54. Chapter 54
A chill came over Halcwyn and she woke with a start. She sat up and steadied her breathing. Listening, she found that everything was quiet. The rustle of the tree branches, bare of leaves made a whispering sound as the breeze blew through them. Other than that, there was silence. It seemed to her that sleep would evade her this night even as it held close her husband and children. So Halcwyn walked over to her study where she lit a small candle.
She took out a leather-bound bundle of parchments and ran her hand over it. Hanasian had given these to her for safekeeping, and said that there were other places where many other parchments and journals had been lain down by him around the lands. They weren't all his writings for he was given to collect the writings of others as well. He had collected many over the years and she knew he hoped to gather them all in one place one day. He had spoken of the large study he now had in his home. Perhaps there, though he had not been decided when they had spoken of it at Bree. In Halcwyn's experience, these memories were as fleeting as the generations, and the next would decide whether it was kept or burned. Halcwyn had shared Halasian's learning in their early years, but she had not kept writing much since it was not the custom of the Rohirrim. She did attempt once to record in writing the spoken stories of the Horse-lords, and in so doing she had thought it would add to Hanasian's works. But upon re-reading it, she had discovered that it became her own work. Something had shifted between the telling and the writing and she sensed that it was this that prompted the Rohirrim to preserve their verbal heritage yet. Here in her study she held much that Hanasian had given her in his visits that she had not read. On this night she had awoken to the voice of Hanasian as it changed to what she recalled of her father Halasian's voice. She opened the leather binding and read….
It wasn't Hanasian's clear, flowing script, but a rougher style. It didn't appear to be that of her father Halasian at first, but there were parts that did. Halcwyn brushed the parchment with her fingers to sense the author but it remained a mystery. She started to read…
Halcwyn had only managed a few paragraphs when the sound of stealthy hoofs was heard to approach in the night. She arose and approached the main door to her home just as Enedoth stepped out from their room.
"I heard footfall of three horses and awoke. When I saw you weren't there, I feared for you. I will see to them," he said, his manner stern and not one Halcwyn was inclined to argue with.
Rather than reply, she retrieved her cloak and wrapped it tightly around her before following her husband to the door.
Enedoth called out, "Who rides in stealth to our door in the night unannounced?"
Halcwyn saw that Enedoth had an arrow notched and ready.
The three stopped short of the gate by the track and one said, "No need for that Enedoth of Westmarch, for we were summoned with news that Lady Halcwyn may wish to hear."
Halcwyn walked out past her husband and the man who had spoken dismounted and bowed. Enedoth relaxed his arrow.
Halcwyn said, "Foldwine of Westmarch. What news do you bear that I would hear?"
She stared at him solemnly. Foldwine bowed again and said, "M'lady, word has come from the roadhouse to the west."
Halcwyn stepped nearer again and signalled to Enedoth that all was well and she needed to hear what he had to say. As she approached the riders, the other two dismounted to join Foldwine and bowed in their turn. They started to talk as Enedoth stood by the door of the house. Soon their son had awoken and found his way to the door. He clung to their father as he rubbed his eyes.
Enedoth quietly said, "It is the seed of your grandfather. The affairs of your uncle. I don't have to like it, but it's part of your mother's spirit whom I love. All will be well son."
As his son hugged his leg and watched his mother, Enedoth found himself hoping his words would not be proven false by whatever was to come, for something certainly was to come. Of that he was certain.
After some time, Halcwyn returned to the house and the three men rode away. She remained silent on what it was about, but Enedoth insisted.
"I have a right to know!" he demanded and at this Halcwyn took a deep breath.
She said, "They brought word of my brother. Events no one is yet sure of have brought him south and he now makes haste to return to his home. His wife, if I am not mistaken, must be near to her time. They asked if I wanted to see him before he set out."
"You're going, aren't you," Enedoth replied, more statement than question and Halcwyn nodded.
He then said, "I can only ask you not to even though I know that you will. So I ask that you take Halrad with you."
"I will only be gone for the day, returning by nightfall. There is no need for Halrad to ride with me," Halcwyn answered, looking grim and thoughtful.
But she saw that Enedoth would not relent and so she reluctantly agreed.
"I will leave after breakfast," she said, took Enedoth by the hand and led him swiftly back to their room and pushed him back into their bed.
The morning sun did little to warm the still air. Enedoth awoke suddenly from a deep sleep. He knew that Halcwyn had gone. It was doubtful Halrad had gone with her too. He should be upset, but how could he be? He loved her so much, and he knew she would return ere nightfall because she had said she would…
Hanasian wanted to set out forthwith but was still weak from his ordeal. The Captain of the Rohirrim tried to talk him into remaining the night so that they might depart afresh in the morning. Hanasian was little pleased with any delay to his return to his wife and children. In the end, it took Berlas and Loch both to reason with him hard and convince him that rest before a hard ride would be useful unless he actually wanted to topple out of the saddle and snap his neck on the way home. By the time he had relented, it was clear to Loch and Berlas that Hanasian was not thinking clearly. Injury and grief, no doubt, but it worried them all the same. Hanasian was uneasy with the delay for all of his capitulation to its logic but this changed and he came to see it as a good thing as night fell onto their small encampment and three riders came from the southeast at speed. Two of the riders appeared older men, golden hair now much silvered. Their third companion was younger, but all wore grave expressions. The younger man bore an emblem that denoted some form of rank amongst the Horse-Lords. This was evident in the way the Captain of the Rohirrim with them saluted smartly. Loch wanted to go see, for he recognized one of the men but Hanasian prevented him.
"Let them play this out," he said in a raspy whisper and crouched back down next to where Berlas sat, watching on with apparent disinterest. Loch relaxed and sat back on the ground by their fire. Hanasian watched the younger man as he talked to the captain from the corner of his eye, taking care not to stare openly.
Loch leaned over and started to say, "Isn't that-"
Hanasian hushed him with a quick movement of his hand. He tried not to smile as his thoughts drifted to the old woman at the roadhouse. She knew how to get word out without the captain knowing. How these men came to be here and to know what had happened was a mystery to him. As they talked to the captain, he leaned forward towards their little campfire. Berlas and Loch leaned in as well.
Hanasian said, "This was unlooked for. I had in my head a plan to leave you both here to deal with Karina by whatever means necessary, but it appears we will be spared by Frea, Folca, and Foldwine's timely arrival."
They all looked over where the four Rohirrim stood. Discussions had progressed, it seemed, to the point that the three unexepected men were to take custody of Karlina. Hanasian saw Frea glance over to where the woman was at present. She looked caught between consternation and relief after her encounter with Hanasian earlier in the day. Frea lifted a hand to scratch at his head, and fingers flicked quickly and slightly. Nothing more needed to be said. Hanasian was satisfied with this.
He said in a quiet voice, as if talking to himself but knowing Berlas and Loch were listening.
"As much as I would like to see my sister, I must ride north in the morning. Berlas, you will return to your duties with your men. Loch, you will have to remain here and take care of anything that may be left open. You know what I mean, brother."
Loch glanced up at that title and found himself looking into Hanasian's eyes across the fire. Hanasian's expression spoke of much and he was keenly aware of what his brother-in-law was entrusting him with. That he would do so…that he would trust him to look to the justice of their combined families… In Dunland and Rohan both, such a thing was… Loch let his fingers dance over the hilt of his knife and silently he nodded once, unable to say anything fitting, and returned his eyes to the campfire's flicker. Berlas saw it too and Hanasian looked at him next. A couple flicks of his fingers and then Berlas nodded. The only thing that remained now was to see what Foldwine and his twin cousins had in mind. It wasn't long before Karlina was in custody of Frea, Folca, and Foldwine. They didn't want to acknowledge Hanasian, Loch, or Berlas, and set up a camp for the night some distance away. There was now nothing to do but wait this night out.
The quiet of the pre-dawn morn found Hanasian slipping into Foldwine's camp. The men had appeared to be in a restless slumber but instead he discovered they were, in fact, waiting for him. His cousins took him aside and he gave them no difficulty.
"We would like to talk Cap, but we can't. We have orders not to let you near our prisoner," Frea said
Hanasian sighed heavily. He would have to accept this and go and leave Karlina in the hands of the Rohirrim. Yet there was something in the way Frea had spoken that tickled at his thoughts. A glance over at Foldwine was met by grim eyes. The man had a plan, clearly, and he didn't want Hanasian knowing about it.
Folca set his hand on Hanasian's shoulder and said, "You look… tired Cap. Retirement doesn't appear to suit you."
"You're damn right it doesn't, if this can be called retirement! This was supposed to be a time of peace for us. Yet everywhere we go, or even at our home with some of the finest around us, we cannot rest. Now, I'm going home. I must, and I will kill anybody that tries to hold me back from my wife and children at this time. I would kill that Karlina if I had the chance, or so I thought. I did have the chance, and I allowed her to live even if it's without a foot," Hanasian rambled, clearly distressed.
Folca tried to soothe him, but Karlina was sound asleep and didn't stir all the while.
Folca said, "My brother and I are not quite sure what has happened, but Foldwine has ways of getting word. Not sure why, but he seems to have become some sort of bounty hunter. Says there is a price in that girl's head in Pelargir. Now between you, my brother, and me I don't think that is the whole story, but we came along when he said it was in some ways Company business. Besides, that Captain of these western riders won't see her killed on his watch."
Hanasian was silent for a moment, then said, "I see. Well then, there is nothing more I can do. I will go home at first light. I will try and sleep a few hours."
Frea then asked, "How is the Kid? He looks much older than I last remember seeing him, which was way east."
Hanasian said, "He is still Loch. He worries for his sister and wants to see justice done. They've both seen too much evil in too short of years. He's badly smitten with a young enchantress from the east and misses her as well. And he's saddle sore."
"You think he may want to ride with us for a while?"
Hanasian considered this, "Unlike you and I, he's still Company. He has some sort of orders from Videgavia about finding me. He also wants to get back to Rin and Rose, so he may not wish to. But I'll tell him of your offer all the same. He may join you for a while, perhaps"
The brothers nodded and let Hanasian go. Though Hanasian had not succeeded in his aims that morning, for some reason he felt marginally better.
The foggy morning did little to change the general mood of the camp. Hanasian was ready to ride home and Loch was too, but he thought about going to visit Frea and Folca. They were up to something. They usually were. He gnawed at a bit of saddle fare as he debated his course. No, he had orders. He had found Hanasian alive, and should stay with him to ensure he returned safely to where he was sorely needed with Rin and his children. As he thought further on that, he wanted to return as well. For Rose…and to assure himself that Rin was…no, she had to be. Farbarad had her in his care. She was going to be fine. Then there was Videgavia's other order, the one the Daleman had whispered to him the darkness after he had ostensensibly set out to find Hanasian…
But it was Hanasian that said to him, "I know what you're thinking. To return while one of them lives still is hard. I wanted to go to Tharbad and find others responsible as well. But it appears Karlina is out of our hands now. Come, let us say our farewells once again to our old comrades."
Loch nodded, thoughts still ticking over in his head, and they rode over to where the others had all gathered in the morning. Berlas and his swift riders joined them to say farewell. They were going to Tharbad, knowing they had work to do there. Karlina was mounted on a horse but bound now. She seemed worried until Hanasian approached and then found some comfort in the fact that their ways would be parting. There had been such rage in his face yesterday, savage and raw. Foldwine said they were going to take her to Edoras to answer some charges. They looked about as if searching the mist for someone, but there was no one there. After parting words and handshakes and gestures, Hanasian and Loch turned to go with Berlas and his men. The quickest way back was through Tharbad.
The Captain mounted up and he and his men headed back west. Frea, Folca, Foldwine, and Karlina moved east into the greyness, and soon all had lost sight of each other.
As the morning gave way to the noon hour, the fog started to burn off and the sun felt warm. The four slowed and took a rest when Foldwine went to Karlina and said,"You must need some water."
He unbound her to let her drink and she did so. Once the tin cup was drained, she methodically hit Foldwine with it. He fell backwards in surprise, and Karlina pulled the horse she was riding near. Frea and Folca moved to stop her, but even without a foot she managed to get mounted and rode off at increasing speed. Foldwine slowly got to his feet and dusted his hands off as Frea and Folca joined him to watch their captive's escape.
Frea asked, "How far do you think she'll get?"
"Not far enough," Foldwine calmly replied.
They walked their horses to the top of a knoll where they could see Karlina ride. They could see also another rider coming from the west that would intercept Karlina. When Karlina saw the sandy haired woman, she slowed and watched her, for she may have been sent by her employers to find them. Halcwyn approached slowly, her eyes wide with a hand up in greeting.
Karlina said, "Hail rider!"
"Greetings, and welcome! If you be Karlina, I have a message for you and one for you to give to the others."
Karlina looked puzzled. She said hesitantly, "Yes. Who may I ask are the others which you speak?"
Halcwyn rode up beside her and looked Karlina in the eyes, "First things first, the message for you."
Halcwyn held out a small parchment, which Karlina took. She unfurled it and began to read. Halcwyn unhurriedly lifted her other hand, a casual gesture so as not to disturb the other woman. Her knife gleamed in the afternoon sunlight as she swept it across Karlina's neck. She fell backward in her saddle and the parchment fluttered in the air, adrift now. Karlina hit the ground as she struggled to hold her neck, a gurgling sound was all that was heard.
"If you consider it in the time you have left, there really is only one message from my brother and his family to you and those you work for."
Halcwyn threw the knife into Karlina's heart and this sped the life that was painfully gushing out of her neck. Halcwyn watched until the last gasp was heard and the last twitch of a limb had. Once she was certain Karlina was dead, Halcwyn dismounted, retrieved the parchment and approached the woman's body. She removed her knife from Karlina's chest and wiped it clean using Karlina's cloak. She stuffed the parchment into Karlina's one boot top. Once this was done, Halcwyn swiftly mounted up, turned, and rode away at a fast trot, emptying water from a skin at her saddle onto her hands to sluice away the woman's blood.
Atop the knoll, Foldwine gave a whistle and the horse that Karlina was riding started to walk their way. When it arrived, he gave it a piece of carrot
"I didn't think she would do it," he said after a moment, thoughtfully, "I should have never told her about it all. But thought she may have wanted to see her brother. I think its best we ride and catch up with the Cap, Berlas and the Kid before the sun sinks and the mists return."
The brothers nodded and set off at a fair pace. Enedwaith was a wide land on the fringes of kingdoms, and few crossed it. As they approached Hanasian, Berlas, Loch, and the two young riders, they were able to have a proper greeting and talk as the sun set. The last of the sun saw Halcwyn arrive home, greeted lovingly by her children and sternly by her husband. She had some explaining to do.
There was much to share on the ride to Tharbad though they spared little time to rest or talk at leisure. They reached the town with its new bridge under a cold, gelid rain late in the afternoon. Berlas led them to the small post he had established there where a dry roof and four walls were as much a luxury as a chance to sleep or eat out of a saddle was. Hanasian, not yet fully recovered, found the travelling particularly hard. He was exhausted by the time they stood, dripping and mud splattered, in a small common area warmed by some sort of makeshift oven one of the Easterlings with Berlas' detachment had rigged up.
Berlas peeled off to make arrangements for quarters during the night but this was not all that waited for them. Tidings had reached Tharbad from Videgavia himself and it changed everything. Berlas read each carefully, rubbed his hands over his face and trudged out to the common room. Hanasian had found somewhere to sit and looked as if he was dead on his feet. Frea, Folca and Foldwine were deep in conversation. Their expressions were beyond grim. The men were outraged, angry at what they had learned. Loch remained standing, so tired that he had forgotten to sit. It took some effort for Berlas to snag his attention but once he had the scout shambled over to him wearily. Another signal had him trailing along, too tired to ask questions, as Berlas went back to the room that doubled as his office and bedroom.
He pushed a pile of papers, maps and reports mostly, off the chair that he never used and pointed Loch at it.
"Sit, before you fall over. I need what wits you have left about you, Kid."
Loch slumped into the chair, sighed and shook his rain darkened sandy hair. He studied Berlas from beneath his brows, dull disinterest flickering in his eyes but not outright insurrection.
"What were Vid's other orders?" Berlas asked him.
Loch shifted in his seat, crossed his ankles. He was getting better at keeping his immediate thoughts from his face, Berlas thought. Just his luck. This was not time for games.
"Don't bother telling me there aren't any, Kid. I know Vid. I know you. I know the Company."
Loch's lips thinned as he pressed them together. He lifted one shoulder and dropped his eyes to the mud that splattered his breeches. He began to idly pick clots off to drop to the rough floorboards. Berlas ground his teeth and struggled for patience.
"Has it occurred to you yet that we're all on the same side here? No, that's unfair of me. I apologise. You're saying nothing because you have been ordered to say nothing."
Loch paused in his re-distribution of mud and shifted again, lifting his eyes back to Berlas to wait him out.
"Fine," Berlas sighed though it clearly wasn't. "Something's changed since you left, Loch and no-" Berlas added as Loch flung himself upright and quivered in his office,"Your sister has not perished. Sit down, Kid!"
Loch stared at him a moment and then seemed to deflate back into his chair.
"The decision has been taken to go on the offensive against these rebels, Loch. Covert offensive. Do you know what a bait and switch is?"
Loch blinked at him as if baffled by the question, "Seriously? You're asking me that? How do you think we managed to survive without knowing that?"
"Ah…I hadn't thought of-"
"Bait and switch! Do I know what it is? You won't find no one better than me and Rin at it. No one! Not this side of the Misty's and probably not the other side neither for that matter-"
Loch's grumbling was brought to a halt when Berlas raised his hand in the signal for utter silence.
Once he had it, Berlas pressed on in a strained voice, "A stupid question. I freely acknowledge that. You're not the only one who is tired and sore and worried near out of his wits, Kid. Back to the matter at hand. Will your other orders compromise a bait and switch offensive?"
"Depends on the bait. And the switch."
"They've set a rebel that they had in hand free, a man called Andred."
"THEY SET HIM FREE? How is he even still alive?"
"They set him loose," Berlas continued, ignoring Loch's question, " Because he was most effective hook to place the bait upon."
"Which was what?"
"Their plan was to hold Hanasian's life hostage until Rin bowed to their demands to take up her throne and declare Cardolan an independent realm."
"Hostage? That's not how it would have played out. That's never how those things play out! There's no profit in keeping hostages to hand back!"
Berlas held up his hand for silence again and eyed the scout. He knew that the man and his sister had likely gotten into all sorts of things in their years. Rin knew things she shouldn't, certainly. Things she could not easily explain.
"Is that so?" he replied thoughtfully and Loch began to look a little unsure of himself.
"Before you go asking me just how I know, things what got done before the Company are forgotten. It was only six months with that Treagon, but it were a dark six months. Sometimes, none of your choices are good ones."
"Fair enough, Loch. I had not known you'd spent some time with that assassin. Were you apprenticed? I had heard he took none."
"None that survived. It wasn't me in any case. I wasn't pretty enough for him. And if he ever crosses Rin's path again, she probably won't survive either. If he hears we're putting it about that he had an apprentice, he'll probably come looking for her and he's a man that tends to find what he looks for."
"Peace, Loch! I take your meaning well enough. We'll not discuss it further."
Loch sat back in the chair and rubbed at his face. His thoughts were sluggish, dull things.
"So the bait is that they think she has accepted and when they come to see for themselves, we'll switch on them. Then what? Arrest them?" Loch asked.
"Vid's a little unclear on that. Certainly the law as I understand it is such that they would have to be arrested if at all possible."
"Pity," Loch muttered and then, hopefully, "Maybe they'll put up a fight, eh?"
"Probably," Berlas agreed, "But back again to the matter at hand."
"For this to work, the rebels can't find out that they've lost Hanasian. How long ago did they let Andred loose?"
"Ah…five or so days I think," Berlas said and Loch nodded slowly.
"Then they'd already be closing in, circling the hook. This just all makes it more important that I do what Vid may or may not have asked me to do."
Berlas nodded, "What do you need, Kid?"
"Sleep. Food. Time. Hanasian won't stay here long, though. Nor can he travel back on his own, all things considered."
"Leave that with me," Berlas answered, the dim shape of an idea hovering just out of reach.
"Considering the bait, what are the precautions?"
Berlas blinked at the question and then his brain kicked in. Of course Loch would be asking that. They were running a covert campaign that placed his sister directly in the maw of a foe that had proven to be formidable at a time that she was vulnerable and weak. She'd played this role before, Harad most notably, but that had been different.
"He's recalling us all, staged, with an outer net to catch any that might slip through our fingers once the bait is switched. We'll infiltrate the target as well, so we can take them from both sides when the time comes. Vid has limited the information he has sent out for obvious reasons but I think it highly unlikely that the precautions are restricted solely to those."
"They'd better not be," Loch answered and shifted his weight to the edge of the chair. Berlas waved a dismissal at him and watched the scout shuffle out.
The lieutenant remained to sort through the matters that had accumulated in his absence until he received word that the evening meal was ready. He realised then that he had yet to shed his cloak or any of his other damp clothing. He hurriedly changed and emerged looking rumpled to find that his men had not made the same mistake with their other guests. Fresh clothing, mismatched but dry, had been found for Frea, Folca and Foldwine. The Rohirrim looked a little odd, truth be told, wearing Easterling garb and they knew it. But they were warm and awake. Hanasian, he had learned, had been tucked away somewhere to sleep and Berlas sent someone to wake him. The man had to eat almost as badly as he needed to sleep.
While this happened though, Berlas drew up to the three Rohirrim.
"Interesting development the Company has taken of late," Frea said, eyes drifting over the men in the common room. They were mostly of Rhun.
"You were at Shkar. Are you telling me you're surprised? The Company has always taken on those who could prove their worth. That is not new and these men do a fine job. Not nearly as fractious, either, as you lot are," Berlas answered.
"But we're the better riders," Foldwine said with a faint grin and a proud glint in his eyes.
"That you are. Listen, a quick word before Cap gets here. What are your plans now that you know what's happened?"
"We're done with the Company, Berlas. We retired," Folca pointed out.
"No," Frea said quickly, "You don't. We're done with the Company but this is a whole other matter. Hanasian is family. I'd thought that Esgaroth thing would be an end to it but its only gotten worse. This has to be dealt with, once and for all."
There was nothing warm about Frea's voice or expression. His brother, usually of easy good cheer, was similarly disposed.
"And you, Foldwine?" Berlas asked and the man shrugged his shoulders in a tunic that was slightly too small for him.
He fidgeted with a shoulder seam and said, "I can't claim family like these two, but the way I see it Cap has always done right by me. Doc too. I'd not be here now were it not for her. I owe them both. Now, I donated my best pipe to her a while back-"
"Donated?" Frea scoffed and Foldwine half smiled.
"Call it what you like, my best pipe ain't nearly enough to call it even. Besides, sounds like there might be a bit of business for a man in my line of work up north right now."
"There may well be….depending on which way this goes," Berlas answered, "I'm pleased to hear this. I'm hoping you can get Hanasian back home safely and, just as importantly, unseen."
"Unseen? I smell a Black Company job," Folca observed but at that point a groggy Hanasian arrived.
"Until later," Berlas said, flashed a signal that all three men immediately understood and turned towards his former captain, "Cap…here's a place already and some decent, hot food for a change!"
Most of the men stationed with Berlas had joined on account of this man's reputation so there was no difficulty finding Hanasian a place at the board or a generous helping of what appeared to be a stew of some sort.
Hanasian was hard pressed to assemble events after arriving in Tharbad. All he knew is that they had, he had slept and now they were late. It was well past dawn, the rain had only intensified and they had not yet set out. He scowled out at the deluge and drew another knife. It was sharp. All of the various weapons that had been donated to him were immaculately kept. In truth, he now had more weapons than he knew what to do with once it emerged that he was without his usual equipment. Still, he spat on the whetstone and began to work the knife over it. Loch had vanished. His usual stunt. No one knew where he was or when he had gone. Berlas had said he would send men after him but Hanasian was far from convinced. This only meant that Berlas knew something. He might have retired from the Company but to be kept on the outside was a bitter pill for its former commander and founder to swallow.
He would have set out on his own, but that had been effectively scotched. He suspected Berlas was behind that as well. There were no horses to be had and their own were in too poor a condition to continue on with. They needed fresh mounts. If the delay continued much longer, he'd go on foot if he had to. Just thinking of his wife was painful. Loch had found it difficult to convey what she had faced on her own. She must have been terrified. It had to have been excruciating. And then, after all of that, she had to bury their daughter. He'd never see her. Hanasian felt the resistance of the whetstone change as he nicked the tip of a finger. A bright scarlet bead rose and he lifted his finger to his mouth to suck. He had to go on. He had to get back to his son, his daughter, his wife.
"Right, now we're ready," Folca said, voice raised to be heard over the thrumming rain on the roof as he walked into the common room.
Hanasian turned slightly and saw three Rohirrim standing there. Frea had a heavy cloak, stiff with wax to keep the rain off and a cowl far too deep to be practical for anything else but concealment draped over his left arm. Loch was still nowhere to be seen.
"Are we indeed," Hanasian replied around his finger.
Frea threw the treated cloak at him and his brother said, "Aye. Managed to obtain passable horses even if they are not of Rohan stock."
"And you're coming? I thought you'd retired."
"We're making an exception," Foldwine said and then, "Besides, this is…well…personal…and business too, for me at least."
Berlas strode out and caught the look on Hanasian's face. His Captain knew something was afoot and he was a very unhappy man.
"Loch will catch you up, I am sure. I'll send him after you as soon as I track him down. Horses are saddled in the mews and you've ample provision to see you back. I'm sure you want to get going."
"Well then, done and done. I will see you in due course, Cap, but not before," Berlas said, the last for the benefit of the three men that stood with him.
Hanasian's eyes narrowed but he swung the cloak on, drew up the cowl muttering about occluded peripheral vision, and left them for the rain outside.
"Remember, keep him out of sight. I expect there will be a number of rebels gathered even now waiting for the big event. The final distance will be the hardest to pass unseen."
All three men nodded at Berlas' final advice, sketched informal Company salutes and followed Hanasian out into the rain for the nearby mews. Hanasian was waiting for them, dripping and suspicious within. In the time he had there on his own, it was clear that the men stationed in Tharbad were starting to deploy. Years of experience told him this. He gnawed at it while he waited. When at last his travelling companions arrived, dripping and shivering, he pounced.
No one remained Captain of the Black Company for long if he lacked a ruthless effectiveness in extracting information from unwilling sources. Confronted with this, the three Rohirrim decided capitulation was preferable to decapitation because Hanasian was not in a cheery frame of mind. He walked a sharp edge, they could see, between utter blackness and all that followed and the man that he strove to be. By the time, therefore, they departed from Tharbad, Hanasian had a clear picture of what they were riding towards. They crossed the newly restored bridge just after midday and pressed north.
After such a delay, Hanasian was not prepared to let the weather or anything else get in his way. He set as fast a pace as possible through the heavy rain and kept it up until nightfall. Little was said but Hanasian's mind was not quiet. The rain continued for the next day as well. Towards dusk, it shifted into sleet as the temperature dropped. Trees were scant and discussion was scarcer. During the night the sleet transformed into snow and they woke to a clear day and a white, glittering world.
They stood and shook off the snow. The three Rohirrim pushed their cowls back but Hanasian did not. The snowbound dawn was a quiet creature and this silence closed in around them hungrily. They swiftly packed their meagre camp up and readied the horses. They had gained their saddles when a cowled rider was seen to approach them from the south. He pushed back his cowl to reveal his face. Loch looked utterly bedraggled and worn through, but he was also victorious. That much was clear in his flickering smile.
"All sorted away?" Hanasian asked him speculatively and Loch nodded, confirming Hanasian's suspicions about the scout's secondary orders. So far, it seemed like everyone was getting a chance at some justice except for him.
"Neat as a pin. Looks like I reached you just in time. You need a scout and I need food. Do you have any?"
"Typical," Frea muttered and passed him some dried meat from a pouch at his belt.
"What you're saying is that I'm consistent which, I note, is a good thing. So I'll take that as a compliment," Loch breezily replied, words slurring a little with his fatigue and then borrowed one of his sister's favourite phrases, "Giddy up!"
"You're in no fit state," Hanasian observed.
Loch patted his midriff and twitched aside his stained cloak to reveal he had tied himself to his saddle.
"I'm prepared. Well trained and all that," he answered around a mouthful of dried meat and that was that. They set off with a scout that was so tired he was punch drunk.
Loch's return did something to the group of men he travelled with. The tension between them slowly melted. If he wasn't snoring in the saddle he had tied himself to, he was entertaining them in other ways including how creative saddle sores could be in finding locations to torment him. Or biting hard whenever someone teased him about 'his Rose'. He was even more protective of her than he had ever been of his sister. He was the sort of man that made you laugh, at him or with him was of no concern to Loch. He was also an excellent scout, a loyal companion and, despite external appearances, of reasonably sharp wit that was softened by a determinedly optimistic outlook on the world that only grew stauncher at each mishap, sorrow or misfortune thrown at him. Loch's innate optimism did not make him immune to concerns about this bait and switch plan.
It took them seven days all told. The need for secrecy caused delays. It became to clear to Hanasian that Videgavia was drawing Company men into position carefully and covertly. An intricate web was being woven but the stakes were higher than anything Hanasian could conceive of and Loch agreed with him. It sat heavily over his thoughts as they drew near. He was worried. What if it went wrong? There were so many ways that it might and he had already lost a daughter. Even if it succeeded, the price could be too high. What would he find at home? How would he be received? Round and round, like carrion birds, these doubts and questions swooped and picked at him.
Once they had gained the forest, the Company began to more openly show their presence. In the main, they revealed themselves just enough to show their faces. Relief, genuine pleasure and open curiosity for the three retired Company men that travelled with them. Then they would fade away again.
"They'll send word ahead," Foldwine said and Loch shook his head.
"No need. They'll already know. After the attack, Rose and her sister did something. Now no one comes and goes here without them knowing."
Loch sounded proud and Hanasian felt profoundly grateful but Frea shivered uncomfortably.
They pressed on the final way and made the grounds proper shortly after midday. The forest opened out onto a snowy expanse that appeared to run into the now wintry blue sky. Foldwine whistled at the house that crouched along the cliff. It was large, sprawling, and solid. Smoke drifted promisingly from its chimneys. Smoke meant warm, lit hearths and food. Hanasian had feared that they'd been letting rebels camp on the inner grounds and was relieved to find this was not the case.
Some sort of pulley had been rigged up near the stairs notched into the cliff face and people were clustered around it as something very heavy was carefully lowered down. Some did not wear their usual Company uniform. Some wore what appeared to be livery in Cardolan's colours over their uniform. It all made for a puzzling picture and a quick glance in Loch's direction indicated this came as a surprise to him too. He lifted his shoulders in a shrug and scratched at his beard, contemplated it.
What dominated the area aside from the house itself was the large spreading majesty of an elm tree. Its branches were naked now and its knees blanketed in snow. Under its boughs a game was at play. Hanasian could not help but notice that his son had grown in the time he had been away. He was taller and sturdier too. He skipped and ran, cheeks bright red and scarf flapping behind him, after a ball that appeared to have been fashioned from rags stuffed into a deer's stomach. Hanavia's laughter rose as he chased the lumpy ball across the snow, hands outstretched in bright yellow mittens. He was not alone. In fact, he had three rather unlikely play mates.
One was a fierce Haradian from the steamy southern jungles of his unconquerable nation. The second was a prepossessed, cool tempered Easterling military commander who was showing silver at last at his temples. This was a new thing. The last was a self confessed barbarian from Dunland who was presently capering after the boy that ran ahead of him. Wulgof made a dive not for Hanavia but rather his trailing scarf. He landed face first in the snow, the scarf slid off Hanavia's neck properly and the boy whipped around to laugh fulsomely at the sight of a Dunlander wearing a mask of snow that stuck in his beard and hair. Molguv, meanwhile, made a dive for the ball. Hanavia was laughing so hard that he doubled over, which presented a prime target for the Haradian with the ball. It bounced gently off Hanavia's back as the boy straightened and then froze as his father slid out of his saddle.
"ABBA!" he cried, heart and soul sent soaring with that beloved title and this made his three playmates look about.
Hanavia was off like a shot, running so hard that his feet could not keep up with him. He tumbled and rolled and ran as fast as he could towards his father. Hanasian strode forward, longer legs eating the distance, and scooped his son into his arms. The Dirty Three jogged forwards, past father and son, to the others.
"You was only supposed to retrieve one," Wulgof said, picking bits of snow out of his beard still.
"This is was once an elite military unit," Frea replied with a meaningful glance at his cousin's son and the now abandoned ball.
"It still is. We're keeping the boy occupied," Khule replied.
Molguv rumbled, "You lot throwing in with us on this job as well?"
"Aye, temporarily mind you. We've retired," Foldwine said.
"Good. Trust you lot more than I do that Voromir," Wulgof drawled.
"Voromir!" Loch sharply echoed and Khule nodded curtly.
"Lord Stag himself did descend from upon high to grace us with his presence. He's taken Rowdy's men under command, which is helpful given he owns them, but he's...well…"
"A nobleman," Wulgof grumbled and Molguv spat to one side.
Khule jerked a thumb over his shoulder at where Hanasian and son stood, "He has to get out of sight. We have the woods effectively shut down but still, not wise to take chances."
"Agreed, but he won't be going anywhere unless its to his wife," Folca said.
"In that case, this should be interesting," Khule replied and Wulgof began to grin widely.
"Why's that?" Loch asked as they set off.
"Right now your sister is, to quote her, knocking heads together. Was hoping we might be able to catch a bit of the proceedings," Khule replied, "Tactical meetings are never as interesting without Doc arguing the point."
They made for the house. With the exception of Hanasian and his son, who refused to get down from his father's hip, the men decided that the kitchen was just perfect. For Loch, Rose was there. For the others, a bashful scout and warm food was there. Additionally, Slippery was in a dress and they could clearly hear the discussions further within. Hanasian continued on, slowing so that he could grasp as much as he could of the rapidly developing situation as possible.
"-down, Rin, or you're going back to bed right this minute!" Farbarad's growl was exasperated and worried.
"Ha! Not until this is sorted out I won't even if you get Massuil over there to help! The numbers are growing, trickle to stream. Best count, we have what? Fifty rebels camped to the north? What if that stream becomes a river?"
"Fifty thereabouts," Videgavia confirmed and then, "And it's manageable. The net is almost in place and growing stronger with each passing day. The ship is nearly ready too. If things turn sour, you and your wee ones will be safe in Fornost and your cousin's care before you know it. The mast is being put in today and the sails are ready to rig once it's in. You're working on the last pretty little dress for our plants in their camp. Anything they say or do, we know, and they're all so eager to meet their new liege…lady or whatever the correct title is. Everything is holding up nicely."
"For now," Rin replied and then swore in Dunlendic, "I have more holes in my thumb than hair on my head and I can't afford to lose any more blood."
"Which is why I want you to SIT DOWN! You'd find it easier to sew if you did," Farbarad snapped.
"Done a lot of sewing in your time, have you?" Rin retorted, voice acidic as it was sweet.
"If you please, my lady!" Voromir said.
"I am not yours," Rin grumbled, feathers apparently rumpled, and Videgavia was heard to mutter something that was hard to make out.
"Rin…" Farbarad warned, for apparently Rin had heard whatever the Daleman had said.
"No need to look so worried, Voromir. What harm could I do with a mere needle, hmmm?" Rin remarked and then, "Oh very well. See? Sitting? Happy now are we? How delightful!"
Hanasian could hear the elder Ranger Massuil clear his throat and recognised the sound for what it was: carefully concealed amusement.
"Might I inquire as to what you meant by your earlier comment: for now. The matter clearly vexes you," Voromir inquired, the strain of his voice evident and diminishing his effort to maintain courtly decorum.
"We have no idea how many of the curs there are skulking out there. None. The best we can do is guess. How many is too many? What do we do if the numbers tip in the wrong direction? How strong is that net, Vid, because we'll be in all sorts of trouble if that net can't hold those that slip away from us," Rin pressed.
"A fair point, I think. Captain?" Voromir inquired.
Videgavia's voice sounded like grinding glass, "A fair point. I'll grant you, Doc, we haven't done so good a job as keeping you and yours as safe as you'd hope. We let you down. But not again. Never again. If you can't place your trust in us, in me, when I say that the numbers will hold, then…then I suppose this is a whole other discussion."
"That's not what I mean," Rin said, sounding profoundly tired.
"I've answered all of your questions but it doesn't seem to be enough. We have a chance here to end it, once and for all Doc! You, your little ones will be safe no matter which way it goes. We can do this. I know it. But if you do not, then you must do as you see fit. You have children to protect and I'll not hold that against you."
Rin took her time answering, selected her words with care, "If the rebel numbers are greater than we guess, then we will simply not be able to catch them all here. It would be an impossible feat and not because those that stood with us failed in some way!"
Rin pressed on, "Those that slip away will know, then, that they have been betrayed. The last thing anyone needs now is rebels disenchanted with Arnor and Cardolan both floating about the north. I will not sow the seeds of another Rhuadaur. I won't. We need to be absolutely certain that outer net holds no matter what. If it fails….then we will have civil war on our hands. Not in Harad. Not in Rhun. Not in some distant land. Here."
Hanasian chose the ensuing silence to duck into the large study that he shared with his wife. They had drawn the curtains for warmth and privacy and so it was much darker inside compared to outside. The hearth and lanterns provided a soft, gentle glow that shifted and moved over those gathered within. It took a moment for Hanasian's eyes to adjust. He found the men either stood or leaned against desks or shelves. Rin sat, however, on a chair that had been placed close to the warmth of the hearth. Her lap was filled with the livery Hanasian had seen being worn outside.
She wore a heavy, fur lined mantle made for use outside and her hair was wound about her head in a braid that was loose. She stared at him as did the others. He was almost as shocked as she was. The woman he had seen last was vibrant and glowed with life. Rin now, though, had a deathly pallor and was almost as thin as the day they had first met. The livery she was working on slid to the carpet as she stood. Her movements were unsteady, another source of concern, and her eyes seemed huge in her face.
"Is…is it just me….or can you see him too," she asked softly, as hopeful as she was fearful of what the answer might be.
"Rosmarin," he said, voice roughened and stepped towards her.
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.