19. Chapter 19
Hanasian smiled at Farbarad's reluctant approach to Rin and left the man to his business in favour of joining the others for his morning tea. The mornings were mostly like this. A gathering in the morning, a check on the level of greenness of Loch, and less so Mulgov. Then they would go to drills for an hour. Afterward they would scatter about the city until they all gathered again at The Passage in the evening.
They had been in Pelargir for over a week, and Hanasian was revelling in the time he had with Rosmarin. For her part, she kept herself busy as ever. There were wares to collect, local healing knowledge to uncover and the importance of keeping prying hands from her gear. Farbarad warmed to his self appointed task of introducing Rin to the various rituals expectations of a marriage, and they would go walking after dinner and slip in late. Hanasian was in a state of bliss to have this uninterrupted time with Rin. So much so that he was letting slip on the company discipline. Frea and Folca were good sergeants in the field and one could not ask for better tacticians. However, neither were inclined to sustaining discipline when their down time came.
Mecarnil did well as a second, but he was preoccupied with Arnor and his attention was divided. Farbarad was also rising to the fore, particularly evident in all that he was trying to do with Rin. Ill at ease with this at first, he had soon settled into it and the opportunity it offered to renew a bond shattered so many years ago by ambition and violence. Hanasian was grateful for both Cardolan rangers. Being of mixed blood, the intricacies of Arnorian bloodlines was, for the most part, lost on him. His familiarity with Arnorian politics extended as far as what he had learned of the elves of Imladris had taught. The elven tendency to skim over the details of mortals in their telling ensured this was limited. The one exception was Elrond, but opportunities to ply that lord for details was rare and limited to the rare occasions paths crossed in the meadhall. As one week grew into two, Hanasian found himself leaning increasingly on Videgavia. The Northman was one of the few remaining company originals and he had an inimical way in keeping the others in line. It was Videgavia who had the company work their drills in the mornings. It was Videgavia who ensured all returned at night. Still, for all of this, the usual suspects were soon able to locate trouble once their hue returned to normalacy.
Of all people, it was Khule who ensured no one found themselves guests of the city's jail. With Minas Tirith looming, and with it the resumption of Cardolan's lingering business, Hanasian was reluctant for this period of calm to end. Two weeks drifted into three and Videgavia himself began to relent. He skipped a day of drills, then a couple days later he skipped drills again. Drills diminished steadily to only two mornings out of five. He said it was because of the heat. Still, he made sure everyone was back in the evening.
Mecarnil noticed them first. His keen nose for trouble picked up their scent. Night after night, he marked their presence at the tavern. He brought this fact to Hanasian on a warm night, the air stubbornly hot despite the setting of the sun. Rin watched Mecarnil whisper something to Hanasian. Ranger business again, she concluded. Even so, she was curious. A glance at Hanasian's expression was enough to prevent her questions from slipping out of her mouth. Mecarnil and Hanasian spoke in what sounded, to Rin, in a garbled and confused tongue that jarred. It was a combination of Rhovanion and Rohirric words blended with the hand signals she was only starting to make inroads on. Videgavia assisted as well, coughing in such a fashion that may be reasonably believable unless a healer was listening. Rin quirked an eyebrow, curiosity spinning ever faster now and fanned by the smile that Hanasian sent to her.
"Shall we take our walk m'lady?" he inquired and Rin found herself forced to school her expression away from further surprise.
Rather, Rin stood and smiled benignly. There was clearly something afoot and subterfuge was required. She accepted his arm and they headed for the door. No sooner were they across the threshold did Hanasian relieve the curiosity that chased at her heels.
"Tonight, we're on duty. Mecarnil had noticed some men that are at the Passage every night. They blend in as regulars… except they aren't. Mecarnil noted today that they were not here when we first arrived, but started showing up a couple days later. They appear to be locals, but one in particular Mecarnil thought was slightly out of place. He then noted their movements, and whenever we would go for our walk, one or two of them would leave shortly thereafter, but return before we did. It's his hunch that they are watching us. Tonight is a test."
They stood to the side of the front entry, easily able to view those who might also depart by that way.
"So we are testing them to see if they come out after us, bait as it were."
"Yes, and seeing us here they will have to do something to cover themselves. Such as truly leave for the evening. We will then start our walk and nonchalantly follow them."
Rin smiled slightly and cuddled in close as the door opened, a role very easy for her to play for it was no role at all. Only one man emerged this time. It was the man Mecarnil considered out of place. His eyes met Rin's in the dull flicker of the inn's porch lamp and surprise lit his face for a moment. He recovered swiftly, stepped away and unsteadily made off up the street. He seemed no more than another patron who had enjoyed a night in the cups. On cue, Hanasian turned as Rin hooked her arm through his and they began to walk. They struck up harmless lover's chatter, leavened with ample laughter.
"So do you know him?" Hanasian asked in the midst of their merriment
Rin whispered after a giggle, "No... not sure. He is definitely a northerner though."
"Aye, one who has been here awhile. He has managed to get dark enough to look like a local, yet his eyes give him away. He's done well to conceal them, squinting as if his vision is bad. The little surprise we caught him in proves Mecarnil was right. Now where will he take us?"
They laughed and whispered, letting some of their lover's talk carry as they walked. The man went to a tenement and went in, glancing neither left nor right as he vanished into the dark building..
Hanasian paused their steps and said in a louder voice, "Let us go this other way. I want to show you something but forgot about it when we left the inn."
They pivoted and started walking back the way they came. They walked back to the inn and went inside. Mecarnil was there but Videgavia was gone. A few fingers told Hanasian that he had gone out the back, and was shadowing us. It was always good to have some back-up should things go pear-shaped. The other three men were still there, but shortly after Hanasian's and Rin's arrival, one left. Probably to find out what happened to their other man.
"So it truly has come…" Hanasian whispered to himself. Even so, any at their table could have heard him. It was time to leave Pelargir.
The sunrise arrived as clear as it had just about every day since they arrived. Hanasian stood at the window studying the streaks of colour in the sky. They reached toward the sea from the east.
Rin woke to find him quiet and still, his thoughts turning over. She watched him for awhile, soaking in the sight, before she softly asked, "What are you thinking my Love?"
"The same thing I've been thinking these last few weeks when I wasn't trying to forget about it. I have been procrastinating and enjoying this free time with you Rin. But I am afraid it's time to get things righted again. We will go to Minas Tirith, and there we will do what needs to be done."
He turned from the window and looked at Rin, still wrapped in a sheet.
"I'll have to get the company back in order. In three days we will march out. I thought of taking a ship upriver, but I think a good march would help get them all back in shape. That and it may throw off whoever has decided we are worth watching."
A smirk came across Hanasian's face as Rin rolled the sheet over her head and groaned. He recalled her words from three weeks ago.
"I'll tell you now, my dear, knowing Aragorn, he would likely build a jail cell in court so you could be in both places at once. So be careful what you ask. Also, I would like it to be there where we will marry. I wish not to wait any longer… unless you wish it to be elsewhere at another time. I grow restless. Maybe you would like to tell me your thoughts and maybe a bit on what you and Farbarad have discussed?"
"My love, it matters not to me where we marry. Minas Tirith, or indeed anywhere. It will be as your restless heart desires, Hanasian. As for Farbarad, I've yet to unravel his advice. It seems inordinately complicated and I fail to see why it should be so...complex. Something honest, simple and heartfelt."
The pair emerged downstairs to find Videgavia, Farbarad and Mecarnil in close discussion.
"Did you recognize that fellow last night?" Mecarnil inquired before either had taken a seat.
"No, and good morning to you too," Rin replied dryly as she reached for the pot of tea.
"Northerner," Hanasian supplied, accepting a cup of the steaming liquid.
"A surprised northerner," Rin added.
"Who vanished into thin air," Videgavia rumbled, disgruntled.
"We'll move out in three days. Resume the drills, get the Company ready, and stay alert. Perhaps they will follow us, perhaps not. Either way, we''ll be ready," Hanasian said.
"Wish I had a clearer look at his face," Farbarad grumbled.
"Three days, and another six, and then the fun begins if I don't miss my guess," Mecarnil said, rubbing his hands over his face.
"Meaning?" Videgavia inquired, rising to roust the others for the morning drill.
"He's expecting me to make his life miserable once we get to Minas Tirith and whatever this business is of the king's. But what has to be, has to be," Rin answered.
"What's this? Trying the easier path this time, lass?" Farbarad inquired lightly, sardonic smile playing over his face a moment.
"Thought I'd try my hand at something new," she returned with a casual half shrug of one shoulder. Mecarnil's eyes narrowed suspiciously all the same.
"If you think that's going to gull me into a false sense of complacency," Mecarnil rumbled.
"Me? Eru forfend! Maybe I've just decided that you may have been right about some things."
Videgavia pounded on Farbarad's back when the man choked on his tea. Hanasian smiled behind his cup at the expression on Mecarnil's face. Suspicious before, he was outright paranoid now and Rin wore a particularly well pleased expression.
"One final matter. Rosmarin and I have decided to wed at Minas Tirith," Hanasian said calmly. Farbarad choked on his tea a second time and set the cup down hurriedly.
Minas Tirith it was, then, in three days time. The Company fell back into familiar patterns. Supplies were required, tack and equipment prepared, horses readied, drills resumed morning and afternoon. That night there was no trace of the three watching men. The second day proved as busy as the one before it. Again, no trace of watchers. The third day proved busier again.The Company split after morning drills. They set out to complete arrangements before to the afternoon drill. Rin pressed a knee weakening kiss on Hanasian before she drew up her hood and set off into Pelargir's busy streets. He saw her smile flicker in the depths of her cowl as she looked back over her shoulder and vanished around a corner in a flow of people.
A final day in Pelargir and so much to prepare. She needed a dress fit for a wedding. Minas Tirith was a mystery to her, but she had a sense of Pelargir now after three weeks. A dress and something for Hanasian. A bride should present the groom with a gift, according to Farbarad. She understood at least that much. The first place she went to eyed her dubiously. They took in her martial appearance in such a way that Rin was relieved to have left the sword, bow and quiver at the tavern. By mid morning, Rin had learned a great deal and all of it pointed to a single fact. She'd have to wear her uniform to the wedding. When she mentioned why she was there, women clucked their tongues sympathetically and explained that at least four weeks would be needed to produce a suitable dress.
Rin pushed out of the last store, feeling defeated and overwhelmed. The street was crowded, noisy and the sun glared. Around the corner, however, the alley was shadowed and cool. To this she made her way, slumped her shoulders against the wall and pinched the bridge of her nose. She needed to think and for that she needed to calm down. She had two dresses...and really it didn't matter nearly as much as everyone seemed to think. What she wore was not as important as it seemed. Two whole dresses, when not four months ago all she owned were rags. The day was wasting, she told herself. Time to see to Hanasian's gift. That she could accomplish and that was important. More important than a dress. Rin's shoulders straightened. She took a deep breath, drew up her hood and entered the slipstream of humanity again.
As the day's heat built, the crowds in the street thinned. Shortly after midday, Rin forced herself to walk casually into the closest stall. It had only been a momentary glimpse but had been enough to make her pulse skid. Rin waved off the vendor, distractedly picked through cards of wool, and considered her options given there was at least one and as many as three men had trailed her. Clearly, a return to the tavern was in order. Rin smoothed her breathing and scanned the street outside. Across the diminished throng an alley opened. Alleys, roof tops, through buildings, under buildings. There were many ways to move covertly through a town or city. Any cut purse or street urchin knew this to be true. It had been six months since she had been forced to this, but it was in her bones now. Habit sent her hands checking to see everything she needed was secured and ready for a headlong, hurtling race up and under and over and around obstacles and buildings and people. She'd start with a diversion, a simple enough proposition.
Rin waited for the tell tale flicker of pickpockets in the crowd beyond. Pelagir, like many such towns, had entire tribes of such children. Once she had spotted one such child in action, she slipped out of the tent she had taken refuge in. Rin drifted in the same general direction as the thieving gang, upset a nearby crate of oranges. As the orange orbs rolled over the sun warmed ground, the vendor came hurrying out. Rin simply stared in the direction of the thieves. The grocer spotted them and let out a tremendous shout.
"HIE! STOP! THIEVES!"
People in the street froze a moment and children scattered in the manner than enabled pickpockets and urchins to evade capture. As bedlam ensued, Rin darted across the street for the alley and pressed into its shadow. A window sill provided her purchase up the wall and she rolled onto the roof with a gasp as she hit the slates. Just as well she had leather between her shoulder and the sharp edges she had hit. Rin scrambled to her feet and started on her way in a low crouch. She needed distance fast, and then down before they marked her against the sky line. Below, she could hear the cry of Pelargir's Watch. By now, the child thieves would be long gone, vanished into the dust of the street like ghosts.
All Cullith glimpsed was the swirl of her black cloak as Rin slipped into the alley amidst the hue and cry upon the street. The snarl of the crowd delayed him enough that she had vanished from sight by the time he reached it. The only clue as to her whereabouts was the shattered slate tile that lay on the ground. Cullith muttered an oath and peeled away. She'd be making for the tavern if she had any sense. He set out, moving rapidly through the streets. It remained to be seen whether she could somehow slip the net that had been tightening around her.
At the rear of the Passage Tavern in the late afternoon, the Company assembled for the afternoon drill. Cullith hung back, waiting for a familiar face to arrive. From time to time, he scanned the rooftops around him. No sign of her still. He'd already returned to the tenement and found it abandoned. The man of Dale, the one that had followed him several nights ago, peered up a street and nodded at three men that approached. Cullith studied them. Of the three rangers, two of them were familiar. The third was the Company captain. He had the look of a man that could account for himself should steel be bared. Not a man to cross idly, held in high esteem by the High King and for good reason if the tales were true. Cullith waited ten heartbeats for weapons to be unsheathed in readiness for a drill. He pushed his own cloak back to ensure his own were visible and started towards the makeshift practice area.
Videgavia's whistle altered every man to Cullith's presence by the time he'd taken but two steps out from the alley he'd been crouching in. Cullith carefully, slowly raised his hands and continued his way forward. Hanasian whipped about and recognised the approaching man's face. His sword whipped out with a fluid whisper and his expression dangerously cooled. Signals flashed and the Company was soon arrayed in a formation that would prove difficult for Cullith if things went awry.
"Cullith?" Farbarad said, incredulous.
"She isn't here and she isn't at the tenement. We have to move, now. They'll press hard, for Ethring to the west. If they discover that she has no intention of resurrecting her father's ambitions, I cannot say what will follow. These are desperate men."
"And you are not?" Mecarnil inquired softly, dangerously. Cullith barked humourless laughter at the question and bared his teeth.
"Make no mistake. She is my sister's daughter. My only surviving kin," he snarled. It was enough, it had to be. They already had a lead of at least two hours.
"We need to put as much distance between us and Pelargir by nightfall."
"Without killing our horses...or our queen. Give her a moment more."
The first man grunted and turned to adjust a girth strap on his horse. The second man turned back to where Rin sat. He studied her a moment, approached and sank to his haunches.
"You needn't fear, m'lady. He's only keen to get you safe, get you home."
"Untie me then, oh gentle sir, if it is my comfort and safety you are so mindful of," Rin growled, eyes narrowed. The man smiled and rubbed at his jaw. She saw the imprint of her fist was forming into a satisfying bruise.
"In good time, m'lady. Perhaps, when your uncle arrives, and your mind has been cleared of the pervasive lies set within it."
"I think you'll find you'll have other guests to ready yourself for."
"Indeed, my queen. I bow to your wisdom. We should indeed depart, for other guests do await."
The water skin she clutched between her bound hands was plucked from her grasp first. Then she was pulled to her feet and propelled towards the horse. The two men hoisted her into the saddle and secured her hands to the pommel. In moments, they were trotting and then cantering, her horse secured to the saddle of the one man that spoke with her. She tried to twist back to see if there was any sign of pursuit through the dust her mount kicked up. Defeated in that, she straightened and locked her teeth against the jarring of each stride. Tied as she was, there was no way to adjust her weight in the saddle and roll with the horse's gait. Each jolt prompted her to think. They had her knives, every last one. A humiliating exercise considering where she had secreted them. The further they travelled, the harder it would be for her to make her way back. Rin eyed the ropes at her wrist. Secure, but not painfully so.
Rin needed off that horse and before a third man, whoever and wherever her uncle was, arrived and the odds worsened again. By the time they slowed to a walk, Rin had already started to feel the grip of the rope loosen. All she need do is stretch it enough to slip over the pommel. They started canter again and Rin swore as the jarring resumed up her spine. By sunset, they had covered enough ground to permit a stop. She had run out of time.The men dismounted, and one turned back to release her hands from the saddle while the other unhitched her horse from the one in front.
"You've been busy, I see. A shame," he observed as he noted how loose the rope was. Not enough to get it over the saddle horn.
He lifted her down easily, her joints stiffened and painful after an afternoon tied to the saddle and passed her wrists to the other man as he unsaddled the horse she had been removed from. Rin was towed, forced to follow both men a short distance to where the saddle had been set down.
"If you please," said one man.
"And if I don't?" she retorted and the world suddenly spun.
When it righted again, Rin found herself seated, hands retied to the weighty saddle. Both men straightened, surveyed their work and nodded in satisfaction. One turned for the trees. The other began setting out the horses and rubbing them down. Rin bowed her head and closed her eyes. The shadows between the trees stretched as dusk tumbled into twilight. Overhead, the stars emerged, distant and beyond the conflict of the world they hung suspended over. Rin tipped her head back to study them a moment and then set herself to starting on the ropes again, this time using her teeth. Rin's efforts ceased at the faintest whisper and her head turned in its direction. She peered at the growing darkness, straining to listen. It had sounded like an arrow, a trick of an increasingly desperate mind she concluded The Company would not know she was missing until the afternoon drill, which meant that these men had a sizable lead. Nor, if she was realistic, would they have any way of knowing what had happened or which direction to set off. Likely, they were combing Pelargir's streets now. She was on her own.
In the trees, Mecarnil crouched over the body, checked and signaled. One was dead. The other, however, was the greater threat if Cullith was to be believed. Another arrow would be best, and swiftly before he realised his partner's fate and took action. The Black Company bellied closer. Farbarad took careful aim and was forced to wait until the man in the clearing moved out from behind Rin. The opportunity did not arrive, but company did. Rin's movements ceased and her head snapped up as men emerged on the far side of the clearing. Another six men, each heavily armed and armoured, came leading their horses. Rin's stomach sank then. For the men watching in the trees, it was clear their plan required adjustment.
A fool's mistake to let Rosmarin go anywhere in this city alone. Especially with these characters known to be about. Surely she had one of the Company shadowing her? The evening gathering told Hanasian there wasn't. Rin was clever that way. Her ability to slip a tail made her a good member of this company. Unfortunately the arrival of her uncle on the scene had complicated things, and there was more at play here than they in the Company, and he who approached realised this. Hanasian made the gut-call that they would have to take this man at his word at the moment, for his words had a sincerity to them that Hanasian detected.
"We ride now. We likely won't be back so Belegost, Bear, you remain here, secure our wares, obtain a wagon and head to Minas Tirith. The rest of you ready up now!" Hanasian commanded.
They lit out fast and hard, with Loch riding point in search of sign his sister may leave. Foldine, a fast rider, was not far behind. The rest followed, with Wulgof keeping Cullith close. Khule and Berlas followed as rearguard. Loch proved himself as a tracker, but then the abductors didn't seem to keen on covering their track. The sun had set and the night took hold. Hanasian kept hard at it, slowing only to allow some rest for their mounts. But even they felt the need to push hard, and were willing to go. Into the night they went onward.
It was well nigh two hours when Loch slowed, and flashed an awkward sign to slow to silent speed. The kid been learning, he just needed to practice it before he signals something he ought not. Foldine slipped up beside him silently and verified his signal before quickly flashing it to the others. Suddenly Loch's fist went up, meaning to hold up. They all dismounted in quick, silent succession, and Folca secured the horses with Morcal. The men fanned out silently. They had found a camp, likely that of the abductors. Hanasian and Loch moved in closer for a look, and they both spotted Rin in the starlight.
They had wisely camped cold, with no fire, but they verified they had found the ones they sought. Hanasian signalled that the two men needed to be terminated. One went down silently by a swift, sure arrow of Mecarnil. Farbarad was tasked with the other, but didn't have the shot. Hoping he would move, they quickly saw that there was more men coming. Hanasian flashed fingers, and a slight whisk of breath told Farbarad to hold up but be ready. Hanasian looked at the arriving men in the dim starlight.
"Men of Gondor!" he whispered in a breath like the wind.
Things had gotten more complicated just now, and the hand of conspiracy has been seen just above the thick bush. It was instinct that took hold in that moment. A nightbird call from Hanasian sent Farbarad's arrow aflight, and it called the others to action as well. The kidnapper fell forward just as the soldiers started to secure their mounts. Surprised, they started to draw swords. Hanasian nearly signalled for battle, but being these men were soldiers in the army of Gondor, he decided they should find out their intentions first. With a wave and clicking of fingers, Wulgof brought Cullith forward, and the rest of the Company spread and turned as they moved forward. The soldiers seemed to ignore Rin entirely at this point, sights set instead on armed men that emerged from the trees.
"Hail captain of Gondor!" Hanasian called out as he moved forward. Only Mecarnil and Farbarad remained hidden, fresh arrows at the ready in case trouble erupted.
"Who comes forth slaying men in the dark?" The captain uneasily called out.
"I am Hanasian, captain of the King's Black Company."
Hanasian walked forward with Loch beside him, unfurling the small standard he carried as bearer-apprentice. Wulgof and Cullith were on his other side.
"We came from Pelargir in pursuit of abductors of a member of our company. She is bound over there," Hanasian continued.
The darkness hid her well, but the igniting of a torch lit the small clearing and revealed her, the horses and the corpse of the dead man.
"Ah, the King's mercenaries. Thought you would be in pursuit of rebels down south. Anyway… heard there was trouble out this way, so we came to investigate," the other captain dissembled smoothly.
Cullith was too quiet in all this. A look from the second in the flickering light told Hanasian that they knew each other. A couple glances to the others and something seemed awry in a way that was difficult to define. Hanasian tapped Loch and he handed Wulgof the standard.
"Go free your sister." Hanasian told Loch, and the scout moved quickly to Rin.
His knife was out and was about to make quick work of her bonds when a voice from the wood said, "I wouldn't do that son."
Loch cut Rin free without hesitation. The hiss of an arrow followed and the young man rolled into the brush pushing his sister ahead of him and keeping his back towards the hidden archer.
Another arrow hissed, this time from Farbarad, and it entered the neck of the man who had tried to kill Loch. He fell from the tree with a thud, and the ring of steel broke the night as swords clashed. It was on. Mercarnil's arrow hit the leader, hitting him in the neck just above his armor. The torch fell and sputtered out, plunging them once more into starlit darkness. The second man dodged to his left, clashing swords with Foldine. The third man dodged right and made a pursuit toward where Loch and Rin had disappeared. The forth hit the ground flat, not having a stomach for a fight. An arrow that hoped to take down another man found an arm and pinned him to a tree. The sixth man tried to backtrack, but ran headlong into Khule and Berlas. It was over in only a few breaths. They had two of the men as captive, and Loch and Rin emerged from the brush.
"Captain. We have a problem," Loch said. "There are more men coming. On horseback, I could hear them."
Hanasian nodded, counted heads and said, "Bind these two, and lets fade. Where's Cullith?"
He, nor Wulgof were anywhere to be seen, But there was no time to ponder this.
"Fall back to our staging point, and be ready to ride out fast," Hanasian ordered.
He went and took his place beside Rin, giving Loch a nod. They moved as quick as they could back to where Morcal and Folca were. Mercarnil and Farbarad guarded their rear. Just like that the two captives were alone in the dark.
Just when things were heating up, getting interesting, an arm dragged Wulgof back into the trees. He managed to tangle the feet of the man responsible for ruining his excitement. The pair dropped to the shadowed ground, grunting and panting. Wulgof managed, at least, to hang onto his sword. He managed to rise to his knees in the darkness, several tree root shaped bruises and abrasions now amongst his collection. At such close quarter, a sword was useless. Worse than useless, he was more likely to kill himself than his assailant might be. Wulgof dropped it in favour of a weapon more suitable. He cast about the shadows he was standing in and tried to get a fix on his assailant, dagger weaving in the best guard position he could manage without knowing who or where his target now was.
"Put that pig sticker away, you fool," his attacker snarled. "If I wanted your blood, I'd have it...and after what your kindred did to mine, no one would fault me for it"
Wulgof shook his head, fixed his guard in the direction of the voice and tightened his grip on his dagger.
"Fine, hang onto it if it offers you comfort. Just get down low and keep still," the other man responded.
"Low and still, Dunlending. Need I remind you to keep your mouth shut?" Cullith responded.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, and as Cullith moved, Wulgof was able to make out the dim outline of Rin's uncle, purported uncle. Wulgof was not convinced the man was what anyone thought him to be, which seemed to be a family trait if he considered the woman who was allegedly his niece. She wasn't what he had expected her to be either. Wulgof saw Cullith belly forward towards the edge of the trees for a better view of the clearing.
"To hell with this," Wulgof grunted, sheathed his dagger and retrieved his sword, intent on re-joining the fray below.
Cullith's intervention was swift and effective. Wulgof's teary vision focused on tree limbs overhead after a few moments.
"Typical," Wulgof wheezed when he was able to get air into his lungs. "Three weeks of watching paint dry and when the fun finally arrives I have to sit it out."
A hiss from Cullith silenced any further rumination. Wulgof considered his options. If Cullith wanted him dead, he'd be dead. Clearly something was about to occur that the man thought worth watching. Wulgof flipped over and bellied up beside Cullith. The strife below was done and Hanasian was issuing orders. Rin emerged with her brother, in one piece. Wulgof felt a flood of relief, which he would naturally admit to no one. He glanced to the man lying next to him Wulfof could make out the pale glimmer of her uncle's gaze as it settled on his niece. Something rather like pain twisted his expression for an instant and it was gone.
The pair waited until the Company had abandoned the clearing, two captives left in their wake and five bodies. Loch had let slip about approaching riders. Hanasian had mentioned a staging point, likely voicing that for Wulgof's benefit. Still, Cullith waited in silence. After ten heartbeats, the two captives began talking to themselves in low voices. An argument was building. One man had fought, the other had capitulated and now the one who had fought figured the piper needed payment. Cullith let this brew another ten heartbeats before he rose and walked steadily down the gentle slope to where the two men had been left. Wulgof trailed after him, instincts trilling an alarm. Why had Cullith waited until the Company was out of his hair? Why was he approaching the captives? Why had Cullith ensured that a Company man was present for this?
"I was wondering when you'd show up again. Hurry, before that damn guard arrives," said the captive that had fought. The one that had surrendered simply studied Cullith uncertainly. It seemed to Wulgof that even his own conspirators doubted Rin's uncle.
Cullith considered the two bound men a moment and then turned to the man that had yet to say anything to him.
"You did not fight. Why?"
"He's traitor," snarled the the other captive. Cullith dealt him a blow casually. Wulgof heard the wet crack of the man's nose as he toppled backwards, dazed. The Dunlending's uneasy ratcheted up. Casual, easy violence, against a man bound and defenceless, an ally even.
"Why?" Cullith repeated to the other captive, speaking louder to be heard over the other man's painful moans.
"Treason... I just - I couldn't," the man stuttered, closing his eyes in resigned acceptance of whatever doom he thought was about to fall.
At Cullith's back, Wulgof considered taking the man down now. Beating a bound man was one thing, murdering him was quite another. Cullith, however, merely cocked his head.
"Sh-she chose- it was her will to surrender the throne- treason...against the queen and High King."
"You think Silver Fox wrong."
"Aye, though I was coward enough to say nothing and ride with them. So do what you came for. I've surrendered enough of my dignity already. I'll not be toyed with. I'll not beg for my life."
Cullith turned and fixed an unreadable expression on Wulgof. The other man still moaned.
"The riders approaching are likely soldiers patrolling lands filled with strange armed men in a time of peace. Up to you who they find here, Dunlending," Cullith said, and with that sheathed his sword and set off at a lope across the remainder of the clearing.
"Where are you going?" Wulgof called.
"There'll be others. The rest I will leave up to your imagination," Cullith replied, tossing it over his shoulder as he disappeared into the dark trees on the far side.
Wulgof turned back to the two captives. One lay on the ground, quiet now and wondering what was about to happen with a Dunlending at the helm. The other had closed his eyes and bowed his head. What was he supposed to know about this, Wulgof wondered. How was he supposed to tell the Company Healer that her closest surviving blood relative had once again vanished into thin air? Wulgof hissed a curse in his native tongue and pulled out his dagger again. He stalked towards the man that still knelt and slashed the binds that held his hands behind his back. The man fell forward onto his hands and knees and glanced about him in surprise.
"Make me regret that and I'll hunt you down myself, Dunedain," Wulgof growled.
"What would you have me do?"
"Come with me, and hurry. It's a long walk otherwise."
The man got to his feet, ignoring the weapons that had been divested from him by the others upon capture. He nodded once, solemn. Wulgof cursed again and set off, prodding the man with his sword.
"What about me?" called the remaining captive as best he could with a freshly broken nose. "I was only defending my realm."
"No good deed goes unpunished," Wulgof replied as they left the clearing.
The staging area was a defensible rise that the Company's horses had been picketed on earlier. They had two choices, ride out and hope to out pace the approaching riders despite the fatigue of their mounts and riders, or stay and hope to defend the area should the riders prove hostile. Ultimately, the Company decided to stay and defend. Wulgof and Cullith was still missing, they were tired and the horses were in no condition to out run those that approached. Men fell into position in readiness, each murmuring a word or placing a hand on the shoulder of the Company healer as they did so. Despite their relief, tensions still ran high. So high, in fact, that Wulgof and his prisoner nearly found themselves on the business end of several arrows and spears.
Hanasian's brows climbed in the darkness and he shifted to stand in front of Rin before he was aware of it. Wulgof's companion was not Cullith. That was the only thing clear. The closing rumour of horse hooves prevented any further questioning. Wulgof pushed the man ahead through the ring of his Company and took up his own position. Hanasian drew out his sword, attention split between the arriving horsemen and the newly arrived stranger. As he drew closer, Rin gasped in recognition.
"You!" she gasped, falling back a step.
"I mean you no harm, m'lady. I swear it," the newcomer avowed and sank to one knee in supplication.
"You up there on the rise! Explain yourselves! Why do you move through the night girt for war in this land and time of peace?" a man below called up, clearly irritated.
Wulgof shook out the Company Standard.
"We are the Black Company of Arnor, and we seek peace as do you," Hanasian called out.
The man below called for light and torches were soon lit. A squad of soldiers numbering approximately fifty sat on their horses. In the transient light, it took some effort to make out the sigil of a swan on shields.
"Peace? Six bodies nearby and a man bound like a wild animal with a broken nose says otherwise," the squad commander challenged.
"I will vouchsafe your passage, Commander. Listen to our tale and judge as you see fit," Hanasian replied.
The commander conferred with the men on either side and then swung out of his saddle to amble up to their encampment. Hanasian used that time to order weapons stowed and cast a penetrating glare at Wulgof. There was more than one man who needed answers.
"Six bodies and a beaten man. Is Cardolan's legacy only to be that of blood spilled?" he heard Rin say in a defeated voice. The man she had recognised remained on one knee.
"Get on your feet," Hanasian growled at him and beckoned Wulgof closer. Farbarad and Mecarnil followed the Dunlending. Loch hovered to one side, close to his sister. She stood, shoulders slumped and head bowed.
"This had better be worth hearing," the commander said as he gained their vantage.
Hanasian spoke sparingly, laying out the bald facts right up to the point at which he had left the clearing.
"Traitors and malcontents, you say? Easy accusations to throw around. What proof have you, Captain?"
"The country side is crawling with strange, armed men, I gather. I suppose you could freely think us but part of their number."
"Aye, that I could," the commander agreed, thumbs hooked through his baldric as he rocked back onto his heels a moment.
"Very well, Rin, show the commander," Hanasian said in a quiet voice.
Rin let out a sigh, tugged up the leather of both sleeves and proffered up the evidence. The ropes, and her efforts to free herself of them, had left their mark.
"Think you that we are so far fallen that we would do this? That I would permit, or order this be done to my bride, Commander?" Hanasian asked, aggrieved at what he saw.
"Ach..." the commander said, turning his head to one side and glancing away as Rin lowered her arms again.
"There are others. Her uncle seeks for them now," Wulgof said.
"And this one? Not one of the Company," the Commander said.
"No," Hanasian replied dourly, glancing at Wulgof and then at the recent captive.
"An honest conspirator, who would have backed out if he could have" Wulgof said. "Cullith thought it enough to free him."
"I don't know who this Cullith is, but a conspirator is a conspirator. Have you any objections, Captain, to us taking him into our custody?"
"I do not," Hanasian replied calmly and the commander turned and signalled down to the men below. Another two men swung out of their saddles and started up towards them.
"As for Cullith, he is our healer's uncle. His character is less...certain," Hanasian said.
"I tell you this. Better you find the others than Cullith, commander. Unpredictable as he is, he is not a man crossed. He will accord no quarter to any foe," said the captive.
"And who is his foe?" Hanasian asked. A sardonic smile twisted the man as the two soldiers took hold of him.
"I wish I knew, for all our sakes," he replied and they watched him be escorted away.
"What will happen to him?" Rin asked after a moment.
"Trial, I expect. A matter for the king and his court to determine. Though, I'm a soldier, not an advocate, m'lady. Captain," the commander said, brusquely turning his attention back to Hanasian. "With the hue and cry of the night, I will deploy my men below. A small detail to deal with the fallen will be needed, but there are more than enough to ensure you are spared further predation this night. As for the morrow, I had thought to continue our patrol. In which direction will you make?"
"We will re-join with the rest of our Company on the Great South Road. I doubt few rebels will be so foolish as to attempt anything on such a busy thoroughfare."
"Well and good. The very same direction we were to patrol in. We can see you at least that far."
"Will that be necessary?" Rin asked.
"M'lady, Prince Imrahil would insist upon it. Neither he nor Faramir would countenance anything less, given the threat posed by these rebels."
Rin opened her mouth as if to reply and then thought better of it. She closed it and nodded, seeming defeated.
"Our thanks, Commander," Hanasian replied.
"If that will be all, Captain, I shall see to the disposition of my men," the Commander replied, saluted lazily and ambled back down the slope to his men.
He issued orders as he walked. The majority of the squad dismounted, a group of ten riding back to the clearing to inter the fallen rebels. A camp was swiftly established below, and the Black Company followed suit above. A fire was created, pickets and watches set, food set to cooking. It was a familiar routine, comforting and in sharp contrast to the rigours of the day. Rin found herself watching the men around her, a sudden fear constricting her throat. It kept her away from those that gathered around the fire to trade banter. Six men, all told, had died today. Only skill and fortune had meant that none of them were Company men. But how long could that continue, she wondered. If Cardolan's legacy of strife was to haunt her steps for the rest of her days, then surely it would claim those around her.
A brush of gentle fingers down her cheek startled her so badly that she flinched in naked fright. Heart pounding, she realised it was Hanasian. He frowned slightly and repeated the gesture, brushing back wild tangles of hair.
"Come, Rosmarin. Sit," he said. Mutely she nodded and he led her to a place to sit, slightly away from the others. They marked this and left the pair to their privacy.
"Give me your wrists, love," he said, reaching into a pouch at his belt for a soothing balm. He worked quietly, fingers gentle on the broken skin.
"Bear and Belegost will have found a wagon by now, loaded up the rest of our gear including yours. We'll meet them on the road to Minas Tirith in the next day or so. We'll be safe on that road, but I would be surprised if the White City was free of rebel sympathisers. There must be some supporters here in south to provide food, gear and succour. So, we will need to be cautious in Minas Tirith. No more slipping free of tails, my love. It is too dangerous. Too dangerous-"
"I think it would have been better if I had died that night, with my mother," Rin said in a voice devoid of colour. Hanasian's ministrations ceased, shocked at her statement. He glanced up. A single track of tears traced down one cheek and her eyes were closed.
"Beloved, no! You cannot think such a thing!"
"It is true. None of this would be happening if I had. None of it. No rebels, no kidnapping, no peril to your Company, no dead men, no beaten men, on my account. None of this would have happened if I-"
The tone of Hanasian's voice drew heads to where he sat with Rin. It was enough to open her eyes and reveal the icy despair within.
"This is not your fault. None of it. Oh my love, would you truly allow these brigands hold sway over all you bring to me, to us all?"
She said nothing, and her eyes sank to the ground.
"Come, you are weary and frightened and nothing more. Rest, dear heart. This will pass, we will prevail. You will remember this, see this in the morning."
Rin let him guide her down to the ground. She curled up around herself, aching in body and mind and spirit. She felt him fit himself against her back and wrap an arm around her.
"Sleep, love. Just sleep," he murmured and Rin surprised herself. She fell into a featureless sleep, slowly uncurling and seeking the safety Hanasian offered.