16. Chapter 16
By the time they reached a secure place to stop, Anbor had died. Two dead... A bolt of futility hit Rin but she was able to relentlessly quash it. The guilt, however, was not so easily dealt with. If she had not delayed, could she have done something for the man that had assisted her at Pelargir? Anbor's injury had been grave. Blood loss had killed him. She could do much, but she could not make blood to replace what he had lost. If she had gotten to him faster, he would not have lost so much, and so perhaps he had a chance which she had squandered in her bid to kill the captive. It was a hopeless path her thoughts marched along. So many possibilities, so many decisions, and not every one leads to the outcome a healer wanted. Death waited for all mortals and no healer could best that reality. Her thoughts spun grimly as she tended to Hanasian.
A glancing blow, that she could deal with now she had learned what she had through Morcal. The bones of his skull were intact and it was a matter of knitting muscles, tendons and flesh now. Hanasian's concussion was another matter. She could sense the throbbing pulses of pain that caged Hanasian's skull. His speech wasn't slurred and he had not upended his stomach. There was a chance, a remote one, that he was not concussed at all. Such things were notoriously difficult to discern.
All Hanasian could sense was what Morcal would have sensed on the ship some days ago had the stowaway been conscious. Hanasian felt a warmth suffuse him, no more than that. Then it was gone and the throbbing was reduced, but not vanished. It was difficult to see in the dark, but Rin washed blood and grime from her beloved's face while men gathered their wits and wrapped their second dead. Her fingers were gentle , stroking softly over his face in a bid to assure herself that he was well. When she was done she sat back on her heels to seek her own equilibrium.
"Anyone else?" she asked to be sure no one else needed anything.
"Why, so you could help us like you did Anborn?" Berlas bitterly asked.
Men rumbled at that and Berlas fell silent again, reigning in any further outburst. The sour taste of failure filled Rin's mouth and twisted her stomach. Two men dead, what was the use of her? Hanasian reached for her but she was already moving away to where their prisoner lay twitching and insensate. She had no defense to offer Berlas, and she was not convinced he had spoken unfairly. Molguv opted to tend his own injuries, in a bid to spare the drain on their healer's strength.
Their prisoner had been poisoned. The sorcerer was the man singularly responsible for the horror that ringed this miserable place. She could hear the dead screaming at the outrage the sorcerer had inflicted upon their very mortality, a relentless wall of overwhelming emotion constantly surging against her healer's sensibilities. Another surge of icy rage shivered through her, chased down by a startling realisation. To betray a healer's purpose in a desire for vengeance or justice was the same slippery path this sorcerer had walked before her. He likely believed his deeds justified by some twisted logic. But to heal the man after Anbor's and Gian's loss, to heal the man and leave the chance that he would continue with his horrors was equally confronting. What if he escaped somehow? By healing him, she was perpetuating this travesty. But who was she to determine who lived and who did not? As Rin wrestled with her ethics, the Company grappled with their course.
"Seems to me that we got caught in a wider net. Ambush within an ambush," observed Foldine.
"As like as not. Regardless we can't hide down here like rats for long and we have two men to bury. It will need to be done quick in this heat," Bear replied.
"Our next course of action is simple, we just need to get out of here and back north,"suggested Khule.
"How exactly? Got that figured out too, have you?" Wulgof drawled.
"Knew this was going to be hard. Too late to start whining now if you don't have the stomach for it," growled Frea.
"Sniping at each other is not going to achieve anything," came Loch's unwisely timed observation and he was met with a chorus to keep his young mouth closed.
"Hey, you kill that prisoner and you'll really drop us in it," rumbled Daius as he belatedly noticed Rin was hovering near the sorcerer.
His words were lost on her, so intently was she focussed. It was harder than she had guessed, and yet the screaming fell silent and the sorcerer still drew breath. Only then did Rin remove her hands from the sorcerer and breathed in relief at the removal of all that pressure.
"That better not mean she killed him," Bear said, mistaking the sigh for one of grim satisfaction.
"Can you not hear the difference?" she inquired as she moved back away from their prisoner. Her question was met with tense silence.
"The dead no longer scream. He lives still," she clarified, voice washed of inflection and flat.
"For how much longer?" asked Hanasian quietly.
"Difficult to know. He's been poisoned, and he was not a well to begin with. Brain and lungs are failing. I'm not sure if I can heal all of that to return him to good health and if I tried, I'd be out of action for the Company for some time."
"By the Valar, you hear the dead scream?" Farbarad asked, deeply shocked.
"Have done since we got close to this corner of hell," Rin replied automatically.
"Do what you can to keep him alive, Rosmarin, but not at the expense of exhausting yourself. We may well have need of you as we make our way north," instructed Hanasian.
"We will see if we can flag down a smuggling ship if we can, negotiate or take it by force, make our way north that way rather than fight our way north through the lines. We'll deliver our hostage to the front, alive and showing no sign of maltreatment," he continued.
"Great, swimming. I hate swimming," Wulgof grumbled at the prospect of hijacking a smuggler's ship.
"What of Morcal?" asked Molguv.
"He comes with us. If he still has the stomach to join our number after this, we'll consider it when time permits. For now, we're not leaving anyone behind to point out where we went," Hanasian replied and they started to make preparations to move out into the night for the coast again.
Rin barely managed to get the rest of her gear on in the darkness. There was no time to wash blood from her hands. Nor was there time to braid her hair again. No sooner had she stowed her equipment and weapons were they moving out towards the torch light. They approached warily, quietly, slowly, in single file.
They found the torches had been flung, or dropped, to the ground. Their owners were nowhere in sight. They did not tarry there, with two dead to carry. Instead they pressed back into the thick and hungry jungle intent on their objective. Time was of the essence. They angled west and north, judging the smugglers they had observed yesterday would have likely made for Umbar to sell their goods at the best margin. There was no pursuit, which was troubling a first and then when no contact was made through the rest of the night considered a boon. They paused only to bury Gian and Anbor at dawn of the following day.
That they had to leave their dead in this fetid place galled some. The stark reality was that they could ill afford to be slowed by their dead. It was a sombre, brief and necessary affair. When it was done, Rin spared scant water from her bottle to wash the last remnants of blood from her hands and face. She could not sluice away the sense of failure that she carried with her from the temple. She was withdrawn but she was also determined to do her duty. As men took what brief rest they could, she ensured the prisoner remained alive. The poison was a particularly ferocious one. When Berlas approached her to make peace, she simply met his gaze with her own. He caught a glimpse of the failure she felt before she turned away.
They gained the coast in good time, arriving at dusk and still free of pursuit. Another stroke of fortune saw them greeted with the sight of the smuggler ship lying at anchor, quiescent and compliant. Quick discussion saw three of their number lose their heavier battle gear and weapons to swim out to the ship. It was a long, tense wait on the shore as night thickened around them. Still no pursuit. For the experienced of their number, they had stared to view this as a portent of trouble again. It seemed that half the night passed before those on the shore sighted a lantern being waved and heard the sound of oars as the ship's long boat was sent to ferry them across. Throughout this time, Rin had been silent.
When they gained the ship, the absence of crew was noticeable.
"Where are they?" Foldine asked.
"No idea, but let's not squander our good fortune," Folca said.
Now even more nervous than ever, they sorted through who could sail in their number. Despite Wulgof warning him against volunteering, Loch was with a number of men who stepped forward and they were soon haltingly on their way. Others set themselves to watch for the misfortune that surely hung heavily over them. What none of them realised, not even the one responsible for it, was that the undead had fallen across Harad. No one was paying any attention to the Black Company. Most were celebrating the downfall of the rising tyrant or desperately reforming battle stratagems along the front line to the north.
Those men were faced with the gathered might of the Reunited Realms just south of Umbar.
"Sire, it is as the scouts have reported. Their undead have fallen and they're scrambling to cover the holes left in their lines," Faramir reported as he flung himself off a lathered horse.
"We should press now, while they are in disarray, while we have the advantage," Elfwine said, spurred on by his uncle's confirmation.
Aragorn was silent a moment, trying to perceive something of what passed further south. He was not elven kind, but his kin was there... Unreachable still.
"No, we wait. Patience shall be our ally," the High King replied. Imrahil and Faramir nodded, older and wiser heads than the young prince of Rohan.
It was not solely mercy that prompted Aragorn to hold his hand longer yet. The fall of the undead was the loss of their opponent's most significant weapon. If it meant what he suspected, that the man responsible for this horror was no longer at large, the rebel army would likely experience huge losses through desertion. This was now no different to any armed uprising. Delicate dawn light proved his guess well founded. A much reduced contingent of rebel Haradians remained. Many of their conscript forces had dissipated in the night.
On a smuggler vessel, Loch approached his sister as soon as he was relieved of his duty at day break. He found her with their prisoner, still grimly silent and awake despite the fatigue he saw stamped on her face. She as not slept since the night before they entered the town, nearly three days ago.
"Rin? What's wrong?" he asked as quietly as he could.
His sister did not take her eyes from the prisoner.
"Go rest, Loch," she eventually replied and his brow furrowed. Loch scratched at the beard along his jaw, a tell tale sign the man was thinking, and then crouched to bring his eyes to the same eye level as his sister's.
" Rin... Rosmarin, you're not going to kill him are you?" he asked, searching her expression.
"Still upset by what Berlas said?"
"No, wasn't upset in the first place."
"Go rest, Loch."
Her brother heaved a deep breath and she braced herself for another wave of questions. Instead, he stood and the sound fall of his boots on the decking of the ship faded as he went in search of an unoccupied hammock. When the creak of groan of the ship in the waters was all she heard, Rin let out a soul deep sigh and pinched the bridge of her nose. She had already bullied Hansian into sleep, concerned about the lingering effects of his injury and the healing that had followed. She had doled out more stomach settling potions, though less needed it now an at first. She had re dosed their canteens with the herbs this kept them free of insect predation. She had seen to injured feet and kept their prisoner alive and unconscious. But she had not been able to shake the growing sense of culpability.
Anbor had died because she did not get to him in time. She had delayed because she was busy compromising every value she held dear to her in a bid to kill their prisoner. Her lapse, her failure, had cost another his life.
Videgavia was not asleep. He was watching. He saw her jaw bunch as she bit down on whatever it was she was holding within her. She took another deep, shaking breath and forbade tears. Tears would not bring back the dead. She had not killed the prisoner. Her breathing shook with the force of her shame. The sound of boots drove her to gather her composure. It was Farbarad.
"Rest, Rin. I'll watch our charge. I'll wake you if something goes awry," he offered gently.
Rin shook her head, not yet able to trust her voice. It was mid morning when Khule and Frea approached.
"Need to bind, gag and hood him. You can't keep him unconscious all the way to Umbar," Khule said.
When they got no response from the healer, the pair set to their task. They stepped back when they were done, and still Rin sat staring at the sorcerer. Khule and Frea exchanged a glance with each other before they moved away, uncertain as to what to do.
Hanasian awoke, head blessedly free of throbbing a last, to find the ship was still afloat and moving slowly north. The prisoner was still alive, and secured. Aside from Anbor and Gian, all personnel were accounted for. He found Rin by the prisoner. It looked like she had fallen asleep from where she had stationed herself. She was curled up tight, her sleep fitful, on the bare boards by one of the posts the prisoner's hammock had been fastened to.
Hanasian bent, gathered her up and deposited her in the hammock he had just abandoned. He removed some of her gear to smooth her sleep. As he smoothed tangled stands of hair from her face, he heard her half sob something as she slept.
"Forgive me," she said, breath catching in her throat.
"Forgive you? Forgive what?" Hanasian whispered in her ear.
She didn't answer but though still troubled, it seemed to calm her enough so that she could lie still. He stood by for some time to ensure she slept. As he did so, he glanced at the prisoner. A thought came over him that he could be more dangerous in the hands of Gondor than in Harad, and Hanasian fiddled with the hilt of his knife in a restrained urge to kill him then and there. Too much trouble him. Cost two good men. The webs of deception ran deep, and he couldn't clearly sort it all out in his head.
After seeing the prisoner would be well looked after while Rin slept, Hanasian gave her a kiss on the cheek and went topside. It was quiet up there... too quiet. The stiff wind was contrary earlier, but now there was no wind. A chill drifted down from the north, and they could barely keep the erratic southerly gasps of breeze in the sails. The men manning the ship debated their options. They could drop sail and drift with the tidal current north along the shore, or they could anchor and wait in place. Neither was a good option, but the conditions offered no other. The onset of fog rising from the warm sea into the chill air made the decision for them. They would have to anchor and wait to avoid the risk running aground in the fog.
"Conditions are bad tonight," Loch said to Hanasian as he came by to check the lamps.
Hanasian stopped him and had him light a stick from the lamp to light his pipe. Running lit had its own risk, but who would be out in this?
"Yeah, need a good morning breeze I think." Hanasian said as he watched the smoke drift slowly up to slowly mingle with the fog.
Loch continued on his round, and Hanasian watched the bland darkness shrouded in grey. As the hours passed the fog thickened as morning approached. Hanasian was about to turn in when he felt a hand on his back. He turned quickly to find Rin standing there. He gathered her in to ward off the chill in a tight embrace.
"You seemed troubled in your sleep," he said before kissing her forehead, "Maybe you could tell me about it?"
She leaned into him, deep in thought, when Wulgof came walking up quietly.
"We have a problem..."
"And that would be...?"Hanasian asked due to Wulgof's long pause. A couple more breaths passed before he continued.
"This boat leaks. We have been taking on water almost since we boarded. Nothing that can't be handled if the boat don't get worse."
Hanasian turned, and Rin straightened up and turned to Wulgof. She whispered as if to herself,"Its him."
Wulgof paused at her words, but then went on.
"That isn't all of our problem. We are being shadowed by another boat."
Hanasian took note of the fact their boat, despite being solid when they took possession of it, had started to have multiple failures of sealing. Of the fact that Rin seems to sense their prisoner may be somehow causing it, and the wild card of a ship doing as they are. Hanasian signaled Wulgof to raise the anchor as quietly as they could, and they would drift to first light. Not knowing what ship was near them, should a warm southern wind take this fog away, he wanted to be ready to make a run for it.
He then turned to Rin,"M'lady, you must tell me what you know..."
"It is difficult to be clear… my mind feels woolly…"
Hanasian waited as Rin pinched the bridge of her nose and collected her thoughts. What had their prisoner hit her with, he wondered.
"It is as though he has mastered precisely the opposite of healing…. Decay… Entropy…At least that is how is seems to me… and I am no Wizard, my love," she said after a moment.
"Can it be stopped?"
"I thought I did in the temple tunnel… if he is doing it again, I was clearly mistaken. He'll rot this ship from beneath us if he can."
"Can you try anything else?"
"Without killing him?" Rin paused at that question and turned her face away.
"There is something I could try. It may kill him… it may not."
"See to it, Doc."
"Aye Cap," she replied and she was off.
Hanasian moved about the deck, whispering orders for quiet stealth and readiness. If they could spring away, they would. When he appeared below deck, Rin was emptying a powder into a bottle of water. She shook the bottle vigorously, and then repeated the process with half of a second packet of powder.
"Nothing you can do, Doc. That's red frog poison. He's a dead man, even if neither of you are prepared to admit it yet," Molguv warned with a knowledgeable air.
"I'm not trying to heal him…"
"Then what are you doing? Wait, isn't that-"
"Yes, it is, now hush and let me concentrate. If I don't balance this right I will stop his wicked heart and we'll have lost two good men for nothing!"
"But that could kill him anyways! It's the deadliest substance we know of! How did you get the recipe, eh? That's assassin's knowledge!"
"Only a little bit… only mostly… just enough to slow him right down, put him far, far under…if I balance it right," Rin answered, avoiding Molguv's other questions. All sorts of things were used by healers, even poisons in the right circumstances.
Rin shook the bottle and studied the various packets and pouches spread out on the boards around her pack, counting them as she ran through the complex combination in her head.
"Are you sure of this, Rin?" Hanasian inquired as she added the final item, shook the bottle and sniffed at its contents.
"Not entirely… but I don't have any other ideas right now," she jerked the bottle away in a hurry.
They traded a long gaze and then Hanasian nodded slowly. Rin got to her feet, shook the bottle one more time and approached the prisoner.
"Never heard of mostly killing someone on purpose…" Molguv muttered in the background.
"It has a certain elegance, I suppose. Slows the blood, slows the poison," Khule replied.
"If any here has a better idea, now is the time to speak up," Rin said, poised to tip the contents down the prisoner's throat. Silence returned below deck. Rin swallowed and upturned the bottle. His bound feet kicked and Frea had to hold his bound hands down.
"Don't breathe it in," Rin warned as Frea jostled with the prisoner. His struggles weakened and his body slackened. Rin remained where she was, watching and monitoring his pulse and breathing.
"Down…. Yes down you go… you monster… far below… That's it…"
"You killed him!"
"I did not. He's breathing… see, there! Wait….there again…see?"
Rin straightened, stoppering the bottle and expelling a pent breath. She glanced over to where Hanasian stood and nodded. It was done.
Above deck, they had started to drift with the current. This change in their course alerted the other ship. In the fog, conditions were treacherous and visibility all but absent. Still, it was clear the other ship was moving to intercept and in their wounded condition, they could hardly elude it.
"Cap…we're being intercepted. Run up colours?" Loch inquired from the hatch.
Hanasian's mind raced. There were two likely outcomes. If the ship was one of theirs, their Company identity would assure them assistance and bring them off this crippled, rotting vessel. However, if the ship was Corsair, Company identity would assure them no quarter.
"No… and conceal all Company devices and sigils. I want every man on deck, archers in the rigging. Frea and Folca, I want you down here and barricaded. You will be our last line of defense should this other ship prove Corsair. Kill the prisoner. He cannot be permitted to fall alive into Corsair hands.
"But mark me well, I want no steel bared, no arrow loosed until I give the signal."
"Aye," men chorused.
The Company moved swiftly, collecting up gear and weapons. He caught Rin collecting her bow and quiver and moved to intercept her before she got on deck and into the rigging.
"Will you wait down here?" he asked as she slung her quiver over one shoulder.
"I've heard talk of these Corsairs…. Brigands, bandits of the sea… cruel and without mercy… If it is your order that I remain here, then here I shall remain. But I ask that you let me go above. If I must choose an end, then I would choose one different to my mother's. Please, my love."
Hanasian collected up one hand, which he pressed to his lips. Upon release, she reached to curve her fingers around the line of his jaw. Much passed between the pair with that stolen moment and then it was away. Hanasian watched her make for the main mast and start up the rigging. He moved along the deck, spreading men out to avoid clustered groups. In the growing grey light of dawn, the other ship loomed closer. The treacherous wind did nothing to assist them to flee and their sails hung limp. If this was not bad enough, none on board were aware of what had been unleashed with the dosing of their prisoner. Robbed of any control, the entropy became a wild and ravenous force.
It was eerily quietly. Thick fog made it an alien place, as though they foundered on an endless plane of Ulmo's vast ocean. The silence was shattered by the crashing of grappling hooks on deck. They bit hard, yanking the lines taut and yanked the smaller smuggling ship hard towards the larger approaching vessel. Hanasian held his hand aloft, a command for continued control and restraint, and counted them fortunate that the hooks had found wood and not men to bite. The deck beneath their feet canted towards their captors and men swarmed across, agile as cats and clearly accustomed to life and battle upon sea. As they landed, the smuggler ship shuddered and gave a terrible groan as timbers along its port-side hull staved in under pressure. The crack reverberated through the ship, vibrating up the mainsail. Those aloft had to hang tightly to avoid a sharp, deadly fall to the deck below.
"Ho there, stand fast or be drowned," a man called in a strong, clear voice from the other ship before he kicked off to swing aboard.
"Never did I see smugglers so pleased to see the King's navy. And here we were hoping for a tussle to pass the time," he said upon landing. At that, Hanasian signaled to stand down and spread his own hands wide. Far above, in the leaning rigging, nocked arrows sagged.
"Captain Nerlas…well met once again," Hanasian said, reaching forward to greet him.
"Ah…. Stand to, lads… sorry excuses for smugglers they be, but we don't want to tangle steel with this lot. Captain Hanasian, seems you've a spot of bother. Might you want to come aboard?"
"Well, be quick about it. I'll need to cut this crate free shortly lest she bring us both down to Ulmo's embrace."
And like that, the captain of the Night Explorer had his boarding party swarming about at double time. By the time the sun had managed to fully rise, the Black stood on deck. They watched their former vessel quite literally disintegrate before their eyes. Nerlas ran his hand through sun bleached hair and shook his head, whistling low.
"Never seen a sight like that in all my life," he said and turned to where Hanasian stood on deck, Rin at his shoulder.