48. Chapter 48
At first all Halcwyn saw of her brother's wife was the horse she arrived on. It was a tall, white gelding with a deep wide chest and long, strong legs. It was the sort of horse that would have Enedoth bouncing on his heels and darting about to run his hands down fetlocks and over withers. It was a beautiful creature that Halcwyn thought could prove as deadly as it was lovely. The sort of horse a woman who had served in a military unit might possess. The gelding eyed Halcwyn frankly, ears flipping and nostrils flaring. Evidently it decided she posed no particular harm and so it stopped in place so that its mistress could dismount.
Her brother was clearly excited. He had introduced his wife to her even as he was helping his wife out of her saddle. Hanasian was a tall man, broad of shoulder. For a moment, all Halcwyn could see was his back, the gelding, and hair that gleamed like a pale river of gold under the summer sky. Long strands lifted on the breeze as she was assisted down. As she waited, all her brother had written of this woman ran through Halcwyn's mind.
A Dunedain woman, lost nearly all her life, discovered wandering Tharbad with her foster brother. A gifted healer, a brave and true heart. Hanasian had described her as beautiful, but Halcwyn knew that men in love often did that. Enedoth even described her as beautiful when Halcwyn knew full well that was not true. Hanasian stepped away and the woman that had filled her brother with such life and warmth was finally revealed.
Hanasian's wife was tall, certainly taller than her. Perhaps as tall as Enedoth, even. She clearly was with child. Hair fell in a river that spilled down her back and over one shoulder. But it was her face that Halcwyn found the most remarkable. Pale skin, luminous, stretched over delicately balanced bones. Eyes, a searing blue coupled with a simmering grey perched like large pools atop high cheeks. A quick wit within leaped beneath pale brows that arched overhead.
Hanasian's wife's expression was difficult to read. Halcwyn sensed that the other woman was waiting and then movement caught her eyes. She glanced down to find long, agile fingers were fidgeting with skirts. Healer's fingers. Then it occurred to Halcwyn that the woman standing warily before her was a direct descendant from Elendil! Halcwyn's eyes darted up in sudden surprise and consternation. Where had she placed her manners? This was a woman of royal rank, second in descent only to the High King and his direct heirs.
The other woman's eyes widened a fraction and then darted away.
"Ah! Plea-" Halcwyn began but broke off in utter surprise.
She had been about to ask for this woman's pardon as she gathered her skirts to curtsy as proper when the woman she was to curtsy to fell into one herself. Just how she managed to get down so smoothly in her current condition Halcwyn could not fathom. Hanasian's wife head was dutifully bowed and Halcwyn looked over to her brother. Hanasian simply shrugged.
"It is my great pleasure to meet you, Lady Halcwyn. My husband has spoken of you often. News of your impending arrival brought him great joy."
Oh that voice! Lower than was a woman's wont. The sort of voice that could soothe a troubled mind, a sorely injured patient. Certainly a voice that could beguile.
"I have longed to meet you, Lady Rosmarin," Halcwyn replied and at this the woman's head lifted and her eyes met Halcwyn's full on.
Halcwyn had not been prepared for the full weight of a Dunedain gaze. This woman could look straight through someone, and that will! It was not silver in her eyes but steel, elven forged steel! It all made sense now. How indeed could her brother resist. Her wild, wandering, grim brother would have been drawn before he even realised it.
"Thank you. You are kind to say that," Rosmarin said to her and lowered her head to slowly rise back to her full height.
As she came to stand, Halcwyn took a steadying breath. She had no idea what to say next, what to do. Her mind jumped and she noticed that Hanasian's wife rubbed at her lower back as discretely as possible. All of a sudden, this was just another mortal woman, flesh and blood and bone, and aside from a love of the man who hovered nearby watching intently, they shared something. The joy and wonder and pain of carrying a child.
With the introductions seen to, Hanasian steered them back to where others were gathering. Halcwyn enjoyed watching her husband as beset as she had been upon first making Rosmarin's acquaintance. As for her three sons, the elder two seemed as bashful as their father but her youngest took to his new aunt like a bee to honey and commenced following her about through the afternoon as the feast was prepared. As the evening unfolded and the feast began, Halcwyn found herself surrounded by men and woman who were, as Hanasian had said, a strange collection. Enedoth was not entirely sure what to make of them and so he tried to keep to himself. A younger man, who appeared to be Dunlendish, had other designs. He sat himself down next to Enedoth and persistently tried to engage him in conversation.
He had a lop sided grin, an easy manner, and the widest shoulders Halcywn had ever seen. Enedoth would not be drawn but this did not seem to put a dint in the younger man's enthusiasm. Halcwyn remained close to her brother and Hanasian identified the various members of his party for her, one by one. Their names were familiar to her. Hanasian had written of these men for many years. She had imagined them all to be dark, grim, hard bitten men and now that she saw them, she knew it to be true. And through their midst wandered Hanasian's wife. Rosmarin did not seem to sit down for longer than five minutes.
"Is she always so restless?" Halcwyn inquired.
"Always…but it is when she is quiet that it is wise to worry."
Much later in the evening, Halcwyn turned to her brother and said, "You have done me a disservice, Hanasian."
"Your letters describe your wife as something of a wild, knock about creature, and yet she has been unfailing polite, well mannered, utterly civilised noblewoman. Even your remorseless men do not fail to treat her with respect and regard."
"She has been studying," Hanasian replied mildly and did not add that the reason his former Company treated Rosmarin so well was on account of a healthy dose of fear of what might happen if they did not. If they did not fear Rosmarin, they feared Videgavia, Berlas, Molguv, Wulof, Khule, Lochared, Farbarad, Rowdy and most certainly their former Captain. And then there were the Cats to deal with.
But it was not as simple as that. They treated Rosmarin with deference because of what she was to them. She would always be their Doc, the one who would risk her life and limb to save theirs. She had fought in the thick of things, shared their hardships. She was theirs as much as they were hers.
"Studying?" Halcwyn asked and her brother blinked, pulled back from his thoughts.
"Yes, my wife is determined to make a good impression on you, sister. Once she has resolved on something…"
"Yes, I think I can see that. Do you miss your wandering days, the open horizon, brother?"
"I do, more keenly at some times than others," Hanasian admitted and leant back so that he was propped on one elbow. Some distance away, on the edge of the light cast by the fire, Rin slowly swayed by. She had their son held to her. Hanavia was nestled in against his mother, and his mother was dancing slowly with him, humming softly. Hanasian could see the little boy's smile.
"But I find I miss their faces, their voices, even more," he finished.
Halcwyn saw her youngest son, up far past his bed time with all the excitement, tug on the skirt of his newest aunt. His fair hair gleamed in the fire's glow as he tipped his head up with a silent plea to join in. Rin smiled down, held out a hand and he settled his into her long fingered grip. Then off the trio danced, slowly picking a path through the strange men and women, untroubled by those they passed.
Halcwyn remained up with her brother late, long past the time that Enedoth went with her sons to seek their rest. Most of the camp had settled in for the night. In the quietness, brother and sister spoke long. As sleep settled over the camp, Halcwyn noted that no small number of men maintained a vigilant watch. When she asked Hanasian about this, his face took on a shadow again.
"It is necessary," he said.
"Do you fear old opponents would seek you out?"
"Possibly…but rather we know that there are those who would seek out my wife and son for nothing more than the blood in their veins. It is that we must guard against, for the rest of our days."
Halcwyn shivered to hear the darkness, the quiet rage, in her brother's voice. Here, then, was her father's son. Halasian was still there, lurking, and any who sought to attack Hanasian's family would discover it to their woe.
"How do you know this?" she asked quietly and her brother closed his eyes a moment.
"Because it has happened, twice before. The back alleys of Minas Tirith ran red in the weeks prior to our wedding," Hanasian wiped a hand over his face, "She has been hunted, Halcwyn, nearly all of her life by foe and ally alike."
Hanasian took a deep breath, his thoughts turning to what likely awaited at Bree. Were it just a festival, then they could attend like any other. But it was was not just a festival. It was a Summer Court. The King and Queen were coming, with all their southern lords and ladies. Any loyal vassal was expected to attend. He'd had only a limited discussion of this with his wife. Rin had not been inclined to speak overmuch of the Summer Court. While much of the formal activities would be undertaken by Cardolan's Prefect, Rin would be expected to appear as well, openly. When he had said enough, Rin had responded with a tart observation on how the prices Bree's apothecary charges for various supplies would quadruple as a result and that had been an end to it.
Upon setting out, Rin had gone through everything packed and had removed anything remotely resembling Cardolan. If Hanavia had suddenly developed a case of an upset stomach, she would have found everything. He thought she was mostly unaware of the various preparations made in Bree by Rowdy and Berlas and this was a good thing. But they could not skulk into Bree. They had to arrive, properly. That had resulted in frantic clandestine preparations on the road itself. No easy feat given that Rin had a knack for ferreting out secrets.
"I am sorry," Halcwyn said softly and Hanasian shook his head to clear it.
"You may yet see that wild, untempered creature, in the coming days sister."
With the reunion and the brief respite running its course, the time came to finish their journey to Bree. Halcwyn and her family were easily absorbed into the retinue that accompanied Hanasian and his wife. Rin, so determined to forge at least one good impression, did everything she possibly could. As a result, Halcwyn proved the perfect way to occupy Rin while final preparations for their arrival were completed. As Rin had found all the various official tokens of Cardolan and removed them, it came down to improvisation. Two Bells had always been a potions man. He had been working away on a liquid that turned things blue. Over the course of spring, Farbarad had been feeding the man a steady supply of roses to experiment on. There were a lot of roses around the house, planted by the original inhabitants when the principality had first been established there.
At first the roses had melted, then they went a horrid black colour. With perseverance, Bells finally produced a blue and so, when the wagon had been packed it included a number of barrels of "tanning solution". In Rin's inspection, she had cracked each lid, caught the pungent odour of Bell's solution and decided they were indeed barrels of tanning solution. Thus, Farbarad's blue roses had survived. Once blue, they had to be dried. Once dried, they had to be woven into various garlands. A certain number for key horses, given Rin had found the livery and discarded it, and one for Rin herself since she had turfed out any circlet or diadem as well. The problem was, the blue roses were in excellent condition for horses. However, once fashioned into a smaller garland they just looked wrong.
When Bells was asked if he could concoct a potion on the spot to turn roses silver, the young medic threw up his arms and stormed off in disgust, muttering about the abuse, misuse and general lack of appreciation for his alchemical genius. In any case, they had no fresh roses left.
"I'll see what I can do," Slippery said.
The night before their final departure for Bree, Halcwyn had summoned her brother, his wife and son to a dinner in her own camp. With Rin safely out of the way, Farbarad and Rowdy saw to the final preparations. The small pennant on the standard Loch bore was replaced with a proper flag,
"Where did you hide that?" Loch remarked as Farbarad attached it to the standard pole Loch kept in his tent.
"I've been wearing it," Farbarad said and Loch's nose wrinkled, because the days had been hot of late.
"No one will be sniffing it," the Ranger said when he caught Loch's expression.
"Except for me," he replied glumly.
The small black velvet pouch that held his medal sat on his bedroll nearby, along with his recently cleaned and polished uniform.
Farbarad eyed it a moment and then grinned at him, "That's why you're Cardolan's first hero, Kid. Broad shoulders!"
With the flag fastened and a hearty slap to Loch's shoulders, Farabarad turned to leave the tent. The flaps had only just closed after the Ranger when Loch heard his next instructions.
"Make sure you knot your weapons harness too."
"What?" Loch exclaimed and outside the Ranger sighed.
"You can't bear the Standard, openly armed and accoutred for war, into a convening court unless you are either fighting a war or want to fight a war for or against that court. Are you, or do you?"
"I suppose not."
"Then start wrapping, Kid. Use blue cord."
Farabard was not so helpful as to mention where blue cord might be found in this camp. Or how exactly the peace knots were supposed to go. Loch bounced from person to person, increasingly convinced the Ranger had put him up to a fool's errand, until he encountered Rowdy. The quiet man looked him up and down and shook his head.
"Of course you don't know," he said and Loch bridled.
"Why would I, exactly?"
"Not because I knew where to find blue cord and how to tie it into KNOTS!"
Loch found that it was difficult to appear angry with someone when he was following them about like a lost puppy. Rowdy made certain that Loch could not see his grin. With cord in hand, Rowdy led Loch back to his own tent, stepped inside and sighed heavily.
"Of course you don't have a sword," Rowdy said as he eyed Loch's weapon harness.
"I did…once," Loch remarked.
"Where is it now?"
Loch shrugged and grinned unevenly, "If I had to guess, I?d say it's hanging over some man's table in that place, that town in Rhun. What was it's name?"
"That's the one. Anyway, axes are much better, far more effective. And these, my friend, are dwarven forged. I just lengthened the handles."
"I've seen dwarf blades, Kid."
"You're looking at a pair right now!"
Oh they were good, Rowdy concluded. Excellently made, superb quality…but Mannish. Still, he had to find a way to peace knot axes and getting into an argument with the scout was not going to assist.
"Bring your 'dwarf' axes here, then."
"Farbarad said to do the whole harness."
"And we will, but we'll start with the weapons first. It's how it is done. Why am I explaining this to you?"
"Because I have an honest face?"
Rowdy snorted at that and set to work.
It was late when they finished and later still when Hanasian and his family returned to their side of camp. Rin was fatigued by her efforts to present a good impression and the weariness that accompanied pregnancy. As a result, she was soon tucked beneath the covers with their son. Hanasian ducked out of the tent and found Farbarad waiting.
"Aye," the Ranger said and Hanasian returned for the last relatively peaceful night they would have for a short while.
Despite his role in events, Loch slept soundly until dawn. He would have slept longer were it not for Rose. She stole into his tent and he woke to the sight of her lovely face suspended over his own. The woman he would marry, he thought. He knew it now. That part, at least. How to go about it, what to do afterward, all of that remained a mystery, but this was the woman he would marry. If she'd have him. Of course she would, wouldn't she? He smiled up at her as winsomely as he could.
"Rose," he croaked, throat dry, and she leaned up and away.
"Hurry Loch, you have an important job to do today," she said and with a wink, she was gone from his tent.
Loch rolled himself out of bed, stuffed himself into a more formal uniform and grappled with his knotted weapons harness. He gave an axe handle an exploratory tug and discovered that if he wanted to draw a weapon, he'd probably lose his pants. A good thing to know. Once that battle had been fought, he collected the standard and knocked his tent down onto himself. Outside, he could hear his sister laughing with Wulgof and Molguv. Of course, not one of them helped him free himself of the tent and so it took some time to fight his way clear of it. Loch emerged, once carefully finger combed hair now rumpled, out of breath, and missing the standard. He shouted a particularly obscene Dunlendic phrase that made his sister and Wulgof double over in more laughter. Tears were running down their faces and Rin was finding it hard to breathe. Good old, kind, unctuous Mulgov assisted her to the ground so she could catch her breath without falling over.
Well, Loch thought with a scowl, he'd sort her out later. Perhaps when Hanasian's sister was around, little miss make a good impression. His eyes narrowed as she laughed. And she'd be laughing on the other side of her face when she saw that standard, and the horses. He let her chortle and gasp away, seated on the ground between Wulgof and Molguv, and went in search of the standard. It was not easy to find. He mistook a tent pole for it and this only set Rin off again. Loch threw the tent pole away with some force, unaware of how that forced Hanasian's brother-in-law, Enedoth, to duck, and dove back into his ruined tent. This time, he had more luck. Rin had her arms wrapped about her growing belly and the twins within when he finally plucked the standard free.
Loch planted the butt of the pole on the ground and shook off the slightly dusty flag. There was an early morning breeze that caught the blue velvet and made it ripple lazily. Then there was the unmistakeable silver glint of the rose upon that blue field. Loch's grin was pure triumph as Rin seemed to choke on her own tongue. At that point, one of the Cats led a blue garlanded white horse by. Her gelding! It was not easy for Rin to get to her feet nowadays, but she found Molguv served many uses and she used him to climb her way up, amusement wiped clean from her face.
"Where did you get THAT?" she hissed, stabbing a finger at the offending flag.
"Where do you think, sister of good cheer?" Loch replied.
"Take it down."
"Oh, no, you're right. Not can't…won't."
Molguv recognised the tone in Rin's voice and managed to secure an arm just as she surged forward. She weighed more than he was expecting and she was angry, and so the Haradian found himself hopping forward, towed by the woman he meant to restrain and forcing Wulgof to grab at his belt. His heels scrabbled in the ground for purchase enough to heft Molguv and Rin back.
"Not me, you idiot, HER!" the Haradian barked at Wulgof.
"What's going on here?" Videgavia asked.
Rin, bristling, turned her full ire on the Daleman, "Make him take that thing down! Now!"
"Yes! Order him!"
"He's not carrying it on my orders," Videgavia said reasonably, "Whose orders are you carrying it on, Scout?"
"Farbarad's," Loch reported dutifully.
"RIGHT," Rin snapped, wheeled around and went off in search of the Ranger like an unholy storm sent straight from Osse.
"If I were you, Kid, I'd get myself on a horse before she gets back," Videgavia said, watching her stalk through the camp in search of Farbarad.
Loch did not wait to be told twice. He was not sure what happened, or if his sister found Farbarad. All he knew was that the flag remained aloft on his Standard and Rin seemed to be fuming in her saddle every time he glanced in her direction. In the period between her furious departure and now, someone had managed to get her into a rather formal dress, and then into a side saddle which she loathed with singular fervour, and had dropped a garland of white flowers and ribbons around her head. Beneath those soft blooms, his sister silently glowered her way through the morning.
Loch remained some distance back from his sister, a safe distance, watching Halcwyn discover an entirely different side to her brother's wife. Rin had no interest at all in good impressions, conversation, good humour or general pleasantries. She was not rude, just quiet, eyes fixed directly ahead and locked in that spot right between Farbarad's shoulder blades. It was just past mid afternoon when the call came for him to come to the front. It didn't make to sense to Loch. He was a scout, and by his bearings they had not yet made Bree. However, as he reached the rise, he saw that Bree had reached them, in a fashion.
The sight was one that had surpassed Rin's seething anger and Loch could understand why. It was quite a thing to see. He looked to where his sister sat, staring down at those below. She had the expressionless mask she wore when frightened in place. Loch's arrival and the flag ensured that the attention of those below were captured. Suddenly Loch was glad for Rowdy's men arrayed about them like a reassuring blanket. The "farm hands" had emerged that morning without their rural garb and unlike his harness, their simple weapons were quite unknotted. Loch suspected these men would be needed to run the gauntlet below.
Tents, some of them gaily coloured, carpeted the land. Temporary yards teeming with various stock had been erected. Small hordes of children ran between the tents. It had been those children that had spotted the flag and now called excitedly below. This had alerted their parents and Loch could see the press gathering as people moved forward. It was easily a mile to Bree. Penned in by the tents and the people. It was a nightmare in terms of possible attack.
Loch's eyes scanned the people below. Up on horses, pressed together…Loch suppressed a shudder. This was supposed to be a festival. He turned back to find Rose. She and her sister had been gathered into the heavily protected knot that had formed up. Halcwyn looked understandably nervous and Enedoth was not well pleased. Loch looked back to his sister. Her eyes flickered from the crowd to the flag and then to those who were about, no doubt looking for someway to slip out and flee. Videgavia shifted into one particular escape path that she spotted. Loch thought the man had a surprisingly compassionate expression as Rin turned her eyes back to the front. That expression faded and Vid was all dour, dangerous and dark once more.
The sound of the crowd below that carried up to them was a one that Hanavia decided that he did not like at all. That caused a short delay as he was transferred to his mother. The little boy clung ferociously to her and buried his face into her neck. Rin looped her reins around one arm to retain as much control over her mount as she could and Hanasian pressed his horse closer to the side that Hanavia clung tenaciously to. It was time to be off. They had to move, through this press of people drawn by the spectacle of the Summer Court and Midsummer Festival.
Loch set a careful pace in the lead, Farbarad behind him. His senses were singing as they closed and the urge to draw a weapon as a precaution was nearly overpowering. Children had winnowed their way forward and they gazed up at him and his horse with wide eyes. As he rode, he could hear the whispers. Who was it? A southern noble house? And then he heard a voice cry, "Cardolan! It's Cardolan! It's her! She's real!"
This only whetted the crowd's appetite further. Loch strove to keep the Standard tall and proud. He lifted his chin, kept his shoulders square and his spine straight. And he watched faces. At some point, someone threw something and he found his hand reaching for an inaccessible weapon even as he realised it was a flower. More flowers followed, most thrown onto the ground but some annoyingly tossed at people. Loch had to duck to avoid having a flower stem spear into an eye. They knotted weapons, but flowers could be deadly, he thought. Where were the peace knots for those, then?
The noise of the voices was the worst, though. So many things were called out. Once someone called out Rin's name, chanting began. Then an argument over what her name was. Scuffling followed and the narrow way they moved through threatened to collapse. Loch's mouth was dry as week old ashes by then but he caught movement amongst the crowd and the way was cleared. He thought he saw what he was certain was a Ranger of the North but the glimpse was too fleeting and he could not tarry to confirm. By the time they reached Bree proper, Loch's skull was pounding with tension, and he was ready to tug his weapons free no matter what happened to his breeches.
Word had spread to the townsfolk ahead of them. Bree had once been part of Cardolan. After a year of rumour and speculation, they were finally going to see her! Loch felt palpable relief when he saw the polished helms and bright armour of the King's formal guard positioned at the gates. He had to take care that the standard did not droop as a result. As he checked its position, he caught sight of Runner. His friend acknowledged him with a flick of his fingers.
"Our Princess!" someone called from the throng.
"She's a Queen!" someone shouted back, outraged.
"She stepped aside, and she ain't wearing no crown!"
It was time to move again, before things got worse, Loch thought. Evidently the King's Shiny Guard, as Loch now thought of them, had reached the same conclusion. Loch had no idea how the men knew where to take them. Rowdy said that he and Berlas had kept their selected location quiet. But, then, Loch supposed that men like the Shiny Guard knew things like that. Personally, he was relieved that they did, because he had not the faintest clue and the prospect of him leading them round and round Bree had loomed very large indeed at the Gates.
As they were led through Bree, Loch saw the banners of other nobles unfurled from high windows so that they ran down the front of buildings. Stag and Bear were here already, and he felt a nervous twist in his gut because Stag and Bear had been trouble in Pelargir. Loch concluded that the arrival of these nobles earlier must have whetted the appetite of the townsfolk for pomp and ceremony. He saw the ship of Dol Amroth and the golden tree of Ithilien and a great many others as the King's Shiny Guard led them unerringly to a large house. He wondered, then, for the first time if the timing of when you arrived meant anything. If so, what did their timing mean for his sister and her timing for them? It was a painful question, Loch discovered. Thinking about it only made his head hurt worse than it already did.
The King's Guard took their leave and turned back for the gate and the throngs there. Loch didn't envy them their task. Meanwhile, the rest of the people that had travelled with them, and one wagon, clattered into the yard and soon it was a press of horses, people and gear. Rowdy quickly had his "farm hands" deployed around the property and Farbarad had already taken to the house to sweep it for himself. No one took umbrage at that. Berlas had been maintaining security for weeks but everyone knew what Farbarad was like when it came to the safety of his charges. Once inspection had been done, they were whisked inside in a flash, their horses seen to by men Berlas had detailed for the task.
It took Loch some time to get inside himself. He had a Standard to sort out. The flag had to be removed from the pole. It couldn't touch the ground, or some such nonsense, and so that was a feat in itself. Loch had just managed to unhitch it without dropping the flag or the pole on his feet when Farbarad emerged and relieved him of the flag. He studied it a moment, because it certainly wasn't folded the way it was supposed to be.
"You've a lot to learn," Farbarad said.
"And who says I want to? Not like I have plans to follow in your steps, Ranger. I have my own life to lead," he responded.
Farbarad tapped Loch's chest near the pin he wore. With that tap, Farbarad walked back into the house with the flag. Loch started after the Ranger for a moment and then shrugged. He stowed the pole in the stables but did not tarry to exchange greetings with his fellow Company men seeing to the horses. Rose was inside and if he was feeling jostled and overwhelmed, then he shuddered to think how Rose may be.
The thunderstorm that blew in with night wasn't particularly surprising. It seemed, somehow, fitting given the tension of the day. Though crowded, the house had been quiet. No orders had to be given for that. The arrival of a frantic mother with a terrified small boy had been quite enough. The lightening coruscated the sky and leached colour from the house and the faces within with each crackling lick. Halcwyn steeled herself not to startle as she carried a tray laden with tea, crockery and food into the drawing room. She had only just managed to set it down on the table when a great thunderous crack seemed to sound right over the house itself.
Hanavia wailed in naked fear, clutched at his mother where they sat in the corner. Rin rocked back and forth and tried to soothe him but she was far from calm herself. Her son sensed his mother's tension. Halcwyn set herself to pouring out tea into cups.
"Tea," she asked Rin and had to repeat herself.
"Oh…sorry…yes, I think…"
"Do you take milk?"
But Rin was off in her own little world again and this time Slippery had to answer.
"She doesn't take milk, but she will take honey. Here, let me while you see to the others."
"Is she…" Halcwyn trailed off, not sure how to ask it.
"She's come through worse than this," Slippery replied as she drizzled a large helping of honey into a cup of dark, steaming tea.
"Worse?" Halcwyn asked, horrified at the idea that anything could be worse than being trapped in a half mad, chanting mob, surrounded on all sides, with a helpless child to defend and carrying two more within.
"Aye," Slippery replied and tapped the spoon she had used on the side of the cup three times. This made Rin blink, her eyes focused and she looked around the room.
Slippery held out the tea cup to her, "Tea, Doc. Hungry?"
Rin took the tea but shook her head at the question. Halcwyn frowned.
"Good grief! She must eat something, surely!"
"Good luck trying to force it down her. Why do you think I put so much honey in her tea?" Slippery said.
Halcwyn absorbed this and considered the small Gondorian woman. She had never met a woman quite like the capable Slippery.
"You and Rosmarin are friends," Halcwyn guessed and Slippery nodded matter-of-factly.
"Yes…couldn't possibly leave the woman to fend all for herself with all those men to manage."
"Have you known her long?"
"Oh….couple of years, I suppose."
"Is that all? You seem very….close. You know her well."
Slippery smiled at that and took a bite out of an apple she had taken from the tray.
"I'm a Cat," she explained and when Halcwyn remained silent, she added, "You know….Black Cats….did Hanasian not mention us at all?"
"Oh…Oh! A Cat! Yes," Halcwyn said as she recalled how her brother had described this particular unit of his Company. He had felt no small amount of trepidation, if she recalled correctly. But then…did that mean?
"And was Rosmarin a Cat too?" Halcwyn asked, incredulous.
Slippery laughed quietly, "She trained us, Halcwyn."
"Hanasian did not mention that part, I take it."
With the women gathered in the drawing room, Hanasian had convened a small emergency meeting in the dining room.
"Today was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster! What happened? Where were the Prefect's men?"
"Not there," Rowdy said emphatically.
"Just as well those Rangers were," Loch added seriously, "I thought the crowd would riot for a while there. Hate to think what would have happened if it did."
"But why were even they there? What drew them out?" Farbarad asked, knowing a Ranger as well as Hanasian did.
Hansian rubbed his hands over his face to scrub the weariness from it and focus his thoughts.
"There's something to this that stinks. No Prefect, Rangers drawn out, and a crowd just one drop of blood away from rabid all in time for our arrival. Or am I being paranoid?"
"It isn't right," Rowdy said.
"Aye," Farbarad growled and a terrific concussive boom sounded overhead.
It made their ears ring for a good while and after it faded, Hanavia's frightened cries gradually emerged along with the distant sound of someone pounding on the front door. Who would be out in this storm? Rowdy strode to the dining room door and peered out to see Khule escorting a heavily cowled man whose cloak dripped water onto the floorboards. He walked with a cane and Hanasian heard the thump of it on the floor as he came up the hall with Khule. Rowdy turned towards Hanasian and the Ranger nodded.
"Show him in," Rowdy said to Khule and the Commander nodded and let the man pass him and enter the dining room.
Once inside, the newly arrived man used his free hand to push back the darkly glistening folds of his leather cowl. A weather beaten face familiar to Hanasian was revealed.
"Massuil! Mae Govannan," Hanasian said and grasped the man's outstretched hand.
"Hanasian, nasty business out there today."
"Nastier, had it not been for your men. I owe you a debt, Massuil."
"Your fair wife and boy…they are unharmed?"
"Shaken, the both of them."
"And my wife is quietly getting angrier with each passing moment, but otherwise unharmed."
"It was nobly done today," Farbarad said solemnly, "Not so often do the Rangers of the North ride to the aid of Cardolan that it will be forgotten."
Massuil grimaced at that, but met Farbarad's eyes squarely, "Farbarad of Cardolan. Aye, I know you and know of you. A hard man, they say, yet fair and woe betide those who seek to harm those he has sworn to protect. You want to know why we were out there today, and rightly so. Were I in your boots, I would want to know the same. I did not venture out on this leg in this weather to inquire upon the health of your charges."
Massuil grimaced again and adjusted his stance. Loch offered him a chair but the ageing Ranger waved it off.
"Getting into it is one matter. Getting out quiet the other," he said with a mirthless smile as he reached beneath his weather beaten cloak and pulled out a handful of crumpled papers.
These he set on the dining table with a slap and Rowdy realised the papers were bills.
"Found these scattered about three days ago. Thought them interesting. Think you might too."
Whoever had printed them had done so in a hurry. They were poorly set, crudely formed and roughly cut. The paper was exceptionally poor stock. Hanasian picked one up and read it. Anger lit in his eyes and he picked up another and another and another.
"Someone worked that crowd into a frenzy."
"Aye, and just sat back and waited for you to arrive as you had to. Heard Cardolan had a Prefect now. Where was he?"
"Not here, yet," Farbarad snarled, so angry he was quivering.
"Convenient, that," Massuil said.
"Clever…whip a crowd up…sit back and wait for them to tear us apart… clever…professional. Lucky for us they didn't count on you sending in your men," Rowdy said.
"Suspect they assumed we wouldn't, that it was a Cardolan matter. Certainly how things have run in the past round here. Cardolan, Arthedain, the old divisions are hardly relevant now, though."
"Thank you for bringing these to us," Hanasian said and Massuil shrugged it off.
"I said at your wedding that if you or yours ever had need, we would come. I've sent word out for more, wasn't expecting this sort of dirty game. We look after our own, Hanasian. That's all this is. Were it my wife and child, you'd do the same."
Hanasian nodded and Massuil asked, "What now?"
"My former Company are in town."
"They're your lads?"
"They're sharp….I'll let my men know, the more eyes the better."
"We'll need to run down the printer of these," Rowdy said quietly.
"If you can find him…or her. If they've half a brain, they're fifty leagues away or more by now. But, worth trying. You're a Gondor man…King's…but not Guard and not Grey."
"No, not Grey," Rowdy said slowly and the two men exchanged a long glance before Massuil broke it off.
"You've good men here, Hanasian, and you can count on mine. Not a one of them wants this sort of thing going on. I'll let them know that you all came through. That'll please them."
"My thanks again, Massuil."
"You keep that up, Ranger, I'll start to think you no longer consider yourself one of us now that you're some sort of Consort. Too good for us, or some such."
As Hanasian walked Massuil back to the door, Farbarad eyed Rowdy.
"So, what are you exactly?"
"A man," Rowdy replied and that was as far as he would be drawn.
It was late by the time the storm blew itself out and Hanavia could finally be gotten down to sleep. Hanasian made certain to gather up all the bills and stow them away. Aragorn would need to see them and they'd need them to track down the printer. Plus, he wasn't sure he wanted Rin to see them just yet. With the storm's fury exhausted, rain fell over Bree. Hanasian listened to sound of it running over the roof, down the walls, through the cobblestones of the street outside. He listened to the strange sounds of this unfamiliar house. And he let his thoughts run. Who was responsible for the bills? Was it linked to the Prefect's strange absence? What and when should he say something to his wife? What harm were his sister and her family in? It occurred to Hanasian that Rin had been gone for some time and so he stirred himself from his chair and went in search for her.
He found her still in Hanavia's room. The little boy was carefully tucked into a child's bed, thumb in his mouth. It was a relief to see him so peaceful after the difficulty of the day. Whoever this was had threatened his son, his baby son. Hanasian unclenched his fists and looked next at his wife. Rin sat in a chair by Hanavia's bed, stroking his hair or the soft skin of his little arm. He carefully crossed to crouch by her chair and kiss her softly on the temple. As he pulled back, he noticed Rin's eyes had closed. When she opened them again, they were a frightening blue in the soft lantern light. He had never seen her quite so angry before.
"What happened today was deliberate," she whispered, not a question at all.
"Yes," Hanasian replied, unable to deceive her.
"So be it," she said.
"So be it?"
"They can come for me, if they must…but my son is sacrosanct. So be it. I will have their heads."
Hanasian pressed his lips to her shoulder, wrapped an arm around her, and gently guided her up from the chair and to their own rest.
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.