58. Chapter 58
Rin opened the door just wide enough to slip through. No sooner had she closed the door after herself did she hear the measured tread of footsteps in the hall beyond. She held her breath, glanced at the floorboards. She'd have to be quick and quiet. One misstep, one creak, and she'd be done for. A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. And they said her previous career offered no useful skills at all, she thought. It was all a matter of smooth movements, evenly distributed weight, an eagle eye and a pinch of good luck. She was on the inside of the door without so much as a sound just as the door started to open.
Rin glanced up for the first time and realised she was not alone. Her companions frankly returned her gaze. One was curious, one was amused and the other looked speculative. No time to buy their silence, or threaten it. She could try the wide eyed damsel in distress, but these three were immune to that. Burned too many times before, by her. Farbarad's head poked through. She was doomed.
"Have you seen Rin?" the Ranger asked and three men gave three different versions of no.
One shrugged, one scowled and the other shook his head.
"Are you sure about that?"
"You calling us liars now, Ranger?" the scowling man asked combatively.
Farbarad muttered something under his breath in Sindarin and withdrew. The door closed and Rin heard his boots continue on down the hall. She let out her pent up breath and considered the three men.
"Alright, how much will that cost me?" she asked.
Wulgof's scowl reversed and he considered his two companions.
"An excellent question, Doc," the Haradian rumbled and Rin sighed.
If they didn't get out of Tharbad soon, she'd be so far into debt that not even her cousin's royal treasuries could get her out.
Farbarad returned to the parlour and spread empty hands.
"She has not left the building. That much we know," he said, "But it's a large building and she's one determined woman. We'll not flush her out before the party waiting downstairs started to get offended."
Hanasian sighed heavily. Rin was getting worse. Something had to be done, for all their sakes. He looked over to where his son was busy with a toy given to him by a delegation of business men who had dropped by to curry the Lady of Cardolan's favour. Rin had scarpered then too. In fact, the only thing she had attended since arriving at Tharbad was a tour of the local medical facility. They'd had to run to keep up with her for that official engagement. Hours later, they'd had to drag her out of there.
"Hanavia, would you like to see a bridge?" Hananasian asked his son and Hanavia considered it a moment before nodding.
Bridges meant water, water meant mud, mud meant squirming wriggling things and frogs.
Hanasian gathered up his son and set out to join the small delegation that waited to officially open Tharbad's newest bridge.
"Don't forget to name it," Farbarad helpfully advised and Hanasian scowled.
Oh, he'd name it alright: The Misbehaving Errant Wife.
It took them three days to extricate themselves from Tharbad. After the first day and the following morning, Hanasian assigned a constant trio of shadows to his wife's heels. Everywhere she went, they went. As a result, the Lady of Cardolan attended every official function thereafter and was in a foul frame of mind as they set off for Rohan.
"May the Valar watch over you, Princess Rosmarin," the town mayor finished, "So that you might return to our humble city all the sooner."
Rin caught Farbarad's warning frown and found her husband wore a matching scowl, both directed at her. And so she smiled blandly and waved and did all the stupid, meaningless things that she was apparently supposed to do. The fact that the Dirty Three were watching avidly and smirking did nothing to improve her disposition.
"That wasn't so hard now, was it?" Farbarad muttered as he rode beside her.
"The next person who calls me a prin-"
"HEY PRINCESS, LOOK!" Wulgof shouted, waving his arms and pointing along the trail.
Rin directed a withering glare at the Dunlending, already regretting her deal with the Dirty Three.
"This is it," Foldine said, glancing around him.
Hanasian, still cross with her, was ahead with Hanavia. He had slowed. Rin looked about. All she saw was a trail and trees. They'd barely ridden an hour from Tharbad and Rin wanted to be as far away as possible from that place. Foldine slipped out of his saddle. So too did the Dirty Three and Hanasian. They began to walk about, stopping at a stone or a dip in the land. Rin heaved an irritated sigh and scowled at her three ranger shadows. When were they going to be stood down, she wondered. She'd already tried to stand them down, on several occasions. It rankled that despite the fact they had sworn their oaths to her, they did not take her orders. At least, not the ones that counted. If she wanted tea or her horse saddled, well and good. If she wanted to be left alone, that was another thing entirely.
Rin was so distracted with her cantankerous thoughts that she scarcely noticed Foldine's approach. He stood with a hand on her gelding's bridle and looked up at her, a hand screening the morning sun from his eyes.
"Don't you remember?" he asked softly.
"Remember what? It's been four years since I was here last, and even then it was raining and dark," Rin grumbled.
Foldine pointed to where the others were. Videgavia had crouched to explore something on the ground. Hanasian looked…thoughtful. That was a worrying thing, Rin concluded.
"Right over there, you saved my life. And there, that's where Bear was, wasn't he?"
Rin frowned at Foldine, taken by surprise. Here? Was it really here that she had first ventured into battle with the Black Company? She blinked at where he pointed.
"Aye, that's where we found Bear," Wulgof said, "Nearly lost our heads for it thanks to an orc pike. Suspected you were insane then and there."
The screams, gibbering orcs in the dark. The mud and the quivering of Hanasian's horse as he slipped over the back and sent it charging away with a brisk slap. Now that she thought on it, insanity was the only reason. The Black Company had apprehended her for stealing! The orc attack had provided her with the perfect opportunity to escape. She could have fished Loch out of prison and been away. What madness had brought her back to this place to find Bear, then Foldine and then Gian. She had clubbed an orc to death with a rock! A rock! Videgavia had moved over to the side of the trail and crouched again. They had lost men that night, good scouts felled by orc arrows in the night. One had managed to sound the alarm, the only warning they had.
Rin slipped from her saddle to approach the spot. She had a distant look on her face as she wandered about. She recalled the terror and desperation. The clash of steel and iron, the tang of blood and the stench of orcs and battle. Someone had been singing, she recalled, through the worst of it. She had discovered later it had been her brother and in that moment she had known that he was one of them: a soldier. It had broken her heart at first. She stared at where she had found Bear. She could hear his laboured breathing, still feel the slick warmth of his blood on her hands and arms as she repacked his gut. The whistle of blades through the air and Wulgof panting as he fended them off her unprotected back.
"Do you regret it," Hanasian asked softly from behind her and Rin whirled about to face him.
"When I saw my horse run by the edge of battle, saddle empty, I thought you dead," he continued, "I hoped, at least, for a woman taken alive by orcs is a crueller fate again. You could have run. Do you regret that you did not?"
Hanasian saw her eyes widen as he spoke. She held their daughter in a sling against her chest. She wore simple garb for travelling, but compared to the rags she had been wound in, it seemed luxuriant upon her. Gone was the fever gleam of her eyes. She had been so painfully thin then. He could tell she was thinking hard about his question and he began to regret asking it. If she answered yes, then what?
"No" Rin replied, barely more than a whisper. He could see that she meant it.
"Everything changed here. Everything. In ways I could not imagine or prepare for. It changes still, even now," she continued earnestly, "I try my best and I often fail…but I do not regret it."
Hanasian slipped a finger under her chin and lifted it so that he could place a soft kiss upon her lips. He hated being at odds with this woman he loved so much.
"I know you are trying, my love. I will do all that I can to help," he murmured against her lips and then cupped her face between his palms.
He searched her eyes, much as he had a little way further along the track over four years ago. Then she had dangled from his grip, frightened and angry all at once. She had been desperate and she had been sealed away and hiding behind a wall that had been very difficult for him to see through. Now, though, those walls were gone and the woman behind them was revealed to him. He kissed her again and gave the signal to mount up and continue on.
They were not riding through driving rain this time. Nor were they transporting recently apprehended, very weak and unwell thieves. And so they reached a place where a bank lined with tangled bushes rose sharply above the trail. The slope was no longer slippery with mud. Instead it was grassed over and green. Just down was the spot she had stood for hours, slipping in and out of delirum and staring at the trees. They did not stop here, although the Dirty Three made more than a few jests about daylight robbery and mud wrestling. Even Videgavia grinned when Molguv commented on how difficult it had proven to be rid of the Company's pets.
"Pet? She owns us now. We really messed that up," Wulgof said.
"Told you the frog was a better idea," Khule said, "Biddable, quiet and tasty in a pinch."
Their first day in Dunland passed before it occurred to Rin that she was finally back in Dunland. She wasn't sure what to make of that. Certainly, those around them knew what to do. The Rangers pulled in closer and began to reconnoitre far more extensively. The Rohirrim ensured their spears, bow and arrows were at the ready. There were fewer stops to let Hanavia run about during the day. Rin became instinctually wary, particularly as they passed a farm two days later around midday. The farmer, who lived alone, was more than pleased for company in his fields. He did not recall her but she would never forget him. She would never forget the look of rage on Loch's face either.
Rin stayed close to the horses, eager to be away from this old soldier with a penchant for vulnerable girls on their own. She could see there was washing on the line by the house. The sound of her heart pounding in her throat as Loch dragged her out at a run. The rip of the sheet as they tore it off the line while sprinting past. Rin glanced down to see her hands shaking. Fear, revulsion, anger – she did not know which. She needed to calm down, though, for Elian was becoming agitated.
'This the one?" Wulgof asked quietly and nearly took ten years off her life.
Rin didn't answer him and he set a hand on her forearm, "No need to worry now, Doc. Not while we're about. He's just a broken down old soldier, like me."
Rin's eyes narrowed as she studied the farmer. He was seated with Farbarad, Hanasian and her three Ranger shadows, laughing at something Farbarad had said. One look at Hanasian told Rin all she needed to know. The Rangers weren't there to be sociable.
"No, Wulgof. He's nothing like you," she replied solemnly and did not see the queer look the Dunlending directed at her before he ambled away, scratching his jaw and muttering quietly to himself.
Aside from that farmer, they did not see another soul and for that Rin was profoundly grateful. She had no doubt the residents of Dunland knew they were there. None at all. She hoped that they would be left in peace, judged too much of a risk to cross, for the remainder of their time here.
Hanasian watched his wife draw into herself as the days passed in Dunland. She was sleeping poorly. The nightmares had returned. It was as if the past was reaching for her, dragging her back, and he did not know quite what to do about it. Thankfully, no horde set upon them though he expected that had more to do with the force they travelled with rather than fortune or good will. The tradgies and offenses of the past here ran deep. Wulgof muttered about the bare hills and the absence of trees. The man somehow seemed more fierce than he usually did, though he trod unusually carefully around Rin. The Rohirrim were a bundle of naked aggression barely held in check. Khule was keeping a low profile entirely. Rangers were like as not a red flag to Dunland's bull. Farbarad was a silent storm in a saddle. Thank goodness for Videgavia, Hanasian thought.
Though they had little desire to linger in Dunland, they had to stop along the way. A pleasant dell in the lee of a sharp hill offered an ideal place to camp for the night. Dappled sun, lightly wooded, abundant fresh water fed by the icy shoulders of the nearby mountains. Hanavia wriggled out of his father's lap, down his leg and leapt to the ground with a joyous shout before Hanasian could even rein in properly. The boy was off like a shot, charging through the dell and soon pursued by three Rangers.
"Let the lad play while we set up camp. Will do him a world of good," Hanasian called after them as he climbed out of the saddle himself.
The business of setting up camp was down to a fine routine by now. Pickets were established, the order of the watch determined, tents and fire rings set up, fuel gathered. It scarcely needed Hanasian to oversee it, not with Videgavia keeping an eye on it all, and so he approached his wife. Elian had started to fuss. Rin was clearly weary, sleepless nights and days in the saddle weighing on her. She remained, he thought, too thin. She was wearing the blue dress that had stolen his breath away in Bree. She wore that dress a lot and it was starting to show signs of use. Now that it was relegated to travelling garb, he made a mental note to have another made before it fell apart entirely.
"Come, love. I am sure there is a quiet, cool place close by for Elian," he said and saw her nod, distracted.
Hanasian took Rin's arm and led her further into the dell. A proper watch had been deployed now and it was utterly secure. Farbarad was with Hanavia on the banks of the stream, predictably. Hanasian could hear his son's excited chatter as he regaled the elder ranger with his varied discoveries in the cool, sucking mud.
"Ah, this looks right, don't you think?" he said at a particularly pleasant, quiet spot.
Again Rin nodded absently and settled onto a fallen tree trunk. He sat beside her and kept a careful watch lest her fatigue result in an accident, such as dropping Elian. No such thing occurred and soon Elian was contentedly silent, hands curled against her mother as she nursed. Hanasian reached to stroke the downy soft skin of his daughter's cheek. Her pale hair was getting long. He brushed a strand of her mother's hair away from where it had curled over Rin's nose. Rin barely blinked.
"I know this is hard," he started, uncertain, and Rin sighed.
What was she thinking, he wondered. He looked over at where she was staring. All he could see was hillside. A green ocean rippled as the afternoon breeze eddied through the thick grasses. They sat in silence until Elian was finally sated and then headed back for the camp. When Rin saw it, her stomach dropped away with a sudden sickening lurch and she froze.
"What? What is it?" Hanasian asked, deeply concerned.
His grey eyes scanned the surrounds. Trees, moss, undergrowth, a bush covered in periwinkle blue flowers... A glance to Rin revealed that her face was the colour of chalk. He could see her pupils had dilated.
"Surely not," he said and Rin drew in a shuddering breath.
She turned to face the hillock again. Her expression was flooded with emotion and Hanasian called for aid.
"Fetch Farbarad, keep the children here," he told the Ranger who loped towards them at speed, and passed Elian to him.
"Aye," the Ranger responded with a glance at Rin, "Just Farbarad?"
"Yes, for now," Hanasian said and then, "Quickly. This must be done before the light fails."
The Ranger was off, Elian carefully cradled against his chest. While they waited, Hanasian pulled his wife into his arms. She barely seemed responsive.
"Rin, We do not know what lies on the top of that hill. No matter what, nothing there can hurt you now. Do you hear me?"
Farbarad arrived short of breath and puzzled, "What?"
Hanasian explained in quiet Sindarin and posed a simple question. Farbarad scanned the area and then shook his head miserably, "I don't know! It was over 40 years ago now, dark and we were running for our lives."
"There is only one way to find out," Rin said, eyes still locked on the hill.
"Is that…wise?" Farabarad queried.
"I have been carrying the past for too long. It is time, I think, to set it down," she answered, not realising she had answered in Dunlendic, and set off towards the hillock.
The years had surrendered the trail that once had been carved into the hillside. The years had taken a lot, Rin discovered. The barn was now a jumbled heap of timbers that grass was devouring. Gone were the chickens and horses and goats and Da's one cow. Gone too were the windows and door and roof of the cottage. No one had scavenged the stones. The thicker stack of the chimney thrust unevenly into the vast sky. Rin stood in the empty doorway. There was only one way in and out of the cottage. Gone was the table that Loch used to run helter skelter about, knocking chairs this way and that and making Ma cross. Gone were all the pots that hung near the hearth, copper always so shiny that you could see your face in it. Gone were the beds they would all pile into, sometimes all in one on the coldest of winter nights.
Here and there Rin could see, amidst the thick weeds that occupied what once had been her home, broken pieces of glass dimmed by dust and the years. Bottles, she guessed, of all the things her mother had put away to keep for the winter. She had let Rin help her with the pickling, patiently explaining vinegars and oils and brines and which went best with the things Da brought home. The weeds were so high that Rin could not make out the hearth. It had jutted out and it was there that Ma had made her sit while she brushed out tangles in recently washed hair.
Da would tease her and make her laugh with silly stories to distract her from the pulling of the comb. Loch would pull faces. Da had made a bird feeder one, just for her. He had set it in the window so that she could watch the birds from inside. If she was very still and quiet, they would linger there for a long time. Sometimes he would sit with her and watch. Sometimes Loch would sneak up on them for a joke and frighten them away. Da would chuckle along but pretend to be cross with Loch for her sake. Ma would sing. She could hear their voices, their laughter. Their faces were lost to her though. Rin considered the stones of the doorway around her. She had not touched them, yet.
A short distance away, Hanasian watched his wife in the door of her shattered childhood home. The wind was rising as the sun set. It tugged at her skirt and hair. She had her back to them both. He could not guess at her thoughts. Of all the places to stop for the night, this? His jaw clenched and he cast a glance at Farbarad. Farbarad was staring at what used to be a barn, hands curling and uncurling at his side.
"I thought she'd be safe here. I really did," he muttered to himself, "It was our only choice!"
Farbarad could still see the tears on Verawyn's face as she carried her child past him and into the barn. He had stood at the door, chaffing at every moment lost. They needed to be off, draw those hunting them away. He had urged Verawyn to make haste, little knowing it would be the last she would see of her infant daughter. Still, if they had not set her here, the child would have been lost as surely as her parents were. Even if the arrow that claimed Verawyn that night had spared her daughter, how could they have sustained the child? She would have perished of hunger by the time they had regained the safety of Imladris. Farbarad found that his logic offered cold comfort to him.
Hanasian wiped his hands over his face. He had feared that the bones he had found scattered across the hill and in the cottage would linger still. He hoped someone had set them to rest and scavengers had not carried them off. He still remembered the gruesome tableaux. His wife's foster parents had not met easy ends. Her mother, in particular, had been made to suffer. He felt the pressure of their presence even now and noted that Rin had been careful to touch no stones. Nothing could be gained from reliving those hellish final moments that the stones had witnessed. And so, when his wife set her palm to the doorway, Hanasian shouted his alarm.
All Rin wanted to do was see her mother's face one last time. And the stones gave her that. She saw what she had already seen. She saw the spark of life gutter out and her mother's eyes grow cold and empty. She heard the smashing of glass as they had come through the window to unbar the door. She heard their grunts and oaths, the slash of a knife and the spray of blood, the sickening sound of blows, flesh meting violence upon flesh. She felt the press of Loch's sweaty hand over her mouth as he pulled her closer to her. She watched her mother's blood pool and gather on the floor. She could see their faces too. Bloodlust and hatred, fear and revulsion. Harsh voices and panting. The stink of rancid sweat.
Hanasian reached his wife as her knees buckled. He pulled her back from the door and against him. Her eyes were open but unseeing and she was muttering something over and over again in Dunlendic. Farbarad pulled his water bag from his belt, emptied water into a cupped hand and sprinkled it over Rin's face. She was a white as a ghost and Hanasian could feel her shuddering. It was the barrow downs and Skhar all over again, only infinitely worse.
Shadows leaned over her. She did not know who. They surrounded her. Was it happening again? If she took her mother's place would Loch know some peace? Had they come because of her, what she was? One of the shadows held her fast, his grip unbreakable no matter how she tested it. The other leaned over. Something dripped onto her face. Blood? No, it was sweat!
Farbarad refilled the palm of his hand with yet more water and let it fall over Rin's face. She twisted to avoid him, wrenching herself over so that she lay on the ground between Hanasian and Farbarad, panting into the grass as she repeated that phrase in Dunlendic.
They released her! Why? What devilry did they plan now? Grass was cool against the palms of her hands. She curled her fists into it and could smell the earth. But nothing further came. No more sweat. No pain or blood or violence from them. She pressed her face against the ground and breathed in the clean scent of the earth. It had passed. They had gone. She was alive. And her tormenters were not monsters at all. They were men. Frightened, cowardly, unwashed men. The discovery resonated through her as she drew in another breath. Against men she could prevail.
Hanasian glanced at Farbarad and saw the Ranger shrug. It seemed that Rin's trembling had started to abate. She had stopped muttering and now she just lay there upon the earth.
"Not monsters, men," she said, this time in Westron though the ground muffled her words, "Men, not monsters,"
Hanasian stroked back hair carefully and she twisted her head to look at him. Rin's eyes still seemed clouded, but they were clearing to a delicate starlit grey even as he watched. He ran the back of his fingers over the curve of her cheek. Slowly she pushed herself off the ground. He pulled her into his arms and held her tightly as the sunset cast a ruddy light over the hilltop. Night was not far away and Hanasian was determined to be safely amidst the fires of camp by the time it fell.
That night, Hanasian was surprised to find that his wife slept soundly. The fact that she did so with her Ranger outside the tent, drawn sword across his knees as his vigil was maintained, was no surprise. Come the following dawn, her soft warmth lay quietly against him. He opened his eyes to find she was quietly studying him, hair tumbling around her in delicate golden rivulets. For the first time since, perhaps, before the darkness of winter had covered them, he felt like he was gazing upon his wife. She reached out to smooth his hair, winding the dark lengths around her long fingers as she did so, leaned forward and kissed him fulsomely.
And so they made their way out Dunland and into Rohan proper. Rin's irritability seemed to have vanished into thin air. Hanasian began to feel a little guilty about the surprise that lay ahead. It seemed, somehow, even more duplicitous to go to Edoras after seeing his sister. Thus he resolved they would reach Edoras first. The sooner that was out of the way the better. Then there would be no more lingering chickens from Rin's past yet to find a roost. She had to let go of the past. So much, so many were relying on her steady hand for the future. And, the more time he had to work off her displeasure with him before they reached Gondor, so much the better.
Hanasian kept a careful eye on the Rohirrim. They would certainly realise the change in their course. His cousins and Foldine seemed preoccupied with what appeared to be an argument between them. What it was eluded him but after a particularly tense day of argument between the three men, Foldine threw his arms up one night and stomped over to the fire where Rin sat with Hanavia. Rin stared up at the man, who didn't notice at first because he was busy scowling over at Frea and Folca. The twins stood together nearby, arms folded, brows furrowed and expressions unhappy. A normal state of affairs for Frea, most unusual for Folca.
In a voice that he was certain would carry, Foldine announced "I owe you my life and I haven't forgotten it, despite what some say."
"Well now, that's….nice," Rin observed cautiously and this made the man look down at the woman he was speaking to. He sighed after a moment, the last vestige of regret.
"And so, in recognition of that, I will forgo any…profit that might arise as a result of our…acquaintance."
At that, the twins nodded their evident satisfaction and Foldine sighed again.
"Does that mean I get to keep that pipe of yours too?" Rin asked and Foldine's expression darkened. He'd quite forgotten the fact that the woman he was not now going to claim bounty on had stolen his best pipe.
"Fine," he muttered and stalked away, leaving Rin to smile conspiratorially at her son.
Of course, the talk of profit had not gone unnoticed by others in the camp. The Dirty Three spent the next three days feretting out this unclaimed profit that lay for the taking. Ultimately, it was Khule who discovered the secret and he brought this to the other two. Molguv's eyes lit up at the news and Wulgof looked like he eaten a lemon.
"Oh, that's just perfect now," he grumbled.
Molguv nodded enthusiastically, "It's what we've been waiting for. That price is the highest in Rohan. All gold too. Probably weighs more than she does. Do you think they'll pay the full bounty given we've only got half of the culprits?"
Khule looked thoughtful and Wulgof thumped the Haradian's shoulder, "No! We can't! She's our patron. How can she pay our wages if she is in jail, eh?"
"I'm sure something can be worked out," Mulguv assured him, "And they won't keep her for long. She's royal, she's a mother and Eomer has a weakness for pretty faces. You saw how it happened in Rhun. She was as charming as a hungry mountain cat, and all he could do was grin after her."
"And what about the fact we'd be selling out one of our own?" Wulgof sighed and Khule eyed him.
With a shake of his head, the Easterling said, "Never thought Wulgof would present us with an ethical dilemma. What are we coming to?"
Ultimately, though, it was impossible to approach Edoras without knowing it. The traffic on the roads increased and then there was the fact that Meduseld's golden roof sat high above a plain. Difficult to miss, really. As soon as Rin clapped eyes on it she reined in her horse.
"Absolutely. Not." she declared and had already pulled her horse about before she was surrounded.
"Time," Hanasian said as he leaned across to address his wife sternly, "To honour commitments given and undertakings made. Time to set the past to rest."
Rin pointed at Foldine, "There is no conceivable way I am riding in there with a man of that profession!"
"But I promised already!" Foldine objected, injured, "And I gave you my best pipe!"
"Not to worry, Doc. We'll make sure you ain't arrested. My personal guarantee!" Wulgof earnestly assured her and Hanasian gave the signal to continue on towards Edoras.
"Comforting," Rin growled to herself and eyed the knot of horses and men that now cornered her in. If Slippery were here, she'd help her. Last time she travelled without another woman, Rin resolved.
"You know, there is a way you could be assured with confidence," a deep Southron voice rumbled over to her left.
Rin sighed at that, "After Tharbad, I am utterly broke."
"Really? That's a shame," Molguv agreeably commented.
Hanasian missed none of this, "Molguv, please don't extort my wife in my hearing. Men, don't take your eyes off her for a moment. She's slipperier than an eel. Rin, you have two choices: hard or easy. This is happening. Choose wisely."
"And I've been so well behaved lately," Rin muttered to herself, "There was an unwise choice, clearly."
She was so busy scowling at the place between her gelding's ears that she missed the grins on the faces of the men that rode around her. And the fact that Wulgof had taken the initiative to wear his surcoat was not discovered until they reached Edoras' main gates and those that waited there to welcome them into the city.
While the formal welcome at the gates might fall a long way from established decorum, the fact that Rin pursued Wulgof through the horses, tackled him to the ground and ripped the surcoat off him made one thing clear. The Lord and Lady of Cardolan had arrived to call upon the ageing Eomer King as promised some three years ago. For so many reasons, it would be a memorable meeting of northern and southern realms.
As they made their way with their escort and a dishevelled Dunlending wearing blue rags stubbornly around his neck, Hanasian beckoned one of the escort nearer.
"Whatever you do, make sure my lady wife's full title is not used."
"My lord?" the man replied, surprised and glanced at Hanasian's fuming wife.
"Forewarned is forearmed. Tell the others!"
As the man scurried ahead, Rin considered her husband at length.
"Send him off to lock the doors and windows and hide the sharp knives?" she sarcastically inquired, the acid of the question masked in her calm, sweet tones.
Unapologetic, Hanasian answered, "Something like that, dear heart."
He rather enjoyed his wife when she was angry. Quite becoming to the eye, he thought with a smug grin that did nothing to calm her down.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A brisk southerly wind pushed out from the White Mountains and made the banners and pennants of Edoras thrust boldly. The tower guard scarcely paid them heed as his made his way down to report.
"A party of northerners approach. Dunedain in the main, but there are others in their number."
"Your eyes are sharp Halreth of Snowbourne. Send word sent to the gates to receive our visitors with all courtesy," Erkand answered.
Halreth swiftly bowed and saw to it while Erkand sought our his king. He found Eomer in his solarium, deep in thought. .
"Eomer King!" Erkand said announcing himself for Eomer was not a man to sneak up on. Eomer made no answer, indeed gave no sign that he had heard for several moments. Just as Erkand was weighing up the merits of further announcement, Eomer loathed repetition, the King glanced up and his weathered eyes settled on the captain of his guards.
Relieved, Erkand approached, "A party approaches. Dunedain it seems, there are others with them that are not."
"It would be Hanasian with his company, a varied lot if ever they were. It appears the time for further deliberations has expired. A decision is needed now, though hasty it will be."
Eomer strode towards Erkand as he spoke but his captain made no further comment. He had served his king long and well.
Eomer continued on after another brief moment of thought, "Of the body that was found and the reports from the western riders, of their suspicions and charges, no word must be said. I have kept my counsel on this for reasons too many to number. Perhaps I will take private counsel with Hanasian alone on the matter."
Erkand nodded and looked at the King's Guard arrayed discretely around the solarium. The slightest ripple, heads inclined barely, confirmed the King's instructions were understood by the six men that formed the King's personal guard.
Eomer King then said as he walked toward the door, "It will be good to have guests, for the annual Cheese Festival will commence shortly. I will walk with you to greet them as they are escorted from the gate."
Erkand was for a moment surprised, but then the King's childhood companion recalled the extent of history between his King and this Ranger Hanasian. Bonds forged in the bloody maelstrom of battle were rarely broken or set aside. Hanasian and Eomer had seen the Pelennor both on that grim day. Now, well it was no surprise at all. In fact, Erkand expected no less of his King. He nodded and accompanied the King down the wide steps of Meduseld. The guards followed without needing instruction, boots crunching on the stone path that led to the gate. The rapid footfall of a man in a great deal of excitement raced towards them made a startled staccato that no one missed.
"M'lord," he said hurridley," Lord Hanasian has asked that his lady wife not be greeted by her proper titles!"
Eomer eyed the gate guard closely and mastered his smirk. The man wore an expression he had seen on a number of faces in the immediate vicinity of the ancestral queen of Cardolan. It appeared that the intervening years, and motherhood, had not softened her stance towards such customs. Would she, he wondered for a moment, press a dagger she had produced from goodness knew where against the windpipe of anyone who dared call her princess? He rather hoped she might, personally.
Eomer glanced sidelong at Erkand and found the man's eyes twinkled in anticipation.
The king cleared his throat, "That is not unexpected. Let Hanasian be known as my old friend of the Dunedain and his lady wife as exactly that."
The gate guard took his leave and rode back down the hill toward the approaching party.
Eomer chose the base of the path that led up to Meduseld to wait with Erkand, the rambunctious wind shoving cloaks and helmet crests and braids of gold or fire this way and that.
He murmured to Erkand, "Hanasian is not one to care overly much how he is addressed. His wife, however, is another matter entirely. She does care, very much, and not in the direction one might anticipate of a woman of such high descent and rank."
"I recall Rhun clearly, m'lord. Had I not seen it for myself, I would have continued to dismiss the tales from Harad as mere rumours."
Eomer grunted at that. His son had come back full of tales that were very difficult to believe until one met the lady in question.
"She will eschew as many formal obligations and privileges as she can get away with. We will welcome them as honoured visitors to our realm, but see to it that the court does not get any ideas once it catches wind they have a visiting royal family under Meduseld's eaves."
"Yes, sire. That course seems wise," Erkand replied and turned to spread the word to one of the nearby guards that waited with them.
"At least, until we're certain she's unarmed," Eomer chuckled to himself.
Once Erkand was certain the instructions were being passed along, Eomer added, "After our greeting, settle them in the guest wing. If I recall correctly, Hanasian and his wife are likely to have small children with them."
"How many, sire?"
"Three. Once they are settled, have them come to me at their earliest convenience."
After the small ruckus before the gates, the ride into Edoras was jarring quiet, especially for Rin as the circumstances of her desperate flight out of this very city some twenty years ago pressed close.
Rin eyed her surrounds unhappily and, once one of the guards set off at speed for Meduseld, she shot a scowl over at her husband.
"Send him off to lock the doors and windows and hide the sharp knives?" she demanded, her voice low in a way anyone who knew her knew was dangerous.
"Something like that dear heart," Hanasian replied, unperturbed and looking thoroughly pleased with himself.
This did nothing to stop Rin from consider her various options for escape, followed shortly by her plans for vengeance on all those who were do such a terrible job of hiding their amusement behind her.
Her eyes roamed, appearing grey and sharp in the bright daylight. Hanasian knew that meant his wife was putting her rather too clever mind to nefarious uses. Farbarad had warned him. Unearthly blue meant high emotion of some sort. Stormy grey meant that she was thinking hard and trouble would not far away. Prevention, as his wife was fond of saying, was the best cure for that and she was not so angry as to be beyond reason. In fact, all things considered, she was dangerously calm. He decided to consider that a boon rather than a warning.
"We knew this day would have to come. It is best it comes now, under Eomer's watch. You know he will wish us to see him in private," her eyes whipped to his and he saw they were starting to look alarmingly blue, "All will be well my love."
Rin's jaw firmed and she flicked her eyes away from him without a word. The escort met them only a few dozen paces to where the king stood with his men. They dismounted upon arrival and bowed with one exception. Hanasian was mildly relieved Rin opted to curtsy instead of run as soon as her feet hit the ground. Eomer, himself not one for rituals and formality nodded at the men but stepped forward to bow to Rosmarin. His eyes lingered briefly on Hanavia and Elian, who was nestled happily against her mother, before they shifted to Wulgof.
Eomer took in the Dunlender's state. Dress uniform, well presented, aside from the rags flapping around his neck. Cardolan blue, Eomer surmised and guessed that the commotion at the gate involved the Dunlender and the Lady of Cardolan. The Dunlender seemed a little out of water, unable whether he needed to keep his eye on the Rohirrim around him or the woman in their midst. As for the Lady of Cardolan, it was clear that her mood was dark but Eomer could guess at why. Was she not pleased to have come to Edoras? Where was the third child? Eomer would have to see to it that she would leave with a different feeling.
Hanasian was delighted that their reception was a subdued affair. He did not want to speculate on what may have happened had Eomer treated their arrival as a matter of state. Most of the Company and those Rangers not rotating on dury were given a fair hall to quarter in a short distance from Meduseld. Though sparsely furnished, it provided welcome protection from the wind that came from the mountains and, what is more, a prime view of the city prison cells. No sooner had this been noted were the wagers flying on how long it would take for the Lady of Cardolan to become a resident of such an establishment.
Rin watched them peel away enviously and instead found herself ushered under Meduseld's eaves with Hanasian, Farbarad, Videgavia and three Rangers. They were to be the guests of King Eomer. Hanasian hovered closely to his wife as they drew nearer. Her eyes became wider as they fixed on the great oak doors of the Golden Hall. He saw her swallow thickly. She was frightened and she clutched their daughter to her protectively. Thus far he had managed to prevent Rin from bolting the other way but for how long? Rin was determined, creative and when frightened she was unpredictable in a worrying way. He knew she could not hide from her past, that she needed to make peace with it.
Fortunately, he consoled himself, any good cheese festival had abundant supplies of good wine and good ale. Some had even been delivered to their rooms. Rin wasted no time in pouring herself a glass of wine and cutting off a bit of cheese, both at the same time. His wife had lost none of her dexterous control that her professions, thief and healer, demanded.
Hanasian said, "We should wash off the road and make ourselves presentable and then see Eomer King. He has summoned us to meet with him at our earliest convenience."
Rin lifted the wine glass to her lips and considered him as she sipped, "Yes, well, he has a long wait ahead of him before it becomes convenient for me."
Hanasian considered her a long moment while she sipped at her wine. While she was peering at the cheese in her other hand, Hanasian plucked the wine glass from her grip and peered deeply into her eyes, ignoring the frown, the blueness and the rising flush of her cheeks. All warning signs.
He said, "Listen to me, love. You have two options. You can attend the king in my company or, if I go alone, attend the king on your own when he summons you later. Either way, you will be attending the king. You cannot come to Edoras and fail to attend the see King."
"Then why did you bring me here? Why did you deceive me? You said we were going to call in on your sister, not come to Edoras!"
Hanasian sighed at the anger in her voice,"Because I thought you might enjoy the festival. You have been spared the many duties of a formal visit. Speaking with Eomer will take such little time. In any case, I'm sure Halcwyn will be here tomorrow. She likes cheese nearly as much as you. Now make your decision. Come with me as my wife, or face the king on your own as the Lady of Cardolan."
Rin made a grab for the wine glass but Hanasian swiftly moved it out of her reach. His wife was tall, but not quite as tall as him. Sitting on the bed, watching this curious exchange between his parents, Hanavia peered up at the glass his father held aloft over his head.
Hanasian said, "We can have more of that later, after our interview with Eomer King."
Rin exhaled sharply, the faint growl of some Dunlendic obscenity echoing, and blew a wayward lock of hair away. Hanavia giggled at that. It was clear to her that she wasn't going to wriggle out of this and so she commenced to straightening herself up, in no particular hurry at all. It was a knack any recruit mastered in the Black Company. Move swiftly enough to avoid censure but not too quickly. Hanasian knew what she was doing. Rin knew her husband was aware. She was getting away with it too until someone knocked on the door.
One of her Rangers, the original three shadows that Farbarad and Hanasian had set on her heels back at Tharbad, poked his head through.
"The King wishes you to dine with him. Dinner will be served at sunset."
Hanasian straightened his tunic and looked over at Rin, who groaned as theatrically as her foster brother might have. She scowled into the mirror at her hair and then down at her garb. By Hanasian's reckoning they were about ready to go. He took his wife by the arm before she could flop onto the bed and announce she had nothing to wear and was tired and wasn't hungry.
"Shall we?" he asked
"If we must. Let's get this done and over with," she grimly replied
Hanasian pushed open the door with his foot, his arms busy keeping Rin from bodily throwing herself through a window to escape. The three Rangers outside were arrayed around a kindly looking woman who bobbed a curtsy as soon as she set eyes on Hanasian and Rin. The wet nurse, Hanasian presumed just as one of the Rangers signalled as much. Rin, who thought wet nurses to be a life saving necessity in most circumstances, considered them to be a personal affront when it came to herself. Hanasian whisked his wife away before she could make her displeasure known and slowly, while she ominously glowered, they walked slowly toward the King's chamber.
- - - -
Things were going rather smoothly for Loch and the men of his company. The way in which he had been accepted into what had once been Voromir's guest house seemed overly polite. Loch felt uncomfortable moving into the main hall and was content to allow Voromir's widow and sons the time they needed to get their affairs in order. Unaware of the arrangements and provision his sister had made for Voromir's dispossessed family, Loch knew all too well what it meant to face the world with so little. He wished there was something he could do to ease their way but this case was beyond his power. This was a matter of the crown. Not just any crown, but the high crown, the reunited kingdom, and his sister's position in that glittering array of remote yet illustrious individuals. He was here as her Steward, whatever that meant.
Loch wanted this to be normal. Loch wanted to be just another ordinary soldier or scout. But here he was known as the brother of the Lady of Cardolan, a crown princess and one of the highest ranked royals beyond the High King's immediate family in all the wide lands. They bowed and scraped and ducked their heads and he could not so much as sneeze without someone wanting to scratch his nose for him. He worried at how those who had only known the long, unbroken rule of Lord Voromir viewed all this. He had the edict of the King on his side, and he had a captain who was far away that had sent him here and the scout felt all of a sudden very prominent and exposed. Loch tried not to dwell on it, but it snuck up on him in unguarded moments such as his dreams.
The dream was typical of those he had at times. He thought of them as Rin's sort of dreams, the ones that are eerily real and usually always mean something. She had them far more than he did, and hers usually were about the future or the past or both in ways they don't understand until an event has occurred. Loch's usually had something to do with the Company marching off somewhere to do battle with some warlord in some far away land on the fringes of the kingdom, or having to put down a resurrection somewhere in the former lands of Mordor. But this time it happened differently. Hanasian and Rosmarin were gone, he did not know where, and Videgavia had fallen. What remained of the Company all feared the fact that he may someday be in the position of having to be Captain. He was voted in by the slimmest of margins, filled with doubt and trepidation that waxed as the dream lumbered on, treacle slow and ponderous, until he woke with an inexplicable start. Right when the outcome of the vote was declared.
Loch's sharp movement stirred Rose who slept beside him. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood, wiping the clammy sweat from his brow. What was so frightening about that dream?
[I]"Damn dreams," he muttered softly, unaware that Rose had also woken until she spoke.
"It has been long since I dreamt. Not since my break with my sister. That changed tonight though. I dreamed, as did you. Tell me Loch, what did you dream?"
Loch took a drink from a pitcher of water and poured some over his head. He said,
"The Company… it was dying. We were in a battle that did not end well. There were only seven of us left. Vid fell. I said Wulgof should be Captain as the oldest ranking member, but he put that down and said I was meant to be Cap, and the others agreed. Suddenly I was Cap, even though I said I wasn't ready for that. No help would come from any of the Old Company, for they had perished. I saw Vid and Khule fall, and Molguv and Hamoor's status was unknown. They took rear-guard to help the rest of us get out of the canyon."
Loch's voice broke off and into the ensuing silence, Rose said, "You are nearly captain now. You are here with Rowdy's men. They look to you, respect you as their own. Come now and rest."
Loch came back to bed and Rose ran her fingers trough his hair. She marvelled as Rin had in years gone by, how easily Loch fell asleep again. While it didn't take long for him to fall asleep, Rose remained awake. Her hand glowed slightly as he caressed Loch's head. She would keep the dreams away.
The sun was bright in her face when she heard Loch's voice in the distance. She felt water on her face and she opened her eyes to squint against the bright sunlight. Loch knelt beside the bed, clearly worried.
"Are you unwell Rose? I have been trying to wake you for some time now. I feared you were dead for you were limp and unresponsive. I couldn't remember what Rin said to do, or not to do-"
"I… I am not sure what happened. I was asleep, with no dreams. Last I remember, you had fallen asleep in my arms and I was stroking your hair."
She sat up and pulled her robe about her shoulders. Rose directed a small smile toward Loch.
"I am well, my love. It was just a hard, deep sleep."
Rose said nothing, though, of the thoughts that threaded through her sluggish mind. She had not meant to go to sleep and for good reason. Sleep meant that she had lost control of it. She had pushed too far too quickly in her bid to regain her powers. She no longer had her sisters for stability and protection. She was on her own. Or, she mused as she considered Loch's worried face, perhaps not. She would have to talk to Loch about it, but not now.
- - - -
Halcwyn had packed for a ride on her own and Enedoth had no plans to prevent her. Ever since that day a woman was found dead, Halcwyn had changed. He had been shocked by her confession and could not help that he had withdrawn for a while as he came to terms with all this meant. His wife had killed someone. There was only one way forward. She would have to speak to the authorities about it, but she refused to do so and he refused to turn her in. And so both of them withdrew, did all they could to make the matter fade. Though she stood on the far side of their sitting room, he felt like she stood a league or more away and now she was leaving.
"How long are you going to be gone?" he asked, striving to keep his voice calm and steady.
"I don't know," Halcwyn retorted sharply and then, after a moment, "It will depend on what decisions are made."
"Where are you going?" Enedoth asked
"Edoras," Halcwyn mumbled as she strode to the door and the horse she had readided and left waiting outside.
"Let us come with you!" Enedoth demanded.
Halcwyn said, "You cannot. The foals need tending to and even if they did not, this is something I must do myself if I am ever to find peace. Wish me well dear husband, and may I return complete once again."
Without so much as a goodbye for him or their children, Halcwyn rode away. As she rode, her mind roamed through the years. She could not say she had ever truly been happy. Content, certainly, but not happiness and now this thing threatened to take even that. She loved Enedoth and their children. She had to make things right again, as far as anyone could when a life was taken. She would have to appeal to the King.
Halcwyn rode through the night but she rested for a time at dawn in the dew covered grass. While she rode light and on her own, and made excellent time, she did not glimpse Edoras until later in the day. She noted the flags that flickered over the gates and higher, over Meduseld itself. It was too distant to make out the devices but their presence was enough.
"The cheese festival…I had forgotten. This is ill-timed. Perhaps I should hesitate and linger and arrive on the last day…." Halcwyn murmured to herself and her horse.
Halcwyn debated with herself, lingering until the sun had set. In the darkness she rode forth slowly. Skulking her on her own would be suspicious. Better that she make for Edoras, keep a low profile and seek audience with King to throw herself upon his mercy. By her reckoning, if she kept a steady pace, Halcwyn figured she would arrive in the afternoon of the next day.
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.