39. Chapter 39
The ship moved with speed to the southeast in the days after they set out from Skhar. The winds were favourable and the skies clear. They swiftly lost sight of the land they all knew and it was then that many of their number mourned their departure. It was too late of course. Every man had elected to forego their chance to remain on dry, familiar land. The sagging spirits did not come from the prospect of adventure in unknown places. Rather, soldiers who had in the main spent all their days on steady land found the seasickness of the relentlessly moving ocean troubled them greatly. By the third day most had recovered from it.
Hamoor took on the duty of navigation, with the instruments and star maps at his disposal, and he quickly had the ship striking mostly east. However the ocean wanted them to go south, and it appeared to resist any eastward path. Videgavia did not relent and ordered them to persist with their eastern course. He suggested a gentler route, for no Man could best an ocean's wild will, that took them southeast. Morcal enjoyed his duty of watch in the crows nest and the experienced sea hands of Gondor gladly let him have it. The day the storm blew in out of the east, these same experienced hands were well clear of the space below the crow's nest and the contents of Morcal's unfortunate stomach. Still, the younger Southron grimly persisted with his watch despite his profound discomfort.
A week passed and little headway was made into the east. The winds become contrary after the storm and the currents pushed them evermore south. If they kept on that route, Hamoor suspected they would run into the wild east shore of Far Harad, a prospect that was not even pleasing for the two Southrons in their number. Videgavia ordered them to turn about and try to make their way northwest. They spent the second week working their way back north and another week trying to ride what seemed like favourable winds, but the storms and weather ensured that they only pushed a little ways east.
Their lack of progress increasingly frustrated the Company's new captain and Videgavia had to weigh their options. After discussion with Khor and the Old Crew, Berlas suggested they bring in Hamoor, for the man had shown great skill in his attempts to navigate. While Wulgof went off to fetch him, Videgavia asked his resident engineers, the brothers Daius and Donius, to look into how the old ship was holding up. Their report was not encouraging, mostly a list of running issues that developed along the way. The Company assisted as they could, still there was no escaping the fact that the outlook for their voyage was grim. Videgavia stood silently for a time at the rail, his hand wrapped around his chin. He tugged at hairs of his beard.
He then took Berlas aside and asked him, "What of Lady Anvikela? How does she fare?"
"You should ask her." Berlas answered.
Videgavia scowled for it was a well-known fact that she had taking a liking to Berlas, and he seemed to have kept an eye on her in his turn. Still, she had not once emerged from the cabin room that was her quarters since boarding. On their voyage over, she and her sisters had spent their whole time in the one room. Perhaps, Videgavia ruminated, she felt she had to remain in her cabin. When he voiced this speculation aloud Berlas shrugged.
Videgavia thought a moment longer, then said, "You Wulgof, Mulgov, and I will pay Lady Anvikela a visit. Who, besides you, has attended the Lady?"
"Barika," Berlas answered, sending a signal that would bring the other two men to join them while Videgavia scratched at his beard again.
"Barik. Was one of the few Rohirrim that signed on with the Free Company," Berlas said as they started for her quarters.
Videgavia was silent for a few steps before he said, "But you said Barika."
"I did, yes." Berlas said, trying to suppress a grin.
Videgavia would have none of it. He stopped, turned about and glared at Berlas eye to eye, "What are you on about here?"
He looked at Wulgof and then to Molguv. Both men had been suspiciously silent upon arrival and they glanced at each other conspiratorially. Vid's temper began to fray and he demanded in a voice that was dark and gruff an explanation for the second time. Wulgof and Molguv's grins spread across their faces while Berlas took a cautionary backwards step and raised a hand.
"I'll try and explain Captain. One night at our bar in Skhar-"
"He's a poet!" Wulgof quipped, interrupting him. Mulgov gleefully added, "And he didn't even know it!"
Videgavia shut their laughter down quick, even before it got away from them, with a look that usually meant someone was bleeding or about to.
He said, "You both have been awful quiet of late. Let's keep it that way for a bit longer and shut up. I should know that when you lot are quiet that some sort of trouble is not too far behind. More fool me for enjoying the peace so much that I am reluctant to pursue it. Now, Berlas, will you tell me about Barik... Barika… whatever his name is that tends Lady Anvikela."
Berlas shrugged and said, "Well, maybe Wulgof would be better at telling you, since Hamoor brought this discovery to him first. But I'll get to the point…"
"Please do!" Videgavia growled, out of patience entirely with any prevarication.
Berlas swallowed and said, "Barik, the feisty little bowman that came east with the army of Rohan, who wielded a short broadsword in close combat with the axes of the Easterling rebels, is a woman."
Videgavia stared at Berlas a moment, then at the other two and then rolled his eyes.
"How did she manage to that get by you lot? No matter. Good with a sword, good with a bow, and can pass herself off as a man. She has talent. I want to talk to her."
"Well, we promised we wouldn't reveal her secret," Wulgof hurriedly said and Mulgov agreed with a nod.
Berlas cut in, "I didn't," and he shrugged when Mulgov and Wulgof looked set to argue, "I didn't know until we set sail. When confronted her about it I said I'd keep quiet if she tended the Lady. I also said the Cap would find out eventually."
"And so he has," came a voice behind them. Barika stood, looking every part the soldier that she was.
Videgavia turned about and nodded, "Yes. And I need to talk to you about the Lady Anvikela."
"And I was going to find you to tell you of some things I have observed," Barika offered and Videgavia stepped closer.
"Every time we have tried to sail east the Lady becomes agitated and frightened, as though she does not want to return. There is something affecting her."
Videgavia said to Mulgov, "You stand guard outside the Lady's door. Barika, Berlas, and I have some business with the Lady and we don't want to be bothered.
"You, Wulgof, go and tell Hamoor to steer the ship due east after a full calculation performed with a star reading and wind check."
Wulgov nodded and headed off. The rest went to the Anvikela 'squarters. Once there, Barika knocked and was admitted. Berlas stepped in, and then Videgavia after her He bowed slightly and said,
"Pardon my intrusion Lady Anvikela, but there are some matters we need to discuss."
With a look of resignation, Anvikela showed them to a table where she had made tea. Videgavia wasted no time in asking hard questions.
"Why do you oppose us returning to your land?" Videgavia said and added " We need your help."
Lady Anvikela started to tear up and Videgavia inwardly steeled himself for he never liked it when women cried. It was one of the things he had appreciated about the former Company Healer.
Anvikela said, "I want to go, I want to bring you to my land. But I fear what will become… what will be required of me, both upon my return, and also in passing the rift. I do not have the strength of the high born whom I served, or the high mages. Even if my sisters lived and breathed and were with me here, it would be a hard task for all three of us."
Tears ran down her cheeks as she sobbed. Videgavia did not relent, "Well, you must try with all you do have, and we will do what we can for you. Even now the creaking of this ship warns us. We are turning east and soon it will begin again."
She stared at her tea and Videgavia reached for her hand. Berlas took her other hand. Barika stood behind her.
Lady Anvikela swallowed hard, frowned at the table and said, "If we are turning, then there is little time. I will try… I will reach out east. I must go to the bow, for it is forefront of our eastward drive."
Videgavia looked at Berlas, and then to Barika. They stood, the Lady with them, and they hurried out just as the waves of a storm front started to rise. The Lady came to the bow. Barika secured a rope about her to prevent her from being washed away while the sky boiled overhead. It was a ferocious storm and the ship howled in agony beneath them.
Anvikela yelled out over the noise of the rising wind and thunder, "We approach the edge of the rift! May we pass safely!"
She stood tall and proud as the elements of wind, rain, and sea spray tore at her. Videgavia, Berlas, and Barika stood not to far back, and struglled to keep themselves upright. Donius stumbled forth, grabbed Videgavia and yelled though his words could barely be heard.
"What are we doing? This ship can't take this! She will break apart!"
Videgavia watched the woman in the bow of the screaming ship. He thought she had started to glow with a pale blue light but when he tried to concentrate on that it faded from sight. Still, something was happening! The hair on his arms stood on end. Wave after brutal wave slammed into the hull and there was a terrible sound as one of the masts cracked, unable to bear the twisting timbers and the sheering winds. Molguv grabbed a dangling line and pulled it taut with all of his prodigious strength, wishing Bear was there to help him as he strained. It was then that lightning streamed forth from the Lady's hands and disappeared into the clouds to the east. The clouds swallowed them whole and the percussive waves of impact made it seem like boulders and not waters pounded their ship. Still, Anvikela held on with her arms raised. It was too much and Molguv bellowed in sheer, naked fear as the main mast came crashing down with Morcal in the crows nest….
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The world was in a shambles. What power that had kept the few remaining lights of Numenor's glorious Sea Captains ablaze was now shattered. The land writhed in agony and the people who remained were suffering. The once grand city was no more than rubble. The only glimpse of its former glory was had in the pillars and arches still managed to stand. The Order had been destroyed; its downfall was absolute, here and in Middle Earth, though few there comprehended that at first. Every day, fewer went to the shore to watch for the return of their loved ones and enough days passed for what little hope there was to dwindle. It had been the power of the Order, and the strength of the Priestess, that had pushed open the way. As they realised the extent of the destruction, it seemed obvious that the rift was once more irrevocably sealed. Any who might have survived were as lost as if they had perished.
The Sisterhood of Knowledge that had arisen in the heart of the Order around the lost Priestess was set adrift. The link to their chosen sisters had been severed with the downfall of the Priestess. They knew her to be dead, just as they knew that one of the Wizards had perished. Where the other was they did not know. They could not now feel his power. They could not feel any power, save that of their own heartbeats. It was terrifying.
Though their sanctuary suffered cracks and a few fallen stones, the structures remained sturdy. So too were the walls around their grounds. The Sisterhood's elders, the Mothers, had no explanation as to why they alone in the city and the surrounding lands had suffered so little. They kept themselves sheltered away from the world outside their walls. Their Elite stood guard dutifully outside the walls and the fear of those who remained of the power that once dwelt there kept them safe from the few vagabonds that roamed the lands. It was the night of the bright stars, when the Mothers gathered. They called upon the Sisterhood to hold vigil for their departed Sisters in the west. Little did they know that one of their own reached out for them on that very night, caught in the grinding jaws of the rift.
The storm came upon them fast, and the lightning and rain that arrived with it fell hard upon them. The roof leaked and the sound of water dripping and pouring started to fill their sanctuary. It was then that lightning struck the high roof and caused it to collapse. The sisterhood nearly panicked at that, but the Mothers could feel the power building. Something was happening. It drew them to concentrate harder even as their sanctuary seemed to collapse around them. Maybe they were coming home…
Rubble everywhere. Dust too. In his eyes, grinding with every blink. There was a hot cinder smell in the air. Or maybe that of flint being struck? It was hard to tell with all the dust in his nose. He tried to wipe his eyes clear but that only made it worse. Trying to kick off a bit of rubble, he felt his leg pop.
"That's not good," he said to himself.
He tried to stand. The rubble that had coated him fell to the ground with a bang down as he stood. Squinting, he could see the building around him had collapsed inside. The outer walls and roof were largely intact but they appeared unsteady in the grey dusty light. His head pounded and his right arm felt numb. He looked down at his hand. He could see it was there still, caked with dirt and drying blood. His ears… he wasn't hearing much beyond a muffled sound that sounded like dripping water, as if from a stream from the Misty Mountains pouring forth its last of the snowmelt in the late days of summer. He squinted to look about and tried to clear the dust and dirt out of his eyes. He tried to move his right hand to wipe his face. It wouldn't move. So he tried his left hand again. It let go of the stone that he had been hanging onto and he started to topple over.
"Leg wont work either," he observed again to himself.
He propped himself against the stone and wiped his eyes with his finger. It still felt like he was grinding dirt and salt into them but vision started to clear once they started to water and flushed the debris from them. He blinked madly. Things were still a bit blurred and grey but the sound of the dripping water was growing louder. No, not actually getting louder, he realised. Rather it was the one constant sound present. His hearing was recovering. He again tried to take a step but found that to be too ambitious and had to again lean against the large chunk of stone. It used to be an inner wall. Sweat from his forehead and nose started to drip down on his leg and useless hand. Except it wasn't sweat, it was blood. His head was throbbing, and the sound of the water dripping became ever louder in his head, making it pound.
"Water…" he mumbled to himself, trying to focus his eyes in the direction he thought the sound was coming from.
He noticed a silvery glisten in the murk. He could see the stream of water falling down from the broken corner of the roof. He was quite thirsty. He resolved to attempt to walk again. He grabbed the large stone he had leaned against with his left hand and pulled himself along while he attempted to kick his legs to gain footholds in the rubble. It was ungainly, but he managed a step and found he could see and feel his legs. This was a good thing. Now, to see if they would continue to work. He still couldn't feel his right arm as it hung limply at his side. But he could now start to feel a tingling at his right shoulder. He tried to move his shoulder and he felt a snap and a pop, and pain shot down his arm and up his neck to his head. He staggered as his balance failed and he fell forward into the rubble.
"Ouch," he said, stared out across the broken ground in the direction of the water.
Despite the pain, he could now feel his right arm. His elbow tingled as if a thousand needles were being stuck into it. He moved his shoulder again and though it was painful, it didn't make any noise. He must have popped it back in. Still couldn't feel his hand or make his fingers work though. He struggled to get up, but thought crawling toward the water would be easier at this stage. He got close enough to feel the first cool droplets hit his face, and it felt good.
The remains of another wall stood next to him, and he grasped the broken top with his left hand and pulled himself up. He leant against it while his head spun and his balance struggled to return to him. Once it had he could see now the steady stream of water. He could hear also the steady rain outside that supplied the stream running off the roof. He resolved to take a step towards it and hope for the best. Once an incurable optimist, always an incurable optimist. That's what she had said to him over the years, shaking her head and sometimes scowling and sometimes smiling.
A stagger and a step, and then another, and Loch stood in the cool stream. Letting it splash over his head, he washed off the dirt and dust and some of the blood. He also found the source of the blood. A gash above his right eyebrow went up to his hairline in the middle of his forehead. Head wounds always bled bad. She had said that too. He splashed several handfuls of water splashed against his face and his eyes felt much better. They actually could focus now. He rubbed his right arm with his left hand and saw that his sleeve had been torn off to the shoulder. The darkness of his flesh told him that it was burned, but it didn't feel like he had burns. Most likely a flash burn? Yes, he did watch and listen to his sister when she talked about such matters. His disinterest at the time didn't mean he didn't learn anything. Still, try as he might, he couldn't move the fingers on his right arm. His hand was dead and even though he could now move his elbow. He let the water run down on it and tried to wash off the darkness.
"Remember Loch… what do you remember?" he wheezed to himself as his head throbbed. Slowly his memories organised themselves. He remembered the mission, and the room, and the witch!
"She hit me with a spell!" he exclaimed to himself. What a fool he was! Thinking he could kill a high mage with a knife! Rin would have his hide. But what happened after that? He could not remember.
"Water…" a meek voice said and Loch looked around to find its owner.
The voice! One of the attendants! Yes, the one who discovered him and locked him in the wardrobe! But he got out, and there had been two others that looked much like her when he struck. They were there, if only for a moment. Coming into the room. And the old man was there too, surely he was the Wizard! They were all in the room, and the old mage turned when he had sensed Loch's presence. But it was to late! Loch had struck! Completely surprising the witch! And surprise to the others! It was the reactions in that moment that set things alight.
The old mage cast a spell toward him, the girl he had met jumped toward him, the other girl threw herself toward the witch, and the third… what did she do? He could not remember. He saw his knife rake across the witch's throat, and then everything went white. Heat had enveloped him, and everything faded to black. He had no memory of anything until a few moments ago when he woke up here. Rationally, he had to be standing in whatever was left of the palace he and Runner had snuck into. His gut hinted at other, irrational things that he squelched down. He needed to get himself in order so he could continue to scout, and return to the Company with his report! And an explanation for his sister. She had specifically told him to be careful.
His mind fell toward duty to the Company, and he felt his head start spinning.
"Water…" a meek voice said again and he reaslied that it was a real voice and not something out of his head. She was here, somewhere. But where?
Again unsure if he was hearing things, he called out, "Where are you?"
There was only silence. Things were just not right. Things sounded wrong. Or at least in a different way. He snapped the fingers of his left hand by his left ear, and he could hear it well. He went to snap his fingers of his right hand by his right ear, but his hand just jerked and remained limp. He couldn't raise his hand to his head anyway. So he reached around with his left hand and snapped his fingers. A faint distant echo was all he heard, with most of the sound being heard in his left ear.
Loch shifted his stance and suddenly felt something stabbing him in the right foot. Looking down, he saw that the leg of his leather breeches were shredded and missing parts from the knee down, and he was missing his boot. The feeling was coming back to his right leg, and it was beginning to throb. He picked his foot up and found a shard of wood jammed into the bottom of it. Removing it made standing a bit easier. But he became dizzy again and lost his balance. He fell to the side, and nearly blacked out but for the cold flesh his left hand came to touch, and he jumped.
He pushed a broken door, the very one he hid behind and was closed into by the girl, aside and saw her. She lay there, staring at the sky through the hole in the roof, unmoving. Her dress was tattered and some of her exposed skin was dark with flash burns like his. He squatted down to take her hand, and he could see that she still took breath.
Her eyes blinked open again and she said, "Water…"
Loch found a broken jar in the rubble that would hold some water, and reached for the stream that fell from the broken roof. He brought it to her lips and she gulped it down. He helped her sit up and rested her against the door. His head throbbed and his vision was struggling to stay focused.
"You are alive Lochared of Dunland. As am I."
Loch looked at her and sat down beside her before he fell down unceremoniously, "What happened? Where are we?"
The wind pushed the water around, making its splashing change pitch, sending Loch's hearing into echoes. He could see in his mind that moment when she jumped toward him. He assumed in that instant it was to stop him from killing her charge. But in truth, she had moved to protect him. This girl chose to try and extend what shielding ability she had over him! It made no sense to him.
In that moment, everyone reacted. He was fading and everything started to sound far away, like in a dream you can't wake up from.
"I do not know what happened, but I know where we are. What I ask myself is when we are."
She took Loch's hand, and he seemed to return at the strangeness of her reply.
He said, "When we are? It's 44 years into the 4th age of Middle Earth."
"That may be so Lochared of Dunland, but this is not Middle Earth."
She gave him some of the water he had brought to her to drink. She reached out to let the stream of water splash on her palm and it splashed all over them both. She giggled like a girl and it made Loch remember younger days with Rin.
Something surfaced in his sluggish thoughts and Loch asked, "I need to know how you know my name and the land which I came?
She answered, "You told me in my dream."
That too reminded him of Rin, as did his frustration with the mysteries that seemed to come from the girl's mouth every time she spoke. He looked at the side of her face and he could see now sadness and a mind in deep thought. The little girl of a moment ago had fled. Loch leaned back and sighed.
He said, "Well. It seems you know me but I have yet to meet you. May I ask your name?"
He had too many questions, especially with her responses. Maybe he could at least get her name. Then he could figure out the rest and then try and find Runner and the others, and get back to the Company and report to Hanasian. He will surely have questions of his own and will want Loch to recall details so he could record it all and Rin would be shoving him about in a bid to get him to lie down so she could tend him, all impatient and irritable.
As he tried to marshal his recollections into order, he felt awareness slipping from him.
The girl whispered to him, "You rest now Lochared of Dunland. You are hurt from our ordeal. I did my best to shield you from harm, now I will do my best to help you heal."
Just like Rin…only politer.
When he came to he thought he was dead. Or blind. Maybe both. The initial panic that seized faded, leaving a metallic aftertaste in his mouth and his limbs trembling like some newborn colt. Cold drops of water fell on him. His back was soaked and where the rain found his bare flesh it was needles. Thousands of them. Prickling him. It made him roll over. That was a mistake. Better the needles gouge his back than his face. Actually, better that he find shelter. Then Loch. The fool. This was his fault.
It took more effort than he was bargaining on to gain his feet. He peered blearily down, rain hammering on his skull like a drum. Boom. Boom. Boom. CRACK! Lightening! His brain felt like it was all pebbles, rattling around in a kettle. Bare feet were illuminated in the flare of bluewhite death. No boots. Damn. Those Company boots had been the best he'd ever had. Cover. He needed cover. Runner hunched against the decaying wall he had been laying against and decided to follow it until it lead him to a door or window or hole. Anything would do.
He found a gap in the masonry and fell through it. The night was inky. Things were moving in it. He didn't know what. Only that they did and he didn't want to meet them. His collected assortment of aches pains soon disabused Runner of any notion that he was dead. Of course, he couldn't be so lucky. It was difficult to see in the murky night. He had no idea where specifically he was. He had no idea where Loch was. Given how his luck had panned out this far, it seemed likely that he'd be caught in the onslaught that he knew was brewing. The Black were massing to fall upon the Order in Skhar. Khor's men would be in the fray as well. And here he was, disorientated, lost and bootless. Not even a dagger.
Killing a witch with a dagger. A fool's errand if ever there was one. He hunkered down, squatting between his knees with his arms wrapped around himself for warmth. He was soaked through. Things were starting to hurt. A lot. What had his friend been thinking? Runner understood how important family was. He knew how much his friend cared for his sister even if she was a little frightening. So tall and pale and such a way of looking at someone as if she could see right into his thoughts. When he had first seen her, she was angry. She argued with men. One of the Black Company men, one of the scariest ones, shouted at her and she just argued back. But she had been kind to him and he had been overawed enough to forgive the way she mangled his language in a bid to communicate with him.
Yes, Runner supposed as he shivered miserably and the heavens rained down death from above, if he had a sister he'd protect her too. But this plan had been suicide. Loch had said he was a professional. This had all the professional precision and forethought of an amateur. As the young man of Rhun pondered just what he would do to even the score with his impetuous friend, he found thoughts of vengeance were keeping the chill at bay. In time, the storm without passed, though not with a whimper. Rather, it slammed a fist down and howled away. Out to sea, presumably.
The temptation to remain where he was assaulted Runner. He was tired. Everything hurt.
And he was angry with Loch.
But if he stayed where he was his muscles would seize up and he'd not be able to walk, much less return to the safety of his own lines before all hell broke loose. With a stifled moan, Runner began to stretch out his legs. The effort made his eyes water and so his sight was blurry when he thought he saw a shadow flit past the opening he had fell through earlier. Instinct made him freeze, not sitting and not standing. This in no way assisted his aching body. It was dark. A trick of the mind. No…again…a shadow…He could taste metal again.
He had grown up on tales of the Dark Years. Tales of nights such as these, where nightmares roamed, hunting for the unwary. Punishment sent for those who had failed the Dark Lord…or his pets, sporting at their hunt. He had sensed things moved in the storm. Powers. Was this what he now saw? The tales said that such creatures could smell a man's blood if they were near enough…sense the heat of his body…hear his breathing, the movement of his lungs. The urge to swallow against his suddenly dry throat seized Runner and he fought it, straining to focus his attention on the gap and the night beyond.
Stars had already emerged, unveiled again. He paid them scant regard. There! A third time! It paused this time, hovered in the gap, questing for him. Horror bloomed in Runner's gut. Still, to move was to die. As the shadow poured through the gap, Runner's fading strength failed him outright and he fell back hard. His head bounced off the ground with a damp crack and tales and vengeance and aches and pains were not Runner's concern any more. The shadow crouched at his side, poised, ready to strike.
The light changed. It was grey now, false dawn. It filtered through Runner's eyelids and as soon as he realised this he realised that a ring of fire encircled his skull. A groan of misery was wrenched from his dry throat. He heard a scrabbling sound and desperately tried to open his eyes. They were gummed shut, gluey. Water splashed over his face, shocking him. His eyes flew open and his hands lifted to form a pathetic shield. It was all he had. He blinked the water from them, gasped in air and peered into the dim morning.
He expected to see a beast of nightmare. Slavering jaws, cruel teeth, beady little eyes crazed with dumb malice, misshapen form. Instead, he found a young woman was crouched beside him. She was not nearly as well kept as last he had seen her. Her gown was badly rent, her hair snarled and hanging in thick ropes. Dust coated her and she appeared to have burns that were mostly healing. Her head was tilted to one side. Dark eyes regarded him with some caution. Suddenly it occurred to Runner that his hands held up in a shield was faintly ridiculous. He lowered them.
Her head tilted the other way and then she lifted into view a broken jar of some sort. It sloshed with water.
He nodded and she held it to his mouth. As he drank, he never took his eyes from her. It was one of the attendants. She studied him critically and lowered it when she judged he had had enough.
"You can walk now. Not far, yes?" she asked him in heavily accented Westron.
Runner frowned. He wasn't sure if he could sit up, much less walk anywhere. Even if he could, he wasn't in the least convinced he wanted to go anywhere with her. Besides, the attack would have to be starting any moment now.
"Where are the others," he instead asked and her head tilted again.
Runner realised with that nothing would be had from her and instead turned his efforts to more fruitful pursuits. The first attempt to sit up resulted in all of his recently drunk water returning to the world again. He blacked out shortly after that. He started awake and resumed his efforts. He was sweating by the time he managed to sit up and trembling again. At this rate he'd be an old man before he got his feet under him again. The girl had moved away but studied his progress curiously.
"Not far," she assured him.
"That's what you think," he muttered in his own tongue.
He needed to find Loch and then they needed to light out of there, collect his squad and hightail it back to the Company to answer some pointy questions. A fool of a thing to do!
Runner was panting by the time he made the gap. Most of his pains had receeded to dull aches but his head was abysmal. He recalled a brief flash of pain from last night and concluded that he probably had concussion. That meant a trip to Loch's sister…perhaps one of the medics. They weren't nearly so…so…well they weren't her. Everyone knew that if you weren't Old Company or her Cats, well you kept your distance. They were possessive and not the sort of people to run afoul of. The girl flitted to the gap and through it, out into the morning. Dawn was not far off. He was surprised he hadn't heard the bird calls of the advance squads yet. Things were quiet. Unnaturally still. Something was about to break. Aside from his head.
"Not far," the girl said and gave him what was supposed to be an encouraging smile.
He ignored her and scanned the street. It looked like everything had been slapped about. Rubble, broken buildings, cracked stones. Furniture and scraps of clothing. Nothing lootable, he noticed. That made no sense at all. There was no way all the looting could have finished so quickly with all these buildings cracked open like over-ripe fruit.
"I know where your friend is. Lochared," the girl said when it seemed unlikely that Runner would follow her.
When his wandering attention returned to her, she added brightly, "I'll take you to him!"
It was the oldest trick in the book, Runner thought. He'd be a fool to believe her. But, then, considering that he'd followed Loch on this disastrous idea of his, he was already a formidable fool. Then it occurred to him. She knew Loch's name. That made no sense. Runner sighed and pushed out after her on wobbly legs. He expected she was leading him into a trap, but then where else did he have to go? When instead she lead him to another tumbled down building and his friend, Runner was pleasantly surprised. His face broke into a grin at the sight of Loch lying there. He had an arm thrown over his eyes and he was trying to sleep. The girl saw his expression and mirrored his smile.
A new surge of strength eddied through Runner and he made it to where Loch was laying with a quarter of the energy that he had needed to make if from his shelter to this one. The girl trailed along behind, pleased with herself. Time would be short, Runner knew, before the anvil fell and the ambush was sprung. He nudged Loch's calf as he squatted down. Loch looked like he had been trampled and burned all at once. It would make no difference to him. He lifted his arm from his face, opened his eyes and peered up into Runner's face.
"RUNNER!" Loch enthusiastically cried, or would have if his throat wasn't so dry.
Instead it came out as a mangled croak. Still, he managed to sit himself up, which was a good thing. It would make it easier. Runner smiled at this thought.
"Am I pleased to see-"
Loch found it difficult to finish his next sentence. Not because of his dry throat. No. Rather, it was Runner's fist colliding with his jaw that made conversation hard. No sooner had Runner swung at Loch did Loch instinctively swing back and that was that.
The girl's smile dissolved into outright puzzlement as the two men scuffled about on the dusty floor, grunting and swearing at each other. They had managed only one swing each in their condition and were soon reduced to rolling about, wrestling with each other, half hearted strength and full blown anger. It was the strangest thing she had ever seen in all her life. Her years in the sanctuary had never prepared her for this. And she thought they were allies.
It took over ten minutes. She glanced down at the water she held still and thought that soon had both men howling popped into her head. Just as well they were not as ambulatory as usual, she thought as she hopped away with a now empty jug. Both men sat puffing as water dripped from their hair. Loch had a bloodied lip. Runner had a black eye. They glared at each other, arms resting on their bent knees. This, she thought, was going to be difficult.
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.