49. Chapter 49
After the day's trials, it felt good to lay down beside Rin. She worked at getting comfortable and Hanasian slid up against her back after she settled. A hand went over to rest on the side of her belly and he felt one of the twins moving about trying to get comfortable itself. Boy or girl, he wondered. It was one of the joys the day brought to him. With a face full of hair and with Rin starting to breathe evenly, he quickly faded to sleep.
Breaking flagons echoed through the now-quiet inn. Tarina was tired and knocking the tray off the bar was the last thing she needed right now. She would have to clean it up. Just more extra work after such a busy day. The storm had driven the crowd inside and business had quite brisk. But she wanted to have a bit of time to get out of the inn. Word had it that the Lady of Cardolan had arrived and there was Talk that the King was coming in too. Tarina's plan had been to slip out and see for herself but the inn had been far too busy well into the night. Now, with the morning hours slipping past, she was cleaning up broken flagons. Tomorrow would be no better. And to make things worse, Kholas had not come yet either.
The King would not know that the Prefect had yet to arrive as had been planned, well before the King was to arrive and certainly before the Lady of Cardolan had. All that they knew was a strong suspicion that something was amiss. At Bree, the Company created a tight watch around their former commander and healer. The Dunedain Rangers watched the various gates of Bree. The King's Guards had taken up position at the Greenway to greet and protect the King once he emerged from the narrows of the Andrath.
There was a reason Kholas did not go to the inn. He had slipped out to south, with Berlas, to meet the scouts of the King's caravan. They had solid information that he was not too far south and it was likely that he expected the Prefect to meet him. Kholas and Berlas wished to speak with the royal party before they ventured the final distance to Bree. The two men took up positions on the south edge of the Andrath by the road on a miserable night to spend out. They hunkered down in the hope that the next day would prove its worth.
To the south, the King's party had set camp early prior to the storm's arrival. Aragorn was troubled though he couldn't quite grasp the source of his concern. This ill ease throughout the day had prompted him to decide on a late afternoon arrival on the morrow rather than the morning arrival planned. The rest taken now, he sensed, would be needed by nightfall tomorrow.
Morning came too soon. Hanasian opened his eyes to hair and found that Rin slept soundly. Still, outside he could hear whispering. He arose and slipped out to find Farbarad and Rowdy in the hall where they had spent the night. The two weary men were discussing yesterday and the Prefect's absence along with the various implications and how best to contend with each. Shortly before Hanasian emerged, Farbarad had put forth the idea that Rin could represent Cardolan in the Prefect's absence. Who else could be appointed with the authority so swiftly? Rowdy contended that they should ask Rin rather than inform her.
It was at this juncture that Hanasian spoke out, "Absolutely not! Given yesterday's occurrences, I am more than half tempted to leave for home today. Were it not for other things keep us here, we'd be on our way already! I do not and will not risk harm to Rin or our children!"
Rowdy cocked an eyebrow and nodded at Farbarad, who said after a moment "Well, that settles that idea."
"Indeed it does," Hanasian emphatically replied, "There is no chance we would be able to enjoy even a moment of the festival or have a moment's peace here."
With his mind made abundantly clear, he returned to where Rin still slept. He pressed a kiss to her shoulder and saw that she shifted slightly, murmured something indistinct but otherwise remained asleep. The strain of yesterday had taken more from her than she had permitted anyone to see, as he suspected. He soon lay beside her, his fingers running through the fine, soft strands of her hair.
The morning light saw Berlas and Kholas riding south to find the King. They did not have much farther to go from where they had camped the night prior to find the vanguard watch. They were taken to where the King held counsel.
The King greeted them, "It had been some time since the days on the eastern shore. Yet I think I know why you come. News of the Prefect?"
Kholas sighed and Berlas said, "Lack of news, sire. We had hoped that he had come down to meet you yesterday, or earlier further to the south.
"He did not meet the Lady of Cardolan upon her arrival yesterday and there was nearly a riot. Someone had stirred the crowd to fever pitch with handbills distributed prior. The instigators are still to our knowledge being sought."
Aragorn's head dropped at this news and he washed his hands over his face. The King expelled a heavy breath as his hands slid down and his expression was sombre.
"I had hoped this would be a merry occasion for more than one reason," he said, thinking of the grim report he received close to a year ago now on the outcome of events in Esgaroth. This would have been her first venture out since that. Treachery closed in on both sides of the Misty Mountains, dogged her steps relentlessly. Had he made an error in revealing her presence two years ago?
"I will send messengers back with you to instruct my men there. We will follow to arrive in the afternoon in force, lest civil unrest continues on from yesterday. Ride now back to Bree with haste. Seek Hanasian. I speak with him, and my cousin, though not as a public meeting."
The two men bowed and left to prepare a swift ride back to Bree. With them came the King's messengers came and a host of guards. The King's arrival would be known hours before he arrived.
The riders made speed back north and arrived at noon. Things had changed since they had set out the evening before. The messengers found a commander of the King's Guard in Bree, and the host of guards set camp on the outskirts near where the road from the Andrath found Bree.
Kholas made straight for the Prancing Pony Inn. He had a little trouble getting inside the door for it was already a busy festival day. He sighted Tarina serving the crowd and found that eased his concern slightly. The general mood seemed lighter than the day before. He managed to catch her eye for a brief moment and a slight smile told him all he wished to know. He slipped back out and headed to the smithy. He had plenty of work to do.
Berlas made for the house secured for Hanasian and Rin. The house was no longer concealed. Yesterday's arrival meant that the throngs knew exactly where they were. The intensified watch made it all the clearer. Two banners extended down the front of the house: Cardolan's blue and silver on one side and Gondor's black and silver on the other.
Berlas was stopped once by one of the King's Guard and a second time by a grey-cloaked Ranger. It was comforting that more than the Company and Cardolan's own watched on the one hand. On the other, it spoke to how precarious things yet were that it was deemed necessary. Balanced on a knife's edge, he thought with concern. The increased presence of the King's men seemed to keep things calm within the town, while the Company maintained the inner watch with Rowdy's men, whatever they were, around the house itself.
Upon arrival, Berlas found himself greeted first by Molguv. The giant of a Haradian was stationed by the front door. He grinned at Berlas, no doubt having heard of his twice over interrogation upon the way, but the smile had a savage, feral quality to it. Molguv, like all of the others, took any threat against the Company as a personal one and Hanasian and Rin most certainly would be Company for the rest of their days. Retirement meant little. Added to that was the proprietary way in which Molguv viewed Lochared and Rosmarin. The man was one that considered bonds tribe as a holy thing and he had summarily claimed the two as his the very day he had crossed paths with him.
Vid had quietly theorised that it all came down to events that day. Had Loch not thumped him and Rin not robbed him, the Haradian would probably have been as interested in acquiring them as he was in Donius. Just what Khule and Wulgof had done, according to Vid's theory, beggared the imagination.
Berlas nodded at the grinning Haradian and Molguv sidled his bulk to one side to admit him without challenge. Even as Berlas reached for the door, however, he found it opened. Hanasian himself stepped out with his sister Halcwyn by his side. Berlas took several steps back so that they all stood in the front garden, replaying the King's message in his head and wondering whether to deliver it in front of Hanasian's sister or not.
While Berlas thought, Hanasian greeted him and said, "We have come to Bree to enjoy the festival and to meet the King and his Summer Court. If it must be such that we greet the King in the stead of the Prefect, then so be it. We will go in force, for I will risk no harm to Rin."
"Very good, sir," Berlas answered, one puzzle resolved neatly for him by his former captain.
Behind, in the doorway, lurked his current captain. After what had been seen yesterday in the preparations, no one was under any doubt that accomplishing this feat would not be easy. Aside from the obvious preparations for security, getting Rin to cooperate was no small challenge. Berlas eyed Videgavia and the Daleman gave nothing away. Did she even know yet? He rolled his shoulders and set to the preparations that he could accomplish.
One thing that could always be said about the Company, Black or Free, was that when a decision was made, they were ready quickly. Not only did they clean up and get into their dress blacks, they saw to the necessary security arrangements in the process. The Rangers were assembled by some means and appraised of the plan for the afternoon. Massuil had his men set watch while preparations were made.
It fell to Farbarad to brooch the matter with Rin and he was surprised at how easily she accepted the idea. He trotted down the stairs to inform the others that they would not need to secure the Lady of Cardolan to her saddle and then her horse to five other horses to prevent her from making a break for it. Perhaps, he mused on his way, the idea of being trapped inside a house did not appeal to her. He was aware that Rin, Halcwyn, Rose, and Lady Anvikela had spent quite some time together. What had they come up with? Little did he know that it had been Halcwyn's intervention to tip the balance.
When Rin had finally emerged, and after the rigourous security briefing had concluded, the women had been left with their tea to consider matters. No one was to go anywhere. Halcwyn refused to allow a few rabble ruin her days with her brother and family. She resolved that she was going to head to the camp where her husband had the horses no matter what anyone had to say about it. Little did she know that he had already sold them all.
If Halcwyn was going, Rin resolved, then so was she. There was a festival out there and for once she was to attend like a guest, a normal person. Rin had seen festivals many times before, but from a very different angle. She had spent more than enough time running, hiding. She had done nothing wrong, this time. She was not about to be kept hidden in a house now. She'd not stolen anything. Rin could scarcely believe her luck when Farbarad came to her and broached the subject of heading out.
The time came, then, to set out to meet the King upon his arrival at Bree. Alert, hands steady and resolve sharp, they formed an impressive party as they rode towards the southern gates.
Word of the King's approach had gathered a crowd once more. This throng, though, was far more orderly than that of the day before. The heavy presence of the King's Guard accounted for some of that. However many had been startled and even shocked by what had gripped them and close they had come to a frightening precipice. Upon his approach, the King seemed grim. He was preoccupied with the Prefect's absence. Yet, as his Queen joined him he found the cloud that had gripped him relinquished its hold on him. Aragorn resolved that this Midsummer festival would be one of the best in memory. Hope, renewal, life and prosperity. That is what would come from this festival and his Summer Court.
His expression lightened and the crowd responded in kind, remembering why they had gathered here and the merriment to be had. As he rode with his Queen into Bree, a host arrived to greet him. The crowd withdrew to allow some thirty of the King's Dunedain Rangers to approach. The men walked in a large oval and within their arc came a smaller party. Aragorn recognised men of the original Black Company of Arnor there, and a new face near the front that he had not seen before. A sandy haired fellow, possibly of Dunland or Rohan. Foster brother to his cousin, he wondered, as they drew near. Within this narrower circle, was a third party. He saw Hanasian, his old friend, and his cousin. Rosmarin was with child, he noted, and appeared fair and bright in the midst of so many warriors. Behind them came a very pleased looking Ranger of Cardolan. Pleased and relieved, Aragorn amended, as he studied Farbarad.
The crowd eagerly watched this grand meeting, drawn in and along by what they saw. There was no hint of tension, of ambition, of greed. Humbly did the Lady of Cardolan acknowledge her King and Queen. As humble as any of the others in her party. Warmly were they received, greetings of monarch and kinsman returned. A grand meeting was beheld by all, and it was in a sense a relief to both Hanasian, Rin, and Aragorn. The question on everyone's mind was: where was the Prefect? Things were amiss, but for this moment, it didn't seem to enter the minds of anyone.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"And I say that she's behind it all! The handbills, the Prefect's disappearance, everything! I think she's carving out a return to power, and under the nose of the Court what is more. I'm not the only one saying it, either!"
Rin's stomach twisted at the overheard assessment of her culpability. So many glittering nobles in a stately orbit of that garden; brilliant and fair beneath the summer stars and moon. All of them whispering, speculating. Sedition. Treason. Treachery. Power. Ambition. Greed. They thought she did it! Her! And what proof did she have that she was innocent? Those responsible for the handbills had not been found. The Prefect was still missing! The longer it took the more they whispered. All the while smiling at her with all those sharp teeth. She should never have come, never have left home. Never. Still, what had she accomplished there? Had the wolves decided to hunt other prey than her? Was her son any safer now? For all she knew, one of those she watched was responsible for this. So many wished for Cardolan to fail once more. The realm was riven by division and plots even now.
While she was distantly aware that her heart thrummed, the twins were definitely aware. They, in turn, were restless. How they turned and twisted and pushed at her. She had to breathe and sit down. Yes…or sit down and then breathe.
A hand slid around her elbow and someone said, "There you are!"
It was all she could do to not leap out of her skin with fright. Something cracked, a noise from far away it seemed and she suddenly light headed. On the twins swum, churning about. The hand on her elbow became firmer and then tight. Far too tight. Someone gripped her wrist. If they weren't careful, they'd tip her hand and she'd drop the glass she held. Down she looked to her right hand. Something wasn't right. Not right at all. No. Not at all. What was that buzzing sound? The lanterns in the garden were too bright, too hot. She needed to close her eyes and so she did.
~ ~ ~
The final shard of glass fell into the bowl with an innocent plink. Aragorn bent close to check one final time for lingering slivers. Finding none, he began bandaging. Once begun, he could look up to inspect his patient's face. Wan and her eyes unfocused. Her breathing was not so shallow and uneven now. An improvement.
"Six or seven months?" he asked the man who was coiled like a snake beside him.
"Five," Hanasian replied in a strained voice and added, "Twins."
"Ah," Aragorn said and after a few more passes of the bandage, "Not deep enough to require stitches at least, nor enough blood lost under normal circumstances to be of concern…but twins."
"She pushes too hard, as always," Hanasian muttered, exasperated and worried all at once, and Aragorn nodded.
"Not that I think she will listen to me any better than she does you, my friend, but I will instruct her to rest."
"I rest," Rosmarin said, words sliding around in her mouth like marbles.
"Do more of it, cousin," Aragorn said firmly as he tied off the bandage.
He watched her frown as he set her hand gently down and bent closer to inspect her eyes, "You are tired enough to sleep even now."
"Are you going to arrest me?"
"Not tonight Rosmarin."
"Lean back…go on…there...not so very bad now, is it?"
Hanasian watched his king pass his hands over his wife's eyes and was surprised to see that her eyes remained closed. Certainly she'd not be nearly so biddable were they his hands. Aragorn rose to his feet and removed the bowl and other items he had needed as Hanasian bent in to press a kiss to his wife's brow. That done, and Rin resting quietly now, the Ranger straightened and followed his king into the next room where the others waited. Aside from Farbarad and Rowdy, events had drawn Faramir and none other than Voromir. It had been Voromir's swift action that had ensured that matters had fared worse. Hanavia sat on the floor, torn between the two new faces of the Steward and the lord. As soon as his father walked in, the little boy pushed uncertainly to his feet and made for Hanasian. He had only started to walk on the journey to Bree, determined to keep up with everyone else.
Rin had such things planned for their son. Jugglers, acrobats, actors, all sorts of animals and flowers and food. All the sights and sounds of the festival, all the colours and merriment. Add to that three cousins and she had a feast of discoveries all mapped out. Hanasian had suspected that it would have been exciting for Hanavia and his mother, as certainly no one had managed to give Rin any such wondrous experience when she was a child. But now what? Hanavia reached his legs, tugged on his pants and reached up. Hanasian collected him up easily and settled him in. Pleased to have the same vantage as all of the others, Hanavia contented himself with this arrangement and fiddled absently with his father's shirt sleeve.
"I had thought to ask my cousin to act in her Prefect's stead," Aragorn said as he set down the bowl of glass shards.
"I see," Hanasian replied uncomfortably, glancing to where Farbarad and Rowdy waited.
"I see now that such a request is too much to ask at this juncture."
"Perhaps not, Sire," Voromir said, leaning forward in his chair, "I startled her tonight. What happened was mere accident, no more than that. She has demonstrated herself quite capable."
"Generous of you, Lord," Farbarad replied, recalling all too sharply just what the man's opinion of Rosmarin had been not so very long ago. He knew the questions, thinly veiled accusations, the man had thrown out at Pelargir. He had been in the gathered crowd there himself,
"Things have changed, Ranger," Voromir said, a touch of ice returning to his voice, "I read that report from Esgaroth."
"Ah," Farbarad retorted, dangerous gleam to his eyes, "Then that is all it took! Her abduction, beating, the attack on -"
"Farbarad-" Hanasian interjected as he realised that Farbarad was about to gravely insult a lord of Gondor. Aragorn held up a stern hand.
"I think it best if Farbarad and I wait outside, now that we know Lady Rosmarin is in no further danger," Rowdy quietly said and Aragorn nodded his agreement.
Teeth grinding, Farbarad permitted himself to be taken outside and the door clicked shut after them. Faramir rubbed at his jaw, "Woe betide any he deems to be an enemy."
"And I have done little to prove myself otherwise," Voromir finished with a terse nod and considered Hanasian, "I take no offense, Captain. But I will have you know that my actions are always taken in line with what I deem best for the realm. You saw that in Pelargir and again… in Nildrick and his merry band…I think you know of him as Rowdy?"
"He's yours, then? I had wondered," Hanasian replied thoughtfully.
"I understand that a number of additional measures have been taken to secure your family here in Bree, Hanasian," Aragorn said, "They are to continue?"
"Yes…I had considered returning home as well."
"Understandable," Faramir said.
"Unwise," Voromir opined, "Aside from what the Summer Court would make of Cardolan running, tail between legs, consider whether this was not the intent of the architect of all of this. What waits for you? Without the Prefect's men, have you enough to assure a safe return safely?"
"What the Captain elects to do is his decision alone. It is his wife, his son, his unborn children, his sister and her family," Aragorn stated.
Hanasian turned away to study Rosmarin in the next room. She had drawn her legs up to curl in the chair.
"Neth," Hanavia said softly, unable to manage the full elvish word for mother just yet.
Hanasian stroked the soft dark hair of his son and turned back, "We will remain here in Bree until such time as the way home can be secured. With the cooperation of the Free Company, that can commence now, with my King's consent to deploy armed forces in Cardolan."
"Would that it were not required, Hanasian. Yet it is as it must be. I will speak with Captain Videgavia if necessary. The Rangers of Arnor are also at your disposal. If you need more, you have only to ask."
"Thank you, sire. I believe that is more than generous."
"Let the search for the instigators of that near-riot and the Prefect's whereabouts continue. If word is received, we will reconvene," Aragorn said and heads nodded.
"Lastly, while in Bree, please allow yourselves to be seen. Provided security prevents any unpleasantness, it will serve to further ease tensions if the populace see that the festival continues."
And so it came to be that the Summer Court went on without the Prefect and Hanasian's family remained to enjoy the festival and to be seen to enjoy the festival. If Videgavia and Berlas had worried about what an idle Company might get up to, their worries were over. Cardolan was a vast territory and the stakes were high.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Flecks of foam spotted his mount's lips. If he pushed much farther at this rate, his horse would be blown and he'd be no less late than he already was. Later, in fact, and that could not be countenanced.
"Ho there! Where are you off to so late in the day and at such a speed?"
Mardoc swung his horse about hard in the direction of the man who hailed him. So hard that his horse stumbled. He squinted ahead and saw that it appeared to be a Ranger. The man seemed to materialise out of thin air, but tired eyes at dusk were unreliable companions. He slipped out of his saddle and onto legs no more certain than those of his horse. The creature was shivering beside him as if they stood in the depths of winter.
The Ranger closed and added, "You'll not get much further tonight, friend."
"The King? Has the King made Bree yet?" Mardoc asked and noted distantly that his voice was as shaky as the horse.
"Aye, a day ago now. You wouldn't happen to be the Prefect of Cardolan, would you?"
Mardoc barked mirthless laughter at the question that sounded wrong, too edgy, even for him. What had happened to his steady nerves and steadier hand?
"No, and that's a good thing for if I was I'd be dead."
Was that movement he caught out of the corner of his eye? Beside him his horse let out a terrible groan and collapsed, thankfully away from where he stood.
"See that? Happened to the Prefect while he was in the saddle. Thrown. Neck snapped."
"If you say so."
"I'm a messenger. I say what I'm told to."
Massuil watched the man lose whatever it was that had kept him upright. Horse and man lay on the earth, helpless and vulnerable. One would live, the other would not, if the Valar were merciful. Massuil had given up waiting for mercy from that quarter. He glanced to where one of his men had draw close in response to the signal.
"Ride north. You know what to do."
"Which one first?"
Massuil rubbed his hand as he thought. Sometimes the muscles tensed from gripping the cane all day into a painful claw.
"He's still one of us. Tell Hanasian first but get yourself to Aragorn immediately after!"
With that the younger Ranger was away, loping into the approaching night and leaving Massuil to dispense the mercy in the Valar's stead. He drew a dagger and approached, little liking for the task ahead. Had to be done, though. Like many things, had to be done. Besides which, cooked right, a lot could be done with horse meat.
The Midsummer Festival was one to be remembered, and it was a relief to King Aragorn and to many others that the rest of the days were filled with much gaiety and were very normal. This was a relief to many, for many who were tasked with security of the King, Hanasian and Rin, and the general public were tense even if many of those who in charge of protection appeared to enjoy themselves. The Company was mostly active even though they appeared to be having the time of their lives. The Old Company, that inner core, kept a careful watch on Hanasian and Rin as they moved about, wandered Bree's markets and spent time in the Rohirrim camp as guests of Halcwyn. Halrad and Foldwine arrived late to Bree and were swiftly appraised by their former comrades. They watched close the Rohirrim camp. The King's messenger Darian and many of the King's Guard watched steadily as the King spent time amongst the people of Bree.
Enedoth had, in the course of his bartering, had gained much wealth. It was far more than he had dreamed he migh. His horse breeds were prized here in the north, and each drew a top price the first day. By weeks end the payments had been made and he had kept news of his fortune close. Still he was sure to lay on a kingly feast to celebrate this good fortune. Much of the Old Company and the wider collection of the Free Company attended. Even King Aragorn and Queen Arwen happened by, a high honour. There was considerable talk of this newly arrived Horse Lord and Lady and the connection to Cardolan's consort and the Lady of Cardolan herself was made by a number of the more astute students of these things. With such talk conspiracies were made and broken and there were no shortage of talk.
As the Festival played out, the Ranger rode hard and true and sought out Hanasian in the early hours of a balmy night towards the close of the festival. He found Hanasian on the step of the house they called home while in Bree, smoking his pipe. Delayed by only a few careful questions from Videgavia, Hanasian motioned the young Ranger to approach as he enjoyed the quiet of the night and his pipe.
"You have ridden hard and long. What word do you bring?"
"The Prefect is dead. Massuil is with Mardoc, the messenger, now. The man had pressed himself and his horse so hard that he could not continue after he encountered us."
The Ranger would have been disappointed if he was anticipating surprise from Hanasian.
The elder Ranger murmured half to himself, "This explains some things."
After a moment's pause, Hanasian unhitched a water bag from his belt and offered to the younger Ranger. The man accepted it with a grateful nod and took a swallow. This afforded Hanasian some opportunity to study the young man.
"You are young, yet you wear the Star of the Dunedain. What is your name?"
"Harlond, grandson of Elendur."
Hanasian studied him closer still, then after a moment said, "Yes, I knew Elendur. I can see a likeness."
"You knew my grandfather?" Harlond asked and Hanasian nodded.
"Yes, he was my first commander. I only knew him only for a brief time for he fell at Raven Falls in an ambush. We brought his body home"
The young ranger was silent as he absorbed this and Hanasian asked, "You don't mention your father. Who was your mother?"
"I would rather not say,"Harlond said quietly.
Hanasian waved a hand and Videgavia and Farbarad, who lingered watchfully, and then said to the young ranger, "To claim a line as great as Elendur's is no small thing. By doing so you invite questions such as this."
"Lady Anna of Chetwood. I do not know who my father is."
Hanasian thought a moment, then said, "You are indeed the grandson of Elendur. Come, rest. You will need to attend promptly to King Aragorn in the morning, so take what you can in the few hours left to you to do so."
Hanasian offered him a mat on the front room where some of the others were sleeping before he returned to the bed he shared with his wife.
The next day, the festival came to an official close. The King and Queen said their farewell to Bree and prepared to go north to their home by Lake Evendim. The great city of Elendil, Annuminas, was being rebuilt, and Aragorn wanted to spend the summer there. But the ill news of the passing of the Prefect left him in a dour mood. He worried at the trouble it would pose his cousin, Lady Rosmarin. Troubles that lurked beneath the surface.
While Aragorn was aware that he would have to announce his intention prior to departing Bree, he was beset by who to name as the Prefect's successor. He could not make Hanasian Prefect for he was too close to Rin as was Farbarad. Mecarnil would have been his choice, but he has passed. Aragorn realised that there was no successor to name, for now. The realm would have to, therefore, take its place as a province of Arnor and be ruled from his seat in Minas Tirith. Any remaining misguided independence feelings had best not be acted upon, or his army of the North, led by Hanasian and consisting of the Dunedain Rangers and the Free Company would give swift answer. This announcement at his morning address seemed to meet with the crowd's approval. Bree seemed pleased their King had taken such a stand, a promising start given Bree was an influential centre within Cardolan's ancient bounds.
With the departure of the King, the crowds in Bree slowly drifted away and life slowly returned to its drowsy routine. Enedoth and Halcwyn and their sons set to go but it was a hard parting. Hanasian and Halcwyn spent the morning talking and the three young boys played and ran laughed and dodged legs of the tall people. All three cried when it came for the wagon to move and Halcwyn left with a promise extracted that Hanasian and Rosmarin would have to journey to Rohan as soon as they could.
They too would have gone shortly thereafter, but Rin was afflicted by severe cramping pain. Though she would have gritted her teeth and borne it. Hanasian refused to travel with her in such a state. Instead stayed a week and it would be a time of rest for them. The combined Company did not, however, rest much. Between the watch and patrolling the roads, there was little for to rest. All was not lost though for they did, at least, get a night together at the Prancing Pony where they all seemed to be in the common room.
Talk was of the days of old, and of their time last spent in Bree. Most of those who joined after listened intently. When Mulgov came in after he searched out his stashes from when they had passed through what seemed like a long time ago, he complained that well over half had been looted. But he had enough to buy plenty of ale. Loch and Rose were only there briefly, and slipped away together somewhere. They seemed to do that a lot when Loch wasn't on duty. Lady Anvikela, who didn't normally drink, had let her guard down this night, and though she got a bit wild with her table dancing, the only incident was later when she set fire to a table with a drunken display of wizardry.
Together the two sisters exercised careful control of their powers and kept each other in check. Apart, Rose was with Loch and little else entered her mind, and Lady Anvikela was usually reserved on her own. It was a good thing she rarely drank anything but this night was one of those rare occasions. Anvikela took a liking to the locally brewed golden ale. It was in abundant supply for Videgavia needed a the fresh bucket of ale to put the flames out.
Berlas stood and said to anyone who too interest at what was happening at the table and said, "Nothing here to see."
His stare was intent and noone seemed inclined to argue the point, despite the dark burn that would adorn the centre of the table for the rest of its days. Berlas took Lady Anvikela by the hand and she stood wobbly.
"Come m'lady. Lets go for a walk."
She giggled an acceptance. Berlas led her toward the door and it was obvious that he would likely be doing the walking for the both of them before too long. Anvikela's customary reservations appeared to have been melted away by Bree's golden ale and, after some cooler night air, it took her awareness as well. Berlas caught her as she crumpled and carried her back to her bed.
He pulled a blanket up over her, "Goodnight Lady Anvikela."
Matters seen too, Berlas was quick to return to the common room before talk got away on them all. By the time he got back to the Prancing Pony, he found most had drifted away when he returned, including Videgavia.
Most, but not all. The Dirty Three were still stubbornly installed at an unsinged table.
To them Berlas said, "We best get some rest this night. If Doc is feeling well enough on the morrow, we will ride."
Khule an Wulgof grumbled, saying they should have slipped away as well. While Berlas' words had been a suggestion rather than an order, they knew they all would be called to order in the morning.
Morning saw a few tender heads and sluggish risers around Berlas that little Hanavia took little mercy on. The boys parents were notoriously early risers and their son seemed to take after them. Berlas thought that Hanavia had to have been up at the crack of dawn to explore as far into the room as where Khule had settled onto his mat in the small hours of the morning. The boy showed not the slightest hint of trepidation as Khule had opened his eyes to find the weight on his chest was his former Captain's son. The Easterling groaned which did nothing to discourage Hanavia in the least. He smiled at the man, and once he had decided his fun had been had, clambered off and went in search of his next victim. That, Berlas mused, was a habit he seemed to have gained directly from his mother. That and her eyes. The boy had the same silver and blue intensity she did.
He was not surprised that neither Rose nor Anvikela were about at this time. At his guess, it would be some hours before Anvikela ventured out of her room. When she did, he would be courteous as ever. Last night was an aberration brought on by far too much of the Prancing Pony's golden ale. He resolved to make no mention of it, the better to let any lingering embarrassment she may feel fade all the faster. While his thoughts wandered from that to the day ahead, his eyes tracked Hanavia's progress through the front room and the sleeping men. Once he had pried open eyelids or climbed over prone sleeping forms, the boy wandered out again. His walking was far from confident still, but it was astounding to watch how swiftly children learned at this age. Hanavia had been crawling when he arrived and now he was walking. He had a few discernable words before but since then his vocabulary had expanded since. Khule had been teaching him a smattering of Easterling, Molguv some Southron. He already had Westron, Dunlending and Sindarin from his parents. The lad was a quick study.
He smiled faintly at a sudden memory that sprang unbidden to mind. It was of Rin's expression as her son called her in the Elvish fashion. She had rolled her eyes in exasperation and asked her husband what was wrong with normal, hard working, practical languages like Westron or her own Dunlendish. Hanasian's reply had been an unapologetic, toothy grin that had made her mutter fitfully about Rangers. As she had stalked away, Hanavia on her hip and skirts flaring, she had been grinning herself. That memory prompted him up and off his mat in search of breakfast. Like Hanavia, he could hear movement in the kitchen and that was promising.
The source of the activity proved to be the very Lady of Cardolan herself. She wore simple clothing fit for travel, a grey kirtle and a dusky pink surcoat, and a determined expression as she prodded eggs in a pan. It was good to see her up and about and she looked reasonably well, her hair haphazardly piled on her head but already sliding half way down her back again. In the morning light, she seemed a little pale to him but then that had always been the case. She had seemed fashioned from ice the first he had met her. In any case, Hanasian would not permit her to be up and about if she was not well. Then again, Hanasian was nowhere to be seen and the former Company Healer was the sort of woman to sneak downstairs while her husband was busy elsewhere to cook breakfast. Hanavia hung contentedly off her skirts, playing with the folds and humming to himself. There was tea already brewed and steaming on the table and she had started to gather plates and cutlery.
"No bacon?" he observed and she wrinkled her nose.
"I cannot abide the scent of it cooking for some strange reason," she explained and then added, "You're perfectly competent to cook some yourself – once I am well out of the kitchen."
"Oh, high praise indeed from you, Doc," Berlas returned.
With a wry grin, she said "Well…you've come a long way and I felt it was time for credit to be given where it is due."
At that he stepped back and made a slightly absurd bow that elicited a dry chuckle as she prodded at the eggs.
"Are they all for you, Doc?" Berlas asked.
"I suppose I could spare some…if you're willing to work for them."
"What would you have of me?"
"Well now…let me see…"
He knew what was coming and was already moving to finish setting the table and to start toasting some dark rye bread. He added other things such as butter and cheese and mushrooms, with a careful eye should the cooking of those disagree with the woman who shared the kitchen with him. She eyed the pan dubiously and then shrugged, to the relief of both of them.
Moments such as these were rare enough that they could be counted on one hand. Berlas had no idea where Hanasian, Farbarad or Rowdy were and the Company were doing their best to sleep off the prior night. He remembered the first one in a rain soaked forest outside Tharbad. Having robbed two of their men and been apprehended quite by fortuitous accident, it had fallen to him to ensure she did not scarper off again as they worked their way out to where her brother had been apprehended. He had warned her not to run, more for her safety than anything else. She had pinned him with those eyes of hers. They had been so bleak, so washed of hope, so frightened, and he found himself stuck fast then and there. Confused and disturbed by his reaction, he had been certain to keep a careful distance. That only grew when realities had been made abundantly clear. Hanasian had placed her on his horse and under his personal protection. By the time they left Bree, fates were sealed, paths chosen and Berlas had been careful to ensure he was not caught in the midst of it.
Still, for all of that, he found he was drawn to her time and again. At first he put down to her spirit, that blazing strength, for she was a most unusual woman. But it was more than that. She was an enigma to him and he had a weakness for mysterious women. There was always more to her than first appeared. Always. She was also peverse, argumentative, stubborn pain in his neck and she managed to undo his efforts at decorum, restraint and proper conduct without breaking a sweat.
She was the best cheat at cards he had ever met and the things he had heard about that night in Minas Tirith meant that she was a barrel of fun when she let her hair down. Berlas forced himself to collected his thoughts before they ran too far. She was his former Captain's wife, and a mother, and as such he could not permit himself to dishonour himself, Hanasian or her.
They settled down at the large table in the kitchen for breakfast, just the two of them. A few times he was rewarded with her laughter, a silvery sound and each time he caught himself wondering what it was like to hear that every day. As they spoke, he did not dare use her name for to him it was too dangerously personal and intimate. She was Doc and he was not Hanasian and that, he knew, was that. Berlas had been so profoundly relieved when Hanasian had announced their retirement. He had been exhausted by the effort of keeping a safe distance, of ensuring he did nothing untoward and the gnawing fear that something would happen that would expose his confused feelings or worst still, something dreadful would happen to her. For all of that, he had been so very overjoyed to see her again on that beach and that familiar lurching feeling in his stomach had returned like an old friend. This morning, however, there was none of that. It was hard work to not look too long at her or too deeply into her eyes, but he was managing. It was going far better than he had dared dream.
The scuff of boots in the hall signalled the end of this precious time and Videgavia entered the kitchen like a dark shadow. His eyes flickered over them, pausing on Doc in brief assessment and then to the food on the table. He settled at the table, gathered up a plate and began filling it.
"We leave today, I take it," Videgavia said, gaze flicking to Doc and then to where Berlas sat a few seats away. Something in his Captain's expression made him uncomfortable.
"I hope so. Have to leave before Molguv discovers the extent of the damage to his secret wealth," she said, smile flickering over her lips.
"I don't suppose you'd know how that happened," Videgavia pressed.
Rin set her cup of tea on the table, lent back in her chair and placed her hands protectively over her rounded belly.
"Well now, you know what happens to women in this state. Perhaps I did, once. Perhaps I did not. Who can say?" she said archly and won a rare smile for Videgavia before he set to buttering his toast.
"In any case, I am well enough. Have been for days now. Overprotective, peremptory Rangers are the only reason we have delayed so long."
"Sparks and Bells disagreed with you Doc. It was sensible to wait and given there are preparations to ready the wagon for you now, I think you'll get your wish to set out."
"Wagon? I am not a sack of grain!"
And with that, Doc pushed her chair back, collected up her son and marched off to settle some accounts with overprotective Rangers who thought she'd be better off rattling around in some undignified manner in the back of a wagon.
"Are they really out there with the wagon?" he asked his captain and Vidgavia lifted a shoulder.
"They've fashioned some sort of cover over the tray with the help of Donius and Daius. Very comfortable, for a wagon."
Berlas leant back in his chair with a wide grin as he imagined the scene that was likely unfolding right now outside the stable by the house. When his attention returned to his Captain he found Videgavia was studying him intently.
"Careful, Ber," he sternly warned, "That way lies trouble, as I would think you very well know from past experience."
Berlas knew that Videgavia was not referring to heading out to watch the confrontation. There was little that the Daleman missed and Videgavia was aware of the circumstances that had led to his transfer to the Black Company. He had a habit of losing his heart to the wrong women. Or, as he saw it, the right woman at the wrong time. Both of them had pale hair, one golden as wheat and the other like sunlight on snow, and a fire in their spirit to which he was a moth. Unable to turn his back, likely to perish if he succumbed.
Berlas sighed, "That I know, Cap."
By midday they were on their way, and though he kept his usual safe distance Berlas could see through the back of the modified wagon one grumpy Company Healer, one badly hung over former foreign sorceress and one blissfully napping Prince of Cardolan. Evidently the overprotective Rangers had won. They set a moderate pace, for the return journey was one that had been carefully orchestrated. Scouting patrols and reconnaissance had been arranged to sweep the surrounding land for any possible threat.
The architects of the riot remained at large and there were serious questions over the nature of the Prefect's demise. Misadventure or something more sinister? In any case, the Company had their work cut out for them. Get to the bottom of it, assure peace in Cardolan, deal with any insurgencies that may arise. For once, this was an assignment that did not seem them marching endless miles through deserts or jungles, deploying over oceans or boundless plains. This was an assignment at home for many of them. With Aragorn's Rangers covering the northern lands, they would cover the central and southern regions and wherever the trail took them. Peace keepers…it was an entirely different beast to war and it remained to be seen how the Free Company would take to it. Some better than others, Berlas suspected, as he studied those around him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He was certain to be away before first light for he had much to see to. This Festival had, on the whole, been highly instructive. He was certain, now, that Silver Fox had made a fatal error in his calculations that had doomed them from the start. Their plans had always centred on Erían, either to lure her to them or to remove her entirely. He had long suspected this was the case, but Silver Fox had been a masterful at persuasion and his arguments had been convincing. Ultimately he was correct in that Erían was the key. But to come at her directly, secretly or in force, was to guarantee failure.
First of all, there had been her uncle to contend with. By the time Cullith had been dealt with, most of their people in the south had been eradicated and that left them with the buffoons that had botched the first abduction so thoroughly. When news of that had reached him, he had wondered at whether the two abductors were not, in fact, serving a power other than Cardolan's remaining loyal cabal. A power such as the Arthedainian High King of the supposed Reunited Realm. It had been a mad scramble to find someone suitably competent to insert into the Black Company. The Black Company was the second formidable barrier. The man they had found had been, in his opinion, a superb choice and he was singularly successful. Of course, there was Hanasian, Mecarnil and Farbarad to deal with. Silver Fox had failed to consider Aragorn had his wiles as well. If they could insert an agent into the Black, then so could the king.
And last of all but not least of all there was Erían herself. Silver Fox had been a little too swift to discount her as a liability or handicap even from the outset. And, while he himself could admit that Prince would have been ideal, she had proven herself even more formidable than her father. She had survived Dunland, for one thing. That should have told them a thing or two. The Black had honed her into a salient threat or a powerful asset for Cardolan. She came with her own pet army! A little care and Silver Fox could have built an unassailable position but instead he had done his utmost to make her their avowed enemy.
During the festival she had been close enough that he could have touched her had he but extended his arm. Once he had, for he had offered a steadying hand to her elbow as an overexcited child ran pell mell through the crowd for the honey glazed apples that had just been put out. The Black were everywhere, watching everything of course. Still if he had enough men and Silver Fox's disregard for the outcome, he could have snatched her or her son. They'd have their Prince then.
What Silver Fox had failed to see was that it was not the taking that was the test. It was keeping what had been taken. In his opinion, Aragorn had perceived this and considered it no small comfort that one of his closest friends and surest allies had succeeded in bringing Cardolan inextricably under the Reunited Realm. Unity through marriage was not a new thing and what he had seen during this festival had proven that Erían was utterly, inextricably bound to her husband. Cardolan's Consort, and through him Aragorn himself, had an unshakeable grasp on Cardolan's throne achieved not through violence and treachery, but by other means entirely.
Still, it was not a complete loss. Unlike Silver Fox, he could work with Cardolan being loosely allied to the Reunited Realm. There was no need for overt war and independence. Under the Prefect, another of Aragorn's men through and through, Cardolan had already started to attain a measure of self determination. Tharbad was prospering, a second bridge under construction. Lond Daer had resumed trade with Ithilien, Minas Tirith and Rohan. Life and breath was returning to Cardoaln's ancient husk that strife such as Silver Fox fomented would crush.
The Prefect had done admirably well and had the good grace to bow out when his purpose was served. Aragorn had not appointed another for there was not another to appoint. He already had a sense for how this would go. Cardolan would continue, and if it looked to anyone it would look to the one remaining person entitled to lead. The way was clear for her to take a gentle path out from the shadows and towards where she belonged for truly she was destined for this. He had known she was his rightful Queen from the moment he set eyes on her. She belonged to Cardolan and they to her.
She would need guidance, as any ruler did, that would serve her people's needs first and foremost. And that guidance would find her. In time, with careful nurturing, Cardolan would have what was needed, what was surely deserved after so many centuries of suffering and depredation. Patience and care, a truly strategic vision. These were his strengths. He would pose no threat to his rightful Queen or her heirs. The key was Erían, and to obtain her he would have to avoid Silver Fox's errors. There was a lot to do to build on the good work of recent months and to captialise on the opportunity he now saw. The way to Erían, the way to keep Erían, lay in the people around her.
First things first, though: the scum responsible for that riot. They had to be dealt with.
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.