn set a steadying hand on Hanasian's shoulder. What Aragorn spoke of staggered anyone of good heart. Abduction, imprisonment, rape, child stealing, treason, and likely murder because she would only become a liability once they had the child.
"Does she know?" he whispered and Aragorn shrugged.
"I have not spoken of it to her, but I would not be surprised if she has deduced it for herself. Hanasian, I tell you this not to change your course. I tell you this so that you might determine ways in which to locate these men before the necessity of baiting them arrives. To achieve these ends, they will need a secure location to hold her for some time. Arrangements must be in place, people…supplies…it is a staggeringly complex scheme…and you know the flaw with such things."
"The easier it is to unravel," Hanasian said and Aragorn nodded.
"I wish I left you in brighter circumstances, my friend. I will watch for tidings. I hope that when summer and the need to seek Fornost comes, I will look in on you as I pass and discover you both happy and well."
The leave-taking began with that, and it took most of the day. Words, bittersweet smiles, embraces, jests all passed and at the very last, Bear swept Rin into a tight embrace. He frowned and lifted her up a second time that day.
"Hmmm," he commented loudly, mischievous grin flickering over his face as he set her down and held her out at arm's length, "You've been living on a sparrow's diet, and yet despite that, you're almost getting fat, woman!"
Rin flushed with bright embarrassment and pulled her cloak tightly about her. Men chortled but Hanasian noticed the furtive alarm that crossed her expression before it vanished behind her scowl. His mind ticked that over, on top of everything else, and all of sudden it all lined up. The distracted mood, the inability to keep anything down, the grumbling over how tight her leather breeches were getting and the way that her hair and skin glowed with vitality. It happened, he had heard, for some women. His head spun for a second time that day and he glanced at Mecarnil and Farbarad. The two Rangers had known her mother. Mecarnil squinted at Rin and Farbarad's jaw dropped open for a moment. He began to chuckle, turned and clapped a congratulatory hand over Hanasian's shoulder.
"Mind your manners, Bear, or that sister of yours will be getting a letter from me," Rin growled and scooted out of his reach.
Hanasian looked utterly dumbfounded and she knew it was all spiralling out of control. By late afternoon the snow had thickened, the shadows had deepened and those headed south had departed. Rin was a bundle of nervous energy. She threw herself into re-organising her packs. Frea ambled over to her and grinned at his brother.
"Letting yourself go already," he rumbled provocatively and she answered by way of a rude gesture.
"I am not getting fat. I was just weighted with things I had yet to stow after the supplies were divided."
"Is that what you're packing now?"
"It's none of your business!"
"That, if I am not mistaken, is Bear's favourite dagger!"
Frea dropped to a squat and pulled the pack she was organising from her. Upon inspection, he found a small number of items that were not her own.
"Doc! Have you no shame?"
"I wasn't robbing them!"
"No? Then what's this?" Frea brandished one of Foldine's favourite pipes, "Taken up smoking, have you?"
Rin coloured again and she mumbled, "They're keepsakes."
"Souvenirs, you mean."
"And maybe they might come looking for them some time."
Frea dropped Foldine's pipe back into her pack and cocked his head to one side. Her eyes were lowered and so she did not see the fond smile that slowly grew across his face. His embrace startled her.
"You couldn't just ask them to visit you, could you Doc? You're a strange one, alright," he said as he patted her back with awkward affection, like he might a favoured pet, or horse.
When he pulled back, he frowned at her, "Although I still think Bear was right."
Hanasian's hand descended on her shoulder and drew her to her feet.
"Yes, he was," Hanasian said solemnly as he studied Rin's face.
Her expression tensed and her eyes dropped from his, uncertain and troubled.
"I think we should speak, you and I," he said and drew her away from the others.
Her heart thudded in her throat and she knew he had figured it out. Was he angry? Was he upset? Was he pleased? She found herself utterly unable to read him. When Hanasian turned to her again, he placed two fingers under her chin and lifted her face. The only way she could avoid his eyes was to close her own. She was so nervous she thought she'd be sick. It would not help matters and she clenched her jaw against it.
"When were you going to say something, wife?" he asked her and his voice betrayed his emotions.
Confused, hurt, surprised and scared. She swallowed hard.
"I…wasn't sure at first…and then…there was no chance, no time…so much was happening…and-"
Her voice faltered and then her eyes did close. He could feel her shaking through the fingers he held under her chin.
"And you were not sure how I would react," he answered for her and she winced before she nodded.
"I know we discussed this…but that was before…everything…and now…this is not the time…I didn't do it on purpose…I…"
"Look at me. Look, Rosmarin! Open your eyes!"
When she did, he could see the dread in them. It made him want to shake sense into her and comfort her all at once.
"Again you underestimate me! Why? What cause have I given you to doubt me? Honestly, Rosmarin, you drive me to the edge of my wits sometimes!"
"I am sorry," she whispered forlornly, arms wrapped around herself.
The snow was coming in flurries that sealed them off from the rest of the world like a thick, chill velvet curtain. It made the howl of the wind in the gathering evening all the sharper.
"For what? For concealing this from me?"
Hanasian's hand dropped from her chin and he found it difficult to speak for a moment. He pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her. He bent his head to speak his next words into her ear.
"So help me, woman, if you are apologising for carrying my child…Yes, the timing leaves a lot to be desired. But I do not regret this…I will not reject this…Rosmarin…this is a remarkable gift we have…and I demand you share it with me. I'll accept nothing less from you. I am your husband, I am this child's father and I will always be so. Do you understand me?"
He felt her shudder with relief against him and she nodded before he continued, "Now…this makes it all the more imperative that we resolve this business in Lake-Town without placing you in harm's way. I'll brook no argument on this. I have already spoken with Mecarnil and Farbarad and we are all three of us agreed. You will abide willingly by this, or you will be sent to Minas Tirith."
"Please do not send me away!"
She held him so tightly he found it hard to breathe, "Very well…now, my love, let us find a fire…and I will see about making some tea."
"Yes…there are several that will do for this purpose. You must eat more."
A fire had been coaxed into life in their absence and the air about it was heavy with expectation upon their return. Mecarnil and Farbarad had clearly spoken with Hanasian's cousins. Folca smiled openly and Frea winked at Hanasian. Rowdy and Rocks both made no response at all, for different reasons. Water was soon set to the boil and Hanasian sourced what he needed from Rin's packs. She peppered him with questions over what he was using, how much, how it worked, her curiosity clearly getting the better of her. In time a mug of steaming tea was poured out and passed to her. She wrapped her hands around it to warm them and sniffed experimentally at the brew.
"Come on…all of it…and if it works we can see about something more substantial."
"If it doesn't?"
"We'll try a different one."
Rin's face screwed up at her first mouthful, "Gah! Are they all so bitter?"
"No…this one is by far the worst," Hanasian calmly replied and she stared at him pointedly.
He busied himself with removing the water so that food could be warmed through and ignored her for a while.
"Then why start with the worst?"
"It's the most effective," he answered mildly and then added, "And it's the one you will remember the next time you decide to withhold something important from me. Now, drink up. All of it and another mug besides. Take your medicine, Doc."
Mecarnil grunted laughter he could not conceal at the expression on her face. She did as bidden, grumbling in Dunlendic all the while. It was not easy to get down, but once down it surprised her by staying there. After that…food…it had been so long since she had eaten anything of substance. That night, Rin was overruled when it came to drawing lots for the watch. She wasn't happy about it, but she was hardly in a position to press the matter with the others. She wrapped herself carefully against the cold and Hanasian did the same. They slept under a hastily erected tent, but the ground was freezing. The hunting done along the way had not only supplemented their supplies but provided pelts and skins to act as a barrier. It certainly helped, but it could not hold the chill back entirely.
In time, her shivering stopped and Hanasian was warm against her back. Her mind delved through the day's events like an otter seeking dinner. Hanasian's words circled her thoughts. He thought she underestimated him and she knew that was not the case. She hadn't found the words to convey it to him at the time and they jostled at her now.
"I do not underestimate you," she whispered and his response was to softly hush her, his breath warm against the back of her neck.
Rin shifted slightly and pressed on, "I told you this in the Chetwood. You are a marvel to me and always will be. Rather, I know myself."
One of these days, he would realise he overestimated her worth. She was convinced that would happen. Each day she would gladly take until that moment came and he walked away. It was like knowing the fire that warmed her now would consume her, wreathe her in agony, and yet she could not bring herself to step back to safety.
Hanasian shifted the arm he had clasped over her and brought his hand from her stomach to press his fingers gently against her lips. He was too tired to argue and this was a matter words could not settle. The woman he held had been convinced over thirty long years that she was less than a speck of dirt. It would take time to undo that, and love. Not just his, but the child she carried. Patience, as Aragorn had wisely said, and love. He had both in abundance.
Some miles away, Bear patted his torso and belt to locate his dagger. At this point, the cakes of cram rivalled rocks and only a very knife could penetrate them. No one wanted to eat a whole cake of the stuff in one sitting. After a few unsuccessful pats, Bear glanced down. He twisted about and tried to locate it and then swore.
"What's the problem?" Foldine asked, busy with something himself
"I've lost my bloody dagger. Now! Of all times! Had it with me from the getgo, and now it's gone!"
Foldine snatched up his waxed leather pouch of tabbac, tucked it under his tabbard, and began to hunt for his pipe.
As he did so, Bear continued, "I suppose I've dropped it in the snow somewhere. Hell of a time to lose it, on the way back home."
Farbarad grunted, more in surprise than at Bear's statement and searched again. He had located his second pipe, but the first which he ordinarily kept carefully wrapped with it, had vanished into thin air. Foldine drew out his second best pipe and his eyes narrowed as he reviewed the day. Bear loses his favourite dagger, after carrying it successfully through years of risky activities. He had lost his best pipe, on the very same day. The same day as they had parted company with Hanasian...the same day as a certain Company Healer with known sticky fingers had diligently divided up supplies as if she were the Company's storemaster, logistics expert...
Foldine sighed and then flipped Bear one of his daggers. It landed in the snow near the marine's foot.
"Yeah...must have dropped it in the snow. That's it. That's what happened," Foldine said dryly and began packing tabbac into his second best pipe bowl. At least she had not taken the tabbac...and he had a reasonable idea where to find her to get his pipe back.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Free Company of Rhun
Many partings were made amongst friends and comrades in Skhar when the wet gray morning came. Hanasian and Videgavia, who had walked the path of the Company from its first days, spoke long of things past and present. Partings were hard but the old crew was very stoic. The emotions they felt were kept mostly in check. It would all come out in the next few days.
Not only was it hard for the old crew, but so to with what had become known as the Gondor Legion. Some few of them, most who had some experience with watercraft, and some who were itching for adventure, decided to stay in Rhun and signed on with the new Company. Also, a half a dozen men from what had become known as the Rhun Legion decided to go west on an adventure of their own. Of these, all save one went with the King's Army. One decided to accompany Hanasian, because he was one of the original twelve, and his loyalty was to the original company captain. He had gone forth with a high recommendation from Khule, so he considered it to be an honor to go with Hanasian. Hanasian in turn put high regard on Khule's word, and the young Easterling would be most helpful in the days ahead in Dale.
Some of the young soldiers from the Army of Gondor, mainly those whose seafaring Numenorean blood ran a bit thick, were given leave to sign on with the Free Company. Also, a few from the Army of Rohan stayed after given leave of their duties by King Eomer.
With the goodbyes being hard for most, it was some time later that day toward evening that the old Company men gathered around in their bar camp. It was Berlas who noted something missing first.
"Has anyone seen my favorite beer pot?" He asked.
Wulgof answered, "It was on the bar yesterday, as was my cloak. It seems to be lost as well."
Everyone decided to take stock of their personal goods, and the discovery was an item precious to each of the old crew was missing. Mulgov said in a low voice, "Rin."
There was a certain amount of grumbling but nobody was really upset about it. The possibility that they would never see Rin, Hanasian, or any of the old company that departed was heavy on their minds even if they didn't say it.
It was Berlas who spoke as he reached for the missing fine silver chain he usually wore around his neck, "Well, maybe next year, should we go wayward on the ships, we will come to Mithlond and may see them again."
They were silent in thought. Nobody really thought that would happen, but it gave the old crew something to consider.
The rain never seemed to stop there. From fine foggy drizzle to heavy cloud bursts, the water and mud was hardly noticed after a while. No matter, work had begun on the ships within days of the King's departure, and it was determined they would only have enough hands to man one. So the second ship was stripped of anything that would make the voyage easier and docked out of the way. Provisioning began but was slow going finding all that was needed. They had no idea how long or how far they would be going, and what they would find. In an effort to gather as much information as possible, Videgavia summoned Anvikela to speak with him. The lady had remained out of sight since the day she had met with King Aragorn. Since he was tasked with leading this Company and expedition, and she was entrusted to his care, it was time to find out a bit more about her. She arrived without notice, in the company of Nets and Flint. He stood and greeted her with a slight bow, and she returned a slight curtsy.
He asked, "Greetings Lady Anvikela, I trust we are keeping you comfortable?"
Her eyes did not move from the floor by Videgavia's feet, but she said in a deeply accented Westron, "I am well. I am but a servant, yet you treat me as royalty. Why?"
Videgavia was taken aback by her question. He looked at Nets who shrugged, then he said, "It is the wisdom of King Aragorn that could see you are a remarkable woman. We are to see to your needs, and we treat you as though you are a princess from a land far away that we know nothing about. You expressed a wish to him that you wanted to go home, and we are going to attempt to do just that. Think of us as your escort home."
He had stepped closer to her, and stooped down enough to look into her eyes. She did not want to look at him but he managed to capture her gaze. She lifted her head as he stood.
"That is better. I prefer your beautiful eyes looking at me instead of down."
Anvikela almost broke eye contact and looked down, but instead only blinked and blushed.
Her question sounded curiously like a statement, She said, "You have powers?"
Videgavia said,"No, the only power I have is my strength of arms."
She said haltingly, as if she did not know the words, "I served the Lady … for I had shielding…. with my sisters. But…"
She swallowed and her eyes watered. Videgavia looked concerned and said, "You are free to look away. I'm sure I'm hard on the eyes. I just wanted you to know it was permissible to meet my eyes when talking to me."
She swallowed again and maybe a slight smile spread across her face for a moment as she said, "I wish not to. I just know not of your ways. We… my sisters and I, were not to look the Lady or the Order in the eyes. "
Videgavia offered Anvikela a chair to sit in, and she did so haltingly. He said, "Sit please. Now we are a rather rough bunch since most of the cultured of our number left for the west, but we know it has to be hard for you losing your sisters. We don't follow your Order's predilection for subjugation either. Be at ease with us, and let us show you respect. You are our honored guest from another land. Now I need to talk to Nets and Flint. You are welcome to stay if you like."
Anvikela nodded and said, "I would like that."
She sat quiet as Vid said to Nets, "Thank you for keeping an eye on Lady Anvikela. Good work teaching her our common tongue."
Nets shrugged and said, "She is a fast learner."
Videgavia nodded before saying to Flint, "Heard good things about you."
Flint stood for a moment, finally asking, "What have you heard?"
"I heard you could write."
Flint answered, "Yes I can when I have the time and the means."
Videgavia nodded, saying, "Then you will have the job of records. Hanasian was always writing things and kept records of everything the Company did, who served, who was lost. I want you to do that. Berlas could do it, but he will not ever get started. He would give briefs to Hanasian, and he can continue to do that for you. If you don't want to do it, let me know now."
"It will be an honor to do!" Flint said.
Videgavia retrieved everthing Hanasian had left of his clean parchments, ink, and quill and handed it to Flint.
"I suggest you get started. A record of names will be a good start."
"Yes sir" Flint said as he left.
He passed Dhak and his shadows outside the door. They entered without announcement, and Dhak said, "I understand you wanted to talk to me, no?"
"Yes, come in. I want to know what we can expect when we come to your land?"
Videgavia said, noticing the instant discomfort in Lady Anvikela upon their entry.
Dhak said as much as he needed to, at least as much as he thought would appease Videgavia. But he underestimated the new Company Captain. He could tell Dhak was balking at the idea of trying to set sail for home. With the departure of the royalty, he now sought to convince Videgavia that it would not be worthwhile to go. Maybe he was right, Videgavia thought, but he and all who signed on with the new Company were commissioned by the King to do this very thing. All Dhak's stalling and vagueness did was to make Videgavia trust him even less. He obviously had something to hide. But Videgavia let him talk. Videgavia could smell a rat, and Dhak, for all of his prowess, was smelling like one here. He would have to talk with Khor about him, for he had much more extensive dealings with this man. And it was clear that Lady Anvikela did not trust him. There is something more going on here, and Videgavia hoped to gain as much knowledge about it before they would leave port.
He had a lot of time before that would happen, so he told Dhak and his companions, "It would be best for you three to stay within a certain boundary in the city. I don't want you walking freely about for your own safety."
Dhak looked at his companions before asking, "We are not your enemy. Why do you wish to limit us?"
Videgavia said, "More for your own safety. For there had been some whispers on the street that you were the last of 'the invaders'."
Dhak took exception, "So you will imprison us, no?"
Videgavia said, "No, I won't. You are free. The streets of Skhar could be dangerous to you, so know that should you and your companions go about, we cannot guarantee your safety."
It was a chance Dhak was willing to take. He nodded and excused himself, with his shadows. The rumors were true, and Videgavia knew that Lady Anvikela too would be in danger of reprisal. He decided to have her lodged in a house closer to where the company stayed. Nets and others would remain with her at all times.
It would be many weeks before they would be ready to leave. Word came that in addition to the supplies left by the King upon leaving, his foresight had called for more supplies to be sent to help heal the country ravaged by civil war. Some was provided for the voyage, which would help with their provision.
After that day onward, the cloud of grief slowly seemed to leave Lady Anvikela, and in the days and weeks afterward, she and Nets spent more time with the old crew, and she learned more and more of the language and the ways of the Free Company. Videgavia and Berlas kept a close watch on her when they were in the Company den. She would not drink, so she was appointed bartender, and it seemed she was beginning to relax among them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Esgaroth New Town in Dale
The snow fell lightly in Esgoroth and along the west shore as the chill wind from the northeast pushed across Long Lake. The light dusting gave a chill, silvery sheen to the night, and the air was quiet but for the sound of the wind and the water lapping the edge of the lake. The few lamps that were lit gave a shrouded glow about them, and one of these was by the sign of the Guilded Lantern. Inside, the handful of men that had not gone home worked on finishing their stout ales before leaving. One man in particular was talking to the serving girl who was cleaning tables of empty flagons and plates. She didn't want to be bothered, but a silver coin convinced her to hear him out. She was to watch for strangers and note their appearance and the time they were present. The man told her he would return in a week or so to hear any news. A second silver coin was passed to help her remember. Having made a week's wage in a moment to do what she does anyway was a blessing. It would help her care for her aged father who was wounded in the War. The man downed the last of his ale and set his flagon on her tray and headed for the door.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There was still some distance to cover and little time left to them. Mid-winter was only a week or two away. Between Esgaroth and the eastern corner of the Iron Hills, they had to traverse the Hills, the Desolation of Smaug, the Lonely Mountain and then the lake itself, for Esgaroth stood under the eaves of Mirkwood. The morning was blindingly bright and blessedly still. Wind nor snow marred the sunshine. Their small camp was up at its usual hour, their breath silvery in the air as they moved about. They had a routine for breaking camp and this morning proved no different.
Rin had stowed her bedroll, gathered her pack and panniers and grasped her saddle ready to lift it onto the back of her horse. She just levered it off the ground when Farbarad swooped and snatched it from her with a frown.
"Hey!" Rin protested as he swung it away and onto her horse.
"I don't want to see that again, do you hear?" he growled fiercely at her.
Rin planted her fists on her hips, "And why not? You had no trouble at all with me saddling my own horse yesterday."
"That was yesterday," Farbarad said and bent to cinch the girth strap tighter now that her horse had let out its breath.
"And what's the difference between then and now?"
Farbarad finished checking the tack and simply looked at her over one shoulder. His gaze travelled to her panniers.
"How heavy are they?" he asked and Rin sidestepped to stand in front of them.
"Is this how it's going to be now?" she challenged and Farbarad shrugged.
"Yup," he affirmed with a nod, "At least for a good…well can't be nine months. What would it be now? Eight? Seven?"
"NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!" Rin responded, scandalised.
Farbarad shrugged unapologetically and scratched at his beard, "Well, that may be. This is how it's going to be until the little one comes, whether you like it or not. No matter how you scowl and argue."
He shot her an unrepentant wolfish grin and set off. Meanwhile, the only other woman with them was doing a very poor job of concealing her amusement nearby.
"It's not funny," Rin stated and that only made Slip laugh harder.
The small woman actually wiped tears of mirth from her face, "Aw, it's sweet!"
"It's offensive," Rin replied and grabbed the straps of one pannier.
"They're just trying to take care of you."
"I've been taking care of myself my whole life. I don't see why today is any different," Rin grumbled as she strapped the first pannier on.
"You really are difficult to please, aren't you?"
At that Rin grinned across the rump of her horse at Slip, "It's the only way to manage all these men."
They were off at a good clip soon thereafter and the Iron Hills drifted by, mile after mile. Rin saw no sign of Dwarves despite Mecarnil's insistence they were there and they certainly marked the passing of the mounted party. The weather stayed fair for several days, the nights were severe and cold. However, just as they gained the eastern cusp of the dragon's desolation, the weather took a turn for the worse. The snow fell with increasing fury, the wind picked up and blasted over them. It was miserable going and both exposure and frostbite kept Rin more than busy. It took them three weeks all up to reach Esgaroth. It seemed to Rin, irrational though it was, that the blizzard gave up once they seemed likely to survive it.
Esgaroth appeared like a golden jewel in the chill night. It glimmered and beckoned down on the icy lake. Each lantern in each window was like a golden star. It had stopped snowing but the wind had picked up sharply after sunset. Hanasian led them into the town at a rapid pace, eager to make the Guilded Lantern as soon as possible. No sooner did they make the stables were Mecarnil and Farbarad off their horses. The stable was marginally warmer than outside, but they were all shivering before the two Rangers had returned and reported that arrangements were satisfactory for the night.
In the Guilded Lantern was a warm hearth, hot food, a hot bath even. Oh how she wanted one of those more than anything in the world. Her scalp itched and she thought she would smell like horse for the rest of her days. All this glorious luxury was only a few short steps away. She even had coin to pay for it.
"We've secured enough rooms for those of us as will remain here as well as extra rooms tonight. We've a private dining room as well, thought that best," Mecarnil said.
"And a bath? You organised that too, didn't you. They're warming the water right now, aren't they?" Rin asked, practically bouncing on her heels in excitement and a bid to warm herself up.
Mecarnil glanced at Farbarad and Slippery moaned, "Typical! Content to wallow in their own muck for years, these men are!"
"You never complained 'bout that afore," protested Stillwater and Slippery sniffed.
"I never had anything to compare you to before."
Farbarad grinned suddenly, "Of course we remembered…not worth our hides to forget, is it?"
Rin muttered something under her breath and Hanasian had to catch at his wife's cloak to prevent her from marching out into the open. He pulled her back, pulled the cowl of her cloak back up over her head.
"We cannot afford for you to be seen in Esgaroth, Rin," he cautioned solemnly.
With that, they left the stables and entered the inn warily. They went first to the private dining room. It was panelled in oak and sizeable enough to accommodate them easily. Bread and cheese had already been laid out and a serving maid bustled in laden with a tray of foaming ale. All Rin wanted was a bath. All the men wanted was the ale. She was not permitted to wander the inn alone. Slippery proved her saviour.
"Come on, I'll take you," she said and the two of them vanished in a twinkling of an eye.
"Three crowns we don't see either one for at least an hour," Folca said.
"Gives us time to discuss things without interruption," remarked Frea.
While the men downstairs had their discussion, the women upstairs lounged in steam, bubbles and blissfully hot water. Their fingers and toes had become prunes, their hair was detangled and every last inch of skin was properly clean.
"I've never seen anyone love a bath quite like you," Slippery drowsily commented.
"They're still new, I suppose. Had my first hot bath, with proper soap, just before I officially signed onto the Black, in Bree."
"I bet there isn't any warm baths back at that town in Rhun."
"There isn't. I looked for them."
In a while it became evident that the water was not going to stay hot forever and nor would the food last indefinitely below. The women emerged and rummaged through their packs for clean clothing. Slippery just pulled on a simple tunic over her leggings. With her belt slung around her hips, all she needed were her boots again and she was ready. Rin, however, found things a little more challenging. Since regaining the ability to eat, certain things had begun to markedly change. For starters, she was not going to get back into her breeches again. That left her with the two dresses Bea had given her at the Prancing Pony. The blue dress was out of the question. However, the chemise with the ruby kirtle still fit…if she let the laces across the front of the kirtle mostly unlaced. Slippery giggled, fingers pressed to her lips.
"You're going to need clothes soon," she said and Rin sighed.
"It's happening already. I'm getting fat…no wonder Hanasian isn't happy about this," Rin replied, gesturing at her midriff.
It was concealed by the soft folds of her chemise, but there was no mistaking the soft swell that had started to emerge.
"It's a change, is all. Men are terrible at change…and I don't think he's displeased. He's just got a lot on his mind. There's no point getting glum about it Rin. I mean, you can still see your toes, so enjoy things while you can, I say. Now, I saw cheese below. Let's see if it's still there, shall we? Don't forget your hood," said the young Gondorian woman with a wink.
Slippery started off down the hall for the stairs at a jaunty jog. In the dining room, things had largely been arranged to their satisfaction.
"So, tomorrow we'll set out for Bard's halls. Best if we stay there, all things considered, so that we're not recognised. Safer for Rin too," Mecarnil recapped, "And we'll run the patrols out of here."
"Anywhere we can find local work, the right sort, will be a good place to start," Frea said, "Eyes and ears open."
"How will we communicate with you if you're at Bard's?" Rowdy asked, the first thing he had said in days, "Like as not you'll be seen coming and going if you make a regular habit of it."
"I've a letter from Aragorn for him. I plan to request access to the ways under the town."
"Beneath the boards?" Stillwater inquired in response to Hanasian's statement.
"Aye, there's a way beneath from Bard's hall to access points throughout the town, over the surface of the lake itself. It'll be the best option for us, if he'll consent. Aragorn has requested his assistance and Dale is an ally of Gondor's still, as recent events in Rhun demonstrated."
The discussion paused as the door opened to admit Slippery and then Rin. The two women removed their cloaks and quickly found places at the table.
"Any hot water left?" Frea asked.
"Any cheese?" Rin swiftly retorted.
A serving maid circled, picking up empty tankards and dropping off freshly filled ones. Rin leaned back to intercept her.
"Please, some more cheese? And ale?"
"Cheese, certainly…the ale though…"
"You can't have run out, surely," Rin answered and the maid glanced at Hanasian.
"She's been told that you can't have any," Hanasian said.
"None! That's an outrage!"
"I can fetch you watered wine, ma'am," the maid said awkwardly on the heels of Rin's protest.
"Water…no tea, yes tea would be best," Hanasian replied calmly as Rin stared incredulously at him.
"Yes, good sir! At once!" the maid answered and shot for the door.
"And bring more than just cheese. She needs a proper meal."
"I don't want a proper meal. There is nothing wrong with cheese!" Rin mutinously growled and crossed her arms under her chest.
"So, everything settled?" Slippery brightly asked, moving her ale out of Rin's reach for good measure.
"Yup…we'll start the net tomorrow. Cap, Doc and the two Rangers will head off to Bard's. They'll use some sort of underboard boat system to reach us here and keep in contact," Stillwater furnished.
"Underboard?" Rin asked, sufficiently intrigued.
"Nothing you need concern yourself with," Farbarad said crisply.
"And why's that?"
"Because you won't be setting foot outside of Bard's hall, nor near a window, until this is all done."
"But…that means I'm a prisoner!"
"Until this is done," Hanasian solemnly said, "If that is what it takes to keep you safe, then so be it. You chose, Rosmarin, to come here rather than go south to Minas Tirith."
Rin looked like she was going to say more but then the tea arrived. Rin stared glumly at the teapot. Slippery imagined it was some sort of symbol for her loss of control. That's what was troubling her so. She was losing control and freedom, and she had chosen this what is more. It wasn't that Hanasian was upset with her. He was merely trying to defend his wife and unborn child the only way he could. Still, as the conversation moved on, Slippery could not help but feel sorry for her friend. Rin had a forlorn, lost look to her. Her shoulders slumped further when a proper meal was set down and she was ordered to eat. Slippery watched the other woman wrestle with herself and moment and then pick up a fork. If any of the men noticed this quiet battle they gave no sign of it. No one except Rowdy, who noticed everything.
They did not stay up late for they were all fatigued from their travel. They were soon all on their way to rooms, the routine for the night's watch predetermined even though the Guilded Lantern had been deemed safe enough for them to remain the night.
"It's for the best," Slippery whispered to Rin and squeezed her hand on their way to their respective quarters for the night.
Rin nodded but otherwise said nothing.
"I will take no unnecessary risk, no chance, Rosmarin, and I make no apology for it," Hanasian said to her as he wearily removed his boots one by one.
Again Rin nodded and said nothing. The morning came too soon and after a brief breakfast they were on their way to the halls of Bard II. Rin remained quiet and withdrawn upon arrival. A quick introduction and Aragorn's letter ensured they were swiftly led into the homely comfort of Bard's hall. Bard was a man bowed by the season and the weight of years on his shoulders. He sat in a stout chair, swathed in blankets, great silvery eyebrows drawn together to bristle as he read Aragorn's request.
"This says you're kin," the elderly lord said, peering up with dark eyes that were still sharp with wit but not sight.
"Come closer then, girl! I don't bite! No teeth left," he demanded and flashed his gums.
Rin sidled reluctantly closer despite his assurances and he studied her a moment and then nodded.
"Well, what aid do you be hoping for?" the lord said after a while, eyes flicking back to Hanasian who had done most of the talking, "You stay there, girl," he added when Rin shifted to step back.
"Lord, I have brought men who will flush these traitors out for you. However, I do ask that you permit us to abide here, so that we are not recognised before we can locate them," Hanasian replied and Bard's head nodded.
"Yes, yes," he said impatiently, "Of course! Not the first you are to request that. Nothing else? They said you'd ask something else. Where are they?"
"With respect, my lord, where are who?" Hanasian asked.
"I said stay there, girl! You're a flighty one, make no mistake. You break one of my windows leaping through it and there'll be trouble!" Bard roused at her and Rin flushed.
Precisely at that point, the door to his reception hall opened and in strode two individuals that Hanasian did not expect to see at all. Both executed gracious bows for Bard and then again for Rin, which only served to unsettle her further.
"Elladan! Elrohir! A fine sight unlooked for! Mae Govannen!" Hanasian cried and the twins smiled.
They clasped hands first with Hanasian and then with the other two rangers.
"Have you asked yet?" Elrohir inquired.
"No!" Bard grumbled.
"He'll be wanting use of your dock, lord, and the access hatches you have wisely constructed throughout your fair town," Elladan said smoothly.
"Is that all? This is what you kept me waiting for? Hmpf…no respect for an aged man. Well of course. You'll be wanting boats too, I suspect," Bard stated gruffly and then levered himself out of his chair.
His son's wife took his arm and began leading him from the hall.
"Put them in the west rooms. They're the warmest this time of year," Bard continued and his escort inclined her head in understanding.
"What are you doing here?" Hanasian inquired, still surprised by their arrival.
"Aragorn sent word of trouble, of course. We but followed the trail."
"But you could not have set out before the High Pass closed," Farbarad said.
"Think you that the only way across the Mountains?" Elrohir gently teased.
"Your delicate elf boots probably barely made an impression on the snow," Farbarad replied, voice a roughened growl to heighten the comparison.
Rin watched all of this bounce back and forth, silent and definitely overwhelmed. She had not moved from the spot Bard had commanded her to occupy. Memories flooded her. Sunlight. Colour. Smell. Taste. Large boots and blue flowers. Lochared most of all. It made her heart ache. They had loved that little place, there under the trees, where the stream was gentle. They had whiled hours away there, together. There were frogs and fish and butterflies and all sorts of wonderful things to do and explore. Bard's hall fell away and she was lost in that bubble of memory. No cares or concerns. No death, no conspiracies. No wars or battles. No unborn children that were driving a wedge between her and her husband.
Her bubble popped when a man of middle years appeared to show them to their quarters. She crashed back to reality. Loch was dead, Hanasian found it impossible to look at her without questions crowding his eyes, and she was about to embark on her prison sentence. Hanasian walked with the twins behind their guide, deep in conversation about what the two had found since taking up the trail on the western side of the mountains. Farbarad and Mecarnil followed and Rin trailed along. When she did not walk fast enough for their liking, Farbarad turned about and snapped at her to hurry up.
The western rooms were warm and comfortable. She was not permitted a window to look out upon lest someone mark her identity. She was not permitted to wander the hall either, nor step outside. With her instructions issued, the men soon departed to explore this dock of Bard's and the boats. Rin turned about the now empty quarters. She had never felt lonelier. Lonely, overwhelmed, caged. She sat down in a chair in the parlour she stood in as Slippery's words from the night before circled. This was for the best, apparently.