44. Chapter 44
The waiting was always the worst. Videgavia knew that some mastered the art of remaining calm, aloof and detatched during such periods. The best he had managed was to appear that way. Behind his eyes, while he waited, all the better alternatives he hadn't thought of before jockeyed for his attention. This only happened when it was too late to take any of these alternatives up. He checked a sigh and glanced with some irritation at his surrounds. One final check. The men were in position and the supplies remained to his right, just behind him. A lot of supplies. This had better be worth it, he thought. Hungry men with weapons….this had better be worth it.
That thought made him glance to where Berlas and Barika stood. A small coterie of a men stood around Avienkala. Avienkala looked nervous as she stared at the thick, imposing walls. Well, not quite as imposing as once they had been, Videgavia supposed, given they were now riven with cracks. Still, the bronze gates were massive and impressive and, given the hinges that supported them, more than bronze.
The men of the Order that had been sent to Rhun had steel and iron. Their weapons were not crude or ineffectual. Nor were their methods. This Order had mounted a small invasion force comprised of ruthless and highly trained soldiers with sophisticated armour and weapons. They had used this to mount a vicious attack that fell on the Black Company Healer when it could not find its original target, the High King. Videgavia remembered that fearful, rain soaked day when the sky appeared to crack asunder and Rin toppled from the saddle with a sickening thud to thrash upon the ground as if she was being torn apart by wolves. The Black had only prevailed due to the defection of Khor and Dhak and the information they provided and Loch's assault on the true power of the Order.
And here he was, with a formidable yet much smaller force, and food. Videgavia rolled his shoulders. Worst case scenario, they'd die here where they now stood. Best case, he had a lot of talking to do. Videgavia was unaware he was staring at Avienkala until she turned her attention to him. With a steady look, she inclined her head and then came the rumour of the gates that were more than just bronze opening. Leather creaked as men tightened their grip instinctively and took a deep breath. Videgavia flexed his fingers and felt the joints pop.
He watched a small procession issue from the gates. Seven figures, all robed and cowled in a rich brown, belted with copper. Their hands were concealed in the sleeves of their robes, clasped before them. Videgavia didn't like hands he couldn't see. Their heights varied from medium to very small. The robes were largely shapeless, but the build suggested women, or slender men. Mind you, Videgavia considered the Cats the most dangerous force within the Black. His idea, shaped by the Black's first woman despite the fact that she outright denied any study in the black arts of assassination. Appearances meant little.
The procession kicked up dust. It had only stopped raining two days ago and already the dust was back. They waited beyond bow shot of the walls and all else was a stone crucible in various stages of decay. Videgavia did not believe it mere coincidence that the walls and the large domed building visible beyond it were mostly intact while the surrounding buildings were reduced to bare skeletons. There was power here. While Loch had managed to eliminate this High Priestess and the Wizard who kept her, it was clear to Videgavia that vast power yet remained to the Sisters. He realised his palms were itching. He wanted his knives. He really did not like hidden hands…or faces, and especially feet. Not at all.
The procession came to a stand still at a safe distance, though not safe from the archers he had in position.
"You received our message," said a small voice, an old voice.
It's owner proved to be the smallest of the seven, slightly bowed. Those in front of her moved carefully, slowly, to either side so that she could be seen. Vid clenched as the smallest removed her hands from her sleeves and lifted them to push back her hood. The first thing he saw was the telltale mark of age on her hands. The next thing he saw was hair that was iron grey, braided with copper and wound around her head, a seamed face and nestled in the midst of it, perched above a commanding patrician nose, were two fiercely gleaming dark eyes. The old woman let them rake over the men assembled in front of her until they rested on Avienkala.
"Welcome home, Sister," she said and Avienkala seemed to sway.
"Mother," she allowed with a gasp and the small woman gave a small, tight smile.
On instinct Videgavia spoke, "We have come in good faith and all you see before you are members of my Company. If you assail one of us, you assail us all. I will consider it an act of aggression."
The old woman began to laugh at that, mirthlessly and yet, for all of that, Avienkala drew in a deep breath and pressed her fingers to her brow. She seemed….eased.
"An act of aggression! You come unbidden, secretly, to a foreign land accoutred for war and you talk to me of aggression."
"Have we sought to invade, to dominate? Have we whipped your people into rebellion? Have we attacked your rulers?"
"Rebellion? You have two of the three most powerful Sisters in your grasp, if not willingly then certainly as hostages. Rulers? Our Wizard and Priestess are slain and…and we never got within five hundred leagues of your King…but….ah….I see. We found another…one of the Old Blood, the royal line of Numenor fallen…one…dear to you. You brought…her, yes a woman… you brought her right to us. Is she with you now?"
Videgavia hissed at this and it was then that Avienkala spoke, "Mind your thoughts!"
Behind him, Molguv bit off a Haradian curse about witches. The small woman tilted her head, her eyes refocussing now on Videgavia.
"Are you here to avenge this….aggression?"
Videgavia sorely wanted to say that this was so. He had been as worried and angry as any of the Old at the attack that targeted their Doc, excepting perhaps her husband and brother, but now he felt the bloody, vicious threads of rage tangling through him. The hot need for blood pounded at his temples. Boots scuffled as men fell deeper into the fighting stances and movement off to the side revealed the Cats were being stirred too. This, a small part of him noted, was odd. They were not here for revenge at all. In fact…
"HOLD! HOLD OR I'LL PUT YOU DOWN MYSELF," Videgavia roared and it seemed to him that something suddenly vanished.
"No…Mother," he said raggedly when he was confident someone wasn't about to charge, or loose an arrow, "We are not here for blood. We are here because you asked us to come…and we brought food because your messenger was starved."
At a wave of his hand, Khule let the girl forward. She came wide eyed and stared at the warriors around her. When she set eyes on the old woman, she began to run. Videgavia was no one's idea of an expert on children but he reckoned they did not run towards someone they were frightened of and, as a general rule, were not idiots. The girl ran straight to the old woman, wearing a tunic one of the Cats had given her belted with what appeared to rigging rope someone had scrounged up at the harbour. The old woman set what could only be an affectionate hand on the girl's head before she tipped the child's chin up. Then, with a brief word, she bid the girl to join the others behind her.
"We are because you wished to test us," Videgavia guessed and at that the old woman smiled properly for the first time.
"This is true," she admitted and then waved a papery hand at the walls behind her, "Even if our intentions remained…military… we do not have the means to achieve them. We can barely keep our own walls and, as you have said, we can barely feed the mouths that remain to us. But to accept the aid of a viper would only hasten our demise and I, warrior, am charged with ensuring our survival."
The old woman tilted her head again, "Though, it remains to be seen if that aid remains to be had after the testing is done."
At that, Videgavia gave the signal and, expressions ranging from wary to outright suspicious, the supplied were carted forward. He was not sure just what he thought or felt about this. Had they been manipulated? As ever, so little about this land and people was clear to him.
"Can not our Sisters also be returned to us?" the old woman pressed as this occurred.
"Your Sisters amongst us are there of their own volition. They stay or leave by their choice alone."
The old woman considered him a long moment, smiled and then pulled up her hood.
"Fitting, then, that you should do the same," she said from within the confines of her hood.
At that, the others turned about and the procession moved back to the gates. Just as Videgavia was wondering whether he'd have to send his men into their compound to ferry the supplies in, a small group of careworn men emerged from the gates. These, then, must be the too few to mount any campaign. They looked capable enough. Just too few. They eyed Videgavia's men warily, collected the carts and started dragging them towards their walls.
As Videgavia led his forces back to camp, he replayed the exchange in his head. He was becoming reasonably assured that a larger force of a different disposition might achieve a great deal here. Exploration, mutual trade…another alliance for the Reunited Realm. Perhaps an exchange of….what…hostages…to ensure good faith? Just as that idea occurred to him, Videgavia recalled his distaste of politics, nation building and diplomacy and he shivered at what this campaign was turning him into. Political hostages? Word games with matronly witches? Exploratory expeditions to map and survey foreign lands? It all sounded distinctly like the sort of business he tried best to avoid. Hanasian had never said anything about this when speaking of the duties of captaincy, he mused. In his place, he'd keep it a secret too.
"Thank you, Captain," Avienkala said earnestly, interrupting his reverie and making him cock a brow.
She explained, "For not handing my sister and I over."
Videgavia grunted at that, "As I said before, you're one of us now, better or worse. I'm not about to hand you over now even if that weren't true. We've a voyage to prepare for and you're needed."
Avienkala graciously inclined her head and Videgavia was left with a familiar feeling that he probably could have been a little kinder or, at least a little less ruthlessly practical. Word games always left him floundering. He'd never had this problem with Rin. She never wanted the flowery stuff, had a powerful suspicion of it, never left him feeling like he was grasping after his own bootstraps. Speaking of which, when he got back, he really wanted to know how she managed to steal his bootstraps. Out of his boots, while he was wearing them. Despite his reputation for nasty knives and an unforgiving nature – or perhaps, he thought with a grin, because of it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"What is it?" Runner asked Loch as they stared east from the pass they found in the range of mountains.
"Don't know," Loch said, distracted as he lifted a shoulder in half a shrug, "But I'm thinking it isn't good for us, or the Company, or Rose and Anvikela. Thinking maybe Dhak or that cult of women at the abbey might like it, though. I'm just not sure."
Runner slid around Loch and used his hand as a visor against the morning sun, "We should start back west. We've been out a few days longer than we thought. Don't want to go missing again."
"We won't go missing. We're not moving in on a known sorceress this time. Besides, we aren't due to meet Steps and Screetch's squad until tomorrow at the fork," replied Loch, squinting at the eastern horizon.
Runner took a drink from his water bag and said, "Maybe not, but didn't all the tales say there were two wizards? I think that is sorcery out there. Let's go Loch. I don't like it. It isn't getting any closer, but we may be too close already."
"Very well, my friend. I'll heed you this time. Let's go."
The two slid down the steep track they followed to the high ridge, faces grim. They met up with the other three of their squad that had scouted north along the ridge at the bottom and managed to arrive at the fork before sunset. Steps and Screetch drifted in from the twilight, and the ten made a quick meal of dried fruit and meat before they attempted to sleep. They faced a three day trek back to the ruined city.
As the men settled in after their light meal, Screetch said in his nasally voice, "You find anything? All we found was old tracks. Many people had gone east in the previous months."
"Yes, us too," Runner said.
Loch said, "Except we saw a large cloud pushing up into the clear blue sky far to the east when we got to the ridge. Too far away to make out what it was, but it didn't appear natural."
Steps hunkered down, "Aye, we saw a bit of that. Don't like it, no."
Loch lay back, arms crossed under his head and peered up at the night sky, "No, and we're off home… back to Company camp at first light. We'll be pushing hard, so rest so that we are ready to move on the morrow. Runner has watch sorted. No one on watch gets lazy now."
Loch sounded like an experienced leader of men, a warning implicit in his last statement without needing to belabour it, as he spoke to the young men around him. Most were Easterlings, part of Runner's team and known to worship the Company for reasons all of their own that Berlas was little comforted by still. To them, Loch was Old Company and he had survived that catastrophe with one of their own. He commanded respect among them. The remaining men hailed from the contingent of Gondor army that had signed onto the Free Company prior to withdrawal from Rhun. While they certainly did not worship the Company, they too had a respect for Loch's uncanny scouting ability. They enjoyed serving in his patrols. Loch was oblivious to the fact that they would jockey for position to join a patrol under him, wagering and trading places between the various Gondorian scouts. They respected and liked the man, and they knew him well enough by now to keep such things from him unless he became unbearably cocky.
Loch, however, felt no different at all. He was still a recent newcomer to the Company, an interloper they'd decided to take under their wing. He missed his sister and Hanasian, and Bear and Folca and Frea and Mecarnil and even Farbarad. That surprised him. Farbarad was an excellent Ranger, absolutely dedicated to his sister, but there was something wild about the man that made Loch uncomfortable. He found the Ranger unpredictable, unconventional. Rin would find his concern the source for much derision if she knew. He was hardly in any position to stand in judgement over the man's manners. Neither of them were, having grown up wild themselves. Still, it was his sister this Ranger was charged with protecting. It was just as well steady, honourable Mecarnil was there to balance Farbarad out. Why, leave Farbarad and Rin together to their own devices… it just didn't bear thinking about it. It would be funny, in the end, but the trouble those two would get up to… No, Mecarnil was Loch's pick. All the same, he did miss Farbarad's wolfish grin, the gleam in his eye, the wry humour.
The nights brought to Loch a recurring dream where he met everyone again at the Prancing Pony of Bree. It was no different this night. As he slept, he found himself there once again. The hustle and bustle of the inn seemed particularly frenetic this night. Loch sat alone with his pot of ale and considered pocketing the cheese for his sister. But, he remembered that Rin always arrived with Hanasian to devour the cheese herself so he didn't. He looked around and saw faces that seemed familiar at first glance. When he looked closer he found they were strangers. He drained his ale and lifted his pot for another. A sweet, familiar voice sounded from behind him.
"You wish another?"
Loch spun around in his seat and shot to his feet.
"Rose?" he asked and she smiled.
"Yes? Do I know you?"
Loch's smile faded as he looked about. He returned his eyes to young woman who was now staring at him, "No… I think not. You just reminded me of someone I used to know long ago, far away east of here."
The girl's smile lingered as she studied Loch's face. Bernard Butterbar came by and said, "You aren't paid to stand and gawk at the patrons. Go fetch the man another beer!"
Her smile vanished and she scurried away, not quick enough to be spared a slap to her rump from Bernard. Loch seized his wrist as the man made to depart and said in a low voice, "You do that to her again, I will kill you."
The force of his anger surprised him, but it felt…right. The two men stared into the other's eyes. The innkeeper's initial outrage had him considering ejecting this lout from his inn but it faded as he realised the man meant every word of his violent threat. He contented himself with shaking Loch's grip from his arm and departed swiftly. A little dazed, Loch sat down heavily again only to be pulled into a crushing headlock that made his head spin almost immediately.
Mecarnil said, "If you get us kicked out of here, we'll have to be off to the Forsaken!"
Loch shook himself loose to sit up and face Mecarnil and discovered the man was heavily cloaked and cowled. Something about that startled him, though he knew not what, and he jumped up just in time to hit the tray of flagons the girl named Rose was carrying. He spilt them all over her. The noise of the tray and the pots clattering and smashing to the floor caused the place to unnaturally still silence. Bernard was there in a flash.
"What, can't handle a jostle from a drunken Ranger? Don't bother towelling off! Just get this cleaned up and get those ales replaced and served. You owe for the spilt ale and broken pots."
The girl held back tears as she stooped to scrape the potshards onto the tray, Bernard hovering to scrutinise her every move. She stood and turned and Bernard slapped her on the rump again, all the while holding Loch's eyes with his own.
"Go on then, kill me."
Loch went for his knife but a bony hand grabbed his arm. Mecarnil's voice sounded again, "It's not worth the trouble, Kid."
Loch hesitated and the grave's grip on his arm loosened. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end now. He stared at the cloaked figure and Bernard walked away, dismissively tossing a statement over his shoulder as he went, "As I thought."
Loch reached for the hood and pulled it back. A skull rocked back and fell to the ground, followed by the rest of the body as the bones collapsed in an untidy, unholy mess. All Loch held in hand was Mecarnil's old tattered cloak.
The girl said from behind him, "You'd best go."
Loch turned and the sad, beer-soaked serving girl who spoke with Rose's voice pointed at the door. Around her were old faces he knew.
She pleaded, "Please! You must go!"
Morcal and Mecarnil's hands reached for him with ghastly arms from beyond the grave, but she pushed Loch away from their grasp.
Loch hesitated just long enough to drop silver coins on the girl's tray.
"For the beer I spilled on you, the trouble I caused."
Something grabbed his shoulder from behind and Loch jumped with instinctual fear.
"Loch? Are you unwell? Been trying to wake you. It's last watch - your watch."
Loch discovered he was panting as he stared up into Runner's concerned face in the night. A cold, clammy sweat painted his face and wiped at it, disorientated. Runner held out his water bag to Loch, and he swallowed several gulps. He then poured a little over his head. He felt as though he was starting to catch his breath.
"You sure you're well?" Runner asked as he watched Loch stand and narrowly avoid falling over, "I can take your watch. I won't sleep anymore no how."
"I'm well… I can stand watch. Was just had a bad dream," Loch said blinking his eyes and inwardly wondering how his sister ever managed such terrible creatures over the years. These Dreams were truly awful!
Loch returned his attention to Runner as his decision was made, "And there will be no last watch. Get the men ready to move. We leave now. We need to make haste back."
Runner peered at Loch's face a moment but did nothing other than to nod an affirmative salute. It wasn't long before they were making their way west down the track, back the way they had come. When the first light of dawn arrived they were far away from where they had camped. Loch had elected to take rearguard and though they made good time west, Loch lingered at a rise on the track to look back. There, he guessed about where they camped, a gray cloud hovered. There was no morning sunrise there. Whatever they had spotted in the distance to the east the day before had clearly sensed them as well. Had they of remained at camp as originally planned… Loch realised he was slathered in that cold sweat again and he swiped some of it from his brow as he hurried to catch up the men ahead. The sooner they got back to the Company camp, the better.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Videgavia stood on the hill in the early morning to study the abbey. It had become part of his routine. After awhile, Lady Anvikela joined him and the pair of them stood there, staring at the walls and the bronze gates and the cracked dome that rose behind.
Lady Anvikela broke the silence reluctantly, "They grow stronger. I have felt it all the time we have been here, but I was unable to prevent it until my sister's help arrived. She fell into a deep dream last night and I could not wake her. I cannot shield every man's thoughts from them on my own. Yet they are able to shield their thoughts from me.
"I finally awakened my sister, though she was frightened and unwell. She was soaked…shivering…worried about Loch. Once she was able to concentrate and focus, she was able to assist me and we regained control. I fear that next time we may not be so fortunate."
Videgavia nodded and considered what Anvikala had told him, uncertain if ever he would be able to make heads or tails of this sorcery and power. They had met the women of the abbey under parley only weeks ago. He still did not know what had been learned or gained in that. What had those women learnt of them? He suspected that the good will of the Company may have been taken advantage of. It was an uncomfortable thought for Videgavia. To lose so much in supplies and possibly expose them to further peril and to gain what? Time, perhaps? And where were Loch and his scouts? Why had he sent them out one last time? His rationale had seemed sound at the time: the messaging was routine, and he wanted to keep them sharp. Now they were overdue. Maybe today they will return.
Videgavia finally stirred himself to speak, "My lady, it is fortunate that word has reached us that the ship sets out today. With favourable winds they should be here by night, early morning at worst. Do you think that you and Rose have the strength to get us through?"
"That is a mystery. We will only know when we try. It would be best if we set out unnoticed." Anvikela thoughtfully said.
Videgavia nodded as turned his own thoughts about. Perhaps it would be best if they set out from where the ship is. Yes, farther away from this abbey and better able to conceal themselves as far as he could tell. They would have to move now. Videgavia looked around found Dorghat was nearby in the event his Captain had a message to run.
"You. Get this message to Donius now: Do not sail the ship up to the city. Repeat, do not sail it to the city. Sail as if you mean to, turn back and return to your dock. The company will meet you there in a day's time."
Dorghat frowned with the effort to commit the rapidly spoken message to memory but was handed a scroll written out by the Gondorian scribe Videgavia had taken on to keep his records. Now there had been an excellent command decision. Oh how he hated writing. Dorghat set out south with speed, his Captain's expression proof for the importance the message he bore.
Videgavia was naturally not finished thinking and soon had his scribe write out a couple more messages. Dorghat's second stood ready. Videgavia waved him over.
"I have to trust you to get word to all the Old Company, and to Khor. We have move swift and quiet. It must appear that we are staying put. Tell them to meet me at Dockbridge as the sun sets. Much will be discussed."
The messenger nodded and took the hastily penned scrolls. He was gone in a blink of an eye and Anvikela had watched it all.
"You plan to move quickly and this is good. But I have my sister to manage. She in some ways has more power than I, and I cannot focus her mind to a task. She longs for your comrade, this Lochared of Dunland. When he is away from the camp she drifts in dream. Should he return, she will be better."
Videgavia sighed, unsurprised having seen it, sensed it himself. It was one of the reasons he sent Loch off in command of a couple scouting squads. Now he was late. They all were. Videgavia held to the hope that this was only due to some routine thing such as Loch seeing something that required his attention. But there were no runners sent back with any word of their delay. If Loch was not heard from in two more days at the most, he and the men assigned to him on this mission, would have to be left behind.
Videgavia shuddered at the bitter, dark thought. How could he tell Rin that he had found her brother alive and well east of the sea, only to abandon him there? The idea made him ill. She'd never forgive him and he knew that for some reason that mattered almost as much as he'd not forgive himself. Loch had to make it back. Make it to the city before they had pulled out.
Videgavia quietly said to Anvikela, "It may be your sister's love for Loch in these hours that saves him from a doom I would have to put to him if he fails to return in time. All your accounts have it that the Abbey is reaching for some power. I can only assume it is this final remaining wizard. We have naught to battle him, aside from you and Rose.
"But I will not call upon you two ladies to this task. We will leave these shores and try to return west, and it is this that I ask you to assist us in. We did not come here to do battle with sorcerers. I do not wish to leave anybody behind in this strange place."
Anvikela nodded, expression sorrowful, as she considered the journey back west. So much had happened, altered, since she last set out west. She had been a mere underling of much more powerful people. Sorcerers and Witch. And they had no real opposition to their departure to contend with. The entire will of the Abbey and the Order was with them then.
Now, she and her sister were expected to carry a ship of westerners back across the rift, with opposition? She wasn't sure it could be done. The key lay with her sister, Rose. She would have to utter her name. And Loch would have to be by her side.
"It's hunting him!" Rose cried at her sister as soon as she entered the room.
Anvikela fell back against the door, startled. Rose clutched at her arms frantically, thick strands of wild hair stuck across her face.
"I can't stop it! I can't reach him!"
Rose clawed at her in desperation and it was a struggle to force her back so that Anvikela could try to soothe some reason into her.
"Together we might, if you focus," she said and Rose snarled at that and spun away to clutch at her head.
She staggered, "It's no use! You're not strong enough! It knows where we are!"
Anvikela shoved the flare of anger at her younger sister's dismissal aside. It had a bitter sting for it was true. Of the three of them, Rose was the strongest though she hid it well indeed. In its place, a wild thought came to Anvikela.
"Not for long, Rose," she said as the stern Captain's earlier actions came to her.
Rose had spun back to face her and stared through the sweaty curtain of her hair.
"We need someone with a bond to him, Rose. Do you remember that woman?"
"His sister," Rose whispered and Anvikela nodded. She had not known until Rose had said it but it made sense. Sister. Did that make Loch of similar high descent? No, no time to ponder that.
"Yes…we can reach her, and she can reach him…they cannot hunt quarry they cannot predict. Hurry…prepare yourself. This will be more difficult for neither will be sleeping. Their waking defences will be in place."
"I am ready," Rose insisted, suddenly preternaturally calm.
Anvikela suppressed a shudder. Sometimes her sister scared even her.
"Then let us begin."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There were five of them in total. Elves of Harlond, drawn of all things to a mortal child who crawled blithely around them in the afternoon sun. Hanavia, like the rest of the mortals with him, were carefully wrapped against the chill of the day. It did not snow so close to the coast and so far south of the Ice Bay, according to Hanasian, but it was icy all the same. The Elves, however, seem untroubled by the light afternoon breeze that raised a bright glow to the cheeks of the child in their midst. None of it made any sense to Rin. Oh, she could speak Sindarin now. The words made sense to her. The reason for this entire thing, however, did not. Rin was, as a result, quiet and still as she attempted to sort it all out. Hanasian and Farbarad were relaxed, calm, even pleased. Hanavia was delighted. He had a new toy to play with. It was a series of smooth, polished, wooden rings all of different weight and size and timbers. They interlocked and made a surprisingly pleasant melodious sound when shaken. Hanavia was vigourously shaking them as he wandered about as best he might. He was at the point where he could climb up things. Tables, chairs, people's legs.
Rin was reasonably certain that Elves did not crawl up other Elves' legs. Yet they were untroubled by Hanavia's enthusiasm for climbing up for a better look at them. They would smile quietly down, perhaps stroke his hair softly and he would beam at him. A silent exchange of perfect understanding. It was mystifying and Rin shifted her weight from one foot to another. What was it about Hanavia that might appeal to Elves? Rin surreptitiously studied the Elves from beneath her lashes. They presented no overt threat. In fact, Elves had always been the source of much benefit in her experience. But they always had reasons, sometimes knowable and often times not. These Elves were strangers. Elladan and Elrohir had their reasons for being involved. Even Thranduril had. But what of these? Two women, three men. Or did Elves call their women and men differently? That question sent her off chasing through her learned words of Sindarin and the little bit of Quenyan that she had managed to acquire. Then the oddest thing happened. At least, odder than the encounter she was presently engaged in.
"Quickly! Come! Yes! Come! For your brother! You must! Hurry now?"
Rin blinked rapidly and glanced about. Had anyone else heard that? One of the Elvish women had crouched to play with Hanavia. Farbarad and Hanasian were steeped in discussion with the two Elvish males. The other Elvish woman was staring at her now and she smiled to soften any possible offense before redirecting her attention to her companion and Hanavia. Rin smoothed her hands over her woollen coat. Very strange indeed, but no harm done.
"She's stuck! She will not budge. This will not work."
Rin sucked in a breath and could not help herself. She glanced over her left shoulder, positive now that two women with strange accents stood nearby. Nothing but the stables and the ring of Rowdy's hammer on that damn customised ring mail Farbarad had insisted upon. If he thought she was going to voluntarily wear that wretched stuff here, he had another thing coming. Of course, if he knew she was hearing voices, he'd not be so keen to have her pick up a sword again for training.
"Isn't that right, Rin?" Hanasian said and Rin turned about.
"Oh…yes…of course," she agreed. They all had pleasant, calm expressions on. What harm in agreeing with whatever had been said.
"Typical," Farbarad muttered in Westron, "I swear that woman changes her mind with each shift in the direction of the wind."
Hanasian's smile was lazy and broad. Rin opened her mouth to offer something against that and then reconsidered. She closed it with a sigh and resolved to pay closer attention next time.
"There! We have her now. Do not struggle! We mean you no harm! What should we call you?"
Rin's jaw gaped. The bright wintry afternoon had given way to a densely fogged plain. She stared down and could not see her own feet. The voices swirled through the clouds. Women's. The same two women that had not been there before, with the strange accents. Rin did not like this at all and it showed in her icy tone. Anger was always better than to display naked fear. Always. Fear meant vulnerability.
"WHERE AM I?" she demanded, not quite knowing why she bothered. Nothing these two disembodied voices might offer by way of answer could be trusted.
"Her brother calls her Rin," said one formless voice.
"May we call you that, Rin?" the other asked.
"You can call me Thomas for all I care. Send me back! NOW! Or…or…I'll do something…or I won't…yes, that's it. I won't do whatever it is you want me to…wait…how do you know my brother?"
Again, another pointless question. When it came to dealing with disembodied voices on some unknown plane, she really went quite to pieces, Rin mused.
"We can take you to him. He will listen to you. If he does not, the sorcerer will find him. Or he will be left behind. Please?"
Something finally materialised into view. A woman, smaller, dusky skin and dark hair that was tousled. She was young, Rin saw. She seemed…familiar…though that made no sense at all.
"Who are you?" Rin asked, three pointless questions for three!
"I am called Rose."
"That was not always your name. I know. I have more than one myself," Rin guessed without knowing how.
The other woman smiled and nodded, "Will you come? Lochared will listen to you."
"You don't seem to know him well. Lochard is dead, but when he was alive he made a fine career of ignoring the sage advise of his younger sister," Rin answered and watched this Rose very carefully indeed.
The other woman tilted her head to one side and nodded, "Yes, a test. I brought him to you, in a dream. He is not dead. I know this. You know this."
"Am I dreaming now?" Rin asked.
"In a fashion. We waste time, though. Please. Will you come?"
"What would you have me say to him?"
What Rose said next had her undivided attention. If it was a trick, it was a risk worth taking. For Loch. Rin nodded.
"Be on with it then. I have guests…Elves of all things," Rin said brusquely and Rose smiled for perhaps the first time. She had a very pretty smile.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
His feet ached. They had pushed hard and though they would need to travel through the night, they needed to stop for this break now. Loch dared not remove his boots. If he took them off now, he'd not get them back on again, and unhooked his water pouch from his belt. He also resolved not to close his gritty eyes for fear of not being able to open them again. Despite that, however, it seemed as if the brief respite barely passed before he heard Runner moving about to get them up again.
Loch groaned and attempted to peel open his eyes. He pushed himself to his feet and peered back the way they had come. No trace of that infernal cloud now, but it was dark and they stood little chance of seeing it. Running from a cloud. Wulgof would have a field day with this when he got a hold of it.
"No one says a word of this cloud," he grated out, "Leave it to me to report."
And only to Vid, Loch resolved, closing his eyes to rub at them. One more night and they'd reach the city by dawn.
"Not that way, you great ox," an ascerbic voice whispered and Loch shouted in surprise one name.
Nine men stared back at him in consternation and puzzlement and Loch could hear her laughing.
"Oh, that'll be a good one. Can't wait to hear that tale when you're back. Listen and listen well. I have a Rose here, says she knows you. I think she likes you, Loch. Doesn't say a lot for her taste, but there you have it. Rose and Anvikela, her sister though that Anvikela seems a twitchy sort."
Loch snorted at that. She was right. Anvikela was nervous by nature. But, then, being buried alive in a collapsed building could do that to a person.
"Tell them hallo, from me," he said and he heard or sensed Rin give an irritated sigh.
"What am I? Your personal courier. Tell them yourself. You need to make for Dockbridge. Whatever or wherever that is. Not the city. Dockbridge. Else they'll ship with out you. And, brother dear, if you ignore my tidings as per usual and miss that boat, I will find you. Oh yes. I will. And when I do-"
Just like that, she was gone. A whirlwind suddenly vanished. Loch realised he was standing slack jawed with nine men nervously shuffling around him. He closed his mouth with a click and pointed at the coast.
"Change of plans, lads," he said and without waiting to see if they'd follow, he set off for the coast. He did not bother instructing them to keep that quiet. Pointless to ask them to do that.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The first thing Rin noticed is that it was cold and bright. The breeze was back. It had tugged the fur lined hood of her coat back. She was back, sitting on the ground, and the conversation around her had stilled. Hanavia was peering at her and when she blinked, he grinned and rattled his new gift at her. There was an Elf woman at Rin's shoulder. The first Rin knew of this was the sensation of her hand as it lifted away from Rin's shoulder.
"Oh," Rin uttered, not quite a squeak.
"Oh? Is that all you have to say?" Farbarad demanded irritably.
"There was no cause for alarm, Ranger," said the Elf woman as she stood.
"Not the point," Farbarad said.
Hanasian was crouched at her other side. He smiled deeply into her eyes and Rin nodded, sensing his need to confirm that she was indeed well. Insane as a rabid dog, certainly, but otherwise well. He grazed his knuckles down her cheek and then pulled her hood back into place.
"Much better," he intoned, a deep rumble of relief, and guided her back to her feet and off the very cold ground she had found herself seated on.
"You can't just go about behaving like that. It worries people. Pretending nothing happened, nothing is wrong, only makes it worse," Farbarad continued, not to be mollified. Apparently, whatever had happened had truly rattled him. Hanasian had mentioned that the man became unruly when genuinely worried. It was a side of Farbarad Rin had never seen before. He had always been so unflappable, even when injured.
"If you're looking for an explanation, I don't have one for you," Rin replied brusquely and then a bolt of inspiration came to her, "And I think enough of a disturbance has been made for our guests."
A leaf straight out of Mecarnil's book of Proper Manners. Rin grinned, pleased with herself and Farbarad frowned. Where had this sudden concern for decorum come from? One minute she collapses to the ground like a sack of potatoes, stares fixedly at nothing at all, impervious to all questions or inquiries, eyes glazed and now she is rebuking him for making a scene!
Rin graciously inclined her head and, of all the outrageous things, curtsied. Properly!
"I seek pardon for any offense or concern I may have given," she intoned contritely.
"Forgive me if this seems overbold," one of the male Elves responded, "But does this happen often?"
"First sign I've ever seen of voluntary manners," Farbarad muttered. She'd been practising curtsies but when it came to keeping her defensive skills up she resisted him at every step!
"No," Rin said smoothly, ignoring Farbarad and the urge to chuckle.
The Elf turned to his companions and the woman that had been at her shoulder shook her head, long midnight hair swaying with the movement in a hypnotic fashion.
"This is not uncommon," she maintained and glanced at Rin before continuing, "Particularly with the Edain, in the early phases."
Rin's enjoyment of Farbarad's irritation evaporated with that. Early phases? Of what? Was she truly, really mad? As if she sensed Rin's question, the Elf woman regarded her steadily with eyes that were still, calm, ancient as a starlit mere.
"You are with child."
Oh no! That wasn't it at all! Rin was shaking her head before she knew it.
"I do not think so."
"It is true."
"It can't be."
What sort of question was that? Rin's cheeks flushed but she had a reasonable answer rapidly enough.
"I have a son. I know how such things are with me."
"Ah," the Elf woman said with a knowing smile, "But this time, my lady, you have twins."
There was silence at that. Rin felt lightheaded all of a sudden. When she looked to Hanasian, he looked a little pale. Probably just like her. To break the tension, one of the other male Elves spoke up.
"You are to be congratulated, Hanasian. Your lady's grasp of Sindarin is strong indeed if she is able to argue so fluently."
"Thank you. Another language for my dear wife to argue in was just what I was striving for," Hanasian replied, recovering a little to find some way of smoothing over the current tension. Rin appeared genuinely flabbergasted. This was no secret she had known and kept to herself. He turned to the Elf that Rin had argued with and bowed.
"My thanks, fair lady, for these glad tidings. We are surprised, no more than that."
"They are welcome, then?" the Elf woman inquired closely and Hanasian found his smile again.
"Indeed they are," he replied and considered his wife, "Are they not, my love?"
All Rin could say, still utterly startled, was a single word, "Two!"
And that made Farbarad laugh so hard that he cried. Later on, it would occur to him that he now had a crown princess, her husband and regent, their son and now two others to keep safe…and Rowdy would need to adjust that mail he was making.
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.