62. Chapter 62
Rain threatened when Loch, Dorne, and a fair contingent of Rowdy's old company had gathered to set out for Edhellond. The surprise was Lady Rose, who had gotten ready to ride along. Loch had considered to say something but decided not to for he was divided in his thoughts. He wished Rose to be safe, but leaving her here with only a dozen of Rowdy's former men didn't seem the safest option. This was so despite the fact that the local military seemed loyal since Loch was indeed the representative of the King by extension through his sister. But Rose had insisted in coming along and Loch knew how futile it was to argue. He had his own experience to draw upon with his younger sister and her formidable will and, what was more, he had observed it at play in how Rin interacted with Hanasian. Ultimately, Loch decided he was pleased that Rose was coming along. This way he would not have to worry after her remaining behind with men he could, at best, partially trust.
They left a diminished squad of Rowdy's former men behind to guard the estate's guest house which Loch had made their home in. As he set out, his trepidation over reuniting with his family and Company in his new role as his sister's Steward was overcome. Titles and roles were forgotten. All that waited in Edhellond were his old company, his old companions in arms, and his sister and brother. In trust, it would be a relief to have them so close. Only now did Loch understand just how isolated and exposed he felt there in the middle of the King's southern realm.
Farbarad and the two Rangers that had accompanied him rode ahead with Loch, Rose and Dorne. The three Rangers did not show any hint of fatigue though Loch knew better. It was a fair ride to Edhellond and the three men must have set out as soon as they docked and now were returning with little surcease. Behind them came Rowdy's men in a neat formation they had taken of their own accord. Loch's thoughts shifted to the tithe. If the burning of the ship were not burden enough, now he had a tax to collect. He had few he could trust such a task with and the more he contemplated it, the more worried he became. Rin had said nothing of tax collector and she should he, he reckoned, she should have told him about this and she would have known.
Upon reaching the ancient, abandoned Elven haven of Edhellond, Farbarad disappeared down a street. He left the other two Rangers with Loch and Rose and they waited for the men to catch them up. Once arrived, Loch continued their approach with his men in formation. He could see the outer defensive ring established by the Company. Farbarad was nowhere in sight, having gone to fetch Rin and Hanasian. As Loch drew close, the Company spread out across the road, a thin line of steel and grim visages. To outside eyes watching, and they certainly were, it appeared as though the two forces would clash there on the street. Loch knew better. The Company would never relax in their duties, especially after the events of the previous winter. They were engaged to defend and protect Cardolan and the Reunited Realm and nothing would stand in the way of that. Not even someone they knew, one of their own.
Loch called out, "Hail my friends and family from the North!"
His eyes snagged on the massive, dark Haradian who stepped out from the line.
Mulgov said, "Hey Kid! You're looking old!"
That broke the ice. Loch said back, "Look how gray you are!"
"It hasn't been that long."
Loch took Rose's hand and motioned for Dorne, who was wide eyed and sweating nervously, to walk beside them as they approached the Company line.
Wulgof stepped out from his line, wiping something from his bushy beard, "Hey Kid. Who's the kid?"
Loch sighed and looked at the collection of mostly company veterans from the Rhun uprising. Dorne was easily the youngest there, fresh faced, fairly smelling of Minas Tirith and ripe for the plucking from the veteran's perspective.
"Where's Khule?" Loch asked, hoping to divert their attention from his first recruit and only corporal. Instead, Wulgof edged closer, beady eyes intent on Dorne.
"Had to go investigate something," Wulgof said, distracted by his machinations for Dorne, [I]" He took the enginners to see about the boat."
"It's a ship, not a boat," Loch said and Wulgof shrugged, "Anyway, I'm glad someone I can trust is looking into it."
Before Wulgof could get up to too much, Videgavia finally appeared much to Loch's relief.
"Lady Rose," Videgavia said politely, "It is good to see you well. Commander Loch, you've come to report?"
Loch straightened before his captain, "My adjutant, Corporal Dorne, has accompanied me to provide my report."
Dorne appeared startled, Wulgof smirked and Videgavia winked at Loch.
"It can wait until this evening, as can most of the formalities. Right now, it is good to see you."
Loch heaved a sigh of relief that was not nearly as profound as Dorne's was. Videgavia's presence, however, was not enough to prevent Wulgof from eyeing Dorne. As they started to walk forward, the Dunlending inserted himself between Dorne and Loch.
"You trust all these men?" Wulgof asked, jerking his thumb at Rowdy's men at their backs but really meaning Dorne beside him.
Loch considered Wulgof sidelong,"I trust them enough. They won't rob me blind in a card game like you lot."
"Aw kid," Wulgof protested, "You wound me."
He was not done yet, though, and leaned in closer again to Loch and quietly said, "Seriously, are they on the level?"
Loch looked back at the men marching along behind them, "These men were Rowdy's. He hand selected them. Say what you will about their former paymaster, Rowdy was one of us and so are they, in their own way."
Having been requisitioned as a temporary headquarters for the Company, Rangers and the noble royal house of Cardolan, the tavern was a den of activity. With Farbarad dispatched to locate Loch, the Old Company had been tasked to establish the necessary security precautions and cordons around Edhellond, This had not pleased Mulgov and Wulgof for it meant that the tavern's obvious comforts were not immediately available in sufficient excess paid for by Cardolan's coin.
The Rangers maintained the immediate watch on the ship and tavern while Videgavia set the Company to the outer defences. Khule took Daius and Donius with a few men to inspect the ruined ship still in the harbour. After careful investigation, the two engineers could confirm that the vessel had been deliberated ignited with pitch. What they could not determine is how or by whom. Such an event had to attract the notice of Edhellond's residents but no one had come forward. In fact, the streets were almost empty and had been so since their arrival.
The best Khule could guess was that it had to be someone who had been disadvantaged by Voromir's downfall. As for the engineers, both men were unhappy. Donius in particular took it hard. It had been a good, fine ship. One that he and others had worked hard on, from keel to mast, to get it and keep it afloat. They had crossed ventured to and returned from the Eastern lands in her. It held many deep memories to so many who sailed on her. It was, therefore, an ignominious end.
Farbarad hurried through the tavern door to find Hanasian and Rin sitting at a table enjoying a rare peaceful moment. Hanavia was playing at their feet with some sticks he had found and he didnot want his father to move his foot while he tried to make a bridge. He scowled up at Farbarad in warning, for Adda or Amme usually moved when Barra came.
"They have arrived, with a small company of Rowdy's men. The Lady Rose has accompanied them," Farbarad said and Rin smiled.
Not only did she look forward to seeing her brother again. To be joined by another woman, after so long surrounded by a sea of men, was immensely appealing. Hanavia forgot about the bridge he was constructing over his father's foot and shot up to peer up at Farbarad.
"Lok!" he chirruped excitedly, eyes shining.
Hanasian stood and took Rin's hand, "Let's greet your brother."
Loch's arrival at Edhellond coincided with two things. The horses had been unloaded from the ship and Khule had returned with two downcast engineers to report their findings from the harbour. After all was considered, they prepared to depart as soon as possible. That afternoon, men milled around the tavern's stables. The two stablehands dashed amongst horse and soldier and Ranger, hopelessly outnumbered but valiantly trying to keep up.
Inside, men were trooping out with their gear past a bewildered tavern-keeper. Rin was upstairs with Rose getting the children ready to travel. Hanasian was down in the common room, having a quiet discussion with Farbarad, Videgavia and Lochared. This discussion hushed as the tavern-keeper edged towards them.
"M'Lord," the man said when he saw Hanasian look to him, and bobbed his head anxiously.
"They'll leave it in as good, if not better, condition as they found it," Hanasian stated, "Won't they, Captain Videgavia."
"Certainly," Videgavia affirmed.
"Thank you," the tavern-keeper said, "It wasn't necessary."
"Tell that to Doc," Videgavia muttered which made Farbarad and Loch grin at each other. When it came to cleanliness, Rin was the most pernicious badger that they had ever encountered. Loch had endured years of it, for Rin made no allowances for an absence of soap, hot water, clean clothes or shelter. Nor, as the Dirty Three in particular had discovered, did any amount of bellicosity or threats make her go away.
Looking bothered and out of sorts, Wulgof climbed down the stairs while still guiltily looking over his shoulder. The concern in his expression faded with each step down and away from the upper floor. By the time he reached the foot of the stairs, he wore a victorious smile that made Videgavia inwardly groan.
The Dunlending would only pay for whatever he had just gotten away with in time and well he knew it. In fact, the man seemed to delight in that fact. Wulgof looked over to where Loch stood and winked before he began to saunter out, a jaunty bounce to his steps, with his gear slung haphazardly over one shoulder. Loch was unabashedly grinning and continued to do so until he realised Videgavia had noticed. The sight of the younger man trying to eat his own lop sided smile was difficult to not laugh at. Videgavia managed.
The tavern-keeper made no attempt to move off. Instead, he seemed to plant himself more firmly to the floorboards and began to fidget with the towel he perennially kept tucked into the waist of his apron.
"Is there something else?" Hanasian asked when he realised the nervous man would not speak up otherwise.
"You're leaving early," he answered, voice squeaking ever so slightly.
"I think it best to give Edhellond its tavern back, don't you?"
"Oh! Oh yes…I mean no…you've been no trouble," the man was a terrible liar, "It's, it's just that you have paid for…"
The tavern-keeper's words trailed off.
"Give that no heed."
"You do not wish it back?" the astounded man asked, the first hint of a smile they had seen on his face.
"Consider it compensation for the inconvenience and disruption we have caused."
"Oh! Yes, m'Lord! Indeed!" the tavern-keeper's relief flooded his features and Hanasian considered the other men who stood with him. Farbarad nodded. It was more than time they were out of here and on their way to somewhere safer.
At that moment, Hanavia began jumping enthusiastically down the stairs, Rose, his mother and sister in his wake. They were the last to walk out of the tavern to the stables that afternoon. The skies had grown heavier and now hung ominously low overhead. Videgavia strode ahead, issuing orders to clear his men out. Already some of the Rangers had left to secure the way ahead. All were clad for travel and, it had to be said, campaign. Even Rin had donned ring mail despite the fact she hated at the stuff. Her hair was gathered back into plaits in an attempt to prevent it from being caught, her chief complaint about mail, but still she fidgeted in it irritably.
"Oh!" the tavern-keeper exclaimed at her elbow, startling her for she had quite forgotten he was there, "I'll be right back!"
The man dashed back into his tavern and Rin swung to her brother, "He's not coming with us, is he?"
"I don't think so…why?"
"There's something not right."
Hanasian left the two siblings, heads together, there to talk about whatever it was and finished mounting up. Farbarad was fishing out plate from one of his saddlebags with a grim, resolute expression. The plate was too small for him. His eyes met Hanasian's in silent question and Hanasian nodded. Ring mail would not be enough to defeat an arrow, spear or bolt and they had no way of knowing what waited for them. A warm welcome was certainly not likely and Rin, unfortunately, was a lodestone of a target. Hanavia could not ride with his mother for that reason, or his father, so he was placed with Caeros. Rose retained Elian and Farbarad started for where Rin stood with Loch, urgently debating something.
"I don't know what's wrong here, Rin! It's impossible. I've not enough men! I'm still sorting out who I can trust."
"Your sergeant is solid."
"He found you then?" Loch asked and Rin nodded, "Right, well, that's one man out of Voromir's standing troops. Dorne I have recruited myself. Rowdy's men are solid. But this place is vast and its people scattered."
Rin let a harried looking stable hand scurry by, "Dropping more soldiers onto these people is not going to help! They're scared enough already as it is."
"I know! We have scared people here who know how to make pitch and are prepared to use it," Loch urged and Rin sighed heavily as she shook her head from side to side.
He continued on, "Either give me more men, Rin, or accept that we will never know what is going on here. It will continue to simmer. Or maybe you'll get lucky and it will peter out. We've seen that happen before too. Maybe you want to chance it. I wouldn't. What I can assure you of, though, is I do not have the capacity to collect the year's tithe."
Rin leaned in to place her hand on her brother's forearm, "Loch, you don't have to collect the tithe."
"I don't?" Loch exclaimed, "But I thought…"
"You're not the only one who thought that," Rin replied, a thoughtful furrow appearing above her nose.
"That is good news," he declared happily and then caught his sister's expression, "Isn't it?"
Rin shook her head, still thinking. Distracted as she was, she had no chance of outdistancing Farbarad. He slapped plate armour onto her before she realised he was there. When she did not resist or squirm lithely away, Farbarad frowned at her. She was still deep in thought, chewing on the inside of her lower lip. Loch shrugged at him, unable to offer an explanation. By the time Farbarad was done, Rin had reached a decision. The Ranger stepped back to check the plate was correctly buckled. Rin, meanwhile, spun on her heel and strode back into the tavern with her sword swinging on her hip.
Loch shrugged again and Farbarad started after her for the tavern. By the time he had gained the rear of the building, Rin came back out. She was tugging her gloves on and she looked satisfied with herself. The tavern-keeper followed her, carrying bags of provisions should they be delayed along the way.
"What was that about," Farbarad asked, trotting along beside her towards the horses.
"All in due course," she replied and swung into the saddle.
Farbarad ran a hand through his hair, shook his head and took to his own horse muttering about the royal house of Cardolan. He was still muttering when they finally rode out. They pushed hard, eager to place some distance between themselves and the unsettled, and rode through the night. It was a punishing pace for Hanavia and Elian but it also made it difficult for any to ambush them. They saw nary a soul on the road though and they reached their destination as the eastern sky blushed with a new dawn.
Rin was not sure what she had expected of Voromir's ancestral seat. She was weary but what she saw managed to cut through that all the same. They rode through barracks that had emptied, their men tightening in formation ahead for inspection. They rode past the guest house that Loch and Rose had taken and the various functionary buildings for the main hall itself. The Rangers had pulled ahead earlier in the night to make it safe and even now she could see them emerging from the main doors and milling about. It was huge, overpowering and very old. Stags had been carved into the stone that the wandering ivy could not conceal. Rin pulled up with the others but remained in her saddle, tossing her reins from side to side as she stared at the hall.
"I see why you took the guest house," she said at length and Rose smiled in a way that made her eyes crinkle.
"Its bark is worse than its bite," Rose replied and Rin looked at her, wondering if her sister heard the whispering stones too.
"You've been inside?"
"Oh yes. I wanted to get it ready for you."
"Sounds like a lot of work."
"No, no. It was good to have something to do and Voromir's family took most of their belongings with them," Rose answered, not offering a clue to Rin.
Rin nodded and then studied the house again. It was waiting for her, as if it knew she were here and that she did not belong. How many generations had lived here? Would the stone remember them all? It was a worrying thought. Yet, in there lay answers. Answers she would need. A light touch on her knee drew her awareness down to where Hanasian stood. He gazed up at her, grey eyes steady on her own, comforting. She reached to touch his face, run her fingers down the pane of his cheek and across his dark beard. Then she drew in a deep breath and climbed out of the saddle. It was time.
The doors were thick, old wood that had been carved with leaping stags. They had large, brass handles fashioned to resemble antlers. Both leaves were thrown open. Rin approached the threshold with increasing caution despite her mail and armour and sword. The stones were whispering, voices growing to a clamour with each step towards them. It was almost overwhelming. She drew a deep breath and leapt over the threshold and closed her eyes, waiting for the stones to react. Those with her were accustomed to such things. Hanasian slid a hand under her elbow to ground and steady her.
"Look," he quietly breathed and Rin cracked open her eyes.
It was, in a word, stupendous. Vast spaces, richly furnished in a display of old wealth and power. It dwarfed the Rangers standing about the main hall. Stairs led up and away and there were cavernous halls to explore.
"I would not be surprised if this was Numenorean in origin," Hanasian murmured as he looked around. It bore their hand, he thought, in the smoothness of the stone, the sheer size and sweeping grandeur.
Beside him, Rin swallowed and he looked down to see her face was pale and eyes glazed.
"Does it call to you," he asked as she stared about her.
"I- it…" her words stuttered to a stop.
The spell was broken by Molguv, who sauntered in, took one look and then whistled.
"Rich! We're rich!" the Haradian declared and Wulgof scurried in after him.
"Look at that! That's Corsair!" he exclaimed excitedly, pointing at an ornate carpet that had been hung on a wall as if it were a painting.
Videgavia slapped both men on the back of the head, having to reach to collect Molguv's.
"We are not here to loot or ransack," he sternly said and both men deflated slightly before Wulgof got a crafty glint to his eye.
"Nor steal," Videgavia continued.
"Why not! She does! All the time!" Wulgof protested, jabbing a finger at Rin who was finally coming back to the here and now.
"In fact, you two are not even supposed to be in here!" Videgavia pointed out and, grumbling, the two men reversed out the way they had come in.
Rin ran her hands over her face. She desperately wanted to sleep, only not here. She had to gather her thoughts.
"Right," she said, pulling herself together and struck out towards a hall.
"And just where are you going?" Hanasian asked as she moved off without so much as dropping her muddy cloak.
"I have some ransacking to do," she called back and was swallowed by one of the many halls.
While Rin systematically scoured Voromir's estate, the others settled in. Those that did not take watch, and there was a lot of ground to watch, settled into to rest. There was no shortage of comfort to be had. Voromir's family had lived quite well.
And so, nearly a day after Loch had arrived at Edhellond, Rin commandeered what appeared to have been Voromir's library. She had everything she had found spread around it. Papers, books and items to anchor each pile down and she now roamed between the stacks, muttering at papers in her hand and frowning. She had yet to sleep herself but Hanasian knew she would not, could not. Not yet.
He nudged a pile of papers out of the way and sat in a particularly comfortable chair. Once settled, he started on his pipe. In all this time, Rin stalked to and fro. He could only guess at what she was doing and how she was organising a small mountain of information. Her mind worked very differently to his. He took the opportunity to study her, properly study her. It was only possible to do at times like this, when utterly consumed by something. She stood, glancing back and forth between three sheets of paper she held, frowning and muttering. A shaft of light from one of the tall windows fell over her and she held up one of the pages to it, as if trying to see through it. For months now he had been gravely concerned.
The events of winter had placed her on death's cusp twice and the grief and tumult that had followed had not helped. She had been so pale, almost wraith like. Unpredictable and perilous and wild. And then Edoras had occurred and he had despaired. But a transformation had begun there and his wife was a wraith no longer. Tired, muddy though she may be, she was also hale and whole. She had regained her vitality and she was drawing on that boundless energy of hers even now. He felt something change within him. A weight started to lift and it was only then that he realised how heavy it had been. Hanasian's eyes drifted shut as the enormity of it all started to emerge even as it began to fall away.
"No. No, no! That's not it, dammit!" Rin declared in profound frustration.
It peeled his eyes open in time to watch her whirl about, still in her cloak, and advance in an ominous manner on a pile. His eyes drifted to the hearth. It lay empty and cold, for the day was warm. Still, there was nothing stopping Rin from creating a fire of her own. He'd never forget that day she had burnt, without warning, her father's missive. When she lost her temper, she did a proper job of it, and the library had a great deal of combustible fuel. Hanasian pushed himself to his feet, relieved he had taken the opportunity earlier to close his eyes for a while, and approached his wife.
"None of this makes any sense," she said, greatly offended, as he unclasped her cloak and set it to one side.
Rin turned to face him, paper bunched in one fist, "It's here, Hanasian. Right under my nose. Why can I not see it?"
"You're tired?" he suggested and she made a rude noise, dismissing that out of hand, "Alright then, madam, perhaps you are looking too closely."
That she did not dismiss. Rin cocked her head to one side, the weight of her braids sliding over one shoulder. Hanasian could not help but take up one of the ends and let his fingers wind the soft lengths around and around.
"Distance? How am I to achieve that?"
"A fresh set of eyes. What are you looking for?"
"Specifically, Doc. What are you looking for?" he repeated, letting the braid unwind to start again.
"It's the tithe. I thought something was wrong in Edhellond. Did you know that the tavern-keeper approached me about it."
"Voluntarily? The man's braver than I gave him credit for," Hanasian mused.
"He asked for a furlough," Rin said and Hanasian's brows lifted.
"From the tithe?" he asked and Rin nodded, "But I thought…"
"Yes. The tithe is levied by the crown upon the nobles of the court, not the people. Loch thought he'd been collecting it from the people too, but Loch is new to this. The tavern-keeper of Edhellond is not. And then consider this place. The opulence of it, I understand, but some of these rooms are more ornate than the palace at Minas Tirith!"
"He was extorting his people? Is that what you think?" Hanasian asked solemnly, hands still now.
Rin nodded gravely, "I need to confirm how far it went, I need proof. And then I'm going to have to inform Aragorn. I may have to sue for relief for these people. But how much? How long has this been happening?"
"Did the tavern-keeper say?"
"No," Rin sighed, "When it comes to their former lord, no one wants to discuss the man or his activities."
She leaned in to rest her brow against the front of his shoulder, troubled.
"Is this what you went back into the tavern to discuss?" Hanasian asked and Rin straightened.
Before she could reply though, there was a knock at the library door. Both turned to find Dorne standing there, looking uncomfortable, with a heavy volume that required both hands to hold.
"Sorry to intrude," he started but Rin ushered him in.
"I…I think you'll want to see this," he said and Rin pointed to a nearby table.