5. Chapter 5
The chill morning covered everything in lacy, bright dew. The near-freezing dampness cut through any cloak with the slightest of wind, and riding at a fair speed kept the breeze square in their faces.
"May as well had rained..." muttered Molguv."I ain't used to this cold.' He made an attempt to draw his wool cloak tighter around him.
"I'd say you'd welcome the sun if it can climb over those cloudied Mistys," Khule remarked offhandedly.
Khule, having grown up in the Easterling Sagath clan from north of Rhun, was used to the stiff chill winds blowing down from the frozen north. His cloak hung loosely about him and he was quite content with the Haradian's discomfort. Videgavia, from Rhovavion, grinned at Mulgov's colourful whinging. Hanasian lived his young life in the north and handled the chill without thought. Wulgof the Dunlanding tolerated it, the Gondorian Belegost wrapped himself as if he were going on a trek up into the White Mountains. If Berlas was with them, he'd snug himself up and deal with it too.
But Molguv was truly intolerant of cold. Of course, when the tables were turned a few years back and they were deep in the south searching out an insurgent tribe of Far Haradians in the steamy jungle of Horsta, most of the company had a hard time staying hydrated while Mulgov hardly even broke a sweat. Guess he was getting some payback. Silently they rode. As much as Hanasian felt the chill hitting his front, his back was decidedly warm. Rin found that if she kept herself pressed against him, the movement of the horse didn't rattle her ribs so as badly. He didn't mind it so much either.
Mid-day and the green grasses started to slowly fade to a stringy taller sort that rustled in the breeze. Lush and green now, it would soon dry and turn brown. The ground was getting ever so slightly rockier as the fertile till thinned. Ahead, the escarpments of the South Downs could be seen when they crested a rise, still a day and a half away. They never managed to get into the sun until near the noon hour. The northerly winds had turned northeasterly and the clouds blew out from the north Mistys. Spits of mist kept them damp and the enclosing low cloud and fog slowed them somewhat.
When the sun looked like it would burn through, the skies darkened into a deeper grey. It never did rain, but it was none too cheerful. When the sun did finally chase the cloud away, its warmth struggled against the damp chill of the breeze. A shiver from Rin behind him told Hanasian it was time for a rest. A knoll with a worn down ridge about a foot high offered some protection from the wind while allowing then to rest in the full sun. Loch quickly dismounted, looking a bit sore, but hurried over to assist Rin down from Hanasian's horse.
"Make rest for awhile men. Loch, you tend the horses, then you can have some food. We'll ride again all to soon. Tonight will be another cold camp, the night after there is shelter that I know of. The road will narrow as it winds through the Downs, and has been known in years passed as a place of finding friends. We will see how it is these days."
He watched Loch as he led the horses away to where the grass looked the thickest. No complaints having to do the job, Loch had started to appreciated what usually fell on the newest recruits. Hanasian dug into his dwindling supply of fruit, seeing that what was left was getting a bit long in the tooth. It will be good to rest in Bree for a time. He hoped to get word from Berlas there not long after. And what other news would await them there? And what of Rin. Would she decide to stay with the company, or take her leave? He watched as she went after Loch, probably to have one of those brother-sister talks. It had been a long time since he had one with his own sister.
Hanasian sat down with his back to the rock-side. Belegost without prompting had went over and set himself on suitable high ground to keep watch. The others stretched in the sun trying to warm themselves. Mulgov should be glad they are coming north in spring, not in autumn. He'd hate winter up here. Loch looked up at the sound of someone approaching. It was Rin and he noted that she moved cautiously as she walked.
"Do you want some help," she asked. He shook his head and turned back to what he had been doing.
"No, this task was given to me and I should be the one to do it. I'm in enough trouble as it is." Rin stood next to him and pushed a strand of hair that had come free from her braid behind one ear.
"You didn't come here for that anyway," Loch said.
"That's true," she admitted. Loch glanced at her and moved to the next horse. She seemed far too calm. It troubled him.
"Look, Rin. I'm sorry. I know you're hurt and…" Rin placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
"It's not so bad as that, Loch. Better this than what was shaping. Berlas was getting ready to bring you down with an arrow and Khule was running out of time. I know you didn't know it was me."
Loch straightened from his task and turned to face her. "Then why are you here, Rin?"
Rin studied him for a moment. "When are you going to tell me that you enlisted, Loch?"
Loch sighed heavily. "Really? This? I knew you figured it out already, Rin. Have you followed me here to tell me how wrong I am?" Rin cocked her head to one side and let Loch's combativeness sail past her.
"No," she said.
"This is not funny, Rin. I'm in no mood for it. Say your piece and have done with it." Rin smiled faintly and looked at the horses Loch had picketed out.
"I'm not joking, Loch. I think you made a good choice." Loch gaped at her a moment and then closed his jaw with an audible click.
"Are you sure you didn't hit your head, Rin?" Rin laughed at that and bit it off. Too early for laughter yet.
A blast of damp wind made her pull her cloak, Khule's, tighter around her and wish yet again that she had something more than an oversized shirt and a borrowed cloak for warmth.
"Did Hanasian tell you that his offer extended to you too?" Rin nodded.
"Gave me until Bree to decide what to do." Loch peered at his sister. Her calmness was unsettling him. So she knew it all, already.
"Do you know yet what you'll do?" Loch watched his sister smile mysteriously. Rin was distracted, thinking of a certain warmth.
"You do know," he said. Rin shifted her eyes back to her brother.
"Come on, before all the food is gone," she said.
"You know, your footwork… think of it like a dance," she said as they walked back. Loch rolled his eyes.
"I am not taking fighting classes from my little sister," he declared.
Rosmarin's expression was one of pure feminine satisfaction as they headed back to the main camp. Lochared's was one of utter male flummox. He managed to get some food into him before the session with Khule began. Rin settled down by the rock-slide not far from where Hanasian sat. Hanasian raised a querying eyebrow at her. Rin's winked at him, eyes glimmering with mirth. Wulgof passed her some dried and untwisted gut used to make bow strings. He showed her how to twist it and she turned her deft fingers to that, still smiling to herself. Khule's instructions to Loch sounded at regular intervals.
"Look, I have to ask. Are you… insane?" Wulgof's question made her fingers pause and Rin looked up and Hanasian coughed, covering his mouth and quickly looking away.
"I'm sane enough to do this for you," she replied, lips twitching in a smile. She resumed her twisting."What does it matter to you anyway?"
"It doesn't, I suppose… unless it falls to one of us to pull you out of whatever mess you get yourself into." Rin set down the line she had been twisting and regarded Wulgof steadily.
"Very well, how do you propose we resolve this?" she replied. Wulgof returned her gaze.
"You could learn how to look after yourself," he said. He saw a flash of triumph flare in her eyes.
"Let's begin now."
"I don't have a sword weighted for a woman."
Wulgof had a sense that she was up to something. He just didn't know what.
"Let's test your aim first, before we start throwing steel about."
Wulgof passed her a handful of stones. There were plenty lying about on the ground to be had. The Dunlending pointed out a boulder, perhaps ten paces distant. Rin tossed a stone in her hand once and then threw it. The action made her ribs pull and she winced. Still, the stone made a satisfying plinking sound as it bounced off the boulder. Wulgof set her another challenge, a boulder further away. She hit that too. Another challenge, another hit. Wulgof started to increase the difficulty. She had to hit high, mid and low, and she did. Hanasian signalled that it was time to move on. Rin rose, dropped the remaining stones and flashed Wulgof a smile as she dusted her hands on the cloak she wore. Her head was spinning with the pain of all that effort, but she'd pulled it off. During the afternoon's ride, Wulgof had the growing sense that Loch's sister had pulled one over him.
"Rin's got a good eye and a good arm," he grudgingly admitted. Loch barked laughter from Berlas' horse.
"She's better with a sling than I am. You should see how she is with a knife!"
"Pleased with yourself," Hanasian asked her as they continued riding north. He'd not missed a thing. All Hanasian heard from behind him was muted laughter that thrummed against his back. They camped cold again that night. Back to back, for warmth, they each told themselves. The morning unfolded as it was wont to do, another cold and early start.
They set camp near Andrath at midday, five days out from Tharbad. Hanasian's thoughts turned to those left there to heal, and knowing that the company was in their blood, should they live, they would meet again. It also appeared that Loch and Rin had settled in reasonably well over the last few days. Unsure of what Rin would decide in Bree, Hanasian remained prepared to be the main healer of the company. But with one who has such a natural gift, it would be a blessing from Varda should she decide to stay on.
Seeing that everyone was getting into their routine, Hanasian slipped off with only word to Videgavia. He was hoping beyond hope to find news from brethren long parted. He set off through the rocky escarpment that is the South Downs east of the road.
This time, Wulgof was ready for Rin. He handed her two daggers, hilt first, and pointed at a petrified tree stump.
"Why would I want to throw these away," she asked, turning them over and studying them. "They look perfectly fine to me."
Loch thumped down a brace of rabbits nearby. Rin put the knives to a far better use. Wulgof and Khule both watched her work, sure and efficient movements, swift and steady, as she skinned and trimmed the rabbits. Loch grinned up at Wulgof and winked. Molguv, meanwhile, had chopped up the travois birch frame and gotten a fire going. The rabbits were soon sizzling over the flames. Khule handed Rin his own canteen to wash her hands with. Rin rubbed them dry once she was done, returned the canteen with a nod. Khule traded glances with Wulgof.
"Want to hope she don't find no cause to take those things to us," Wulgof said, inspecting his long knives with a new appreciation. Both men were reassessing their evaluation of the woman in their midst.
The cave wasn't too hard to find, about an hour or so away from their camp. It would be good to move camp there, but Hanasian really wanted to get to Bree, where he could properly clothe Rin. She had to be freezing in just an oversized shirt and cloak. Hanasian settled in the quiet of the cave and pulled out a parchment and quill, and worked the black ink a bit and began to write. He was behind in recording all that has happened since they were in Ithilien.
Five members of the company had set out north from Osgiliath under the command of Frea of Rohan. He and his twin brother, veterans of the war who had been at the Fords of Isen battles, Helms Deep, and Pelennor Fields, were to go north to meet a party from Dale at the Old Ford, then they would try and cross west over the Mistys by the High Pass in spring. A near impossible feat with the winter just passed, but Hanasian held hope that they would arrive. He would wait in Bree for at least two weeks for their arrival. They themselves had gone to Minas Tirith and held council with King Elessar. Ill reports had come from Tharbad, and that was what they had set out to see. Little did he knew they would lose two of their own and suffer with the loss of two more to wounds.
Hanasian pondered a moment as he dipped his quill again. The company was young, yet its members were ageing. The commission the King gave him was a free-standing one, and work would never cease. Yet men of fair training, in armies of battle were becoming ever fewer. Whether they were trained in arms by Saruman, Mordor, Gondor, Dale, Rohan, or Imladris for the war, all were diminishing. The new company would be made of those such as Loch. The children of the hardships the war had put on all peoples. They would have to put into practice a training regimen for those who show promise but have no military training or background. Khule, Wolgof, Mulgov, and Berlas would do that. Videgavia didn't have the patience for it, and left it to the others. Frea was an excellent bowman, and his twin brother Folca a legendary spearman. Both were good with swords. They will be of great assistance with Loch when they re-join the company.
Hanasian was interrupted by a slightest of noise, and with a bird call, knew it was someone friendly.
"Berlas! You are a sight unexpected! How was it you arrived here so soon?"
"Good fortune Cap." he said as he came into the cave.
"I managed to snag me a wild horse not far from where I left the party. Swift was the ride, but I managed it alright. Should of had one of the Rohirrim brothers here to tame the beast, but maybe it would not have been so fast. I've been to Bree, traded the green broke animal for three others, and came south to seek the company. Yet I find you here alone?"
Hanasian put his writing materials away, and stood.
"Yes, I needed to think a bit. Times are changing for the company. Its no longer going to be a world of old army vets seeking refuge in a brotherhood from their demons. For the first time, someone too young to have fought in the war has been accepted, and by extension, his sister has been given the opportunity to join. We had never had one without formal military training, and surey we had not counted a woman as one of our ranks. Yes, interesting times await us. I have to ask Berlas, was there any word from Frea in Bree?"
No." he said, looking concerned. "But it will be a hard road to ride the pass so early in the season."
Hanasian nodded. He walked with Berlas out of the cave.
"Let us go back to where the Company camps. It will be good that the two newcomers will not have to share a horse from here to Bree."
They set out for the camp in the moonlit twilight walking at a calm pace.
Frea pushed his men hard. He knew the news he received from both King Bard II and King Elessar needed to get west to Bree and to Hanasian's ears, so they ventured the High Pass even as the snows still fell in the early spring. It was hard going. It was good fortune that the weather remained below freezing while they trudged the track over the High Pass, for any warming would have surely caused slides that would have ended their trek. But that didn't happen until they were in the west side. Even though the rains that pushed south over Hanasian as they neared Tharbad were blinding snows in the high country, Frea used his memories of being caught out hunting in the White Mountains to good use. They holed up in a snow-cave for a day, and got down quickly thereafter when the sun came out. The rumbles of snowslides in the warming air could be heard behind them in the valleys of the Mistys.
A day's rest was all they could afford at Imladris, and the sons of Elrond were nowhere to be seen. Few now remained there of the Elven folk. Frea himself rode forth with speed on a fresh horse, leaving Folca in command of the remaining fingers of men. They would make haste for Bree, with Frea hoping to arrive a day earlier in hopes of finding Hanasian...
Rin was utterly speechless when she discovered that one of the three horses was to be Loch's and another her own. She simply was astonished.
"Well, that's good to know," Molguv dryly observed as she followed Loch to picket her mount. Molguv had been relentlessly questioned about his 'special reserve' for days now.
"All you have to do to quieten her down is give her a horse, or some other sufficiently generous gift."
Rin returned carrying the saddle which was heavy in the first place. Cracked ribs made it even more of a struggle. Still, she persisted and finally managed to set it down where she planned to sleep the night. She sat beside it for a moment, managing her breathing so that it wasn't obvious to those around her that she was struggling with something they did without a second thought. Rin had no idea why that mattered to her. She just knew that it did.
"Hey, Rin, are you cooking these rabbits or burning them," Wulgof called.
"Since when did I become the camp cook?" she replied.
"If you're not the cook, not a soldier and not a camp follower, then what are you?"
"Healer," she tersely said. Wulgof looked around him, exaggerating the movement and spread his arms wide.
"Don't see no one here needing healing," he replied, a lazy grin on his face.
"Hand me one of those knives and I can fix that," she darkly muttered. She got to her feet and returned to the rabbits roasting in the fire. Men were drawn by the scent. She fetched one out and held her hand out for a knife. Wulgof's smile faded as he handed one to her. She quickly broke it down and men dived in, hungry. The rest of the meat soon went the same way of the first and night had rolled over them fully. Wulgof got his knife back, hilt first to his relief. Loch had, again, drawn first watch. He loped off to take up a suitable position, carrying his portion with him.
Rin returned to the saddle she had set down earlier and settled in front of it. With the night, the temperature had dropped further. She'd spent most of her life outside, but she was not immune. Rin pulled the cloak tighter and tucked herself tighter within its folds. Her hands drifted to the lower lengths of her braid. She unravelled it and started to slowly re-braid her hair. The movement of her fingers helped her mind. It was filled with confusing thoughts. A horse! What business had she in possessing a horse? Why was she bantering with men that had only days before terrified her stiff? Men…. That was the answer. Just as Loch and Hanasian had said. After five straight days in their midst, it was clear that they were not monsters.
Bree was, perhaps, two days off. In two days, she needed to make a decision. Loch thought she already knew. Sometimes she thought she did. It would be a hard road, if she accepted the offer. However, it would be a difficult road of her choosing – vastly different to her current lot in life. If she declined, then she'd have to make her own way. She could do that, she knew she could. There were no easy paths in life, not for people like her. She'd long given up waiting for that to change. Rin sighed and then remembered her ribs. The cold made it seem, somehow, worse. She could move back to the fire, but that meant getting up again and all positions around the fire were occupied by the men.
Men…. If she saw them as men after five days, then it would be inevitable that she would start to care for them. It would also be inevitable that she would, at some point, fail to save one. How would she manage the sense of failure along with the sense of loss? Alternatively, how would she live with herself if her fear meant that she was not there when needed. What if Loch needed her and she wasn't there because, and only because, she was scared?
"Did you mean what you said?" Rin jumped, startled by Hanasian's question. She hadn't heard him approach in the darkness.
"Apologies," he said, her reaction noted.
"Distracted," she explained and waved him to sit. "What did I say?" she asked once he was seated again.
A particularly chill blast rocketed through the camp. Rin shivered, despite the cloak and then frowned at the pain that washed through after it. At least it was getting easier, she told herself.
"You told Wulgof that you were our healer," Hanasian clarified.
"So I did," she said, half smiling at herself. She'd spent the good part of the night rethinking something she had already figured out. As Loch would delight in pointing out, how very typical.
"And?" Hanasian prompted.
"I meant it..." Rin's voice trailed off as Hanasian turned an open smile lose into the night. She'd seen him grin, but never this before. She liked it.
"Why," he asked, testing her. Rin shrugged, smiling herself. "Why else? The food of course," she replied.
"It won't be easy, Rosmarin," he warned.
"Oh, well, when you put it like that and I think I'll return to the wonderfully comfortable existence I am so well acquainted with," she quipped dryly and they smiled. Rin sobered before continuing.
"I know it will be hard. It nearly always is, I think. But it will be something I choose. Whatever may come, I chose it. That… matters. It's the right thing to do," she finished. Hanasian reached for one of her hands and clasped it for a long moment. When he let go and stood, both were left to consider the fact that the feel of the other's hand lingered on their skin.
Another night passed, back to back. When Rin went to sleep, she had a saddle beneath her head. When she woke, she had a Ranger's shoulder. His arm was stretched out beneath her and he was breathing deeply. No longer sharing horses, the company was able to move even faster. It meant that they were able to cover far more ground than before. This was a good thing, even if it meant that there were no more quiet and warm moments to share.
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.