50. Chapter 50
Meanwhile, east of Bree at the Forsaken Inn during the Festival…
Three men sat by the wall, about halfway between the door and the fireplace. The log post by that table added a bit of privacy, but still allowed them to keep an eye on the door and the bar across the way. The only other people in the place was a part-time bartender named Gavion, and a young girl serving maid named Reina. The regular staff had left with the proprietor for Bree to see the King. The three men at the table only knew each other by a nick name, which summed up their demeanour.
"Why have you called us here? You know this is where the Rangers gather regularly," Gruff demanded as he looked about the place. The flickering shadows of the candle-lit room making shadows seem alive.
"I wanted to know that too" Old Man said, "But Shadowy here said it is why it's a perfect place to meet. Most all the Rangers are in Bree watching over things with the King coming and all, as is the regulars. There's a part timer running this place with a very pretty young lass serving us. Says it's safe."
"So what are you? You his mouth or something?" Gruff said to the old man and then to the other fellow that had yet to speak, "Why don't you talk for yourself?"
He glared at the shadowy man, and after a few moments a raspy voice came from him in a whisper.
"This talk of nothing has no interest for me. You are here to speak of Bree. Is he there?"
"Yes, as soon as I verified it was him, I headed here." Gruff said before he drank down his ale.
He flagged the bartender for another round. Shadowy smiled ever so slightly as Gruff started to talk again.
"He's there with a few hundred of his friends close by. Rangers, Black Company, others. And there was trouble too. Someone had stirred the crowds up about political issues, and the Prefect of Cardolan was missing. The King was due in later and security got real tight. Had I not been making deliveries regular to here, I wouldn't have gotten out of the town."
Old Man swirled the last inch of ale in his tankard, "Yes, there has been some who had taken issue with the woman he took to wife. Makes things hard for you and- "
Shadowy lifted his hand to signal the others to be quiet for Reina approached with fresh tankards. He leant back against the post, let the hood of his cloak hang low over his forehead, and watched as she made her way from the bar to their table.
Reina did not want to approach the table. These men badly unsettled her, but she had a job to do. She set the tankards before the men with an automatic smile, picked up the empties and set them on her tray. Old Man and Gruff each lifted their fresh ales and sipped them, but Shadowy grabbed her wrist as she started to walk away. The sudden stop caused one of the tankards to tip over as Reina suddenly turned, and ale splashed over the tray and onto her blouse. She froze, peered fearfully into the shadow of the man's hood. He reached for one of the few upright tankards with his other hand and took it. Draining the last of its contents, he set it back on her sodden tray.
Shadowy pulled her closer and whispered to her, "It was paid for and I wasn't done with it. Remember to ask next time."
He let go of her wrist just as the bartender called out, "Reina, stop loitering with the customers!"
She swallowed, held back sudden, hot, shamed tears, and scurried to the back of the bar. But Gavion was not finished with Reina just yet.
"They may be the only customers here tonight, but there is plenty of washing up to do. Can't be chatting," he said sternly to her.
Reina was relieved he had set her onto another duty instead of sending her back to that table to apologise. She did not want to go back to that table. That man was scary and the others were rough looking. Nor did she say anything to set the record straight about what had happened. She knew that Gavion had noticed the spilt beer on her but he said nothing further to her. She was off through the back kitchen door to fetch water from the well. She would have to grab a couple logs to stoke the kitchen fire to put the water on to heat.
Outside, Reina found the air was pleasantly cool after the heat of the day and the stars shone bright. She lingered for a time watching them and dreaming until a chill came over her with a slight breeze. The shadows of the nearby grove of oaks moved slightly as their leaves rustled and after the events inside she was skitterish. Reina hurred back inside to the kitchen and hoped she could remain in its safety until the three customers left.
Back at the table, Old said to Shadowy as Reina fled, "That was really uncalled for, especially when we don't wish to call attention to ourselves."
Shadowy looked up, his eyes caught the firelight from under his hood and gleamed. He said in his raspy whisper, "Don't matter much. Nobody here. The one I hoped to meet here was led astray at Esgoroth some time back, so he will likely not be walking in the door."
Gruff then asked, "Who would this be?"
Shadowy whispered, "I just come from Dale, and this man was there well before. Got led on a trek east he did and I expected his return to Esgoroth to seek his revenge. But he did not arrive. I left messages for him to come to Bree. He may yet make it one day."
"So what are we to do then. Can't stay here past tomorrow," Old said.
Shadowy sipped his ale and looked towards at the bartender who was busy wiping the bar top. In fact, his focus was on Reina behind him in the kitchen, working the fire and boiling the water.
He rasped, "You two will set off for Bree tomorrow morn. Move slowly for you will likely meet many leaving after the King departs. I'll meet you there in a few days, a week at most, at Ferny's Pub."
Gruff then said, "Not yet! I have more to report on Bree no matter how distracted you are by this piece of fluff here."
Shadowy pulled his attention back to the surly man at the table and quashed the urge to do anything too sudden. Instead, he wheezed, "Yes, I was distracted. What else do you have to say?"
Gruff went on, "I kept me eyes and ears open whilst at the Prancing Pony. They think me a local there now. There are a few folk that you may be interested in."
Shadowy sipped his ale and waited for him to go on.
"The new blacksmith. He's been there only since last autumn. Took on apprentice work at first, but soon was the master. Quite skilled, they say almost too skilled for the likes of Bree."
"This is interesting to me why?" Shadowy asked.
"Well, being you mention Dale, and parts east. This man is an Easterling."
"I see." Shadowy said, thinking.
Gruff pushed on, "Also, there is a bar wench at the Prancing Pony. She's from the east as well though not so far as the blacksmith… Dale."
Shadowy scratched his chin, 'Change of plan. Gruff, you go back to Bree in the morning. Arrive by night and get a room at the Prancing Pony. Things should have quietened I think. Old will ride slower, and arrive a couple days later. I will see you at the Pony but you will not recognize me. I will then meet you later at Ferny's."
They finished up their ales and retired to their rooms but Shadowy wasn't long in emerging with his pack. He came back to the common room and looked around. The bartender was nowhere to be seen and Reina was still in back finishing up the washing. He slipped out the front and stood there for a moment pondering what to do. A simple walk may clear his head, but he instead made for the stable, and he left silently for Bree in the night.
The town had settled after the King's departure, more so when Cardolan's party left. Shadowy, with Gruff's help, had the information he needed. More than enough. He planned his steps carefully now, not wanting to tip off the lingering company men and Rangers. The first thing was to take care of a couple matters. Two of those responsible of stirring up the troubles before the festival and setting security ever so tight afterward had seemingly left town without a word. Once Shadowy heard who was on their trail, he was reasonably confident that they would never return. He was also confident that more than two were involved, but the Company and the Rangers were close on their heels. What he needed was peace and quiet.
In the days after Hanasian and Rin left Bree, Shadowy sat in the Pony watching her. The way she moved, the way she talked, her smile. Yes, he knew it to be her. He also noticed the Easterling that seemed to come in every night, from whom she held back little. He would have to be careful, for she could easily mark him, that is, if he still sounded the same. He didn't. He would be safe, for now.
With the general whereabouts of Hanasian now known all he had to do was wait for things to calm down. It would be some time before any move could be made. Besides, there seemed to be other factors in play here, and he was content to watch them play out. They may work to his advantage. For now.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
With all the Rangers and the Free Company patrolling Cardolan, the realm was stiff with people doing everything they could to assure peace. Unfortunately, their efforts did not extend to Hanavia. His teething had started again on the second day out from Bree and they had now been on the road for a week. Rin felt like she had not slept for a year. Around her, people were getting beyond irritable. There had been a rash of discipline problems that had prompted Videgavia to send the restless ones to the south to secure the key strategic port of Lond Daer and the crossing at Tharbad. Rin had commended that course of action through Hanavia's distressed wailing, suggesting that undisrupted commerce and travel would be useful in ensuring the populace remained as settled as possible.
Hanavia was capable of making quite a racket when he had a mind to and so there had been no debate over any of it. No one had even questioned why Rin was offering suggestions. Instead, Videgavia had agreed, wincing at a high note Hanavia managed to reach and had left with Berlas shortly thereafter. Berlas had taken nearly a third of the Company south at dawn the next day. They were for the most part Easterlings, but Runner's squad remained behind. Hamoor had set out the following day with another third of the Company to support the Rangers along the north. And so, on day five, Hanavia's teeth had successfully lain siege to his parents and the Old Company. Red eyes, and sharp tongues were at the ready and Rin had no idea how much longer any of them could last at this rate.
The things that had soothed Hanavia before either were not with them or did not work. She did what she could to ease the pain, but it hardly seemed enough. There was no ice to be had, no cool room to leave soft cloths in. Rubbing his gums did not settle him and could, if you weren't paying attention, leave you with a well bitten finger. Nothing calmed him. She spent night after night walking back and forth, rocking him. At best, he would settle to a fitful doze, a thin gruel of a sleep and never long enough. He was bad tempered and lashed out, as only a small child could, at anyone and anything near him. Hanasian tried to help but Hanavia would not have him. Rin confessed that she felt a little envious of that. He would barely tolerate her. Men and women slunk about, doing their best not to glare at her. It was, she thought, singularly miserable. Then one of the horses pulling the wagon developed a limp.
When the wagon stopped, so did the gentle rocking of the wagon tray. Hanavia, of course, woke up and soon after that his angry, painful protests returned. This unsettled the horses and nearly resulted in the crushing of Farbarad's foot. Rin was already moving as fast as she could to gather everything up but it was not fast enough.
"Get that child out of here," Hanasian shouted, losing his temper and making the horses dance even harder.
Rin fled, howling child in her arms, to a safe distance. Of course, she could not go far enough because she wasn't permitted to wander without an escort. So she went as far as she could, feeling rather like she would fall to pieces if Hanavia did not stop crying, and just sat down on the grass under a tree. Meanwhile, the column of the remaining Company dismounted to stretch their legs while men tended to the limping horse. Sour glances were thrown in her general direction as they moved about. The urge to scream, just as Hanavia was doing became too strong to resist. The force of it just not just surprise her. Hanavia was silent, blinking at her through his tears and saliva, his cheeks a bright red. Those by the wagon and column were staring at her too. It was, on the whole, blessedly and suddenly silent. The urge to giggle, a shimmer of hysteria, nearly escaped her control. She was assuredly mad. And, as that dawned upon her, Hanavia started to whine again.
Rin set him down and wrapped her arms over her belly. If it was this hard with one child, how was she to handle another two and all at once at that? Still whining, Hanavia crawled through the grass and leaves to the other side of the tree where it was shadier. Rin pressed her hand to her brow and tried to straighten her tangled, crooked thoughts. This would pass. It would get better. It would. She could do this. She had to do this. Rin stared down at her growing stomach. No chance of backing out now. Hanavia had gone quiet on the other side of the tree and Rin leant back against the trunk. She closed her eyes and let the sun warm her eyelids.
Simple things, simple accomplishments and pleasures were what she needed to appreciate. She felt calmer by the thinnest of margins and so she moved around to the other side of the tree to the dappled shade so that she could watch her son. Rin did not realise she had started to slip into an exhausted, dazed sleep until something brushed her arm and ripped her back to the waking world of teething children, angry husbands and a country on the precipice of rebellion. Her heart slammed hard in her chest and she sucked in a deep breath as her burning eyes focussed on a pair of unfamiliar boots. Beyond those boots were horse hooves, muddied. Hanavia was no longer on the ground by her and dread soured in her stomach as her eyes travelled up the boots and legs to find a stranger staring down at her.
He had her son on one hip and held the reins of his horse in the other hand. Her mind was paralysed by fear. He had her son! Rin scrambled to her feet, breathing shuddering, and pressed her back against the tree. Her son!
"Easy now, my Lady. I did not mean to startle you," said the man holding her son. Behind him were two other men, their shoulders slumped and their eyes on the ground. They had an ill-favoured look to her, a furtive look that she knew all too well. The one holding her son was different. Slowly, he held Hanavia towards her and Rin snatched him back to her with the speed of a viper.
Hanavia nuzzled against her and she angled herself so that he was as far from these strangers as possible. It was then that she realised the two men were tied to the stirrup of the horse the third man led. She was so tired that she could not think straight.
"You're not a Ranger," she said, words not nearly as distinct as she might like and the man's eyes crinkled at the corners.
"I am not," he agreed, "My name is Andred. I mean you, nor your son, no harm."
"Who are they?"
"Men I thought you might be interested in, my Lady, given recent unfortunate events in Bree."
Rin knew she was gaping stupidly but her mind would not work properly. She should have already summonsed assistance but instead she asked a question.
"You found the conspirators?"
"These two are all that remain."
"Yet you are not a Ranger."
His eyes crinkled again. He had faded blue eyes and his face was so deeply tanned that it was only a few shades lighter than his brown, slightly unkempt hair and beard.
"I suspect that is why I found them, my Lady," he answered and Rin could sense that this was implicitly true from her own experience. There were many things duly authorised representatives of the crown could never hope to uncover. Her thinking finally assembled something approaching proper order.
"I am going to call for help now," she told him and he nodded calmly.
"I rather thought you might. I'll offer no trouble, my lady."
"Good," Rin answered as she angled back around the tree and added in a mutter, "Because we've had quite enough of that for some time."
Andred watched her slide out of sight and heard her give the call. She used a military signal, which he approved of. Such signals gave so much more information and ensured an appropriately informed response to the alarm. The Free Company of Arnor was not tardy once the alarm was raised. Erían was whisked away by none other than the Wolf of Cardolan himself. Farbarad had lost none of his temper, Andred observed, for the Ranger dressed Erían down thoroughly as he swooped in. Yet for a reason he did not comprehend, Erían did not defend herself. No one should address her like that, in his opinion. But he could do nothing about that, for now, and had to now let events run their course.
It would be some hours before Andred saw Erían again. His prisoners had been removed from his custody and kept under vigilant watch by the redoubtable Captain Videgavia. Meanwhile, Cardolan's newest Ranger had set himself to interrogation and Andred found that the man was disturbingly effective. Not that this came as a surprise to him. Aragorn's agent had been rumoured to be the best at the King's disposal. For all of that, Andred knew that interrogations were all about truth and Andred's policy was to stick to the truth.
After his interrogation, Andred was left to his own devices for a while. He could see the heels of the men left around his tent. He noticed they were facing outwards and not inwards. The fact that their current commander felt the need to ensure he was kept safe from the Free Company was welcome on two fronts. Firstly, Andred had things yet to accomplish and he needed to be alive to do that. He was unlikely to remain so in the Free Company of Arnor without the Captain's precautions. Secondly, a potent Free Company so tightly bound to Erían made for a powerful asset to assure her position. He leant back on the pole in the empty tent and ran through the next elements of his plan while around him twilight faded.
Farbarad paced back and forth in the tent and plaintively said, "Sometimes, I just don't understand you, Rin."
From the chair she was hunched into, Rin sighed miserably, eyes fixed on her feet and cheeks flushed.
"I just can't make it any clearer. I can't! You're a bright woman, what's more. Clever than most of us all put together. So…I find myself wondering whether you just want them to win. Is that it?"
"Farbarad-" Hanasian wearily interjected with a warning.
"I have to know, Hanasian. I have to, because if it is true then…then I will not be able to continue my service to Cardolan."
Farbarad's words fell like a millstone into the tent. Rin only hunched over further at them. Her hair fell forward and Hanasian could not see her expression, if indeed she was showing one at all. He knew just how inscrutable she could be at times. He knew that they were tired beyond all belief and tempers were at their sharpest. His was no exception. He had shouted at his own wife and son only that afternoon. Which reminded him of something.
"Is Hanavia asleep?" Hanasian asked, incredulous and Rin's hair swayed as she nodded.
"Yes," she tersely replied.
"How was that accomplished? Has it finally finished?"
"No…I," Rin hesitated a moment, "I dosed him."
"Valar be praised," Farbarad muttered from the other side of the tent and this brought Rin's head snapping up.
"No," she growled, "It is NOT something to praise anything or anyone for!"
"And why not? The boy's quiet!"
Rin stood up from the camp chair she had been sheltering in throughout the evening's argument and Hanasian saw that she was quivering with repressed emotion even if it did not appear on her face. She held her palm in front of her nose and spoke through it.
"He is quiet now, but when he wakes he will be even more miserable than before. The stuff upsets his stomach. You many only see this far ahead, Farbarad, but I have to look this far ahead," she said as she straightened her arm towards him.
Emotion crept into her expression then. Her brow furrowed and she chewed her lower lip uncertainly.
"And that is how far I am looking when it comes to Andred. A storm is brewing. You say he should not be trusted and you are right. What was it that Mec would say?"
Hanasian found it hard not to wince at her choice but she wasn't to know and nor was Farbarad. No one was, aside from Kholas and his cousins.
"Keep your enemies where you can see them," Hanasian softly said and Rin acknowledged his words with a short nod.
"If you know a better way, Farbarad, then I would know of it."
Farbarad squinted at her a long moment and Hanasian thought he'd argue the point further. Farbarad became difficult to manage when he received unpleasant surprises concerning the woman he now studied. Hanasian idly wondered what Farbarad had been like when she had been lost, presumed dead, in Dunland all those years ago. It was a frightening picture, he thought.
"I'll go fetch him, then," Farbarad asked unhappily and Rin looked next to where Hanasian sat.
While Hanasian was of a similar mind as Farbarad on the matter but he could admit that there was a strong strategic case to be had in the argument that Rin had set out. He rubbed at his temples, too tired for any of this.
"I do not want this Andred within ten feet of you or Hanavia if I, Farbarad, Rowdy or Loch aren't with you," he announced.
When Rin accepted those terms without equivocation, Farbarad went to fetch Andred. In this time, Rin had tried to put herself in relative order but there was no hiding just how tired she was. Hanasian did not at all like how wan she appeared and wished more than ever that they were home again. Nor did he like this Andred fellow. He could not help himself and he fancied not too many husbands would argue with him on the score. When the man appeared, flanked by Farbarad and Videgavia, Hanasian felt his hand fall to the pommel of his sword as he stood beside his wife.
Andred knew a formal hearing when he saw one. The men on either side of him were unhappy. Captain Hanasian looked like he very much wanted to separate his head from his shoulders as swiftly as possible. His fingers twitched, Andred saw, with the urge to draw his sword. The key to keeping Erían, Andred reminded himself, lay in these men and those without. He directed his attention to Erían herself. He had startled her badly in the afternoon for all of his efforts to avoid it but he thought she'd since overcome the shock. She appeared resolute now, focused and her eyes raked over him with such intensity that he felt his legs might buckle. While she remained tired, he recalled the wisdom of not under-estimating Bereth's daughter.
"Your prisoners are to be sent north, to Fornost and the keeping of High King Estel," she said without preamble, her words crisp and cool.
"As my Lady commands," he replied and focused his eyes on the hem of her skirts.
"You, on the other hand, will remain with us."
"My lady?" Andred asked, unable to stop himself from looking back to her face.
Erían met his eyes steadily, "Unless you care to journey with them? Perhaps…seek a reward for your service in their apprehension?"
There was more to her words than might first meet the eye and he had to appreciate the guile of it. Any reward of the King was not something Andred wanted and, he fancied, she well knew it.
"I have done nothing to earn any such reward," he recovered, meekly enough or so he hoped, and dropped his eyes again.
"Mmmmm…do you, then, have a family to return to Andred?"
"No, my Lady."
"And do you object to remaining with us?"
Oh, now here was a pretty trap she was setting him. Again, he was impressed. Erían would do very well indeed. If he appeared too reluctant or too eager, he would taint his hand. Andred frowned, fidgeted, shifted his weight from side to side and glanced about.
"In what capacity, my Lady?' he asked warily and glanced up to find she had a very small smile playing on her features.
"I think you'll continue to prove quite useful, if you have a mind to," Erían replied and Andred realised that he was best served by saying nothing.
Instead, he ducked his head and let Farbarad collect his arm to pull him back out of the tent. Andred did not need to read minds to know that the Wolf of Cardolan was not in the least happy about this.
Back in the tent, Videgavia sucked on his teeth and considered Hanasian for a long moment. His attention moved to Rin, who appeared to have deflated somewhat. A moment ago she had been this Lady of Cardolan but right now she was a tired, pregnant woman who had once been Black Company Healer.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Doc," he muttered and Rin's expression became somewhat haunted.
"As do I, Vid," she admitted
"Set the Dirty Three on him…and Runner's lot too. Spread word that he's not to be permitted within ten feet of Hanavia or Rin unless Loch, Rowdy, Farbarad or I are also present," Hanasian added
Videgavia's temple twitched at that but he nodded and shouldered back out into the night. It was done. They were out on the tightrope well and truly now and Rin felt the urge to cry seize her again. She was straining every important relationship she had in this. Beside her, Hanasian sighed heavily and she felt his arms steal about her, as certain and strong and warm as ever.
"Never the easy path with you, is it my love?" he murmured into her ear and she shivered against him.
There was a foretelling in those words, she knew. Tomorrow she would speak to Rose and Anvikela. They may have something to say to her. Tomorrow she would have Hanavia to deal with as well. Tonight, though, the die was cast and she let Hanasian lead her to bed without complaint, eager to find rest and peace in her husband's embrace.
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.