51. Chapter 51
A rare rainy evening after many fine days found the people hugging their ales in the Prancing Pony Inn. It was a summer shower but a breath of chill air had pushed its way down from the north and it made the night air unseasonably crisp. It was this night that Tarina caught a chill. At first she put it down to the damp air and tried to shake it off, but his glare could freeze water. The man responsible for it had been at the inn several nights since the midsummer festivities but this was the night that Tarina truly took note of him. She didn't like his eyes. Somehow he had rattled her without so much as a word or gesture, and she had a hard time through that night's service.
A loss of concentration, an overturned mug of ale on her tray, a slip in some spilled beer nearly caused a nasty tumble for a patron. Each time she glanced over at him and each time she found he watched her. It wasn't until Kholas came into the inn that Tarina felt her unease somewhat abate. She promptly signalled him about the troubling man and the need to maintain their distance. Kholas took a seat at the rear of the common room, near enough to the man in question. Shortly after that, the man drained his ale and stood to leave, his cloak drawn against the night air. Kholas forced himself to remember that there was, in itself, nothing strange about this. Many of the locals were doing the same thing. While Kholas had not had the chance to engage the man in any way, Tarina had certainly had been marked him. Kholas found he agreed with her in this. He did not, at all, like the man's air. They would keep watch for him in the days ahead.
That night, they walked home together through the quiet lanes of Bree, the few lanterns still lit pale orbs in the crisp darkness of night where the starlight ruled. Reaching their little house, they quickly settled in for the night.
The next day Tarina did not work, but Kholas had a backlog of work to do. So it was strange that Kholas did not arrive at the smithy. It was a young hobbit, apprenticed to Kholas, that made the gruesome discovery. He quickly found a member of the City watch, who with the young Ranger Harlond, went to the modest house that Kholas and Tarina had made a home of. They had been slain in their bed, a single old sword thrust into Kholas' back and then pushed on through Tarina.
Massuil was west just outside the city gate when word swiftly was brought to him. He was talking to Hamoor, recently arrived with his contingent of Company men. Both Massuil and Hamoor swiftly issued orders for a heightened watch in the wake of the grim tidings. After this was seen to, Massuil made to return to Bree to see this foul deed for himself.
"Sir, may I accompany you to the scene? Something about this seems all too familiar," Hamoor discretely rumbled, wary for such a request would almost definitely exceed his remit if his concerns were unfounded.
Fortunately, Massuil was not in the least inclined to quibble.
"Yes, please do, and bring a couple of your men with you if you don't mind."
Hamoor selected two of his men to join them, and left a third in command of those remaining, all without a word. Massuil was unsurprised, familiar with the silent signals and language used by the Company for it was formed in large part on the signals and hand language long used by the Rangers of the North. Massuil and Hamoor left their men to mount a watch on the city gates for any that might depart Bree and went as fast as Massuil was able, his stout cane thumping on ground and cobblestones, to the house. Harlond stood outside, his expression grave and eyes watchful for anyone that might seek to enter the house. Despite the fact that he was faced with his commanding officer and a small party, he admitted them only on the understanding that nothing would be disturbed or touched.
The house only had two rooms and Massuil was soon grimacing in the sleeping quarters at the scene that had lain in wait for him. Hamoor, he noted, appeared singularly unmoved. The large man soon turned and walked out of the room. It seemed passing odd to the old Ranger for was not this man one of Company? A colleague, murdered in his sleep in such a cowardly way and yet Hamoor just turns and walks out, stony faced, without a sound.
Following him, Massuil asked, "Thoughts?"
Hamoor raised a finger and cryptically replied, "Aye, I have them. Just need to be sure."
Massuil watched the man wave one of his own to join him and they disappeared back into the bedroom. Within, the man nodded at the terrible scene and they returned to where an agitated, suspicious old Ranger waited.
"It is Kholas. He joined the Company in Rhun and ventured West when the Captain retired. She, I believe, is the barmaid they encountered in Esgoroth when dealing with that business involving Rocks and Do- I mean Lady Rosmarin. When it was done, so I heard told, the maid continued on west with Kholas. Her name was Tarina. Her assistance was vital when it came to dealing with those rebels at Esgaroth," said the Company man who had accompanied Hamoor to view the scene in the bedroom.
"I thought him familiar from Skhar," Hamoor said, far less loquacious and then turned to Massuil, "I have seen this sort of killing before in Pelargir. Too much alike, I think."
Massuil's patience had been thinned by the brutal scene in the bedroom. He had seen far worse in his many years. But there was something unusually foul about seeing this particular brutality in a place like Bree. It galled, troubled and angered him.
"Tell me more about this," he demanded of Hamoor, "And why did you bring these two here with you?"
But Hamoor was deep in thought again and he appeared as unmoved as he had in the bedroom only minutes earlier. Memories of the days at the Quay Tavern in Pelargir. The wench and her paramour slain this very way. Too much was the same, even the angle of the sword. It was uncanny, and if he was correct, it was downright bad news for his Company. He had always thought clearest while moving and so he walked out of the house with an increasingly angry seasoned Ranger on his heels.
"We will have to be very careful," Hamoor said to Massuil as he walked, " I can't be certain. Few cared enough about the tavern maid or the sailor back then and so noone was caught. Now we are in Bree. Exact same method…and Tarina was a tavern maid. It is the same killer, I think, but I cannot say why beyond that."
Massuil stared at Hamoor for a long moment and then turned to where Harlond maintained his watch by the front door to the house.
"See to it that they are cared for, Harlond. Don't let anyone else see them like this."
Harlond drew a deep breath,nodded and this left Massuil with the large, strange Hamoor to deal with next. He found the man unsettling but practicalities and realities could not be debated with, unlike opinions.
"Considering those two are connected with the Company, Hanasian and Lady Rosmarin, I think it best they are informed."
"I will send word," Hamoor agreed, clearly preoccupied.
Massuil squinted at the sun. It was only mid morning and already he felt like the day should have run its course already. He looked back to Hamoor and decided that the only way to extract much needed information was to pull it from him.
"So you're thinking a killer from Pelargir just happened to be here in Bree this day to kill Kholas and Tarina? Any thoughts on motive?" Massuil inquired.
Hamoor merely shook his head. Massuil was left with no way to tell what Hamoor was disagreeing with when one of Bree's Watch approached. Massuil could just tell from the man's face, probably a farmer who volunteered in rounds for this sort of duty as was their custom here, that the news was not pleasant.
"Sir, we found two dead men at the Ferny."
Massuil resisted the urge to sigh and instead asked, "Anyone local?"
"One man was a merchant who delivered supply to the outlying inn. The other I don't know."
"It's going to be a busy day," the old Ranger dourly commented. Four bodies and it wasn't even lunch. What was happening to Bree?
Shadowy made sure he sat where he had the night before. To not be here would draw suspicion and so he would be here at the Prancing Pony, in this seat, quietly sipping his ale each night for the next week. Few paid him any mind in that time and he left Bree to the south without undue trouble. A day later a posting for a job of serving maid went up at The Prancing Pony.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The weeks passed and Hanavia settled as some of his teeth emerged. The wailing subsided and everyone got a great deal more sleep, particularly his mother. However, it led to teeth marks appearing in things. Every now and then a yell would rise up as he tried to chew on one of the Old Company. All that leather, it was inevitable. Usually he was handed a chicken leg or some jerky to gnaw on for awhile and the boy really liked to eat! It was good for Hanavia and his mother, for the twins grew within her irrespective of Hanavia's teething and expanding appetite. Hanavia's fondness for his uncle Loch meant he accompanied Loch and Rose around on their walks. They enjoyed that, to a point. Privacy was hard to find with Hanavia, the Old Company and Loch's duty all to contend with.
Hanavia's most enjoyable time was when his father would take him walking through the trees and forest that blanketed their home. They would hike the tracks while one or more of the old crew shadowed them. Hanasian thought it an overreaction, considering that Rowdy and Farbarad and the 'field workers' were also in place. Still, this was about the safety of his family and so he was illinclined to debate the matter.
Andred's arrival had made things uneasy. The man remained under constant survelliance by Farbarad and Rin had taken to daily morning sessions, heavily watched over, where she questioned the man over tea. Her technique was clinical, typical of one who performed surgery or analysed illness and symptoms with the weight of her patient's life and that of others sitting on her shoulders. Hanasian was reasonably confident that Andred had come to dread morning tea with "Lady Rosmarin" just as Rin had started to take a grim delight in it. Farbarad, Rowdy and Loch usually stood watch over the uneven exchange. Andred could have been ruthless but remained polite, to the point of painfulness. No matter how she tried, she could not ruffle his feathers.
Necessary as these precautions were, they did not stop Hanasian and Hanavia from coming up with a game he called 'ditch the Ranger'. Hanasian's skill as a Ranger made it a simple task for him to throw off whoever was tasked with watching them. The hardest part was preventing Hanavia from giggling when they passed them unseen. It was a good exercise in teaching the boy noise discipline. His own training began at this age. The first one they were able to elude was Rowdy, who was greatly chagrined to find Hanasian and Hanavia waiting for him when he returned to the house empty handed. He had accused Rin of corrupting her husband and son and Rin had been far too amused to bother with taking offense or correcting Cardolan's newest Ranger.
Hanasian was also perfectly aware that his wife was storing this away for later use should she decide she needed to elude her escort for any reason. Such was the price a father paid when it came to teaching his son Ranger craft, wood craft and other necessary skills that would serve him well in the years ahead. Unlike his own father, he intended to see them through. Perhaps, if Rin were to give him something as precious as daughters, he would teach them as well. It was that, or have them learn from their mother. While undoubtedly skilled, Hanasian was not certain he wanted his daughter to be as fearsome as the Cats Rin had shaped. Videgavia was still dealing with them and had yet decide if they were a boon or a peril or both
When word came from Bree that both Kholas and Tarina had been slain, a new urgency grew in everyone's mind. Games in the forest were suspended. Farbarad looked with heavy suspicion at Andred but the man had been utterly isolated and even relatively settled. Rin had managed to elicit very little from him. In fact, none of then had managed to gather much from the man. He was observed to be quiet, obedient, respectful. Little could be achieved with Andred that had not already been achieved and so Videgavia contented himself with ordered a heavier presence on the borders of their home. Though they could not be seen, any and all who moved about certainly were.
Hanasian, for his part, sent word back to Massuil and Hamoor at Bree that they were safe and had nothing to report. He also sent word to Berlas but there was nothing to report from Lond Daer or Tharbad outside of mercantile arrangements and arguments that Rin would have delved into if he had not prevented her. Her time was too close for getting embroiled in such things. Twins, while rare, posed no few potential risks to the already perilous task of giving birth. He watched her carefully as only he could. The others she could hold at bay, dissembling or concealing, but not him. She and the twins seemed to be in good health.
Still, Hanasian worried and so he permitted Lady Anvikela and Rose to remain close to Rin so that their unique gifts might add yet another protective layer around his family. The medics stayed close at hand and worried their way through the complexities of child birth, contingencies, and principally how to contend with their former commanding officer when the time came. It would not be easy, Bells and Sparks concluded, but the Sons of Elrond were nowhere in sight and unlikely to pop in at precisely the right moment.
That evening, dinner had been capped by a rousing technical argument between the medics and his wife about healing, midwifery and the many differences between the two. The three of them were still at it inside, speaking in a language that was mostly incomprehensible to anyone not a healer or a medic or a midwife over the kitchen table. Early winter saw the hearths kept well alight and Rin had been forbidden to wander about outside without being wrapped in, as she put it, "half of Arnor's bedclothes". And so she prowled about within, pouncing on anyone hapless enough to be caught unawares by his restless wife. It had been this way with Hanavia. She had been so restless that in the final weeks she scarcely slept, or so the others had complained. He and Farbarad had been more than a little preoccupied with the Prefect at that time. His own cousins had declared her a terror. The wise man removed himself from her path and so he stood on the front step smoking his pipe while Rowdy watched the night.
"A quiet one tonight," Rowdy said without a trace of irony for it was correct. An evening debate was, for Rin, a relatively subdued way to pass the evening. Even now, Rose and Anvikela were keeping a low profile in their rooms. Hanasian nodded silently and let the smoke from his pipe slide slowly through the still night air. There would be a frost come the morning.
"Aye, too quiet," Hanasian remarked and tamped out his pipe on the step.
His hand moved quickly in the warm glow from the house and, without further word, he and Rowdy moved quickly into the darkness. While Rin, Sparks and Bells debated, the unseen men of the company led by Loch on this night were alerted and watched the house close. Apparently sleeping men had gathered around the small hut that Andred had been given. Hanasian and Rowdy found the man lying on the ground outside it. He had been hit hard, the Old Company falling back on familiar methods in times of uncertainty. His nose bled but didn't appear to be broken and curiously, Farbarad was nowhere to be seen.
Khule reported that the Ranger had taken off in pursuit of someone that none of them had seen clearly in the night. Suspicions confirmed now, so soon after the bloodbath at Bree, Rowdy, Khule, and Hanasian set off in the direction Farbarad had taken. A bird call in the forest around them came then. The lands had been breached, infiltrated, and shortly thereafter Hanasian and his companions found two men dead and Farbarad's track cold in the darkness.
Farbarad worked his way up the steep embankment as quietly as his required exertions permitted, only for a boot-heel to send him tumbling back through the trees down the slope. He narrowly missed knocking Hanasian and Rowdy over at the bottm, but caught Khule's leg and the Easterling fell. Hanasian and Rowdy pushed immediately up the slope and the two men below heard the unmistakeable clash of steel. Rowdy managed to turn the sword at the last moment as bitter steel emerged from the night. Another came at Hanasian and the two men realised only then that they had run into an ambush! In the darkness and the trees, Rowdy slew one while Hanasian battled and slew another. It could not end well, not on that night. When Rowdy turned in the night to lend aid to Hanasian, he was met with a sword in the gut. Hanasian heard Rowdy's grunt of pain and caught the glint of steel as it protruded from the man's belly. He yelled as Rowdy slid to his knees and then all went black as a hilt came down on Hanasian's head.
The alarm had reached the house by now but Loch managed to keep things in hand around the house. As much as he wanted to break and set forth to help, he remained where he was. He and his men, and Runner and his lads were all the stood close in. They drew their weapons and stood their positions, staring hard into the night.
Yelling and fighting bounced haphazardly through the trees. Precious time passed as Farbarad and Khule had recovered their slide and climbed up the slope. They found Rowdy with three dead black-masked men around him, the iron tang of blood and smell of recent death redolent in the cold night air.
"Where is Hanasian!" Khule shouted and.Rowdy coughed blood they could not see in the darkness as he pointed.
His outstretched hand was visible and Farbarad followed with great care lest he obliterate a trail or track they would need. He felt about on the ground and found drag marks. Something had gouged the soil and fallen leaves. He guessed that Hanasian had been dragged a short distance and he dreaded what they might lead to as he felt his way along. But the marks only went a short distance before they ended. He could make out a heavy boot print. Hanasian had been lifted, which meant at least two men for Hanasian was not a small or slight man.
Farbrad asked Khule, "Who had the watch up here?"
Mulgov and Wulgof pounded through the trees with two other men as if in answer and in time to see Rowdy fade and succumb.
"Balosat and Fermas, with Gamil out on far watch," Mulgov quietly answered as Wulgof closed Rowdy's sightless eyes.
Farbarad felt his jaw clench as he weighed up conflicting options. He glanced about at those with him now, still breathing.
"We'll search now, while they are not too far ahead of us. But don't leave your areas thin. This thing, this night, is not yet done and there are those below who need our defence."
Mulgov and Wulgof both pointed to one of their men who nodded and drew off again with his companion. Khule, Mulgov, Wulgof, and Farbarad set out to find Hanasian. What they found was Balosat and Fermas each with their throats slit. There was no sign of Gamil and sign left behind that Farbarad could detect in the night was jumbled. He found boots prints that went this way and that. Continuing in the night was a certain death, but the longer they waited the worse Hanasian's chances of surviving whatever this was became. His limbs were so cold, Farbarad distantly noted, like ice. Just as he decided to disregard sound reason, his frozen legs crumpled and he slumped to the ground in an untidy sprawl.
"Damn you, Farbarad," Wulgof said as he rolled the Ranger over or at least that's what Farbarad assumed since the man had reverted to Dunlending in his alarm. Wulgof continued in Westron, "You're wounded! Pretty bad from the looks of it."
"Must have cut myself, happened when I fell," Farbarad mumbled but Wulgof wasn't listening.
The Dunlending said to the others, "He'll live, I think."
Khule threw down his knife into the dirt and cursed in his musical Easterling. Hanasian gone, Rowdy dead and Farbarad injured badly enough to make the Dunlending wonder about his immediate longevity.
"We have to get him back to the medics and we have to find Hanasian. The trail gets cold while we stand here and we need to find out who these men are. Not just some Cardolan secessionists having a tilt at Doc, is my guess. There is more here. These men, they're good. Professional good," Khule surmised rapidly as he bent to pick his knife up.
Khule cast about them as far as he dared. His assessment was that there weren't too many. No way a large force, no matter how skilled, could have infiltrated the forest. The loss of three might, hopefully, put a crimp in whatever plans they had.
Once Khule returned, Molguv spoke up as he was technically the higher ranked Company member still on his legs in their merry gathering.
"I'll stay with Farbarad here. Khule, you go see what you can find out from the dead. Wulgof, you head back to the house. We have three we need to bury, and I'm assuming from the sound that there are no other disturbances around the house. But we are missing Cap, and I don't want to be the one to tell Rin this."
Wulgof shivered at the task that awaited him but did not voice a complaint.
Wulgof found the scene at the house a predictable uproar. The alarm that had been raised had been met with a full scale, martial response delivered hard by a Captain who did not at all like surprises. Videgavia. Even now the forests, Wulgof wished the Dunedain had cut them all down here so it would have been harder to sneak up, crawled with Company men. The Cats were out in full, frightening force. Loch, meanwhile, nearly split him in half despite the fact that he gave the signal and the pass word, twice!
"Put that down," Wulgof demanded of him and Loch slowly lowered one of his wicked axes as the Dunlending emerged into the light spilled from the house.
"What's happening? Where are Hanasian and the others?" Loch belligerently demanded of him and Wulgof thought in the soft light that he caught a glint of the beserker in the scout.
"Snap out of it, Kid. Where's your sister? Inside? Safe?"
"Rin? Yes…why? What's going on?"
"Then why can I see her over there?"
Loch turned about and sure enough, there she was, without so much as a cloak against the chill. She was steaming towards Videgavia, who was bellowing out orders and relaying information and the collision between the two looked to be one that would shake them all.
Loch muttered a Dunlendic curse before Wulgof managed to cuff him behind the ears, "You should know better than most of us that you have to watch her! We've been infiltrated! You heard the alarm. She can't be wandering about out here and those two medics chasing her have a better chance of turning the tide than taking care of things!"
" Infiltrated…yes…yes…I heard…and she snuck out. You know how that goes. I don't know how anyone so very, very….pregnant," Loch diplomatically said,"Manages it. Is that where Hanasian and the others are? Chasing them?"
Wulgof grimaced at the question and instead said, "Come on. This won't be pretty and I'm going to need all the help I can get."
Together the two men hurried to where Videgavia demanding that Rin return inside, immediately, before now, right this moment. Rin had her fists balled up on her hips and a withering expression on her face.
When Videgavia finished his orders, Rin's caustic reply was thrown back at him, "Firstly, there are a lot of things I could call you, Vid, but my Captain OR my commanding officer are not on that list. Secondly, this is MY HOME, and I demand to know what the devil is going ON! I have a boy in there that was sleeping, there are alarms being given, shouting, running. I am his mother. I have a right to know. Now. This instant. Right Away! IMMEDIATELY!"
Videgavia actually gaped at her a moment before he noticed the approach of the others and if anything, looked relieved. This made Wulgof only feel worse about the tidings he carried.
"You! Report, quickly, for the love of Eru! QUICKLY!" Videgavia demanded.
Both his captain and Rin turned their full, frightening attention to him and Wulgof found the words stuck in his throat. Loch, ever helpful, decided to assist.
"We've been infiltrated," Loch said and right at that moment Wulgof could decide who was most likely to slap him: Videgavia, his sister or himself.
"Alright…this is how it is. I'm just going to say it how it is. Doc, you might want to sit down," Wulgof said after he managed to un-stick his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
"I might also want to box your ears and I just might if you don't REPORT," Rin hissed and then, with a sidelong glance at Videgavia added a deferential, "As your Captain ordered you to."
"Aye," Wulgof said to the both of them, "Farbarard found an ambush and he's injured, serious but not fatal as far as I can tell. I en't no healer or medic, so I could be wrong. They killed Rowdy, as well as Balosat and Fermas. Gamil is missing."
The colour in Rin's face had drained at the mention of Farbarad and news of Rowdy had made her sway. Loch now held his sister steady with a hand under her elbow. She was staring at him, stricken, demanding, inescapable. Those eyes, terribly blue now in the torch light, flayed at him. Fear, such dread and anger, no rage and he couldn't say it. Wulgof couldn't say it for to say it would cause unimaginable pain and no matter what his idle threats were in banter, he could not countenance such grief. Skhar had been bad enough. He did not think he could do it a second time. Why was it always him?
"Molguv is with Farbarad and Khule is checking through the bodies of those that Rowdy and Hanasian managed to bring down."
"My husband? What of Hanasian?" she pressed, aching voice soft as a feather in that night of strife. There was nothing else for it.
"They took him, Doc. We followed the trail as far as we could in the dark. We don't know where he is. I – I'm sorry."
It took all three of them to steady Rin as her legs buckled.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
With Hanasian missing, Farbarad out of action and Rowdy dead, Videgavia swung into full action and assumed control of the Cardolan forces as well as his own. He divided them between the search for Hanasian and Gamil, the flushing of the forests and the protection of the house and those within it. Rose and Anvikela offered their full combined might to assure that last and Videgavia gladly accepted it. As a result, by dawn, not a single creature alive or dead could enter or move about the seat of Cardolan's Principality without one of the sister's knowing. This confirmed that Hanasian and whoever had taken him was gone, grim tidings. What the sisters did find, unfortunately, was Gamil. His body was found in a thick copse of trees throat slit like the others. It was the last sign on a trail that Videgavia set his full might to pursuing. He even sent the wolfhound with them, the scent of Hanasian in his powerful nose. How Videgavia wished he could go with them.
But Berlas was far to the south and so he had to remain in a central location to coordinate their efforts. Videgavia sent word north to Massuil and Hamoor and then to Rivendell. He sent word south to Berlas. Mostly he coordinated the remaining elements of the Cats and Runner's squad. It kept him busy enough that he didn't see it coming. Loch took off of his own accord, a half cocked message left behind with Rose that "it was what Hanasian would have done for him." Possibly, Vid thought, though far more likely Hanasian would have had the scout up on disciplinary charges for abandoning his assigned post and Eru knew that his sister needed family now more than ever. In retrospect, Vid told himself that he should have known this would happen. An unauthorised and poorly conceived assassination attempt when it came to his sister and now, an unauthorised and poorly conceived recovery attempt when it came to her husband. For all of that, Videgavia remained mightily angry with the scout.
As for Rin…well Videgavia preferred the raging woman that had forced them to drag off Andred before she ate him alive on that first night to the quiet one that had haunted the house since. Of all of them, only Slippery and Hanavia seemed to find a way past whatever fog wrapped her. Slippery managed to get some tea down her every now and again but nothing more than that. Hanavia managed to get her to hold him. The little boy knew something was terribly amiss as small children do.
Early in the evening when Hanasian usually came in from his day's work, Hanavia asked his mother a question.
"Amme? Abba where?"
Of course she had not answered and so he had repeated the question over and over until Slippery managed to distract him. It was a brutal thing to witness and Rin drew a shivering, shaking breath once her son had wandered off after Slippery.
"We'll find him, Doc. We will," Videgavia had found himself promising despite the fact that false hope was just too cruel to offer now to this woman and he well knew it.
Whoever had taken Hanasian were professionals. They had a night's lead on them and a clear idea of where they were going and how they were going to get there and, most importantly, why they had done this. Khule thought they weren't successionists and Videgavia had been inclined to agree with him. Still, there had been something about the way Andred reacted to the news that Hanasian was missing that made Videgavia wonder. That the man continued to draw breath at all was, remarkably, due to Farbarad.
Farbarad had been unable to remain abed despite the condition of his leg. Upon waking the following afternoon he had interrogated the healers on the state of affairs and then made it clear that no one was to harm Andred. The man, Farbarad insisted, might be useful. Which made it a good thing that they had prevented Rin from killing him out of hand the night Hanasian had been taken. Videgavia heaved a sigh and left off his thoughts. Rin was seated nearby and in what part of her lap the twins had not laid claim to, her son sat. He was playing a game with Farbarad, bouncing along to the words of the rhyme and counting as intended at each chorus. Rin simply sat there, staring at the fire, as if all of them did not exist. So still, so quiet. So…sad and frightened. As far as he could tell, and she was a difficult one to read.
"They trained us and we did just what they wanted us to," she said all of a sudden and everyone in the room aside from Hanavia straightened. His child high voice continued the rhyme for Farbarad for a few phrases yet.
"Pardon," Videgavia asked when the silence had gone on for so long that it seemed like she had not spoken at all.
Rin blinked at the hearth, "We did just what they wanted us to."
"Who, lassie?" Farbarad asked, leaning forward as far as his injured leg permitted.
"The loyalist cabal. If you do not believe me, ask Master Andred. I think you will find he always tells the truth."
With that she set her son down onto the rug, rose and left the sitting room. Slippery, Rose, Farbarad and Videgavia all exchanged long glances before Farbarad grabbed his makeshift crutch and levered himself up to follow. He found her in the office she shared with Hanasian. She was at his desk, stroking the wooden case he kept his writing tools within as if it were his own hand. Farbarad cleared his throat, her fingers withdrew and she spread her hands over a map.
"They weren't after me at all. They want me where they have me. The Prefect is dead and now they have my husband. They will, I think, not wish to dirty their hands over much and so they will take him to someone that is not nearly so squeamish."
Farbarad found she was considering a map of the Reunited King's coastline, from the elvish haven of Mithlond as far as the Bay of Belfalas. It was one of Hanasian's. His notations lined the margins and dotted the map. Some of them were easily understood. Water, food, distances. Others, though, were coded. There were a cluster of such codes around Pelargir.
"Do you know what his notes say there?" Farbarad asked and Rin lifted a shoulder.
"In part. It's not an easy thing to learn and I have had to do it by clandestine means."
"He hasn't taught you?"
Rin smiled at the question and looked at him, "Would you teach your wife all of your secrets, Farbarad?"
Farbarad found himself smiling at the question but then it cut too deep, too quickly. He saw the pain bloom in her face and she looked sharply away to the map again. He feared for all she carried within her at this terrible time.
"They'll take him by the fastest, most expedient means, to Pelargir. Unless Vid searches on the water, he'll not find them."
"Lassie, it's been two days and nights now and you've barely slept through any of it. How can you be so certain?"
"It makes sense! This was never about me directly, Farbarad. Andred brought us, on a platter, those involved in a plot against me. From the beginning he had insisted he meant me no harm. Not me, not Hanavia."
"And you believe him."
"I do, now. Too late, but I do. I should have been listening all along."
"I still don't understand."
"Me neither," Videgavia said from the office door.
Rin sighed, "This mob of fools doesn't want me dead. They want me fulfilling what they consider to be my rightful place…something I can't do with a Prefect in the way. Something I can't do with one of Aragorn's closest friends as my Consort. Don't you see? This isn't about me, it is about those around me.
"They took Rowdy, but not Farbarad. Rowdy was a man of Gondor but you, Farbarad, are the Wolf of Cardolan. They took Hanasian, yes, but they will not dirty their hands with his murder for they know that I will hunt down any involved in the harm of my family, including my husband."
"Khule thinks it is something else entirely," Videgavia said and then frowned as Rin pressed her hands to the small of her back.
"He's not wrong. The men that did this are professionals, acting under strict instructions of men such as Andred. They'll take him to Pelargir where Hanasian has unfinished business," Rin tapped the codes Hanasian inscribed upon the map, "And let matters take their course there. That is what they are doing. I know it."
Rin sucked in a sharp breath. Could it really be so soon? And now?
"I don't know about this," Videgavia cautioned as Rin leant back against her husband's desk.
"Me neither, but I do know about that," the Ranger said with rising concern, "Vid, get Bells and Sparks and see if you can get her to her bedroom."
"It is too soon, Farbarad. Too soon!" Rin protested in a low, urgent voice.
"Open your eyes man and look at the floor! Its begun, soon or not and this happens faster than you can believe. Lassie, hang on now. Hang on."
Videgavia was gone in an inkling as the enormity of it all hit him. Her waters had broken too soon. The house soon echoed with his urgent shouts as help was summonsed. Hanasian had been taken three nights ago.
Shortly after midnight, a cold and weary contingent of men stumbled in.
Wulgof found Videgavia pacing in the kitchen and he executed a sketchy salute.
"Report," Videgavia snapped.
"Trail went cold a couple of miles south, at an inlet. Found sign that a boat had been tethered above the high tide line. Drag marks in the sand, length of rope that had been cut away from a tree. Empty land, no houses or towns who might use it for fishing."
Videgavia swore at the report, recalling only too clearly what Hanasian's wife had said. Hers had always been the sharpest mind amongst them. She saw things others did not.
"Found Loch too. He's outside, under something you might call arrest if you were minded to."
"Bring him in," Videgavia muttered and Wulgof rubbed at his eyes.
"Now? Don't you want to let him stew a bit, Cap?"
"Now and hurry. His sister needs someone in there with her that's proper family."
Wulgof trudged outside with the nearest thing to alacrity that he could muster and soon enough Loch was thrust through the door, blinking owlishly at the brightness within.
"What's wrong with Rin?" he asked as Videgavia roughly grabbed him by the arm and dragged him towards the sitting room and the bedrooms beyond.
"You'd know if you'd bothered to follow your bleeding, forsaken orders," Videgavia hissed in his ears, "And I will be taking this further, Scout, of that you can be assured. For now, though, bigger fish to fry. The twins have come early and with Hanasian missing. You're the only thing approaching family she has left."
Videgavia thrust the startled scout through the door and closed it. It was far to quiet inside, he thought, and there had been the sound of someone crying. Doc did not cry, in his experience. She had not cried when they thought her brother dead. She had not cried three nights ago. But he could do no more than this and so turned to see to the news that Wulgof and his small squad had brought back with them. The search had to be redirected. Word had to be got to Lond Daer, Dol Amroth and Pelargir with all haste. Perhaps one of the sisters might help with contacting Aragorn. No telling what could be done with one of those Palantir's, Videgavia thought, desperate for something constructive to do.
Someone inside had been crying. He pushed it to one side and summoned his remaining people to him for an urgent meeting.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Let me see that contract again."
"Why? You've read it more times than you've bathed in your lifetime," a feminine voice replied.
There was humourless laughter and then, "That's only twice, so I needs to read it again. Devil is in the detail, they say."
A desultory grunt, rustling of paper and boots on boards.
"When you tap your nose like that, you look like a bigger idiot than I already know you to be."
"Just as well your tongue ain't as sweet as that face of yours. Too much to bear, it would be. Just too much to bear. Ah, here it is!"the man said.
"Here what is."
"The devilish detail! He's to be delivered alive. It says so right here."
"I know that!" the woman replied.
"If you know that already, how come you aren't making sure of it? When's the last time you checked?"
"What do I look like? I am not his mother, his nurse maid, his strumpet nor his wife."
"You look like a woman who wants to get paid on successful completion of her contract."
Hanasian heard her sigh and the scuffling of boots on boards.
"Fine. But next time you can do it."
"He's partial to womenfolk."
"The way I heard it said, he's partial to high born blondes. I'm a low born brunette, but you, my fine fellow, are blonde. Or you would be, if you washed your hair."
By the time the woman had unlocked the chains and cracked open the hatch on the tiny place they had stuffed him into once aboard ship, Hanasian was sure to slow his breathing and appear as unconscious as he had been the last time they had checked. It was night time and the woman's companion held a lantern aloft to cast light down through the hatch.
"Out cold, still. How hard did you hit him?" she asked him.
"Hard enough! He wasn't easy to bring down. A demon with a sword and has more than a head on me. Him and that other man of Aragorn took out three of us before we knew what was what and we were the ones holding the ambush!"
The woman let the hatch fall shut again, the chains rattled and the key scraped in the lock.
"And they call us professionals," she sighed, "If he isn't awake by morning, you'll have to fish him out. You've probably cracked his skull and we need to get water into him at the least or he won't be in fit condition for our payment."
He heard their bickering fade as they walked away, boots creaking on the deck above while water sloshed against the hull his cheek was pressed against. The movement of the boat suggested they were at sea, but relatively close to the coast. If he could break out and get over the side he'd have a fighting chance, at least. Thank the Valar it had rained the night before and he had managed to get some of the water that sluiced through the hatch above. Thank the Valar there were no rats in this coffin of a bolt hole they had him crammed in. Hanasian grit his teeth and set to running the series of exercises that prevented his muscles from locking in agonising cramps. His head possibly was cracked, but the pain had receded to a dull, relentless force that bored through his every thought. It was nothing against the dread, though. What had they done, these professionals? What had they done in their attack against his home? What had happened to his wife and son? Who had paid them and why?
The rocking of the boat and his physical state made it difficult for Hanasian to keep his wits about him. When the boat shuddered violently around him he was flung awake again. Wind was screaming, the timbers were being pounded and boots were running overhead. Each blow to the boat shuddered through him as well, jarring his joints and teeth. A winter storm had found them and there he was with no hope of release. He had to get out. Had to! For his wife, his son, his unborn children! Had to!