52. Chapter 52
Hanasian was out for some time after the last hatch check. The storm made staying awake hard, especially when the waves pushed the boat hard from side to side. His head would collide with the timber hull around him and the pain would be too much. Gradually, though, it became obvious to him that the boat was in trouble. He heard a faint yell from the other side of the hull as the boat pitched wildly and concluded that at least one of his captors had been washed into the sea. Unsure how many may be on the boat, it remained one less for him to deal with when he made an attempt to get out. Hanasian thought it likely that they would try and put ashore and ride the storm out. It surprised him to discover that whoever helmed the vessel was either unable to see to wisdom of such a course or unable to take it. From where Hanasian was, it was obvious that this boat would not stay together in the pounding surf.
The grating sound of the keel running aground forced Hanasian to think hard about what he might do. He could not endure another blow to the head. This much was certain. It meant he would have to make his move at precisely the right time. Unsure about numbers, he considered his options, as he listened for what sound could be heard from above deck. Was it possible, he wondered, that they had all been swept away and the boat was adrift? No, there had to be someone yet above, with the keys to the chains that locked the hatch shut. They would either get him out or he would drown when the boat broke up in the waves. He strove to hear some sign that this was yet true, his death was not yet assured. Aside from the roaring of the surf against the boat and the groaning of timbers under its assault, he only heard the furious shrieking of the storm. The constant lurching of the boat made his stomach roil and he retched, heaving what little yet remained in his stomach. Surely if they were listening for him, they would hear that, he hoped. But more than likely those above were trying to save their own hides in this storm-beaten wreck.
Above deck, Hanasian's captors had steadily been whittled away until one remained. The woman had been thrown against the mast with the wave that had swept her fellow overboard and she was unconscious. She did not stir again until the boat was floundered on the shore. Waves broke against the side of the boat, the deck shivered with each blow. She struggled to stand up and peer through the driving rain. The flashes of lightening revealed an empty deck. She was alone now.
She mumbled to herself, "Well Karlina, you really missed something in your planning. Now you're in trouble."
She braced herself with a grab at a railing and as the boat creaked under the next wave's assault, Karline wondered if she should just try to get ashore or attempt to retrieve the "goods" that had placed her in this very predicament in the first place. If he was still alive, of course. Hanasian could be worth much if she got him to the people who offered the contract, enough to prompt them to chance the sea in winter just to get far enough clear of that damn Free Company. She had no one else she need worry about splitting the profit now, either. It was enough to inspire a certain boldness. Karlina released the rail she gripped and crawled over to the hatch. Still chained, it was fortunate she still had the keys. Better still, one of those weatherproofed lanterns lay on its side nearby, badly cracked but a meagre flame still guttering. She grinned through strands of hair the wind and rain had slicked over her face as she fished them out from her belt. Another wave slammed the boat and she almost lost her grip on the keys. Her grin vanished and she worked quickly after that. She struggled to get the lock open as another wave broke over the boat.
Hanasian heard the chain rattle overhead. Water dripped through from the deck and seeped through the cracked and leaking hull. It kept him awake and threatened to drown him. Still, he side of the boat was cracked and leaking, he feigned unconsciousness when the light came through the hatch and she looked in. It was entirely possible, he realised, that the woman might consider it not worth her while if she thought him dead. He moved and groaned, letting her know he was alive and waking. It worked. She started down the ladder, and stood in the narrow space with a sputtering lantern that threatened to extinguish at any moment.
"We've got to get out. The boat is done for."
Hanasian grunted but couldn't do much. He said weakly, "How? You can't carry me and I am bound."
Karlina looked down at the man bound on the floor in the shuddering hull of the boat. He certainly looked weak. Blow to the head, little to eat and drink for days now, pale. She pulled a dirk from her belt, crouched and sliced through the rope at his hands.
As she moved to the rope at his feet, she said, "You will have to get yourself out."
As she was straightening a wave hit the boat and it lurched hard, closer to shore. The hatch slammed shut with the movement and it knocked Karlina to her knees. The torch fell into the water pooling on the floor and went out. In the darkness Hanasian moved. He was forced to guess where she was and he swung his arm in the hope of grabbing her. Unfortunately, the lurching had jostled them both and he missed. Guessing where she was, he swung his arm about in hopes of grabbing her and instead felt her hands seize him.
The woman's voice snarled in his ear, "I knew you'd try something!"
She shoved him back hard, easy for her to do in his weakened state, "You listen to me! We need to get out of here. If I let you go first, you will kick me back down and lock me in to die. I'm not going to let you die. If I go first, will you follow me?"
Hanasian didn't have any choice. He rasped to the woman in the blackness, "fine, I'll follow."
"Do you have the strength to make it?"
She sounded as dubious as he felt. Hanasian replied, "We'll soon see."
The water had already climbed from her feet to half way up her calves. Karlina Karlina grabbed for the ladder and climbed, Hanasian followed close behind. She pushed open the hatch and water fell onto them. The ship was at a hard angle listing toward the sea so every wave hit the deck hard. The mast had snapped and now dangled, and some of the railing had already broken away. It would not be long now. She turned and reached for Hanasian who slowly climbed out of the hatch. The heavy gale filled with rain and seawater hit his face, and to him it was refreshing. He thought he could overtake this woman here and now, but she had already a small sword in hand.
Hanasian called over the wind, "You should put that away. You're as likely to hurt either one of us in these conditions."
"Alright, but do not try and escape me Hanasian," she said as she reached for a nearby rope, "Yes, I know who you are. Tie this to your belt. I'll tie the other end to mine. We'll have enough slack to safely work our way to shore, but we won't get separated."
"Aye, that should work. So who might you be?"
She paused and stared at him, "Karlina."
Hanasian considered her in the dim light, the night lashed by howling wind and driving rain and heavy seas. The best he could say was that she seemed vaguely familiar, yet not. He nodded and tied himself off as she watched him flatly.
She watched him and said, "You don't remember me do you? I remember you."
She was him pause, his face expressionless. In fact, he wasn't even looking at her. He had dismissed her momentarily and was instead watching the waves and sensing the movement of the boat. Hanasian concluded after a short moment that they would have to make a move off the side of the boat when a wave hit it hard enough to nearly stand it back on its keel.
He said to her, "Here comes a good one. We'll need to jump. We can reminisce once we're ashore."
But the wave came and they didn't go.
Hanasian said, "We'll have to jump when another like that comes. We have to! Are you ready?"
Watching her reaction when the next wave hit the boat, he realized she was afraid of the water! She began to tie herself off, with shaking fingers but a wave hit and the boat shuddered beneath them. The boat shifted hard, turning the deck back and over toward the shore. She slid off and over the side, Hanasian pulled along after her by the rope that now linked them. He considered releasing the rope altogether and let the sea claim this final foe. It occurred to him, however, that she might be valuable to him alive. Unless he knew why he was her prisoner, and his recollection of recent events was decidedly confused at that time, he might find things went poorly once ashore. The next wave made any further consideration of the matter moot. It washed over the boat and sent him sliding. Into the surf they fell.
Hanasian had thought they were closer to shore, but the boat was hung up on a sand bar that was now the anvil for the hammer of the storm whipped sea. It was breaking up. He managed to throw an arm over a barrel that floated low in the water. He pulled the rope and drew his captor toward him. He could hear her spit water and cough, and he threw her over the barrel to keep her afloat. The waves pushed them on, and Hanasian found his dangling feet met with something solid. With his captor nearly unconscious, he used the rope to secure her to the barrel, chiefly to keep her on it. It would provide him with the upper hand once they got to shore, provide he remained conscious. He didn't.
Hanasian opened his eyes as he felt a wave push against his leg. He was cold and stiff, and had to unstick himself from the sand that the sea was burying him in. The rope was still tied to him, but there was now nothing on the other end. Where was Karlina? If she had of been able, she would have tied him up while he was out. She had been a part of his capture and imprisonment. He staggered to his feet and looked about and spotting her not far away. She was still atop the barrel in some reeds. He waded over to her and found she was alive, floated her and the barrel to shore. He untied her and threw her over his shoulder, carrying her up the low bluff to the grass. As he lay her down, she started to cough and gasp. He sat her up and she spit out seawater. The rain was incessant though, and they had no shelter. He looked at her face close in the dim grey light. If she was familiar to him, he couldn't recall. She lay back down and rolled to her side, so Hanasian left her there and went to retrieve the barrel. He was pretty sure it said it had salted pork in it.
Lifting the barrel was hard and the exertion made his head pound. He got it up on the grass and sat it down and sat on it. He touched his head where a welt was and he cringed. He needed a physician. A memory of one seemed to swim through his mind. The Black Company. She was a healer. Blonde. Beautiful. Where was she? This vague memory seemed to hold him for a moment as he reached for her in his memories. His thoughts were disturbed when he saw a parchments washing in the surf. Having archived so much, he took interest in saving these. He managed to fish them out of the water. He saw that one was a map and the other was a well-written parchment. He tried to read it but the wind and rain was doing its best to destroy it. He folded it and tucked it in his vest. Reading would have to wait. Right now, he needed to see if Karlina was awake, for they had to find shelter from this storm.
She was asleep when he returned, so he looked about for somewhere they could go to rest and maybe even get dry. There was little there though, but he did find a grove of oaks that was dense enough to offer some respite. He returned and tried to wake Karlina by shaking her.
"You, Karlina! Wake up! We need to move! The sea is rising and the boat has broken up. Timbers will wash hard ashore with the rising tide. We must go!"
Karlina mumbled and moaned but she nodded and sat up. Hanasian helped her to her feet and she immediately crumpled to the ground with a thin scream soaked with pain.
"My ankle! Broken, I think," she gasped, shivering hard, "It hurts bad when I stand on it."
Hanasian looked grim as he took a closer look. He could make out an unnatural bulge where a bone jutted out into the leather of her boot. It was just above the ankle-bone on the inside of her right foot. Just touching the outside of the boot caused her to jump. Right now, her boot was the only thing keeping it close to in place.
He said, "You broken it good. Bone is snapped clean. I'll carry you to the grove of trees I found. We can ride out the storm there and with better light in the morning I can make better judgement."
Karlina didn't say anything. Aside from the churning pain, she was aware that she was now dependant on a man she had plotted to capture, a man who had no good reason to wish her well. She was in pain, so when he lifted her, she shivered with nausea that rose in her gorge. But it wasn't long before Hanasian had them under the trees. It was wet there but the wind wasn't so bad and the rain was held at bay in the most by the branches. He sat Karlina by the biggest tree in the centre of the grove, leant her against its trunk.
He said tersely, "I'll be back shortly. We'll need that salted pork."
Karlina's answer was to close her eyes and succumb to sleep while Hanasian located the barrel and rolled it back to the grove. Too tired to break it open, he sat down heavily next to Karlina and soon enough fatigue had claimed him too.
The light of day found them laying flat together in the leaves. Hanasian stood up and looked about, blinking and disorientated. It was still raining, but the wind had ceased and much of the force of the storm had abated. In the distance, the surf wasn't pounding as hard. Low clouds and greyness was all he could see, and nothing looked familiar. He had no idea where they might be. He then went back and considered Karlina. She was feverish, and her ankle had swollen through the night. It was not good.
He would have to make something to move her with. She couldn't walk and he was in no condition to carry her. Not when he had no idea where they might be and how long he might be carrying her. While he considered her, she muttered something unintelligible in her sleep. He let her sleep and broke open the barrel he had rolled up the night before. Cutting into the undamaged meat, he made slabs to carry. He would take what he could, but he hoped to find some place in the next few days. He chewed down some of the meat, and used Karlina's knife to go cut some saplings. He fashioned together a couple poles he could lay her on and drag. The rope would work and she stirred as he secured her to the poles.
"I guess taking you in alive didn't work out too well," Karlina said and Hanasian scowled.
"Lady," he let bitter sarcasm drip for a moment, " I have made some enemies since the war and have had some times where I cannot remember what I had been up to. The couple years after the war were generally a blur. But I need to know what you're talking about. Who wants me?"
But Karlina faded away into unconsciousness again and he would have to ask again later. It was time to move. There was a river just to the north, and he would follow it upstream.
As he walked, he started to think that the land looked familiar, but Hanasian was far from certain. Like Karlina, many things seemed so but they weren't really when he gave further thought to it. There was little around him but grass and rolling hills and mountains in the distance. But still every step he took as he walked upriver, the sensation of familiarity seemed to grow. The peaks of the mountains were white with fresh snow and the rare break of sun lit them brightly so that he could just make out their frigid gleam. Yes, there was definitely something familiar here. If only this pain in his head would subside! But he had to stay alert. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that Karlina was fading fast.
It was well into the afternoon when Hanasian paused. The rain had stopped earlier in the day but it had remained cloudy until then. The sun broke through and warmed him and he sat down in the wet grass exhausted. The only thing they had to eat was old salt pork. He sat and chewed a bit of it as he listened to the sound of the water in the river running over some rocks. It seemed to make the throbbing in his head subside a little, and soon he was asleep. He didn't notice the rain shower that blew over. It was the later westering sun as it again broke through under a cloud and hit his face that woke him.
He resumed walking and dragging Karlina along behind him as darkness closed around him. Following the river seemed like the right thing to do when he left the shoreline. He would stay with it for eventually he will find someone or someplace along the way. Keeping Karlina awake was what he had to do, but she wasn't talking. A while later he stopped and they shared nearly the last of the pork. The next day he hoped to find someone or someplace.
Morning light came bright. It would be a sunny day. Hanasian checked Karlina's leg and grimaced. It was becoming infected and he had nothing to treat it with. He gave her the last bit of his pork.
Karlina took it, as puzzled as he, and said, "Thank you."
Hanasian considered her again and concluded she was not remotely familiar to him at all. He sat and decided to look at the map he had found. It was roughly drawn, and it looked like it was of the coastline. He studied it intently as his throbbing head allowed and guessed that he was following the River Isen upstream. Was that was why the land looked familiar? He pulled out the parchment and read what he could of it. It was badly damaged. Still, enough remained for him to make out that it was some sort of contract. Whoever Karlina and her colleagues were, they were to take him to Pelargir. He tried to recall how they had managed to take him but it only made his head throb viciously. He could not recall how he had been injured. He could, however, clearly see a beautiful woman in his damaged mind's eye. She kept coming to him, as though she sought for him. Karlina moaned and the woman's image faded like smoke on the wind.
Hanasian considered the contract, considered Pelargir and all the various possibilities and considered killing her and being done with it. She was no ally of his. She was a foe. She was also an injured, ill woman. So he instead gave her a drink of water.
She peered up at him with fever glazed eyes and asked, "You still don't remember? Maybe you remember my mother Katela? Twenty five years ago in Minas Tirith at the White Tree Inn?"
"I'm sorry, but I was in Khand around that time I think. Maybe… "
Hanasian paused and thought back. Everything was familiar, yet vague and just out of reach in his mind. He knew he was Captain of the Black Company, and he served King Aragorn. But trying to remember names and faces was hard. Some he remembered for they had been killed long ago.
He asked, "What year is this?"
Karlina said, "I think its reckoned 46 years of this age. I'm not sure."
He considered asking another question but she moaned and fell back. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
"It hurts so bad! Am I going to die? Why do you keep me alive? Leave me and go."
It was a good question, Hanasian thought as he gave her more water, but instead he said, "No, you're not going to die. Not if I can help it. I need answers, and you will answer them... eventually. But so far you only have given me more questions."
Her eyes rolled back and she fell into a sleep. Hanasian drank a bit of water and mulled through his muddy thoughts. At some point it occurred to him that he was hearing things…recalling a memory…but then reality intruded and he grasped that the sounds were real. Horsemen approached: seven of them. Hanasian kept himself carefully still as sat there next to Karlina. He was too exhausted to do anything in any case. Soon enough the horsemen circled them about.
"Arise and state your business in these lands!" the leader of the horsemen called.
"I am Hanasian, captain of the Black Company, and this is …" Hanasian paused as he thought of what to say. He could tell them she as his prisoner and they would take her, but they want to know his business. Frankly, he wanted to know his business. He wasn't sure why he was there or even where he was going.
He continued,"… someone I met on the way."
"On the way from where, and to where?" The captain of the horsemen pressed.
Hanasian could only tell them what he knew himself, "We were on our way south on a boat when the storm hit us. Of our number, only I and this woman survived. She needs aid, as she is sorely hurt. As to where we are going, we are unsure where we are."
The captain signalled one of his men to dismount and check Karlina. He nodded and returned to his horse to fetch some supplies.
The captain said, "You are in the far west of Rohan. Few come here save those who follow their herds. We will see to your friend and we will go to a place nearby. I wish to know more of this journey you were on, and the whereabouts of your Company."
He signalled for the spare mount to be brought forward, and they secured Karlina's poles to it and the horse of the man that had checked on her. Hanasian mounted the spare horse and they were off again. Hanasian was unsure how he would answer the captain, but the chance of some food and drink, and some aid for Karlina would be welcome. Still, he had too many questions in his head. He knew one thing though. His sister lived in Rohan. His mother had lived there too. Was this why the land seemed so familiar?
The old log roadhouse wasn't much, but it was dry and warm with the open fire in the middle of the room. A pot of stew hung from a hook on an iron tripod fashioned from old orc spears. The stew served hot and steaming in a bowl with and a light, sweet honey tea to go with it. Hanasian made short work of both. It seemed to make his headache lessen. Once the horsemen's captain had sent his own physian to tend to Karlina, he shared the table with Hanasian with a bowl of his own. Around them, the old lady who lived there and ran the place, scurried about. She had soon replaced the stew on the tripod with a large pot of water, and next raced past with some clean linen for the physican to use. This was was a man, Hanasian noted, his thoughts wandering to the healer of his own Company. Same woman as the one that kept haunting his thoughts, he wondered.
The captain reserved his questions until Hanasian had emptied his bowl and his mug and was onto his second.
Only then did the captain speak, "I have heard of this Black Company, I'll admit, though I did not expect to find its Captain here. Interesting that your only Company is a crippled young woman. Where are the rest of your men?
"You say you can't remember the hows and whys that brought you two here to the far west of Rohan by the River Isen. I'm hoping old Lady Belcowyn's fine stew might nourish your memory."
Hanasian nodded at the captain's words but his attention was on the physican. Belcowyn took a packet from the man and tossed it into the water, and the aroma mixed with the smoke of the fire. Something in Hanasian's mind was awakened by it. Belcowyn then sat some bread upon the table with some fresh butter. He cut off an end and covered it with butter and chewed slowly on it. A good sourdough it was. He noticed the old woman looking closely at him.
She said, "You have the look of Forcwyn's boy"
"Forcwyn was my mother!" he replied, surprised at his mother's name and blinked at the elderly woman.
She asked, "You an only child then?"
Hanasian scowled at her, aware she was trying to trip him up while the captain looked on, and answered, "No, I have a sister named Halcwyn, and I had a much older brother named Hayna. He was killed in the war. I only met him briefly on the field the day he died."
Belcowyn peered into his eyes and only then let her seamed face soften into a slight smile.
She nodded and turned to the captain, "He is who he claims to be. As for the girl in there, I don't know her. Never seen her before."
The captain nodded and was going to say something but a scream came from the corner.
The physician approached the table, face taut, "I'll have to cut her boot away. It is bad and needs tending to. The herbs will help, but I have not the resources to do it properly. I'm a physicker, not one of those Dunedain healers. I can't say if she will live."
The talk of medicine, the smoke and scent in the air, the visions in his mind were coalescening for Hanasian. He was remembering. The blonde woman in his mind, the beautiful one, she was the Company healer. She had used those herbs before! Her name….her name…it was important to him…she was important….Rosmarin! The gates opened and it nearly overwhelmed him. She was his wife! More, she was mother to his children…she was to give birth!
Hanasian stood up and blurted, "I must get north! My wife needs me!"
He got dizzy and fell back heavily into his chair, so many memories and thoughts colliding chaotically in his mind. New memories, old memories, so many emotions. It was too much.
Hanasian dimly heard the captain say, "Easy now… you need looked at too…."
Hanasian's mind drifted to the north. He had a son and Rosmarin was to give birth soon. He remembered now, the fight. He could see them slay Rowdy. Then there had been great pain. The same pain he felt in his head right now. He drifted through memory of far away lands and hard battles. He saw his first commander die again at Raven Falls. Hayna again died on the Pelannor, on the trampled and churned bloody ground before Minas Tirith's charred and pitted walls. He saw the time in Khand stretch in bloodied sands and the long slow battle to subdue the chiefs. It had gone bad there, awry. So many things, atrocities that he had been forced to shut out of memory. He now saw them all. He had been so glad to return to Pelargir and then to Minas Tirith and the days had become messy then.
It had taken so long for him to get him to get his head on and he had gone back home, to the north he had spent his childhood in. Simra had been there. Enchanting and beautiful and doomed because he could not save her from the evil finger that stretched out there from Khand. He remembered hardening, closing himself off. A conscious decision, a necessary one to protect his battered sanity. All he had left then was his Company and he took them wherever they were needed, without question, trying to outrun the sorrow and the pain of the past, almost succeeding. So many years, so many places. The years passed, and he came to that day as they approached Tharbad. Loch would be looking for him, he realised, and this seemed to pull him back to the surface. He found the Captain leaned over him where he had been lain out.
"You're back with us again. Thought you were gone but for your shaking and sweating. Your companion has lived. She is missing a foot, but lives. I think she wants to talk to you."
Hanasian sat up and drank some water. Companion? She was responsible for him being here so far away from his wife and family at this critical time. Any mercy he might have felt had vanished. That woman had dragged him from his wife, his son and his unborn children. That woman had been part of an attack upon his home, imperilling that which was most precious to him. She didn't die of infection, he coldly thought. he would just have to kill her then… after she was no longer useful in finding out who exactly was responsible for his abduction and why they did it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The heavy, measured tread of a man walking across snow caught Andred's attention from within his small hut. He could hear the boots crunch with each step. Definitely a man. Did he dare it, he wondered. Since the night of the attack things had spiralled in ways he had planned. He knew Hanasian had been taken from the way Erían had tried to take him apart with her bare hands later that night. Such untempered fury! Unfortunately, the fool that came down to re-negotiate the terms of the arrangement had landed him in a mess and he was now directly linked in ways that hampered the immediate next phase of the overall plan. Perhaps fatally so. What point having Hanasian taken only to be in this predicament?
He had anticipated that once contact with Erían and her people had been made his plans would likely unravel, but not in this way. The instructions had been explicit. He had never imagined in his planning that his standing at this point would be certain enough to apply a direct lever. However, provided he remained indirectly linked to the attack, it would be sufficient for an indirect lever. There was little, he had correctly guessed, Erían would not consider if it meant the return of her husband. Killing Hanasian had a certain appeal to some, he knew, but Hanasian alive was far more powerful over the woman they sought to control and it would take a mighty thing indeed to push Erían to reverse her decision regarding her throne. Nothing short of those she loved more dearly than everything else. But now he had been linked directly and none other than Farbarad had established the link! The Wolf of Cardolan, of all the people.
All of that made sense to Andred. What had happened next did not and it worried him. The Wolf was not known for his mercy towards anyone he deemed a foe yet Farbarad had forbidden the Company to touch him. That was beyond odd. What was stranger still was the fact that the Wolf had trudged out to chain his door shut not two days ago. It was as much to keep him in as it was to keep others out. The door could be opened to pass food and water, which Farbarad did daily without so much as a word. The Ranger looked weary beyond measure, in Andred's opinion and he suspected it had little to do with the cause of his marked limp.
Added to this was another development. Some of the Company men had taken to whispering outside the thin walls of the hut he was now chained into about how they might kill him. Fire was their preferred method and all they lacked was enough pitch to keep it ablaze in the wintry conditions. The chain and this malevolent whispering had both started three days ago, which was three days after the attack. Meanwhile, his opportunity to influence Erían was diminishing day by day. He had to get out and speak to her. Andred pulled the door open just enough so that he could squint through the narrow gap to the brilliant whiteness beyond. He blinked tears from his eyes and sighted the owner of the heavy, measured tread.
"Loch! Loch! Please it is important! You have to come here!" he hissed at the man.
It occurred to Andred, when the scout lifted his head to stare at him, that he may have just committed a terrible error.
All Loch had to do was take two of Runner's squad and scout. His Captain's instructions could not be clearer and he was achieving little of any notable worth with his sister. No one, all things considered, aside perhaps from Hanasian might. At this point, was not sure even whether Hanasian might be able to. All Loch had to do was angle past the traitor's hut and keep going. Just focus on his boots, his orders, and keep going. But, when he heard the man's voice everything started to slide out of his control.
His pulse pounded in his ears as what could only be described as grisly fantasies crowded into his mind. No matter how cruel the death, he had yet to invent one for the traitor that seemed to be commensurate with the suffering his actions had caused. His hands curled into fists at his sides. Loch realised with a start that he needed to slow his breathing before the monster that lurked within him sprang free. He sucked in a deep, shaking breath of frigid air and slowly released it. Just as his sister had taught him to. The air steamed around his face. Slowly, he lowered his head and forced himself to keep walking. He stared back at his boots to be sure his feet pointed him in the correct direction. Just scout. That's all. Scout and breathe.
When Loch lowered his head and pushed on, Andred released a breath he had not realised he was holding. One thing was clear. Something important had happened. Something had changed and he had no chance if he remained in this hut. He needed to get to Erían now. Andred's eyes traversed to the spoon Farbarad had permitted him to keep for his daily meal. The wood around the hinges was usually the weakest and he only needed to gouge out one– the lower one.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Videgavia clamped his hands under his arms and stomped his boots. It was another cold one, despite the brightness of the day's sun. The wind up from the nearby ocean was bitter and there was little protection to be had where he stood. He squinted ahead at a wall was that slowly taking shape. Molguv was wrestling stones while Wulgof and Khule saw to the smaller details. It was not a high wall, not a defensive wall, and it kept the three men busy. In recent times, that was half the battle for discipline. These three men were all of the Old Company that remained now and he watched them labour. He had no idea what to do once they had finished with the wall and what it was to mark. Scouting wasn't enough. Standing watch wasn't enough. Farbarad was clear. Andred had to remain alive, though Videgavia had no idea why the Ranger was so adamant on that score.
He glanced sideways to where the man stood. Farbarad was staring at someone else. She was just too hard to watch, Vid thought, so he kept his eyes carefully away. Too hard to watch. She shouldn't be out here, not so soon after…after….Videgavia's thoughts shied away and he looked back to the wall. It ran between the forest and four cairns that had been raised for the men that had fallen in the attack. It had been Khule's idea, actually. A wall, for those of the Company that could not a resting place like this one. As soon as Khule had quietly voiced it, Vid had known what it would mean. In any case, given who lived here and the blood spilled to keep them safe, this would always be inextricably linked with the Company. Once Company, always Company.
Hanasian had hinted Rin had set aside large swathes of land for the Company. Barracks, records, storage, places for those who lived long enough to retire. A place to stage their campaigns from. Of course they would have a place like this, he thought, for the memory of those fallen. A final resting place. The Company's, like those whose home this was. Videgavia flicked his eyes out to the western horizon. The three men worked on the wall as quietly as they ever had, loathe to disturb the other person who was there. He could hear her singing. He could avoid looking at her but he could not stop the sound of her voice. A lullaby. It was enough to break a man's heart.
"How do you bear it?" he ground out quietly to the Ranger standing beside him, "Two days now, for hours. She shouldn't be here."
"Can you keep her away, Vid?" Farbarad replied, eyes still trained on the grieving woman.
Rin's back was to them. The wind had pushed back the cowl of her heavy, black, fur-lined cloak. It whipped her hair about and pushed her lullaby back to where they stood. She was seated now but sometimes she stood, sometimes she paced. She had been too weak to get from her bed the first day, but these last two days the full, rending weight of her grief had pushed her out from the warmth she should remain in. She was still so weak.
"Perhaps we should have waited. Perhaps we should not have set little Míriel to rest so swiftly," Farbarad further mused.
That night had been chaos. Desperate, painful, bloody chaos. She had fought so hard, even after Míriel's death so soon. Little Elian lived, somehow managed to survive where her sister could not. He had been exhausted, they all had been. Rin had lapsed into exhaustion and he had made the decision to set Míriel to rest that day. It had seemed right, he recalled foggily. What did he know, though? He was father nor mother. And now, for the past two days, Míriel's mother came to where her newborn daughter had been buried and sang to her child even as her daughter was carefully wrapped, warm and safe and alive, against her mother.
"Perhaps we should have executed Andred then and there," Videgavia growled, a savage note to his voice dragging Farbarad's attention from Rin to the Daleman at his side.
Videgavia's dark eyes were trained on her and there was such grief in his face.
"I can't do this," he snarled and whipped about to stalk away.
"Vid, stay away from Andred. Please? For Rin?" Farbarad called after him.
Videgavia glanced over his shoulder and curtly nodded and Farbarad turned his attention back to Rin. Sparks and Bells would be waiting to check on her and Elian. Hanavia would be fretting for his mother at the house. Farbarad sighed heavily and started forward. It was time for her to eat something anyway.
At the wall, Molguv set down the block he had been wrestling with and watched the Ranger lead Rin away, back towards the house. His expression was distant but the warmth, the joviality of his eyes, was gone and they were flat. He flicked them to his companions, also watching with similarly distant expressions.
"I reckon we could make some, if we had the recipe," Molguv said.
"We don't have a recipe for pitch," Wulgof observed.
"Bells may be of assistance," Khule observed, "And failing him, Rin herself."
"Would she help us, you think?" Molguv asked and Khule turned to face the Haradian.
Molguv grunted a moment later. Khule was right. Both men had seen women lay their children to rest, seen the excruciating pain played out again and again. Such a common sight in their lands. The ululating keening of grief. There was nothing akin to a mother's grief. Nothing. Molguv bent to pick the block up again and work resumed.
The bowl thunked solidly onto the kitchen table. It steamed, hearty and rich and warm. She should be hungry. She should be. She was feeding two children now and her body was still recovering from its recent torment. She had lost so much blood. But there were a lot of things Rin knew she should be and wasn't. Hungry was just one entry on that list. If she had to describe herself, it would be hollow. She felt so hollow that she imagined she might shatter, like a brittle twig, if pressed too hard. Or even a little. Maybe. She wasn't sure about that. She wasn't about to throw herself off a cliff either. Yes her husband had vanished into thin air. Yes, her daughter had died mere moments after birth. But she had a son and a daughter and she knew what it was to face this world without mother or father. What if Hanasian did not come back?
Rin stared at the soup and tried to muster the energy to feel worried, frightened, angry. Tried and failed. The agonising ache of Hanasian's absence and uncertain fate hung around her neck. Against her, she could feel the rapid fire beating of Elian's heart as her daughter slept. There should be two. There had been two. Hanasian's was not the only absence, the only hole, in her life that hung around her neck. What if Hanasian came home and discovered what had happened, how she had failed him and their daughter both? He would be….angry. Yes. And he should be. Because there was one where there should have been two. Rin stared at the soup, picked up her spoon and ate mechanically.
When Rin became aware of her surroundings again it was late afternoon. She was in the office, seated at Hanasian's desk. Her hands were spread over the wood, fingers splayed. Hanavia was on the carpet before the hearth, playing contentedly. He must have felt her staring at him for his game stopped and he peered up at her for a long moment. Then he climbed to his feet and toddled towards her, padded around his father's desk to where she sat in his father's chair. He climbed resolutely into her lap and found a way to insert himself against her that would not crush his infant sister. Rin buried her face into his hair, pressed her nose against his soft, dark curls and breathed him in, desperate for the sense of something…anything to pull her out of the cloying fog.
At the far end of the room, Farbarad stood with another man. She had met him, she knew, at her wedding. He leant on a stout cane, expression grim. Rin had no idea when he had arrived. That afternoon, yesterday. None. Nor did she care. She closed her eyes, let them talk, and sent her mind as far as she could, across the miles and searching, searching, searching.
Massuil expelled a heavy breath and considered Farbarad, "The king was explicit in his instructions that the Lady and her son be brought north to the greater safety of Fornost."
"Massuil, she will not be parted from her daughter's grave. To achieve Aragorn's ends, she would have to be bound hand and foot, dragged to Fornost and there locked up. And, I strongly suspect, it would drive her mad.
"Do not mistake me, I beg of you. I am no rebel against the High Throne or the Reunited Kingdom…But I can't allow it. I ask of you, please do not force my hand."
"I know what you are saying, Wolf. Were I in your boots, I'd fight too. Any word of Hanasian?"
"He has been found," came the reply, but not from Farbarad.
Both Rangers stared at the woman in the office. She stared at a window and the wintry scene beyond, children held to her. Her expression was distant, remote and uncanny.
"He has been found," Rin repeated and shivered hard before she whispered, "Alive? Please, alive?"
"Amme?" Hanavia asked from his mother's arms.
Like her, his eyes in that moment were an indescribable, piercing shade of blue as he blinked up at her uncertainly. Little Elian murmured, such a fragile and feeble sound.
"I must go to him. Now," she continued and then blinked. Her eyes came to the two Rangers at the far end of the room, "Immediately."
Massuil sighed heavily. Aragorn would not like this at all. Not at all. And yet the woman he watched was Aragorn's cousin and like her cousin possessed a full complement of their shared predecessor's redoubtable will. It was impossible to strive against. He saw movement from the corner of his eye as Farbarad sank to one knee and bowed his head. Massuil followed suit, joints clicking with age.
In the ancient tongue of their forebearers, Farbarad responded, "As you will, my Lady."
It was much later, indeed after night had descended, before Massuil comprehended the true meaning of Farbarad's words. He was assisting the Ranger carry gear out to the stables, where a horse was being readied. Torches hissed to throw back the darkness and, ominously, the wind had dropped away so that the air was frozen still. There would be snow tonight. Massuil knew it.
"She will, like as not, never forgive you," Massuil observed quietly and, just ahead of him, Farbarad nodded. The torches created a shadow that trailed, stretched all the way back to the house that he half turned and considered it now.
"Like as not," he brooded, "She promised never to even as she slipped under."
"Do you know what happens to people who fail to rest after sudden, massive blood loss, Massuil? Their hearts stop. Just run out of blood. Just like that. So a very skilled and knowledgeable Dunedain healer told me as I lay immobilised under her care in a farmhouse outside of Esgaroth two years ago," Farbarad hefted the laden saddle-bag he carried and turned away from the house for the stables again,"She'll never forgive me for a lot of things before I am done, Massuil. I won't see her son and daughter robbed like that. I won't deliver Hanasian his wife's body either. Among other things, forgiveness is something I learned to do without years ago."
Massuil made no reply to that and a few heartbeats later Farbarad barked a rough laugh that reported sharply through the crisp air.
"Besides, while she is powerful in the court, there is still at least one other ranked higher than her. I can count on Aragorn, don't you think?" Farbarad asked.
"You think it likely she will resort to the court to prosecute her argument against you?"
"A man can hope, can't he?" Farbarad muttered and Massuil found himself grinning despite the gravity of the situation.
They shouldered into the stable where the captain of the Free Company stood with a mostly saddled horse and Hanasian's brother-in-law. Loch was carefully garbed so that he could remain warm and yet move freely. No one doubted the Lady of Cardolan's assertions that Hanasian had been found alive. Alive, but where and for how long? That was now the issue and there was no conceivable way her brother or her Ranger would countenance the Lady taking to the wilds in a hunt, with two small children and her own state of health nothing less than precarious.
"Follow the coast, find the debris, locate a trail," Videgavia was saying as he checked through the scout's gear himself.
"Or in other words, scout," Loch replied, a ghost of a grin on his face.
Videgavia ceased his checking as Massuil and Farbarad approached.
"Want for me to round up any of the Company patrols I find, Cap," Loch asked and Videgavia stroked his chin.
"No…leave them in place for now," he answered with a sidelong glance at Farbarad, "Might be useful to us if Doc manages somehow to give us the slip despite our precautions."
"She's still under, isn't she?" her brother asked, worried now, and Farbarad nodded.
"Absolutely. The doors and windows are locked and any gear she might want to take with her has been placed under lock and key," Farbarad replied as he attached the pannier he had carried out to Loch's saddle.
Loch rolled his shoulders and heaved a sigh, "Right then, so you're saying I've got a day's lead, at best."
"I've added my men to the immediate cordon of the grounds, considering the circumstances. She won't be likely to slip through your men and my Rangers," Massuil stated as he attached the pannier he had been carrying to the other side of Loch's saddle.
There was silence between Loch, Farbarad and Videgavia a moment that seemed a little ominious. Massuil glanced up to catch their dubious expressions.
"This may be the Fourth Age, but my men are no less Rangers of the North than you or I, Wolf," Massuil sharply said.
"Oh aye, Massuil," Videgavia replied quickly lest any offense was given at this late stage, "Only that's not the concern we're talking about here."
"I think it's unlikely she'll try the chimneys. Unlikely, mind you, not impossible," her brother continued, "and only unlikely for as long as it takes her to start feeling her normal self. Shame the doors and windows all operate on hinges. That's the real weak point right there, and there's nothing to be done about it now."
"With Massuil's assistance, we'll keep her safely here, Kid. Don't worry for your sister," Farbarad said solemnly.
"She's in good hands. I know it, Wolf. I know it. Right then…I'm off."
"What about young Rose?" Videgavia asked uncomfortably and Loch actually flushed.
"Some things I am competent to see to on my own, Cap. Said our goodbyes already," Loch muttered and swung into the saddle easily as Massuil held the reins steady. He handed them to the scout once he had settled in.
The man drew up his cowl and wound several woollen scarves around his lower face. All that could be seen of him now were his eyes and they gleamed with the need to be off. He glanced around the three men that stood in the stable a moment, nodded and with that the First Hero of Cardolan was off into the night to locate and retrieve Cardolan's Consort. The three men in the stable were soon on their way back to the house. Videgavia peeled off to make sure the Dirty Three weren't lurking around Andred's hut. He lifted an arm in parting as he crossed beyond the reach of the torches to be swallowed by the night.
"Is it really so likely that the Lady will set off in pursuit?" Massuil found himself asking and Farbarad sucked at his teeth a moment.
"You've not really met the woman in question, I suppose," Farbarad answered.
"I've seen enough to get a reasonable measure of the woman Hanasian married. More to the point, I know Hanasian. That he agreed to take her into the Company and on active engagements tells me that he trained her, hard. She is skilled, clearly, for the sort of combat situations the Company deals in and her reputation as a healer precedes her. She is also disciplined and intelligent."
"Right at this moment, her Company skills are not what concerns me. She came to the Company with a quite a set of her own, Massuil. All we did, as best I can tell, is put the final touches on them.
"She's a dangerous one, Massuil. Had to be so as to survive. Don't let her beguile you. Do not underestimate her. Don't let yourself be cozened by those delicate features. That intelligent, skilled, disciplined woman is not thinking clearly. There is no telling what she might do. As of this moment, I consider her potential to be the salient threat we must guard and protect against. I hope your men know what they're in for."
"If not, they'll learn fast enough," Massuil replied as they gained the kitchen door.
They entered into the house's warmth and caught the very threat Farbarad had been talking about standing, disorientated but very much awake in the kitchen. She scowled at them ferociously from beneath rumpled hair that fell in shining, pale tangles down her shoulders and back like a mantle. The pupils of her eyes were dark and wide and she stood in a long sleeved chemise that was crumpled. Farbarad sighed.
"See what I mean," he muttered at Massuil, "Keep the door while I get her away from the windows."
"You stay awake from me," she said, or tried to, when Farbarad started to move. Her speech was still slurred and it made her scowl again.
"Come now," Farbarad said, voice smooth as honey, as he angled himself around to block the bank of windows that lined the kitchen door, "Back to bed now, lassie. That's it now, there's a good-"
Rin had turned her back and started back for the living room, unsteady and weaving but moving as fast as she could manage all the same. Massuil thought this a promising development. Farbarad did not, apparently, agree.
"SLIP! COMING YOUR WAY," he shouted.
"ON IT," came the reply of the woman with the unlikeliest name from somewhere in the house.
"Hey there, Doc! What are you doing up?" boomed a deep, percussive voice that Massuil recognised as belonging to the Haradian that was once of Hanasian's men.
By the time he and Farbarad reached the large man, he had the Lady of Cardolan under control. She looked tiny in his arms. Tiny, and decidedly safely unconscious again. Molguv, on the other hand, looked pleased with his work. He shook his head at Farbarad.
"Ranger, you want to play this game you need to do it properly."
"There is nothing wrong with my version," Farbarad returned, stepping close to check that Rin was really out this time.
"And yet, here we are. You Rangers…so convinced you know everything. For example, I suppose you want her back in her nice, comfortable, warm bed. The sensible thing to do would be to secure her…the cellar is the best option I can think of."
"I am not locking her in her own cellar," Farbarad hissed at him angrily.
"I'm not saying I'd like to. I mean…it's Doc…she's….She's our Doc. But that's my point. She's our Doc," the Haradian rumbled, adjusting his hold on the woman in his arms before he turned about in the direction of the sleeping quarters.
Massuil had the distinct sense as he watched this incongruous exchange between a Ranger and a Haradrim giant over the insensate form of a Dunedain princess that he may be slightly in over his head. Slightly. This was not helped at all when a particularly vicious looking Dunlender asked him later that night whether he knew how to make pitch.
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.