41. Chapter 41
Their fatigue was such that the contents of Molguv's flask was soon taking its toll on their consciousness.
The men were cleared out being prodded by Two Bells' blade, "They need rest, not drunkenness. Now out!"
"Aw Doc, we just want to watch them, especially the Kid…" Mulgov said as the Dirty Three wanted to stay.
"No. I cannot make exception for you even if you are Old Company. Dhorgat and a half-dozen young Easterlings want to come in and linger by Runner as well. Can't have it, at least not today. Come back in the morning."
With assistance from Sparks, the two medics pushed Wulgof out. Khule went of his own accord after looking down the scalpel that Bells held.
Molguv finally nodded, "Just let me do one thing Doc."
Bells paused but kept his eyes on the unpredictable Haradian. Molguv dribbled salt around the cots that Loch and Runner occupied, then departed with one last look before the tent flap fell back into place.
"Had to kick them out?" Loch mumbled, his eyes closed.
"Yes. You need your rest and you've both a de-briefing with the Captain in the morning."
"Hanasian? He tried to teach me to write, you know," Loch muttered still with his eyes closed, and failed to add that Hanasian was not the first to attempt it. Not the first, but infinitely more patient than his sister… and far less amusing to tease as well.
Bells grinned, "Aye, sounds like him. Thought the recording of events accurately was important. It has its place. Did you write anything down?"
Loch sighed at the question and attempted to sit up. Bells prevented him from doing so.
"I had no time, nothing to write with, nothing to write on. But I swear, it's all in my head. I just have to be able to get it out. Hanasian won't be happy when he gets my report and there is nothing on it."
"Hanasian won't be getting your report. Captain Videgavia will."
Loch sighed again and whispered as sleep lured him into her webs, "Mmmm… yeah… I forgot. He's Captain now…. where is Rose? I would like to see her…"
Once the snoring started coming from both patients, it was all that Bells needed to hear, and he left them to their rest. Once the medic had sought his own bedroll, Wulgof, Khule, and Dhorgat slipped in and sat on the ground in the tent to watch the pair sleep. Mulgov had begged off, saying he had something else to attend to. In any case, there would not have been enough room for them all had the large man decided to return with them. They watched the two men sleep, but it wasn't long before these three watchers were asleep themselves and sprawled all over the floor, snoring as Loch and Runner were.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The command post was one of the few properly solid buildings about that also boasted a roof that was mostly intact. It was high enough to see over most of the rubble, and within Videgavia and Berlas were in deep discussion. The two men summoned Barika to report.
"Lady Anvikela knows that her sister is close, but she does not know we have her," Barika said.
Vid glanced at Berlas before he asked, "And the other girl?"
"She too knows her sister is close, but I don't think she knows we have her. She was quite distressed when Dhorgat found her. If anything she now seems more afraid of us giving her up to whomever she was being taken to."
Berlas cut in and said, "You can assure her that will not happen on our watch."
Berlas then considered his Captain and asked, "Do we risk a reunion?"
Vid scratched his cheek, a sure sign he was thinking about things. Indeed, there was much to consider and most of it strange, beyond their ken.
"I wish to speak to Loch and Runner first. Barika, you continue to talk to the girl and try to determine what exactly she is afraid of. It's possible we need to be wary of the same people who wish to take her captive. Also, get as much as you can of her days since the incident in Shkar. It will help."
Videgavia held his chin for a moment before he again addressed Barika,
"Tell her that she is welcome among us and that we know where her sister is. I want her to find some reason to hope in us. We will need Lady Anvikela to get back home when we're finished here. If we have her with us as well, given how hard we know it to be to cross that rift, it can't hurt. Two of the three sisters is the best we can hope for, since the third is confirmed dead and now rests in Shkar. Maybe, aware of the freedom that is now theirs, they both will want to come back with us. We can only hope. Besides, it appears they fear whatever they know they left behind here. We need them, and they're our only helpful local guides in this strange place. I think it's in our best interests to keep the girls close with us and out of the hands of whoever or whatever they both fear. Hopefully by having them with us, we can make that work for us."
"What about Dhak and his shadows?" Berlas asked. Videgavia frowned and said,
"Dhak has been less than helpful since we returned, and I didn't ever really trust him anyway. But I do need to speak to Dhak. I want to hear what he has to say about all this. Berlas, I want you to speak to the Lady Anvikela. Barika, you go talk to this other girl. When you are done, you both get some rest. Then be here early and brief me before I talk to Loch and Runner."
"Right Cap," Berlas and Barika both said, heads full of their task before their bedrolls would find them. Videgavia chased them with one last request.
"If either of you see Dhak, send him to me." A quick salute said they heard him.
The next morning came and Berlas and Barika both briefed Videgavia on their talks with the two girls, and Barika returned to have breakfast with Rose. Their tales were consistent, but Barika was finding Rose a wealth of information. She suggested, and the Captain agreed, that it would be best for her to spend more time with her this morning.
Now it was time to gain reports from the two lost scouts. They both arrived well rested but on edge. Berlas would speak with Runner while Videgavia would speak with Loch. It was clear that the two Company scouts were nervous and unsettled. Berlas left the Captains room with Runner to find another room to talk. Being separated made them both even more uneasy. For Loch, the questions Videgavia asked seemed to fuel the younger man's unease. From Loch's perspective, Videgavia was a far cry from the now easy, approachable captain that Hanasian had been. Yet, in other ways, the two Captains were the same.
Loch swallowed when Vid asked, "Do you have your summary for the Company annals?"
Loch glanced to one side and resisted to urge to tug at his beard. Still, his tone was one of apology, "I haven't written it down yet."
Videgavia waved it off, "Berlas and Belegost are the writers in this company, so I'm sure one of them will get what he needs from you when he speaks to you. Hanasian always thought it important to keep these records and I agree with him.
"Now, about your time away, there are a couple things I need to follow up on. Tell me all that you know from the time you were watching the temple in Shkar."
Loch swallowed, because this was the part that he really struggled with. He spoke of how he came to be in the house and how the girl he called now Rose had discovered him there. He told Vid how he was locked in the closet and not given up as an intruder, and the events after the Witch returned to her room. He paused, gathered his thoughts and continued on to the point that the three sisters returned to the room with the Wizard. It had been at moment he had perceived the need to act or risk discovery and failure. He paused a second time, as if in pain.
Loch finally said, "The knife stroke across her throat, it was quick and sure. Nobody had time to react, at east very much. Not the Witch, not the High Mage, or even the three girls. Still, each did something in that moment, and nothing any of the other expected."
Videgavia was furiously scratching this down, racing his speed with the recall of the scout. A third pause provided him with time to catch up.
A few moments passed before Vid said, "Go on Loch. What do you know when you moved on the witch?"
Loch swallowed and rubbed at his forehead, "This is where it all get a bit … distorted? I mean I know in my head what I know, but when I try and tell it, I become confused."
"Just relax and speak." Vid prompted.
Loch nodded, seeming reassured by his captain's demeanour.
"I felt her blood on my hand. It burned. Then air around me started to burn! I tried to move away from her, but I was thrown back by her final scream as if I had been picked up and tossed aside. I soon lost all grip on that room. I did see the girls and the Wizard as I fell back. Rose, the girl who found me in the ruins here, moved toward me.
One of the other girls threw herself against the wave of terrible power that came from the Witch. The other girl threw herself against the Wizard. He had seen me and was pointing. That is all I recall. I know or remember nothing until I awoke in the ruins near here. I have these wounds which I cannot explain, with Rose in the ruins with me."
It was a strange tale at the least and Videgavia reviewed it carefully with Loch to ensure he had the key details correct. Loch rounded it out by summarising the past week spent recuperating.
Puzzled, Vid asked, "You say that you are only aware of a few days, perhaps a week or so at most having passed since this incident in the house in Skhar. We talked to the girl you call Rose and she tells us-"
"Rose? You talked to her? Is she safe?" Loch pressed, his focus returning again.
Vid pressed on, "Aye Loch, she is well. We'll talk more about her later. I need you to listen now. She tells us that a few months passed from the time of the incident to now. She spoke of spending much of that time with you. You don't remember some festival dinner and dance with her? She does. She was very descriptive and, aside from the formal attire she said you wore, it fit you like a glove."
"No sir. I remember nothing except what I have told you," Loch said, lost in thought as he tried to remember anything further.
Loch was not a good liar. He was the most honest thief Videgavia had ever encountered, unlike his sister. At that moment, the man's brow was crumpled as he racked his shattered memories.
"I believe you Loch," Videgavia assured the scout, "The Company have spent well over a half a year since that day. Rose says it's been months and you say its been days. I have no reason to doubt any of you, but it is obvious that at the moment that you killed the witch, something happened that is beyond our understanding. Mecarnil's theory of other influences…perhaps that. I do not know.
"Whatever it was, it has affected you, Runner and this Rose most of all; presumably because you were so closest to the witch and wizard. It has affected others to a lesser degree. Lady Anvikela, was found in the rubble of the temple. So too was her sister, though she soon died of her injuries. Your assistance in understanding this is greatly appreciated."
Loch straightened in his chair, "I understand, sir."
Videgavia stood at that point, his mind already onto what would come next. Restless, because it would not be easy, he paced about and slapped a hand on Loch's shoulder before he continued.
"You have been away from us for a while and you've been sorely missed. Sadly, we have no way of getting word to your sister that you are indeed alive. It will be quite some time before we ever head west to our lands again, so all I can say is that I am sorry for that.
"All we found of yours in the ruins was a boot, a burned shirt sleeve, and the hilt of one of your daggers. Since you are still walking around with only one boot, you will be fitted with new gear. As soon as we get back to the western lands, you will be granted leave to go see your sister."
Loch blinked, eyes gleaming with the difficulty of it all. The urge to find her, tell her, was so strong that it made his joints ache. Still, he swallowed the lump in his throat and said, "Thank you sir."
Vid peered into the man's face, "Until then, I need you. I only have a hand full of the Old Crew left. The new recruits of Gondor and Rhun are quite capable and are dedicated as any, but you're old crew, and I need you to stay on top of it all.
"I'm depending on you, the man who made the split field decision to go in like you did. There is a fine line between boldness and recklessness and you have the skill to walk it. You be him. You did well, Loch."
Vid stood and returned to his chair. Loch was silent for a long while as he struggled with his composure. Over six months. It had been bad enough when he realised that Rin thought him dead for a week. Six months!
When Loch had marshalled his thoughts he asked, "Would it be possible to see Rose? She was greatly distressed when I last saw her."
Vid scratched his chin, "In due time, son. Before this day is done. Right now she is telling Barika all about these events."
Loch stood, "Barika? Who is Barika?"
"Much has happened in this company while you have been away. She is a member of this Company who has shown some rather remarkable skills, rather like your sister before her. She has been invaluable in working with Anvikela and now Rose seems to have taken a liking to her. You will meet Barika later today I believe, likely at evening meal. For now, you are dismissed Lochared. It's the noon hour, and you still need rest. I suggest you get it before this evening."
Videgavia was pleased to see the old company salute from Loch as the scout departed and he returned it in kind. So few of them in the Company knew it. So few. Another Old Company man returned. A boon unlooked for from an operational perspective.
Loch stumbled over Runner on his way to where he thought his tent was. He too was ordered to get some rest. So much was confusing and bewildering. The two men were glad to see each other, a marked change from their last reunion.
Runner said, "That Berlas is a good inquisitor. He asked me more questions and wrote down more than my answer each time. But he said I did well and was glad to have me back. How did you fare?"
Loch looked about the men about them who were now Company. He didn't know any that he saw except for a few vague but familiar faces.
After a few steps he replied, "It went well. Cap took my verbal report and said I did well."
They walked to a tent that had their names hanging on it and found Runner's squad had already camped around them. It gave both scouts a warm sense of place and belonging in a much-changed Company. The rigours of reporting ensured they were soon wrapping themselves back in their bedrolls, spare rolls from the Company's supplies. Donius and Daius, Loch supposed. Rin had always said those two men were marvels and now he could really appreciate why she was so fond of the two men.
"I need rest, for I will meet… Rose… in the morning…" he muttered to himself, for Runner was already asleep. Loch drifted off into dream in moments. Sparks and Bells kept a close eye on the two and made sure nobody bothered them. The two slept through the afternoon, and only woke for their evening meal. Still drowsy, and after a check by Bells and Sparks, they again went back to their tents and fell into deep sleep. The two docs shared their notes, and decided that both should be cleared for duty tomorrow.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Barika had spent the rest of the day with Rose and found that Rose had quite a lot to say. She even filled in some of the gaps that Anvikela had refused to speak of about that day in Skhar. She remained steadfast in her account of the days and weeks that had followed. Rose told of a festival of lights that she had attended with Loch and how he had been forced to suddenly leave, as if someone had called him away. It was when he left that they woke up in the rubble. Barika suspected it was a dream that coincided with the time Loch was unconscious, but she couldn't be sure and knew she would not be the judge of the matter in any case. But Barika did decide that she would do something that she suspected Videgavia would likely not approve of, unwittingly following in the footsteps of the Company's first female member. She planned it for that night.
After reporting the Captain, she returned to find Rose sleeping.
"You wish to see Loch?" Barika askedwith a whisper.
"I would, very much, yes!" Rose answered.
"Put this cloak on. I will take you to him, but it will be in secret. We will have to return here shortly before this is discovered."
Rose nodded, pulled the cloak around her, hid her head in its hood. Barika peeked out the door of the tent, then tapped Rose. She looked once morebefore stepping out, and employed her stealth to move them quietly between the tents. Attempting this at night was foolish, it was crazy. Loch's tent was not far away and the two were quickly inside Loch's tent unseen.
Barika whispered to Rose, "You have only a few moments. Let him know you are alive and well, and see that he is too."
With that Barika withdrew to watch by the tent door, confident that there was no harm in this and that it would only further install Barika in Rose's trust. She was already forming her rationale should they be discovered while Rose knelt on the ground next to Loch. She ran her fingers through his hair and took his hand but he did not stir. Rose became strangely still, a detail that Barika did not notice given her attention was on movement outside of the tent.
Loch reached for his sister in his sleep but clouds and fog assailed him, wrapped him, formed as certain a wall as stone might. It was sudden, but soft, as dreams can be, when Loch found himself side by side with Rose. They walked through a wide field of grass under a clear sky.
Rose whispered into his ear, "You wish to find you sister. I can help you. Come with me."
Loch was puzzled but took her hand. No sooner did he do that did it seem as though the field dropped away. It was dizzying, yet Rose held his hand fast. Then it started to speed past below their feet, blurring until the grass looked like the waters of a mountain rapid. Speeding, leaping, dancing waters of the spring melt, at home long ago, when he had delighted in playing by the stream and hunting frogs. For a long time it was like this until they came to a place that looked hauntingly familiar and not at precisely the same time to Loch.
"We're out west, by the elf port!" Loch said as he looked about. The tall white towers they had passed on their way to Mithlond were within sight.
Rose said nothing and suddenly he was standing and the ground was where it belonged, beneath his feet. In the tent, sweat beaded Rose's brow despite the chill of the day. She could sense Loch's search for his sister. She sensed him start, a sudden surge of excited relief. A shape, a woman…walking with a child in the distance. It was her. Had to be. He knew his sister better than he knew the back of his own hand. Still, he could not get any closer. He held tighter to Rose's hand and tugged her forward.
Oh how it burned! Rose had reached far and brought Loch along with her all that way. But now, she felt the push that was needed to find the other woman's dream. She was strong. So strong and guarded. It was so hard! Anvikela twisted and turned in her tent on the cot. She reached for her sister. Where was she? Was she the only one left? Surely…surely it could not be, else how could she have managed to get this Company of foreigners across the Rift.
Loch had a hold of Rose's hand and he strained towards the distant figure of a woman and child. Rose turned and saw her sister approach. Anvikela was frowning.
"You reach for the boy's sister, yet you reach not for me?"
"Please do not oppose me sister. Let me do this! My debt to this man is more than I can say!" Rose replied even as she tried to push Loch toward his sister.
Anvikela came to stand before them in the dreamscape, "You endanger us by doing this! They will know we are here!"
Rose pushed Loch hard to the side and into the dreams of the west proper before all her work could be undone. She said to her sister, "They already know we are here! It was this man's friends who saved me from being taken back! They know you are here too with the breaking of the rift, but you have shrouded yourself well enough to keep them finding you after you have returned."
Anvikela turned and fretted, then considered Loch now adrift in dreams not his own.
She said with an accusatory note, "This man is the one who brought all this to pass!"
"All the more reason to help him and his friends. They will protect us the best they can and that is something we both need... unless my sister, you wish to return to the Order's control."
Rose drew herself up with that and Anvikela turned away and stood in quiet thought. Loch was even now returning, looking for Rose, floundering. And, if Anvikela's senses bore true, the woman Rose attempted to lead him to had been the woman who had cared for her when she was first uncovered. Anvikela remembered her well. She had swept in to the midst of those frightening men, made the pain recede and shown remarkable, unexpected compassion. How she had barked at those other men too. So ferocious, in a way that would never be tolerated within the Order. And they had heeded her commands. As fearsome with them as she had been gentle with her. Rose reached for her sister and embraced her.
"Help me with this. He only wants to see and talk to his sister. She is the high born that they sought. She will be able to see and hear us. Let us take him to her!"
Lady Anvikela began to weep. She knew her younger sister was right just as she knew their elder sister would oppose them both. But she was dead and it had been this woman who had shown dignity and compassion even to her despite the fact she was beyond caring. With a nod, tears shining on her cheeks, Anvikela took up Rose's hand and Loch found himself suddenly surrounded their embrace.
Dreams are sometimes gentle, sometimes wild and usually beyond recall or comprehension upon awaking. It was a cold autumn night that such a dream came to Rosmarin. Hanasian was adrift in dream worlds of his own beside her when Rin saw Loch in the distance. The ache of that recognition that shocked through her was bone deep. That, and the fact that there appeared to be a woman on either of his arms, made her hesitate. The wind made the tall grasses dance around them. She remained still, still as the stones that stood around them. Barrow stones, stones that guarded the dead and not nearly well enough to keep the wights out. As soon as Loch saw her the women released him and he approached her. She did not know when such dreams would cease to be a torment. Not yet, it seemed. The shape of his jaw, the lopsided smile and the dark eyes that now leapt with such earnest relief at her.
"My sister! How I have missed you! I am sorry I did not return to you, but please rest assured that I live. I am far away in another land, but swear to return to see you. I owe a huge report to Hanasian. Rest easy Rosmarin! My friends have made this possible that I speak to you in dream, at least I think that is what they do, at great peril to themselves and others. I had to see you. Please remember this dream, Rin. Please! My beloved sister!"
Even the sound of his voice was just as she had remembered. She remained frozen. The urge to reach for him pounded through her. It seemed so real! Excruciating! The two women drew closer to him and took his arms again. Painful as it was to see him, the idea that he would go so soon was worse. She stepped towards him and distantly heard the sound of a child wailing. Hanavia was gone. He had been beside her but now he was gone. When Rin looked up, she found everything else was fading. Everything but the sound of a baby's cries. Rin woke with a shuddering start. It felt like she had surfaced from somewhere deep below the ocean that lay beyond their balcony.
Rin found Hanasian already out of bed, their son in his arms. Hanavia was quiet now but his sniffles said much.
"He woke suddenly but you were so deeply asleep, my love. I think he's well, but I suspect he is hungry."
Rin reached for Hanavia to comfort and fed him. The comfort given and comfort received for he was warm and real against her. It was a salve for the confrontation of her dream. In so many ways, her son was a salve for what had been lost. Of the two of them, he was certainly the greater healer.
Rin whispered to her son loud enough for Hanasian to hear from his chair in the corner of the room, "Hanavia Lochnard. I have seen your uncle and namesake this night! It was only a dream, and yet for all of that it seemed he was really here. With us. My mind may have come to terms, but my heart still speaks otherwise. How happy he would be to meet you, little one."
Hanasian rose from his chair at that and settled in at her back to rub shoulders he found knotted, "I too dreamt of Loch. Rapid images of him from the time he and you joined us," Hanasian paused, for those had been a memorable set of days in so many ways, "Much had happened, he said, and he wanted to take me east and tell me something at the end. Said he had a report to deliver. Hanavia woke me, so the dream ended. And yet, like yours, it seemed so real."
Rin drew a deep breath and let out a sigh, "I should not get any hope up that I will see him any time soon. That way lies madness. I know it. Yet, despite that, I confess I feel easier for the dream's lie that he lives still. What is worse, do you think? Madness or grief?"
"Hold it close and take what comfort you might from it," Hanasian answered, "I too felt in my dream that he lived though I cannot say why. Perhaps he does, somewhere far away from us. There were so many unanswered questions in Skhar. I confess that I have harboured a deep hope that somehow he was alive despite the apparent reality and need to record him as missing and assumed dead.
"Be open to the east my Love, for there may be powers in motion here that we know little, and it may be so that Loch has found his way into them. He may come to you again."
Rose and Loch ran fast through the grass. Anvikela followed not far behind. The dream was closing and they hurried back to their sleeping bodies.
In her tent, Anvikela started awake. She was sweaty and reached for the pot of water. She drank sloppily from it, spilling a fair amount as she drained it. She gasped and looked about, disorientation fading once she realised she was in her quarters. She lay back and closed her eyes. Her lot had been cast, and she concentrated on shielding herself and her sister from unfriendly eyes. Already they searched. Even if they knew the area to look, they did not yet have their whereabouts.
Rose jumped awake and released Loch's hand just as Barika stepped towards her, "Come Lady Rose, we must return!"
Rose stood and leaned over and kissed Loch on the cheek. She then turned and disappeared with Barika's aid for she was unsteady on her feet. They made it back to their tent unnoticed, for now.
Loch's dreams wandered strange and long paths, winding and twisting through the Black Company. He jumped awake when heard Videgavia yell, "Report Standardbearer!"
Loch's jumping and flailing awoke the men on the floor. Morning light had just begun to paint the sky a deep blue and chase off the stars. Videgavia straightened and eyed the men sprawled on the floor.
"You'd best get out of here before Doc returns," Videgavia suggested.
Each gave Loch and Runner a pat before they slipped out. Bells watched this procession from a nearby tent, a smile on his face and Sparks snoring hard on his cot behind him. Having friends spend the night was the best therapy they could get but what made Bells smile was the discovery that Sparks had a much more human side to him than previously thought. The men trooping out now had arrived during Sparks' watch in the night. The sound of the morning was now in full swing and the camp began to awake.
"Patrol, scout. I need your eyes and ears out there this morning. Some sort of organised force is moving during the night. Look in on Rose on your way past. I suspect she knows something of who they might be," Videgavia said as Loch rolled untidily off the other side of the cot.
The captain eyed the man. He was brighter now, more alert, and was clearly chewing something over. Loch was the sort of man who could not conceal his thoughts. If he thought it, felt it, they all knew about it. Whatever it was, however, he remained tight lipped. Tight lipped and poorly equipped.
"Replace your gear before you go," Vid added as Loch raked his hair out of his eyes.
At that moment he looked about as well dressed as he had been when their paths first crossed. All that was missing this time was the mud. No, Vid amended, slightly better. He had one boot this time. The captain turned and pushed out of the tent, Loch on his heels.
"Rose's tent is that way, and supply is behind the command post," Videgavia furnished and with that Loch was loping away.
There was so much that did not make sense. The discrepancy in recall. The gap in time. How was it that Loch had not starved if he was unconscious all that time? Mecarnil had his theories about the Valar back in Skhar. Videgavia turned these about. Valar involvement did not in the least come as a comfort to him. However this was not the most pressing knot of questions. What concerned him most was Dhak. The man had vanished the very night that Rose, as Loch called her, had been found. The first night they'd made any contact with an organised group that could pose some form of local resistance. Videgavia did not believe in coincidence. Not. At. All.
Loch being who he was, the first thing he did was fill his stomach. He didn't realise just how hungry he was until he ate. His sister dominated his thoughts as he ate. Who had been that child by her side? Only young, dark hair like Hanasian and clear eyes like Rin, greyer than her own. The child had peered curiously up at him until he had faded away. Could it be hers? But…Vid said six months…Wulgof slid in across the table and snagged an apple.
"You coming with us, then?"
"Soon as I get some gear."
"Good…we could use you out there," Wulgof replied, or at least that is what Loch thought he said around a mouth full of apple.
"How long has it been?" Loch asked after a moment and Wulgof stopped chewing for an instant.
"Didn't Vid tell you?" he asked cagily.
Loch knew that tone. Wulgof was being careful and he knew why. It was one of the rules of the Old Company. If the Captain thought you needed to know, you knew. Simple as that.
"I saw Rin last night. Spoke to her. Rose helped me…and another woman I do not know."
Had it been anyone else, Wulgof would have denounced that statement as proof he was insane. However, Rin's dreams were known to everyone in the Old Company. And this Avienkala had powers no one understood. Presumably so did her sister. It was all too complicated for him to make sense of. In any case, such eldritch things like this always led to trouble in his experience, and this was no exception. None of them would be here, having this conversation, if it hadn't have been for inexplicable forces best left alone.
"When I saw her, there was a little boy with her. He held her hand. He…he looked like he was her son."
Loch's words intruded on Wulgof's thoughts and turned them in another direction. Rin as anyone's mother was utterly ludicrous. Maybe Loch wasn't mad. Perhaps it had been a knock to his head. That could addle a man's wits.
"The boy was at least two years old!"
"It hasn't been two years," Wulgof blurted out and then scowled because Loch always managed to pluck things from him he had not intended to give. He crossed his arms over his chest.
"Vid told me it had been over six months," Loch said.
"It has been," Wulgof answered, Loch heaved a frustrated sigh and stared at the crumbs on the table.
"It was autumn when that temple collapsed in Skhar…since then, we've had winter, spring, summer and we're back to autumn."
"A year," Loch said, faintly shocked and Wulgof nodded.
"So it could be her son…only he would be a babe in arms still."
"Aye," Wulgof said, though it still felt odd to imagine either Rin or Hanasian as parents. Hanasian would always be their Captain to him and Rin was…well…Trouble, of the enjoyable kind. Certainly not mild enough to be anyone's mother unless it was a bear cub. Perhaps one of those large hunting cats Molguv said lived in jungles of the far south.
While Wulgof tried to reconcile conflicting images, Loch reviewed the strange events of the night. The more he thought on it, the less likely it seemed to have really occurred. She had been so guarded and wary with him in a way she never, ever was.
"Come on then. Time to get you equipped. We haven't got all day," Wulgof bustled and Loch let himself be towed to his feet.
"I need to see Rose on my way out," he muttered.
"What, your dreams not enough for you, eh Kid?" Wulgof jibed, elbowing him in a bid to lighten his mood.
"I just need to see that she's well. Runner and I owe her a great deal..."
Wulgof ensured he went directly to the supply tent. There were more than few people eager to waylay the scout. After that he almost looked like himself. Next stop was Rose's tent. Barika was standing outside and her expression was almost as suspicious as Wulgof's.
"She in?" Loch asked and Barika nodded tersely. Loch ducked into the tent and left Wulgof outside with this woman.
Dunland and Rohan. The two studied each other covertly.
"What are you looking at?" Barika demanded.
Wulgof wondered if he should mention now that he knew what she had done last night or not. Maybe later…best to keep such chips up your sleeve with women like this. He sucked his teeth and redirected his attention to the camp around them. Barika did the same. No need to be on edge, after all. No one had seen. No harm had been caused. Why was that man smirking? No, none of her business. The less she had to do with the Dirty Three, the better.
"I am pleased you are well," Loch said even though she looked tired.
"I hope to see my sister today," Rose said, brightening at that.
"Rose…was…was last night…real?"
"What do you think, Loch?" she asked and Loch shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His head brushed the ceiling of the tent and he was freshly equipped. A solider again. A foreign solider with weapons and duties she was not sure she understood. She could only hope she had placed her trust wisely. And yet, if she looked past his gear to his face, she sensed she had. If only Avienkala could see that as well.
"Come on, Kid! Morning's wasting! We've no time for rendezvous," said one of the other men from outside the tent.
Loch ducked his head at her and offered her a smile, "I think I should thank you, Rose. Whatever you did, it was a kindness. Yet another kindness. Thank you. If you need anything, you let me know. I'm not far away and these men…these men you can trust. I swear it."
And with that he was gone. Barika ducked inside a moment later.
"Are you ready, Lady Rose?" Barika asked and Rose nodded, weary though she was because Avienkala needed her, now more than ever.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There was so much that did not make sense. More than usual, when it came to dreams like this. It had sat uneasily with her all through the day. As a result, she was distracted. She poured tea into the sugar bowl, mistaking it for a cup. She attempted to butter an egg, because it was next to the toast. She nearly missed the chair when she sat down in the kitchen for breakfast.
"Somebody move that knife, quickly," Stillwater hissed and Slippery obligingly slid the knife away. Rin's fingers brushed over the table near where it had been, eyes distant and expression inscrutable. Stillwater breathed a sigh of relief.
"That was close," he whispered and Slippery applied her elbow to his ribs.
"Rough night, Rin? Rin? Rosmarin? Doc? Erían? PRINCESS!"
"Hmmm?" Rin answered, discovered there were people sitting across the table for the first time and realised that there was a frown on her face for a reason she could not quite place, "What was that?"
"Leave her be," Farbarad rumbled from down the end. He knew the look. Knew it well. Her mother had worn it in her own time, "She'll decide when she wants to say something on it, if at all. Isn't that right, lassie?"
Rin was frowning at her plate but she nodded distractedly, "Did someone call me prin-"
"Say, Rowdy, are you going to check the hives today. It'll probably be the last chance before winter closes in," Slippery cut in a little too brightly and darted a nervous glance at Rin.
The woman Slippery knew would pursue a point to the ends of the earth and beyond. However, Rin was back gazing into the distance again, fork balanced in her hand and forgotten. Hanasian grinned and snagged the piece of sausage that was on the tines.
"Going to help him, Slip? Try your hand at it a second time? I do wonder why you're so eager to get and into the maw of those little yellow and black demons," he said, well aware that Slippery was doing what anyone might do should Rin discover them using one of her titles – she was fleeing.
"Isn't that what they say you should do? You know, fall off a horse…get back on again. Besides, I'll be prepared this time. I'll wear a veil," Slippery replied, not at all prepared to own up that she was running away for good measure.
"What, and obscure your lovely features?" Stillwater teased.
Slippery balled her fist and sank it into his biceps, "Aw, you noticed! After all these years! So sweet of you."
She pushed her chair back and the legs scraped over the flagstones of the kitchen floor. That was the signal for everyone else to stand. Everyone did, except Rin, and headed off on their respective duties. Hanasian busied himself in the kitchen. He liked the routine of it. As he clattered about, tidying things away, Rin remained where she was. He wondered if she would notice if he removed the plate before her. Not so much as a flicker. He plucked the fork from her hand and she didn't notice that either.
"Is something wrong my love?" he asked and of course she did not answer. He ran his hand across the line of her shoulders as he passed and she drew in a breath and blinked.
"Oh, they've gone," she said softly.
"Aye, as has half the morning. Still thinking on last night?"
Rin shook her head slightly, "No…that is done now."
That was no lie. She'd figured it out. It wasn't one of those dreams at all. Never before had her dreams spilled over to affect others and Hanasian had been clear that he had dreamt of Loch as well. The first anniversary of Loch's death loomed. It was not far off now. She knew from the ache deep within at the thought of him that she grieved him still. It was from there that the dream had sprung. From grief. Nothing else. It was sheer chance that Hanasian had dreamt of him as well. Perhaps for the same reason she had. Hanasian intently studied her expression in a way only he could. She mustered a small smile for him to prevent him from worrying and he leaned in to kiss her brow.
"Well and good, dear heart," he answered and watched her push back from the table.
He wasn't fooled in the least, but right at the moment he needed set down all he could recall for Loch had spoken of much indeed. And, he'd need to keep a close eye on Rin. She might further sense something of the Company's fortunes in that far land. He did not envy Videgavia his task, and if Rin just might prove a conduit through which counsel could be passed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Who is this third one!"
"I. Do. Not. Know!" Dhak's voice bounced off the walls and the woman flinched as she glanced upwards, "Two of the sisters were located, only one of which survived. The other, apparently is here. You are better qualified than I as to how that can be since all three of them set out with us! As for this third? I do not know! I do not know! Another sister, a fourth? Perhaps you were not thorough enough. Or a new comer, an ally. Surely they have them, for I can think of no other explanation for the youngest being suddenly here. Where is the other Wizard?"
He had been asking that for over a day now. The old woman made a warding gesture by habit.
"Not here! I know not where!" she whispered.
"So there is only you…as I thought," Dhak wearily said.
Since that night he had been desperately trying to ascertain the strength of the survivors here. Had they been at full strength, their fortunes would be vastly different. All in all, it was far better than Dhak had hoped it might be. Provided that trust could be restored, much could be done now that the Order was no more. Restoring trust would be no small task…and then there was the missing Wizard. If the missing Wizard returned, all was endangered. They needed to find that Wizard. He needed to get back to the Company. How long had it been? Over a day? Heading into two? He pushed to his feet, swayed slightly.
"You should rest, Commander. Have you sought your family?"
Dhak's reply was gruff, "I know where they are."
He gestured in one of the worst hit areas, where so many of the Order had made their homes. It was, to a building, flattened. Shoulders slumped and head bowed, Dhak departed, his dusty boots crunching over the debris still scattered on the floor of the main sanctum. No sooner had he vanished did one of the younger sisters materialise. The older woman was not surprised. Old habits died hard. Like as not many of them had listened and it was so much easier now to overhear given the holes and cracks in their inner walls.
"What now, Mother?" she asked and the old woman sighed.
"We see what the night's patrols have found us."
"Not the sisters, Mother."
"No, and that is the way it will remain for now. But they do not only look for sisters, or have you already devoured what food they found?" the old woman replied for such were the practicalities of life.
"Were we mistaken then? Are they not here?"
"Wherever they are is none of your concern! Such matters rest with your superiors."
"Commander Dhak. I do not trust him."
"How fortunate, then, that you are not one of our superiors, girl," the woman snapped and that was that as far as discussion went.
Mother's mind was not idle though. They needed those two sisters sorely and Dhak would be the key to them, she knew, if she could trust him. His counsel had been that it would be wiser to not have their small patrol find them, to cease searching for them entirely. It was a risk for they could slip through her fingers again. And yet, Dhak had warned that if they continued on this path and cornered the two girls they would face a far greater battle than winning their trust. This Company he spoke of was a dangerous force. One that could be useful when it came to rooting out that Wizard. A great deal, then, pivoted on the trustworthiness of Commander Dhak…a grieving man and a former officer of the Order turned rebel. Sworn now to a foreign ruler. And, what of this third woman? Certainly not one of them. Not a sister. The old blood ran so strongly through her. It had been but a glimpse but she could recall it still. How many of such women were there in this distant land? Dhak had been adamant that the woman he had knelt to was of unsurpassed royal descent and now this woman last night. One and the same?
His family…forever silenced. Their laughter and voices. His wife and sons. Gone. Dhak had struggled not to think of them, to push it from his thoughts for it would bury him and already things were strained. This Company did not trust him. Nor did Avienkala, though he could well understand why that was. He had feared that the reprisals of the Order would find them when he could not protect them. He had feared they would pay the price for his actions. They had, he sensed, though not in the way he had expected. Dhak's eyes closed as he rounded the corner, despair lapped at his thoughts. There was a city to rebuild, a future undreamt of for those who had survived this, if he could somehow…
"HOLD!" boomed a voice in Westron and he rocked on his heels as his aching body struggled to comply. Dhak did not bother to open his eyes.
"Well now…Commander…I hope you're in a mood to talk," the man continued and Dhak could hear the scrape of weapons and boots.
He opened his eyes and was not surprised by the men he saw. Clearly the scout was on his feet and back on duty again. He had an arrow nocked and bow string taut against his cheek. The older Dunlending had a sword drawn, point partially raised and it was him that was doing the speaking. His habitually suspicious expression was in place. Dhak shrugged his shoulders.
"I'll do my best," he answered flatly.
The two men marched him smartly back to camp and directly to the command post. People paused as they passed through to stare. No one delayed them. Straight into the building, straight through the doors until Dhak found himself in a room with others. Videgavia and Berlas were there, along with three women. Two of the three, the sisters, stiffened in alarm.
"Found him wandering the streets," Wulgof growled as the two officers studied him. Loch, meanwhile, had edged protectively towards the youngest of the sisters.
"With his eyes closed," Loch added.
"You look weary, Commander. Perhaps you should sit," Berlas suggested.
Sit. Stand? Did it matter any more? Dhak was not sure that it did. Still, a hand in the middle of his chest ensured he sat in the chair Wulgof dragged behind him.
"I've had about enough of this," Videgavia growled, "I'm sick of talking. I want answers. I want them now. I mean to have them!"
"He cannot be trusted!" Avienkala blurted, an accusatory finger jabbed at Dhak.
"No, but they can be," he replied with a nod towards the Company men.
"That's true," her sister said.
"That's beside the point. I agree with Lady Avienkala. He's been missing for nearly two days. Vanishes the very night we found Rose," Berlas said.
Dhak snorted at that. Rose. Is that what they were calling her now. Apt, he supposed, for roses had thorns and were not to be trifled with.
"I will explain," Dhak said, "And you will do as you see fit. The Order has been destroyed. Their quarter is utterly decimated. Not a single man survives."
"Except for you!" Avienkala hissed.
"Except for me…and you and your sister, though you are not men. Indeed, you are not Order. Your sisters, those within the protection of your walls, survived as did a small number of their retainers. They have been seeking others beyond the walls for it is not safe outside of them. Which is how they found you…Rose.
"The other Wizard, the one that remained here, has vanished. No one know where."
"Who are these women?" Berlas asked.
"Dangerous!" Avienkala stated.
"Yes, just like you. Just like your sister. And yet if they meant harm do you think we would have been permitted to dock here? Would they have let us through the rift? Would you be permitted to remain here, beyond their walls? Do they look for you now?"
That last was a risky ploy, for he did not know if the old woman had heeded his counsel. The two women turned from the others and drew together. Ultimately, it was 'Rose' who spoke.
"It's true. They have stopped…for now."
Videgavia was rubbing at his temples trying to put this all together, "What do they want?"
"Freedom. They hope to build a future of freedom. They will need help, for freedom is a strange concept and there is much to repair. If I might be so bold…"
"By all means, Commander Dhak, for it appears boldness is your strong suit," Berlas replied dryly.
"Meet with them, open ground of your choosing. Hear it from their own mouths. If they ask for aid, I suggest tracking down that missing Wizard for he has the power to undo all of this."
"Wulgof, Loch, escort the Commander to his quarters. He is fatigued. See that he rests," Videgavia ordered and the two men nodded.
Once the three men had departed, the Captain turned to the two women.
"If you mean to go through with this meeting, do so with caution," Avienkala urged.
"I mean to, my lady, if we proceed at all. Your assistance will be of great import."
"You shall have it, Captain, from myself and my sister."
Barika escorted the two women away until, at last, Videgavia and Berlas were left in the room.
"Hours into his first patrol and already producing results. It's good to have Loch back with us," Berlas observed and Videgavia nodded.
"And yet, a headache already, though it's not of their making."
"What do you make of Dhak's suggestion?"
"It could be good. It could be a trap. What's new?"
"So, we proceed then? Meet with these women?" Berlas asked
"Aye… Black Company style. Hope for the best, plan for the worst."
"So a meeting then, later today, to plan."
Berlas was on his way before Videgavia could change his mind. Meetings meant talking. He hated talking. The Captain located his table, a rickety thing salvaged from the ruins, and installed himself at it. He collected up a quill and stared at his last journal entry. Where to begin? He hated writing almost as much as he hated talking.
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.