61. Chapter 61
Loch remained in his office for some time, pondering the dilemma posed by Katela. The possibility that she might meet a similar end as her daughter had did cross his mind. He'd be lying to say otherwise. Yet Loch recalled something Hanasian had said to him once and his sister too many times to count. That sort of thing should not be done lightly. In any case, Katela had done nothing he knew of to merit such an extreme course of action. He'd have a hard time explaining it to anyone, including his wife and himself. The longer he considered it, the clearer it became. He would have to find answers for Katela, justice even if such a thing existed.
While that was clear to Loch, he could not puzzle out why Katela had come directly to this place. Why would she not take the easier, safer path and petition either the King or his Steward? Whatever the answer was to that, he suspected he would also have to find it. Such was his lot now that he was his sister's Steward.
Dorne's quiet knock at the door intruded on Loch's thoughts and he looked up to find his new aide had already entered his office.
"Sir, I set Katela up in a small room downstairs. I believe she may be unwell."
"Oh?" Loch asked, hope at a convenient solution rising again and this time without his hand in it.
Dorne went on, "What I mean is she became rather pale and withdrawn after we had finished."
Loch nodded at the door ajar behind Dorne. The younger man turned to close it and when he turned back, Loch continued.
"I think it unlikely that she would have eaten well on her trek to us down here," Loch surmised and Dorne nodded, ""We will see how she feels in the morning. I will speak again with her then."
The following morning saw little change in Katela's general condition. The woman seemed lost in her own world and this made Loch was unsure how to proceed. He eventually decided to send word to Minas Tirith for anyone who vouch for what Katela had reported. Once that was seen to, he called upon Katela and dismissed Dorne. Loch closed the door as well, privacy was best, and turned to consider the woman. Despite there being a chair and a bed in the room, Katela sat on the floor and stared at it. She may not even realise he was there, Loch thought. Sometimes Rin was like that.
"M'lady," Loch began and found that Katela looked up at him, "There has been word of your daughter."
The hopeful expression on Katela's face made it seem as though several of her years fell away but Loch's expression remained sombre. As his expression remained unchanged, he saw questions start to flicker to life in Katela's eyes. He expelled a breath, his mind shifting from one decision to another even as he stood there.
"When I was up north, I met someone who was as you have described. She was a part of an ill-natured bunch that sailed a ship along the coast."
Katela shuddered with tension and Loch doubted whether he should have said anything at all. The hardest is not knowing but fearing the worst. It was something that had tormented his sister and he still felt a deep sense of guilt at that. Loch found himself wishing he had news of Rin, Hanasian and the Company. He missed three of their number particularly, men from the far reaches of the lands, banded together playing a game or brewing something nearly undrinkable or arguing with each other on how things had happened in the distant past. He quickly wrenched his thoughts back to his present surrounds.
"Their ship wrecked in a storm near the river mouth and broke apart on the heavy seas. We didn't know how many were aboard, but two washed ashore. I believe your daughter Karlina may have been one of the pair. More than that I cannot yet say."
Katela breathed heavily as a tumult of conflicting emotions tore at her. Loch saw that she clutched a small cloth doll wrapped in a silk dress and wondered if it was all she had left of her daughter. Loch went to the door and summoned Dorne.
He said to him, "Lady Katela may stay or leave as she wishes."
Loch left before he could say even more. Already he suspected he had said too much. It was unlikely that he was wrong about connection between Katela and the woman that had washed to shore with Hanasian those months ago. And he knew well what had happened to Karlina. But he was not absolutely certain. Hanasian had said that he had met Karlina's mother. Only he could know and he wasn't here. Yet.
Loch stood on the front step and looked out. He had so many at his command here but there were few he would trust completely. Dorne was too new. His sargeant seemed genuine but the man still presented Loch with an enigma. There was something about the officer that suggested the man knew more from his time spent in Voromir's service than he had admitted to. As badly as he might wish that Runner, Dhorgat and the other lads that came to be "his" boys in Rhun were with him now, they were not. Loch needed someone who was swift and trustworthy he could trust.
Word had to be sent to Videgavia and Hanasian about Katela and this new development concerning the man that had tried to kill his sister. The thought made his blood boil and the memory of Rin's deathly pallor as she was brought off that ship surfaced. Hanasian's fear and desperation, the wailing of his nephew, the brewing rage of Farbarad. The crushing sense of defeat despite their victories elsewhere. His own terror that his sister might perish. Loch drew a deep breath. Short short of sending Dorne or going himself, he wasn't sure how he would get word to where it was truly needed. He had lost himself in thought so deeply that he didn't hear Dorne return until his aide cleared his throat.
Loch turned and asked him without thinking too much, "Corporal, if I was wanting to get a message to, say, Rohan, who could I entrust it to?"
Dorne considered it a moment, "From here, I know not. I suspect it would be easy to get a message to Minas Tirith with speed."
"Of course!" Loch suddenly exclaimed.
Hanasian and his sister were already travelling. He'd been so preoccupied with his wedding that this had slipped his mind. Loch squinted as he attempted to recall the plans. Hanasian had been intent on keeping it quiet, but if memory served they would have to call in on Minas Tirith. Molguv, Khule and Wulgof would be with them. Videgavia too. He knew where the Dirty Three would go in Minas Tirith. Then it occurred to Loch that he'd have to write the message himself. He couldn't have Dorne write it and have it say what it needed to say in the hidden language that Hanasian and Mecarnil had shown him. Not just writing, then, but in a code he had not used for some time. Could he remember?
He said to Dorne, who was watching him expectantly, "No matter. By the time it got to who I send it to in Rohan, it would be old news anyway. Instead, I'm going to write -"
It was a morning of realisations for Loch, for right at that moment it occurred to him that he could not do as he was planning. What would Rose say? It had been so long ago, just before his sister's wedding. The Silver Bark and the enchanting Oganyan. So many of the men that were there are gone… Anras, Belegost, Mecarnil… is this what it's like to be a veteran? Gone, Rose would have heard of the tales of that rather memorable night. Loch wondered how many names and faces Hanasian, Videgavia, and the Dirty Three had seen pass. Clearly, he could not send a coded missive to the Silver Bark Inn. Not as a newly married man.
Loch turned to face the path, frustrated, and saw that his sergeant was approaching. The man looked like he had something to say and on a morning like this, Loch was ill inclined to hear about it.
"Report?" Loch asked anyway, little more than a grunt.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," the sergeant replied and then, "Considering that matters are in good order, I was thinking of putting in for some leave I have coming."
This was sudden…and why the rush to absent himself Loch wondered and yet…And yet! Another idea bubbled into life. He was full of them this morning. Frankly, it was tiring. He didn't know how Rin managed it.
"I think you've earned it. You've kept things in order here at a difficult time. Where are you headed?" he pressed, hoping fervently for the answer he needed.
"Minas Tirith," the sergeant replied and Loch stared at him such that the man thought he needed to explain himself, [I]"It's been some years since I was last there."
Loch nodded rapidly and tried not to look too pleased. Best to play it cool and detached.
"I see. Who do you recommend to act in your stead while you're away?"
"Corporal Burksaen. He's a straight fellow and follows orders. He's due a promotion. Was passed over last year."
"I'll take your recommendation into consideration and I'd like to speak with this Corporal Burksaen," Loch replied, wondering who devil this new Corporal was and why he hadn't met the man yet, "I'll approve your leave but it won't commence until you reach Minas Tirith. I want you to take a message to some of my comrades. If I know them, they'll be at the Silver Bark Inn. You know where that is?"
The sergeant nodded, "Yes, I know that place well. There was this dancer there-"
"Yes," Loch swiftly said, glanced over his shoulder and hushed his voice, "I know her."
The sergeant raised an eyebrow at his young commander.
Loch went on, "That's why I know the men I am seeking will be there. You'll know them when you see them. A big Haradian, a stern Easterling, and a cranky Dunlanding that looks like he could use a bath. I'll give you the message when you are ready to leave. When you deliver it, tell them that the Kid sent you. Like as not they'll bombard you with questions, and probably try to relieve you of any money you have on you. Be on your guard for that. Anyway, once you deliver it, your leave starts."
The sargeant gave Loch a crisp salute and left.
Loch turned back to Dorne, "I'm already tired. I need a nap. Wake me if anything urgent comes up, or when this corporal arrives."
Loch felt as though he had only just fallen asleep before Dorne shook him awake. He woke to discover it was night already.
"Sir," Dorne said, "Corporal Burksaen is reporting."
"Yes.. yes… good. I'll be with him soon."
The meeting was short and to the point. It didn't seem to Loch that the man had any divided, lingering loyalties. If anything, he may have old grudges and that could be very useful for him and his sister. Still, as Loch settled in to scratch out a coded message, he found himself keenly missing his Company.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The next morning saw Rin standing in the training ground usually reserved for the Knights of Minas Tirith. Careos held out a helm towards her and she already had the padded cap on.
"It's too big," she said.
He answered, "They usually are. Better too big than too small and, before you get started, they always occlude your vision in some way. However, the protection they offer is usually considered a benefit that outweighs that disadvantage."
After five weeks of training, Caeros was reasonably confident that she'd take the helm from him and put it on instead of tossing it aside. He was proven correct and this was encouraging. It meant she was coming to trust him and that was important. Of course, it did not mean that she would do as she was told. He suspected that she would always consider orders, instructions and laws as pieces of advice or recommendations. How Hanasian had managed to keep his Company Healer from dragging the rest of the Company into outright chaos was remarkable.
Rin dropped the helm, borrowed from one of the younger knights, onto her head. It wobbled, clearly too large. Rin eyed him from within. It was a distinct I told you so look. Caeros ignored it.
"It just needs more padding," he said.
"Really?" Rin muttered sarcastically and then, "Between the padding and the steel, it's a wonder knights don't collapse under the weight or from heat exhaustion."
"Rigourous training builds strength and endurance," Caeros replied, distracted by the need to locate something to pad the helm with. Rin was already wearing the gambeson.
"The same could be said of suffering," she dryly responded and then, "Do you think you could help?"
Caeros realised that she was padding the helm with her own long, tightly braided hair. She had stuffed most of it up and into it but the thick gambeson sleeves meant that that she could not reach all the way back to finish. He nodded, came to stand behind her and prodded the remaining hair into place. She didn't flinch or shy away. She just stood there with him behind her, fidgeting with the hilt of her beautiful sword. Only five weeks of intensive, gruelling, punishing training. She trusted him. At least this much. He realised he was grinning in anticipation. Now they could really get started.
At some point an audience was acquired. Rin was used to the Black Company gathering around but this audience included knights. Ordinarily she would have been horrified but she was too busy this time to pay them any heed. She had no idea what had gotten into Caeros. The man was more than monster today. He was a demon. Thank goodness for the helm and gambeson. Without them, she'd be poleaxed on the ground, drooling and witless. She still might be if she didn't pay attention. Sweat stung her eyes and so she found herself relying more and more on practised sequences when she could not clear her eyes. She had to moderate her breathing too thought the urge to pant became oppressive. At some point, it had to end and she clung to that thought, grit her teeth and tried not to embarrass herself.
Eventually, Caeros stepped back and sniffed.
"What would you call that?"
"Not falling over," Rin gasped, turned away and leaned against the fence that was far too close tactically but blessedly near in every other sense.
"You let me corner you," Caeros observed as she leaned against the rail and struggled for air. Her shoulders heaved, "But at least you did not completely humiliate yourself."
"A success, then," she panted, sheathed her sword and pulled the helm from her head.
She yanked the cap off as well and dropped both to the ground. Her hair was soaked and her cheeks flushed.
"Yes, I suppose so," Caeros allowed gently and then, "For an amateur."
She muttered something in Dunlendic but it was half hearted.
"There you are," Faramir called and Caeros looked up to find the Lord of Ithilien and Steward of Gondor striding towards them through the morning.
"I hope I'm not interrupting," he said.
"No, no," Rin answered a little too frantically and Caeros smiled.
"Not at all, my Lord. We had just finished our first session of the day."
"First? How many are there?"
"Three," Rin moaned and Caeros' grin widened.
He nodded respectfully at Faramir and clapped a hand on the back of Rin's gambeson, "Midday, m'Lady and, I think, we'll switch this cotton for a leather gambeson."
Rin groaned as Caeros walked away and Faramir said, "Perhaps we can discuss this another time."
"I'd rather get it over with now, provided I don't have to walk anywhere."
"Well and good," Faramir agreed and leant against the other side of the fence. If there was one thing he had learned as a shield-maiden's husband, it was not to argue with a strong-minded woman immediately after a sparring session.
It was some time before Rin returned. She was sorely in need of a bath, particularly if the expressions of the two Rangers who served as her escort that morning were anything to go by. The difference between her Rangers and the Black Company is that the Rangers were too polite to say anything. At least to her directly. She had no doubts they had quite a bit to say in their own company, particularly now that Caeros was training her. In fact, she was convinced some of the training routines Caeros used were not entirely of his making and that she was being training by twenty Rangers, not one. But there was to be no bath, she saw, for Hanasian was pacing restlessly.
"Didn't Caeros tell you that I was with Farmir?" she asked.
"Oh, he told me," Hanasian answered and Rin realised then that the source of his consternation was not her delay in returning from the morning session.
Diplomacy was not her strongest skill and his sister's fate sat in the balance, beyond his control, but still she felt a little stung. She began to peel the damp, stained gambeson off as she walked.
"Well?" Hanasian implored and Rin grimaced for having let things dangle. Hanasian did not like to wait for answers when it came to those he loved and he loved his sister dearly.
"I said nothing of Voromir," she began, "For his role is as yet unclear and the man is dead. Eomer's missive to Faramir contained nothing of it. Rather, it focused on the likely identity of the dead woman and where her body had been found. It said nothing of Halcwyn and mentioned you only indirectly."
Rin let the gambeson fall to the floor. It was heavy, soaked with sweat. So too was the tunic she had worn under it. She felt the clammy fabric cling to her back.
"I indicated my surprise that the matter had not been brought to my attention directly, considering the location of the supposed crime was within my borders and was allegedly involved men now in my employ. Cardolan has not been annexed by Rohan, nor a Prefect appointed.
"I said that if the woman was who Eomer believed she was, her life had been forfeit the moment she joined that traitorous cabal. I pointed out that good men had died, you had been attacked, our home and family attacked and our daughter perished.
"Lastly, I said that she had attacked men bringing her to face trial for her actions and eluded lawful custody. Such a dangerous and desperate criminal might do anything should someone else cross her path and that it was possible she had perished as a result of self-defence.
"As the matter has obvious personal connections that would throw my impartiality into question, I stated that Eomer had best act as he saw fit given he had appointed himself arbiter of the matter."
Rin prodded at the sodden gambeson with the dusty toe of her boot and turned to face Hanasian. He was staring at her but she could not tell what he was thinking.
"But we know who the dead woman is. I identified her and Halcwyn confessed to killing her," Hanasian countered.
"Yes, but Eomer did not know that when he wrote to Faramir. All Faramir needed to do was to decide if Gondor would take this up. They won't now and so the matter will be left to Eomer. Is that not what you were hoping for?"
Hanasian continued to stare at her, clearly puzzled, but he nodded.
"Well then," Rin said, "I didn't mess it up entirely. Now I need a bath!"
Hanasian watched his wife retreat into the adjoining room. Training had his been idea entirely and it was transforming her in more ways than he had imagined. The sweaty, weary woman that had just left was growing into her birthright right before his eyes and it was astonishing to behold. She had artfully handled this and now it was possible that disaster for Halcwyn might be averted. Eomer, he guessed, was inclined to mercy for all the reasons his wife had just outlined. Karlina was a pawn when all was said and done, dangerous but not inherently malevolent. The man responsible, however, was another matter entirely and now a mother grieved and searched for answers.
He wondered if Rin could see past her own anger to recognise another mother's grief. She had an unforgiving assessment of Karlina and he could appreciate why. But her mother needed to be carefully dealt with. He resolved to speak to Rin about this in the hope she'd take his counsel. Just as he bent to pick the gambeson up, a knock sounded at the door. Hanasian turned to see two familiar individuals arrive. Both wore openly pleased expressions of greeting but their eyes combed the room.
"She's not here right now," Hanasian said and Gimli looked disappointed.
However Legolas tilted his head and the Woodland's Prince smiled faintly, "She is not far. The lady sings."
Hansian suppressed a curse for elvish hearing and his wife's fondness of singing in the bath and adopted a stern expression, "She is a wife and mother now. She has responsibilities that cannot be set aside. More to the point, she'd not to go anywhere without an escort. It's for her own safety!"
"Oh, we wouldn't dream of leaving her," Gimli smiled, "Not after what she did to the Harlond last time."
"Is it true she broke into Steward's office?" Legolas inquired mildly.
"And out of jail, but that was before and if you think I am letting her go anywhere with either of you two, you are sorely mistaken. Dwarvish liquor! What were you thinking?"
"She stole it," Gimli protested and then fondly said, "Mischevious imp."
Legolas turned to select a chair and settled into it. There was no getting rid of either of them, Hanasian realised.
"How's retirement treating you?" Legolas inquired.
"Retired? I've yet to find a day's peace," Hanasian muttered.
"You married her, laddie," Gimli replied.
"And with your eyes wide open, if I recall. Unmitigated chaos, I told you," Legolas recalled.
"And yet, here you both are," Hanasian returned.
"Just like you, we can't resist the excitement. Ithilien is full of trees," Gimli stated with some distaste.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Loch stood on the stone pier and studied the scene before him.
"Damn," Loch groaned and watched a thick pillar of smoke rise into the clear blue sky, "This is not going to be pretty. She'll have my hide."
"Lady Rose, Sir?" Dorne asked.
"No," Loch answered glumly but said nothing of his sister to the young corporal. Dorne would have to meet the Lady of Cardolan on his own terms, just like the rest of them.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Married her he did, and gladly too. It was precisely the fire that he saw while she trained with Caeros that had drawn him ever closer to her. In the passing weeks he had noticed that his wife's vigour had transferred from avoiding training to participating in training. She was not one to abandon a cause because it was doomed or too difficult, no matter how futile, so clearly she had changed her mind. Now she wanted to train and while he had hoped for this, Hanasian was entirely uncertain of what had inspired this shift. Was it, he wondered as he leaned against the fence, that she relished the challenge it offered. Certainly she was enjoying herself. He saw her grin as she blocked a low sweep of Caeros' blade.
What is more, she had foregone the opportunity to slip away covertly for some mischief with that Elf and Dwarf. Instead, she and Legolas had passed the time with yet more training: knives and close combat instead of sword. Caeros had appreciated the break and found the sessions illuminating to observe from the sidelines. Knives, he learned, were his student's strength. She was no match for an Elf, no mortal could be, yet she gave Legolas a few things to think about that had the Dwarf chortling into his beard.
With the Lady of Cardolan devoting so much of her time to training, Videgavia called his Company to order on the morning of their last full day in Minas Tirith. He found that getting the Dirty Three to rise so early, let alone get them out on the parade ground, was a difficult feat. However Videgavia persisted for he perceived that they all needed reminding that they were Company, a military outfit, in the service of Cardolan.
With a return to Cardolan in the foreseeable future, it was necessary to return to established discipline. Particularly when the Rangers looked like transforming Doc into one of the most disciplined member of their party. Fond as he was of the Lady of Cardolan, Videgavia knew that if she was more disciplined than his Company then he had lapsed as a Captain in a critical way. He also knew that the Dirty Three would rather eat their own boots than let her outdo them. Thus, the Company assembled, rag tag and bleary eyed but including the Dirty Three that morning. There was, Videgavia saw, a lot of work to be done.
On the last evening in Minas Tirith, Lord Faramir bade all to gather for a feast. Even after the day of drills and weapons practice, the Company turned out looking their best, reasonably well groomed, in their Company dress blacks. Hanasian also wore his dress blacks, though his bore no rank or insignia. Rin wore a simple dress, a muted blue-grey, that was beautiful as she was solemn. It seemed surreal to Hanasian to have both his wife and the core of the old company in such a formal setting without the distraction of some political, even if he could not guess at the cause of his wife's stillness. Had she Dreamed she would have mentioned it and she had said nothing.
Still, the fare that evening was delicious; the ale fresh, and there was mesmerising entertainment. In time, Faramir rose and those gathered stilled to learn of the purpose of such an evening.
"It has been a pleasant few days having you people of the north visit here with us. Weighty matters have been discussed and resolved far easier than otherwise may have been possible. This morning I had sent a message by swift rider to Rohan for King Eomer. But today also I received a message from King Eomer. My wife, Lady Eowyn, will read her brother's message to you."
He stepped aside and the Lady Eowyn stood, a rolled parchment in her hand. She carefully unfurled it, drew a deep breath and began in a clear, unhurried voice.
"This message from my brother is to the King, but as King Elessar resides in his northern realm for a time, the matter at hand falls to my Lord husband as Steward of Gondor in the King's stead. I have asked to read this to you since it pertains to a matter close to you."
Eowyn then looked down at the parchment and read aloud.
"I write to you pertaining a matter that occurred on our western frontier. It concerns a woman by the name of Karlina and the manner of her death. Halcwyn, sister to Hanasian, Lord of Cardolan, had approached me to confess her part in the woman's death. I myself questioned the Lord of Cardolan, and it became clear to me that this matter concerned the Reunited Kingdom most closely.
After further consideration of all aspects and the information available to me, several concerns have come to light. Firstly, this deed did not take place on lands ruled by Rohan. Second, Karlina had taken up with unsavoury men that wilfully attacked the family home of the Lord and Lady of Cardolan and successfully carried out the kidnapping of Hanasian on the eve of the birth of their children – an egregious act. Thirdly, I am aware that the woman escaped the custody of her guard before she was slain. Had she remained with her guard, I believe she would have survived to answer for the charges brought against her.
"After much thought, I have hereby freed Lady Halcwyn on her own recognizance, as she has sworn to appear and face any charge that may be brought from the land of Cardolan, where the incident took place. Since Cardolan had ceded their royal charge to the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor, it now lies with the King of Gondor to hear any grievance and to bring charge. Until such time as the Reunited Kingdom brings any charges against those involved in Karlina's demise, including citizens of Rohan, I consider this matter put to rest."
Lady Eowyn rolled the scroll and passed it to Faramir. Beside Hanasian, he felt his wife quiver and he glanced at her. She was holding her breath, he noted, and her eyes were trained with startling intensity upon the Steward as he stood and took Eowyn's hand in his own.
"I have taken as my responsibility as Steward of Gondor, and ruling on this matter in the stead of King Elessar, I have taken the liberty of speaking to the Lady of Cardolan, her highness Princess Romarin, of this matter and it is not lost on me how uncannily her words echo that of Eomer King.
"I myself could not imagine anything so horrendous than to be forcibly taken from my wife's side so close to the birth of my child. Further, there remains the possibility that the distress caused by the attack on her family and men, the assault on her home and the sudden absence in violent and uncertain circumstances of her husband resulted in the early onset and difficulties that resulted in the tragic loss of a child.
"If I was to bring any charge in this matter, they would be against the woman Karlina and those implicated in the treasonous, vicious plot perpetrated against Cardolan. Therefore, I say that this matter is closed unless King Elessar himself finds cause to pursue this matter further. "
Faramir picked up his wine glass and said to the silent guests, "Now, I hope, the full measure of grief has been avoided this night and we can enjoy these last hours before your departure. It has been a long road from Cardolan to Minas Tirith. A fine sea-going ship has been procured for you and will make for the port of Edhellond. May your journey henceforth be free of care and trouble. To the Reunited Kingdom, to Arnor, to Cardolan!"
Faramir lifted his glass and a cheer went up around the room thrice, though it was somewhat delayed from Hanasian and Rin and muted. Both struggled with grief and memories of that dark time. Yet they looked to one another and Rin slowly expelled the breath she had been holding. They lifted their glasses in unison and drank, but they could not applaud. There was too much sorrow, too close, for that. Still, they felt an undeniable sense of relief and were glad of the Steward's ruling. Hanasian sought his wife's face, leaned into the softness of her hair and pressed a kiss to her cheek. At that, he saw a smile come over her face.
With the formalities seen to, the Company set to feasting and merrymaking with gusto. Even the Rangers seemed to enjoy themselves though, in truth, it was difficult to tell. Hanasian and Farbarad knew, of course, and Rin had a practiced eye for when a Ranger was enjoying himself. Still, the night invevitably wound to a close and when Eowyn and Faramir went to the door of the hall, Hanasian and Rin stood. The Steward of Gondor and the White Lady of Rohan bade each a good night and fair journey on the morrow. While Hanasian and Rin lingered with Eowyn and Faramir in quiet discussion and leavetaking, Videgavia harangued his men into a single file.
Much to Hanasian's surprise, the Daleman succeeded. They even had reasonable tempo as they started to march back to their accommodations. The Rangers, of course, slipped silently away, some forward and others lingering for their duty centred on the Lord and Lady of Cardolan.
"Only one day," Hanasian remarked on the way back to their rooms.
"I know," his wife answered, sounding rather chagrined. Behind them, Farbarad chuckled and Rin sighed and that, Hanasian knew, there had been a wager on that for once had not gone in his wife's favour.
"I told you, lassie, set a fire under that Daleman and he'll accomplish anything," Farbarad observed.
"I didn't set one, though!" Rin protested, "And the Dirty Three have been drunk for a sevenday straight!"
Hanasian eyed his wife sidelong and wondered how she'd know that, given she was so busy training.
"Oh, you set one by the name of Caeros," Farbarad demurred and Rin sighed again when he said, "And it will cost you."
"Somehow, Caeros always does one way or another."
Ahead, Hanasian could hear the Company march. It wasn't military precision, but considering how much they had eaten and drank, it was a respectable formation. They managed to keep in step. There seemed few Gondorians from the last round of recruiting here in Minas Tirith a few seasons ago now. Hanasian recalled the days when the Company had filled its ranks with Gondorians and a while later, Easterlings. Yet here the Company was now, Gondorians and Easterlings alike. What their commission with Cardolan would be from here out he did not know, but he could see that the Company he had started would live on, for better or worse, in the years to come. He could see Lochared at its head one day, as captain. He had not known the true extent of potential that Lochared or his sister possessed on that day he had recruited the young man. That had unfurled with time and the memories caused him to reach for Rin's hand as they continued on their way to the guest chambers allotted to them.
They arose early the next day to embark upon the walk to the quay. This time, Videgavia had the Company in double file and the Rangers modified their formation for the city streets they had to pass through and the children in their midst. Faramir and Eowyn greeted them at the dock. The ship was a solid river and coast runner that could go out to sea if required. Supplies were loaded and the Company and Rangers filed aboard. Farbarad took Hanavia with him, the young lad unable to wait on the dock with his parents. The prospect of a voyage was simply too exciting to resist. Faramir passed a small sheaf of papers to Hanasian and pulled him aside while Eowyn and Rin bent their heads together. The sails were let down and slowly began to puff. Aboard, the ship's Captain cried something about the tide and so Hanasian and Rin hastened aboard. The lines were released, the anchor already weighed and soon they were off, bound for Edhellond.
Farbarad could not but help notice something that morning. As he travelled back and forth over the deck, emptying wooden pails of water warmed in the ship's galley into a larger wooden tub set up on the deck, Caeros was keeping a certain lad distracted. Hanavia had his mother's temprament in nearly all ways but one. Rin was notoriously fond of baths. Hanavia, on the other hand, had reached the age that most boys reached wherein a bath was only narrowly preferable to having his hair brushed - which was to say that they should be opposed at all costs. Thus, the tub was set up above deck because Hanavia's bath invariably resulted in a great deal of water leaving his tub in the struggle between son and parent.
Caeros had been given the task of keeping the boy engaged. If Hanavia saw the tub then there was no doubt that he'd quickly work out what was coming next and abscond. Like mother, like son in that respect. For that reason, Rin was lurking below deck and waiting for the tub to be filled. She had to emerge at the last moment and waylay Hanavia. Caeros' role then would turn from playmate to well intentioned captor. What Farbarad noticed as he trudged back and forth was how well Caeros seemed to fulfil his function as playmate.
Hanavia was not a demonstrative lad. Like his mother and his father, he was a quiet boy. Still, Caeros had him chortling easily, disarmed and thoroughly engaged. Farbarad emptied the last pail in and flicked a signal in Caeros' direction. The younger Ranger nodded and soon enough, he had managed to fish Hanavia out of his boots. Truth be told, the lad needed no excuse to kick his shoes off in any case. Still, Farbarad thought as he leaned against the hatch, Havavia responded well to Caeros. In fact, of all the Rangers that had sworn service to Cardolan and Rin, only Caeros was able to get the young princeling to laugh.
"Is he ready?" a familiar voice asked, hushed whisper.
Farbarad glanced over his shoulder and saw Rin was lurking, "He's managed to get his boots off. If he starts on the lad's tunic, the game will be up. He's fast, that boy, too fast for his own good."
"I know!" Rin sighed and seemed oblivious to the irony of her frustration for the same could be said of Hanavia's mother.
"Well…that tunic of his needs a wash too," she said, making her mind up.
"Hiding," Rin replied.
Farbarad couldn't blame the man. Bathing Hanavia was akin to a pitched battle. The boy could squirm like an eel and he used every trick in the book.
"That being the case," Farbarad said, "Would you like some assistance?"
Rin's eyes narrowed slightly and she began rolling up her sleeves. She wore, he noted, a simple narrow tunic of faded red cotton and her very worn and scuffed Company leathers, stuffed into her old military boots. Her hair was braided loosely and wound around her head. In short, she meant business.
"No…I'm going to do this. The moment I need help, he's won," she declared stubbornly and set off.
Farbarad watched her stride across the deck, the bright morning sun gleaming on her golden hair. Hanavia also caught sight of his mother. Whether it was some innate instinct or the look on her face, the boy seemed to ken to what was happening. At that moment, his Ranger playmate became his anchor. Rin collected up her shouting, squirming son, resolutely crossed to the tub and the battle began. Hanavia went in clothes and all and Farbarad wondered if he had not found the lad's Ranger. Caeros folded his arms and watched on, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips, as mother and son faced off over a bar of soap. The curious, strong willed boy would need a Ranger just as Rin did. Farbarad resolved to discuss the matter further with Hanavia's parents.
It took quite some doing, and admittedly it was hard to tell who had bathed whom by the time it was done, but soon enough a small boy ran naked over the deck and away from his sodden, dripping mother. Rin dropped Hanavia's clothing into what was left of the water in the tub and fixed a hard stare on Careos. The Ranger was smirking.
"Not a word," she warned and fished the bar of soap out of the water to wave at him, "Or I'll find somewhere to put this."
Caeros executed a mock bow and sauntered off, still smirking.
It took them ten days, all told, to glide down the Anduin and along the spectacular southern coast on favourable winds and currents. By the time they entered the harbour of Edhellond, Hanavia had himself a Ranger.
"Don't for an instant think this will get you out of training. As soon as we're off this ship, my lady, we're back to it," Caeros said and it was Rin's turn to smile.
"Oh I wouldn't dream of it…though…I have to wonder where you'll find the time with all your new duties..."
"What duties?" Caeros asked hesitantly.
"Farbarad did not tell you? Oh, tricksy Wolf!"
"What duties?" Caeros asked again and Rin's smile grew brighter still.
"Oh…the usual…Baths, for one."
"Baths? I'm his Ranger, not his nursemaid!"
"It could be worse… much worse," Farbarad observed dryly and then, "Not that I would trade those precious first months for all the gold in Harad."
"Yes, definitely baths…and I'm sure there are other things I can think up," Rin continued.
Still, the pleasant voyage was sharply punctuated by the sight that greeted them at Edhellond. The charred bones of a ship had those aboard murmuring amongst themselves as they slipped past and weighed anchor at a nearby berth. What had caused that, Rin wondered, as she peered at the burnt timbers from the cabin window. Outside the cabin, Videgavia was revising orders.
"Tight formation, let's keep this fast and clean. Our objective is to secure a suitable location to take stock. Remember, we're on foot this time and we have two children in our midst."
Rin felt a shiver skate down her spine at Vid's words. This time…he meant Bree and the near catastrophe. No one had forgotten that. A hand, strong and steady, closed on her shoulder and gently squeezed. Rin looked into Hanasian's face and saw he too was studying the ruined ship nearby.
"It could mean anything," he said and this was true.
"It definitely means it will be a slow return home," Rin said and this too was true. The ship they had arrived on was not made for the longer voyage north. If they took it or retraced their steps over land, it would be longer.
"We'll need to re-provision," Hanasian murmured.
"Aye…presuming we can find provisions," Rin replied, well aware of the tensions between Edhellond and Cardolan. But before she could say more, Farbarad appeared at the cabin door.
"The Company has secured the dock. There's a tavern nearby, good place to take stock and work out what to do next," he said.
"Any trouble?" Hanasian asked and Farbarad scratched at his beard.
"Not as such," he mysteriously said.
Rin and Hanasian traded a long gaze and they set off. As soon as they gained the deck and could see the dock themselves, it was apparent what Farbarad had meant. There was no trouble. No jeering or hissing, no raising of fists or shaking of weapons. There was a throng of people gathered but they just stood there, silent and waiting. It was unsettling to say the least. Ahead the Company and a small contingent of their Rangers had deployed.
Hanasian bent to pick his son up from where the boy had been standing with Caeros. Hanavia was quiet, wary and he clung to his father tightly. Rin held Elian closer to her and those Rangers still aboard drew in.
"I don't think we should linger," Farbarad said.
"I don't think we should run, either," Hanasian pointed out and the Ranger grunted.
"Let's get this over with," Rin growled, angry without really knowing why, "At a nice, leisurely stroll."
After Bree, Rin's instincts were screaming at her to run, to get back on the little ship and flee. But she walked down, followed her husband and the Rangers past the ominously silent crowd that was still growing. Ahead, the Company had secured a path to the tavern. Rin's heart was thudding in her ears and her mouth was dry by the time they were hustled into the common room. Only two Rangers stood within, eyes restless and Rin knew the tavern had been emptied. How would the people of Edhellond respond to that, she wondered? They walked a knife edge.
At the end of the bar the tavern-keep nervously fidgeted with the cloth tucked into his apron. His eyes slid to the Ranger nearby by and then bounced away again. Caeros strode forward towards the man and spoke quietly with him while Farbarad ushered Rin to a chair that was still warmed by its previous occupant. As she sat and shifted her daughter, she caught the tremor of her hands and closed her eyes. Steady, calm, cool heads. Focus, clear thinking. That's what they needed now. When she opened them Caeros had returned and the tavernkeep was gone.
"We've bought the tavern for a few days. I hope that's suitable, m'lord," Caeros said, eyes on Hanasian. When Hanasian nodded, the younger Ranger looked relieved. As new as he was to his role, though, Rin was glad to have him. Hanasian sank into a chair beside her and pulled Hanavia onto his lap. He was as quiet as his father but where Hanasian scrutinised the door, Hanavia peered at his mother. Rin tried to smile for him and stroked his soft cheek.
Meanwhile, Videgavia strode into the common room, dark eyes gleaming as they raked over the interior.
"The building's easily secured," he declared and then, "We should send a message through to Loch, let him know we're here."
"And then what? Wait? We're cornered here and we're blind – no idea what's coming," Hanasian countered.
"True, but consider the available options," Videgavia countered and his eyes slid to Rin, "Striking out now would be unwise. We've yet to unload the horses and Doc and the little ones-"
"Will get by just fine, thank you very much," Rin snapped.
Videgavia's brows lifted but he said nothing because nothing was needed. Rin stood and began to pace restlessly, muttering in Dunlendic.
"Get the horses unloaded, Vid, and secure that ship. We can't afford to loose another one."
"Aye. Donius and Daius will be heartbroken,"
More Rangers had drifted in but a good measure remained out of sight. Hanasian expected they'd be securing the tavern.
"Sit down, Rin,"
"Why? So we can skulk and hide in here like common criminals? We've done nothing wrong, damn it! Nothing!"
Elian whimpered at her mother's tone.
"We'll remain here until we know what is going on out there,"
"It's obvious what's going on out there, Hanasian. Those people are scared."
"Yes, but why?" Hanasian pushed back and the tavern-keeper had the misfortune of walking out, tray of food and beer in hand, and into this debate.
Rin spotted the man almost immediately, "Ask him! Tavern-keepers always know."
The hapless man paled at her words and the crockery tankards began to knock. This foreign princess, with her soldiers and Rangers, was staring at him with such intensity. Her eyes seemed to look right through to his spine and beyond. Everyone knew what had happened and here she was, descended from the north to avenge herself. Everyone knew they were barbarians up there!
"Oh... well that explains it," Rin said awkwardly and shifted her weight and the tavern-keeper realised he had spoken his thoughts with a start.
"I-I meant no disrespect, y-your majesty."
"Highness," Rin sighed and then, "I think I should sit down now."
"Yes," Hanasian agreed firmly, "You should."
There was pounding from far away, like drums, only it wasn't. As Loch woke the pounding grew ever closer. He went to throw himself out of bed in the darkness and succeeded in throwing himself on the floor instead.
"Ow," he wheezed, face first, and gingerly extricated himself from the bedding and clothing that had assaulted him.
Meanwhile, the pounding stopped when Rose, far more elegant and composed went to the bedroom door and pulled it open.
"Oh! Sorry, m'lady!" Dorne exclaimed, the flickering lantern he held spilling onto Rose's sleepy face.
She nodded and pointed to where Loch was sprawled on the floor, "He's over there."
"This had better be good," Loch said as he flipped himself onto his back, "Not some news about a tithe. I still don't know what a bloody tithe is!"
"Outside," Rose sternly said, settling back into bed.
Dorne bent to assist his commander to his feet, "It is, Sir. It's your sister. She's here!"
"WHAT!? ALREADY?" Loch shouted and tripped over his feet again.
"OUT!" came the thunderous female response and so Dorne dragged his commander out of his bedroom and into the hall.
"How do you know she's here?" Loch demanded.
"There's a Ranger, said he rode straight here from Edhellond. Least, I think he's a Ranger."
"Just as well I'm wearing pants," Loch mused, straightened and grabbed the lantern from Dorne and peered at him, "You're still in uniform! Do you sleep in it or are you still up?"
"I was working on the tithe, sir," the corporal said sheepishly and then, brighter, "I think I know what it is!"
"Yes? What is it, then? Must be important if Minas Tirith is writing to us about it. Is it good?"
"Ah…no, Sir. Not unless you're Minas Tirith."
"Figures," Loch grumbled, "Alright, show me this Ranger. If it's another hoax from one of the bored men, Dorne…"
Loch let the threat hang and Dorne walked ahead, "This way, sir."
Loch followed Dorne all the way to his office where sure enough a mud splattered, weary Ranger stood at the nearby window. He still wore his cloak but his cowl was pushed back and Loch watched Farbarad turn to face him. The Ranger studied the young man.
"It's been what, three months, and not only are you out of uniform, you are missing your shirt!"
Loch grinned lopsided at him, strode forward and greeted the man while Dorne stood back and observed. A real Ranger of the North! Fascinating, the corporal thought. The Ranger was smiling now but only before he had seemed so imposing and dangerous. Definitely dangerous.
"So it's true! She is here!"
"Aye…what happened to that ship?"
"Oh…that…yes…still working on that. How far away is she?"
"As far as you want her to be. She's waiting at Edhellond. Odd place."
"Ah…I suppose I should go fetch her."
"Yes and while you're at it, come up with something better by way of explanation for that burnt ship."
"Well, I didn't burn it," Loch grumbled, "Not that it will make any difference to her. Dorne, gather a small contingent of men. We'll ride at dawn."
"I'd rather we left sooner. The mood at Edhellond is nothing something I'd trust. The people are frightened there, and that can turn ugly fast," Farbarad said, clearly worried.
"They're frightened everywhere in this place," Loch muttered, "But right you are. Corporal…we'll want Rowdy's men, you know the ones I mean. And once we're on our way, you can tell me about this tithe."
"Yes sir!" Dorne replied and rushed away.
"Tithe? Is it that time of year?" Farbarad asked.
"Apparently. What do you know of it?"
The Ranger shrugged, "Taxes aren't really my-"
"Taxes! I'm a tax collector now? She never warned me about that!" Loch exclaimed.
A short while later, while it was still dark, they all stood out the front of the hall. Dorne had assembled a small party and they stood by their horses underneath flickering torchlight.
"Ah…Sir?" Dorne said.
"Yes?" Loch asked.
"You might want a shirt, Sir."
"And shoes," called Rose from the door.
A short while later they set out for Edhellond - properly attired to a man.