22. Chapter 22
Henneth Annûn was a wonder to behold. Lanterns had been scattered about and bathed the rocky interior in a golden, flickering light to softly entice and beguile the eye. A hearth stood prepared but cold, for the night was warm already. Abundant wood had been stacked nearby and kindling hung, ready bundled, for no groom wished to gather stuff for fires on his honeymoon. A bowl of fruit sat on the table, the rest of the larder screened from view and well stocked to keep appetites fed. Food and ale had been laid away in there, and hopefully cheese too.
The floor had been polished smooth by countless feet over the many years and carpets had been laid down, a mishmash of cultures rubbing shoulders with each other in their designs. The triumph, however, was the bedding. No longer did soldiers cram themselves in this place on uneasy nights. Furs had been piled over a space that once would have housed five men, spread over a mattrass that would have been an inconceivable luxury here upon a time. The furs themselves were strewn with cotton bedding so thin as to feel like silk. In rocky roof that vaulted over the bed, there had once been egress for a concealed archer. The archer would have been hidden from all but eagles and this had since been converted to a window. Those that lay beneath it could while away hours staring at the stars, at the blue of the sky, at clouds that danced over head or at the silver tides of rain.
To be fair, the two people that stood in the midst of this could barely take it in. The falls were glorious and for Rin, it was the first time she had ever beheld such a sight. Hanasian could see the quiet awe on her face as she took it in. He gave her a long moment and then slipped his fingers over the bare curve of her shoulder, following the delicate bones along to the pearl that nestled in the hollow of her throat. He felt her swallow. Slowly, so slowly, he let his fingers graze up her throat to her chin. He tipped her head back, turning to her, and kissed her so hard his head swam. That was the end of soaking in the wonder of their surrounds. They turned hungrily to each other, oblivious to anything else.
Buttons scattered from his jacket, bouncing pieces of silver that fell this way and that and chimed as they hit stone. Rin pulled the jacket from him, ran her lips over his chest, pushing him back, back, back until his heels collected the mattrass and he was forced to sit suddenly.
"I thought I said I would be the one to peel you out of your dress," he managed, voice roughened as he looked up at where she stood.
He saw her smile at him and his blood fired. She reached up and the net of her veil floated away like a cloud that had somehow found its way inside. He reached for her and she stepped back, smiling again.
"Oh, no, leave the circlet," he said and her hands lowered.
"Now come here, wife," he tried, considering she was being so biddable.
She smiled and turned her back. He wasn't sure how she did what she next but before his eyes silk slid down over her skin, finally falling in watery waves of blue and lavendar. Down her torso to her hips and the belt of sapphires.
"Leave those too," he suggested and was forced to adjust how he sat when she softly wriggled her hips.
The silk sighed as it sank down to pool around her feet and she looked back over her shoulder at him, sapphires sparking against the smooth lustre of her skin. She came to him then, clad in her hair and blue fire.
"Stars, woman! I do not know how much more I can bear. You were almost the best of me in that coach."
"Would you have me stop then, " she inquired, running her tongue over his cock as she awaited his answer.
"What I would have is this," he growled sitting up and gripping her hips with his hands as he pulled her to him.
He followed the panes of her navel up to the valley formed by her breasts. Then he lowered her, running his lips over her skin as he guided her over him. He felt her quiver, his face now buried between her breasts. Slowly, his hands rolled her hips. Her nails raked over his back as she sank down. Their rhythm was building. Her back arched, thrusting her hips harder against his own. Hanasian moaned as he saw light and shadow dance over the swell of her breasts. Too fast! Too fast! She was panting now, lost to the rising sensation. Hanasian knew that if he did not break, he would spill over too soon. With a great surge, then, he met her downward roll and thrust himself upright. Rin felt him drive hard within her and she locked her legs around his hips as he spun and dropped them both back to the bed.
The shift slowed Hanasian precisely the right amount but it spurred Rin further. Hair splayed across the sheets, he drove deeper, pushing her legs back to open her further to him. The delay was momentary only. The sight of her writhing beneath him, breasts bouncing with each thrust, skin glistening golden with sweat was intoxicating. The feel of her pulsing around him pushed him further than when she had been riding him. She cried out with the force of her release and he could bear it no longer. The stones echoed with their ecstasy. Rin pulled him down as he spilled into her, gathering him to her in the circle of her arms and legs. Her breathing warm against his ear, her hair silken against his face.
Steadily, then, they sank together into that floating world of sated contentment. Her fingers played over the muscles of his back, tracing them down to his narrow hips and then down further to press him firmly against her. They lay athwart the bed, limbs tangled, bodies and hearts merged. They could feel the shape of the fuzzy thoughts that ran through each other, minds mingling as their lives and bodies now did. Slowly they drifted to sleep like this, letting it find them as it may on this magnificent of days. Dawn stole over them softly, making the water of the falls fire and spark like a rain of diamonds. While both were habitual early risers, neither stirred until much later.
Hanasian woke and found himself nuzzled comfortably against his wife's curves. She still wore the belt but the circlet had fallen away in their lovemaking the night before. Dreams had her now and he watched her eyes flicker behind her lids, the long fingers of one hand twitching. Dreams of healing or theft, he could not know without delving into the stream of her thoughts and that would surely wake her. He was not minded to rise just yet. Hanasian rolled to his side and spotted the window overhead for the first time. He settled in to watch dawn grow to day and listen to his wife's breathing beside him.
She started to stir after twenty minutes of pleasant, idle thought. He watched her languorously roll and present her back to him, sapphires slung provocatively over her hips. Hanasian set his fingers to trace the long curving stretch of her spine, from base of neck to sapphires and back again. Rin responded with a sleepy swish of her hips, equal parts appreciation and invitation, and he could feel himself respond. He set his lips to the nape of her neck and tasted her skin. Another flick of her hips, this time more deliberate. She was waking and he was painfully hard. He reached around, fit his hand over a breast and gently squeezed. A third pass of her hips, grinding now as he rolled a taut nipple between his fingers. He lowered his hand, cupped his fingers over her mound and discovered she was dripping for him.
Hanasian used knee to prop her thighs apart and slid into her. She groaned with undisguised pleasure and pressed her hips hard against him in a clear demand. They moved slowly at first. Her eyes were closed still. She was not fully awake. He nipped at her shoulder and saw her eyes flutter open, heavy lidded with surging desire. A slight shift, pressure of his hips against hers and they rolled together. He was behind her now, pushing deep within her with each thrust, sending her mind spinning wildly. Faster now, desperate, he seized her hips in both hands and drove into her. Panting, quivering, he came with explosive force that shot both of them forward and into the bed. He could feel her beneath him, rippling around his cock. He waited for this to subside before withdrawing so that he could kiss her lips and hold her to him.
"Good morning, my love," she panted softly, regarding him through her lashes and tangled pale hair.
"Mmmmmm," Hanasian replied, brushing strands from her face and kissing her again.
"Did I wake you?" he asked, resting a hand on her waist and enjoying her smile.
"Deliciously," Rin purred at him, the very picture of satisfaction.
"Did I hurt you?" he inquired, thinking of the force of their coupling.
"Depends on how much walking you want me to do today," she replied, smiling at him.
"You are not to move from this bed, wife. I have plans. Oh yes, I have plans for you."
The woman Massuil had named a wild beauty lazily smiled at him.
"Starting with tea," Hanasian said, "Provided my legs will work."
"Do you need a healer, husband? Are they broken?"
"I cannot say. They are numb. Only one way to find out."
Hanasian rolled out of bed and found walking difficult. Rin followed his progress avidly and he caught her licking her lower lips. Scandalous woman, insatiable woman. He made the most of strutting about, naked, taking particular care when it came to lighting the fire and handling boiling water. There are some activities for which clothes were a distinct advantage. By the time he had the tea ready, she had inserted herself halfway into the sheets, the cotton creating valleys and hills out of her legs. It was a sight he had enjoyed before, in Pelargir and in Umbar before that.
She lounged against a mound of pillows she had created in a puddle of morning light beneath the window. He handed her a steaming cup of tea and settled in beside her with his own. She blew across the surface and took delicate sips. Hanasian was reminded of that morning at Bree, their first actual conversation just for the sake of talking to each other. Then he recalled another, much earlier. That very first morning, in fact. He remembered catching sight of her by the stream, drying off in the sun on that boulder. He remembered how she had trailed him out of the woods, intent on assistance despite lingering uncertainty. He remembered the touch of her fingers as she had worked, the nearness of her. So close he could feel the warmth of her skin. Banter, that had been, over what athelas was called. The first glimpse of what might be once they each came out from behind their protective walls.
"What are you thinking, my love?"
"Our first morning together," Hanasian replied, casting a sidelong look at Rin as she acquired a now familiar smile.
"Ha. I was right," he concluded, making her blink guiltily.
"That was a mere scratch."
"From an orc."
"A scratch only and one that barely required the attention of a healer."
"And so?" she inquired blithely, mischief flickering in her eyes.
"And so it was purely a flimsy excuse to get my shirt off," Hanasian declared and her smile grew into something truly wicked.
"Well, I suppose it was only fair,"Hanasian replied.
"Why is that?"
"Those wet rags of yours certainly created an impact... and the sight of you bathing in that stream has kept me entertained on many a time."
Reminiscent of days long before, Mecarnil and Farbarad found themselves in each other's company, the day after the wedding. The event had prompted a certain nostalgia as it was, particularly sharp for them when they realized Verawyn's daughter had chosen her mother's wedding gown and circlet for the occasion. It was a sweet discovery, a mélange of old bitterness woven through it. It was only natural, then, that the two men would to talk of the service they shared to Cardolan. They did so over a pot of tea, mid morning, overlooking the bustle of Minas Tirith's main markets.
"Any regrets?" Farbarad asked Mecarnil on a whim when conversation had fallen to a lull.
"Plenty," Mecarnil chuckled wryly, expelled a smoke ring and continued, "Only they're never what I thought they would be at the time.
"I regretted taking up Cardolan's service when I discovered what was going on. Tried to make amends by serving in the war and regretted that too before it was all done. Returned to service with Cardolan again and regretted where that ended for years. Wouldn't do it differently, though. Only thing I haven't regretted is the Black. Hanasian's a good man. Yet, if I had walked away from Cardolan a second time, who knows if she would have made it as far as to marry him."
"Actually, who knows if she would have even left Imladris. That first three months were unbearable. I don't think I slept more than a moment, fearing one of his fool advisers would take it upon himself to dash in her head and demand a male heir," Farbarad added as he took a mouthful of tea.
"Mmmm, happy times."
"I regret that you didn't let me snap Berith's neck."
"I don't. For all his flaws, and he had a few, he was at the least her father. If you thought him cold and cruel, then imagine her fate in the hands of one of his advisors. A pack of wolves one and all. I know for a fact that they suggested an 'accident' befall her and he baulked."
"Only because he wasn't sure how Elrond's sons would respond. Not for any true sense of honour, not because he felt his infant daughter needed his protection, deserved it."
"Still, by my reckoning, those last months were the worst by far. Remember?" Mecarnil asked and drew deeply on his pipe as an old, bone deep anger and sorrow turned over.
"I remember it took him three months to deign to see his daughter, and he did so purely by accident. Verawyn happened to be holding her when he arrived. He came only because she kept refusing his letters, his missives and me. He came because she forced him to, in order to tell her his decision. I watched Verawyn fall to her knees with Rin in her arms and beg him to relent."
"Rin screamed for hours that day. There were two things that stopped me from killing her father that day. You and bird I started carving in a bid to make her stop. Rin's wailing followed me for years. There's a regret for you. The other one that haunted me was the day we set out. Remember Verawyn's face, Mec?"Farbarad asked quietly.
"She knew. She knew what it was her husband was dragging them to. She knew she would ride to her death. I thought I would run that day, but when I saw her I realised that if she could face it, then I had to."
"Such a gentle woman," Farbarad said softly, a shake of his head.
There was a long quiet then.
"For all of those regrets though, I'd be hard placed now to decide which one I would give up. As you said, Farbarad, would any of us be here without all of them? Would we have found her again? Would Hanasian be happily married and would the Black Company have an accomplished, if light fingered, healer?"
"The answer is no, for if there was any regret I would surrender it is the regret that I did not snatch her away as I thought of doing in those first few months. Only the anguish it would cause Verawyn stopped me."
"Really? You were going to steal the royal heir of Cardolan?"
"Damn straight, Mec, and if I had of raised her as my own, she'd not be keeping company with the likes of the Black Company of Arnor,"Farbarad laughed.
"That bird carving," Mecarnil started.
"Soon as I handed it to her, straight into her mouth for it's first chewing...well gumming at that time."
"That was the bird you gave to her in Harad?"
"Mmmmm....didn't realise I still had it with me. I tried to get rid of it over the years, but couldn't. That bird stopped me from taking Berith's life, and those little tooth marks on it stopped me from ending mine over the years. I went to Pelargir to seek redemption. Never knew it would bring me to her again. Never knew."
"Would you have come if you had known, Farbarad?"
"I honestly do not know, Mec."
It was as good an answer as any and the rangers sat in silence, nursing their pipes and tea.
Far to the East, about the time of the Harad insurrection.
The waves of the eastern sea broke gently on the shore. Commander Khor stood there with his young second Khirue, watching and waiting. The lack of words allowed only the sound of the surf breaking on the pebbles on the beach until Khirue said, "Do you think they will return again?"
"Yes, they will return. Though I deem them a long-forgotten remnant of mighty kings of old, they are still powerful. Though their numbers were few, their dress and demeanour spoke much. Yes, they will return." Khor answered then added, "And this morning's light may not have brought them as they promised, they come now on contrary seas."
Khirue shielded his eyes from the sun. The mastheads could barely be seen against the horizon, but time would bring them into sight. It was the afternoon before the first ship anchored off the coast and two others could be seen coming. The young commander was excited but Khor was grim. Knowing what he was about to do could spell the end of Rhun as he knew it, Khor was willing to gamble on the future. Men like Khirue and the young warrior caste would see it through. Khor only hoped that the wisdom of years could hold them in check long enough. And that word doesn't get to the west too soon.
They watched as the launch came ashore with several men. Language and communication had been difficult the first time but was less problematic this time. It seemed they had a common understanding and the seafarers had some ability to learn and understand the language of the east-shore Easterling clans. Their language was a bit harsh in sound but at times melodic, much like the dwarves of the northwest. Khor used a mix of Westron, Rhunic, and the old speech of their ancestors to get across what he wished to say. He had hoped that they would have better understanding, but both the Easterlings and the seafarers were careful to clarify all that was said. It was only after a day of talks that the visitors spoke in language fully understandable to the Easterlings. A tall leader named Dahk had come late on another ship.
With him was another hooded, robed man who said nothing and did not leave Dhak's side. Dhak spoke of things Khor had little knowledge of, like the Sea Kings and the offworlders, and the devastation of the lands by shaking and rising seas. Dhak spoke of his history, tales of how his people had been all but wiped out and the unnumbered years it took for them to recover. Through the years, small bands on ships of ill repair, great and small, seemed to find their way to the coast of a remnant of what was once known as the dark lands. They felt they were kin from afar, and so they grew in number and strength. Through this all, the hooded man seemed to be in a trance that Khor found unsettling. Somehow, Dhak perceived his unspoken questions.
"You have wondered why we come only now, when our first ship landed several moons ago."
"Yes I have," Khor answered.
"We had been here long ago, when the Maia known as Sauron was again strong. But his eye was ever searching west, and we could not permit him to see us. It was his words that caused the destruction of our fore-bearers. Though we were strong enough to cause him grief in his east, we pondered approaching the western kingdom in alliance. But our emissary ship, after a long voyage in contrary seas, was attacked and lost as it approached north. We understand now that they were also kindred of old, but they served Sauron.
"We not so strong or prideful as to challenge Sauron on our own. We decided to stay away over the eastern sea and let these lands follow their course. Now, he has been vanquished by the West, yes?"
Khor answered, " He has. Rhun allied with him and so we too were vanquished."
Dahk went on, " And you think we will help you in freeing your lands from the benevolent rule of the western king?"
"Very little escapes you I see. Yes, this is the hope of some of our clan,." Khor replied, eyes on the hooded man at Dhak's side.
"And the other clans?"
Khor's reply was immediate, " They serve the King of Gondor in exchange for relative freedom to live life in peace."
Dhak suggested in wisdom.
"You should settle for this. The war has decimated your strength. You need peace to regain strength. Too soon would you challenge this king who led victory over the dark one. It will go ill for you should you challenge him now. Enjoy this peace and use it well. For a time will come when the king will pass his kingdom to his heir, for good or ill. No matter which, heirs are never the men their fathers were."
Talks were careful and slow. Ultimately they agreed to send a small force of several hundred ashore to work on winning the other clan chiefs to their side. No army would immediately march west and return Rhun to complete independence now. However Rhun would recover over time, renew their mighty warrior caste and extend their roots for support. Khor already had the eastern clan in hand. word of this was already bringing many of the old warrior caste who ill liked being allied to foes of old. The trouble Khor saw was if word was getting to these disaffected men, it would be reaching other ears as well.
It would be disasterous should Gondor move against them before they were ready. Indeed, since the Fourth Age, the army of the Reunited Realm had been proven fearsomely effective against rebel insurrections. It would take many years before Rhun could muster the strength again, and it appeared there would be little help from the seafarers. Yet, even if Gondor received word this very day, they would be hard pressed to muster a force strong enough and move them this far east. Particularly given the rebellion sputtering violently in the south of Harad.
The day ended with the seafarers leaving a dozen men ashore to make camp and to interact with the Easterlings, a core of men to function as liaison between the two peoples on shore. Likewise, several Easterling volunteers set out to the ships. Khor hoped the new-come men's curiosity would be to Rhun's benefit. Despite this, Khor's fear of what could come of this alliance persisted. He had cast his lot and will see it through. It did not make for a sound night of sleep.
Aboard ship, Dhak did not sleep too well either. His shadow had recovered his capacity for speech and set out several arguments in disagreement with Dhak. Indeed, Dhak's shadow could perceive certain advantages they could bring to the table.
A whole month with the love of his life! Three days in, Hanasian remained in a state joyful disbelief. Walking was not an easy thing, and there was no real need to have to. There was food aplenty, and the constant sound of the falls became in itself a soothing sound that permeated them. It faded slightly on the sunny days only to swell during the rain that passed in fits over Ithilien to soothe summer's waxing lambent heat. There was nothing to part them in this time and so nothing did. They did not, indeed could not, venture very far. They made it as far as the pool at the frothy feet of the falls, and basked on sun warmed rocks in the haze of the afternoon. Or they would explore the various passages and places of Henneth Annun. Usually, though, they found other things to occupy their time with. For the first time, Hanasian could forget all he had known.
"My dearest wife, all joy in life is mine, for to have your love and to be able to hold you and kiss you and … well, it would be our life together. Do we give it all up and go west as the elves say? We have been blessed. Right now that is what I want to do. But I fear I will miss it all. My father had this failing."
Hanasian looked at Rin in her soft sheer silken wrap as they lounged on the bed. There was a faint smile playing over her lips as she peered up at the clouds through her lashes. Her expression was all mystery. It took Hanasian some time to get to the bottom of Rin's response to his question. At first, admittedly, he was distracted. When they caught their breath again, he could see her smile flickering once more. Elusive, secret, it intrigued him. Ultimately, she kept him dangling until that very night. They had chosen to venture out under the stars to perch high above the falls and take in the glory of the night. Around them Ithilien was in the verdant grip of summer. The season was laden in the air, swelling and swirling around them as they nibbled on what food had appealed to bring with them. The moon had started to wane, yet the light was sufficient still to catch in the pale silk of Rin's hair and panes of Hanasian's face.
They sat there, contentedly discussing their future. West, they agreed wholeheartedly, each eager to shape a life and a home with the other. The question, however, was when. Rin revealed her secret. It was voices, heard each morning before she woke now. Young voices mingled with Hanasian's, laughing as they sang a rhyme with the ever present sigh of the distant sea underneath it all. It was all she knew of, all she Dreamt. Just voices, the very breath of hope and joy that seemed to suffuse her, scour through her mind and veins with the morning light and the sensation of Hanasian beside her.
"Very well," Hanasian murmured into her hair as they studied the night sky. "We shall go west."
"We will know when, my love," Rin assured him.
That night, it was warm enough to sleep under the stars and they did so, feeling as though they floated on the very cusp of the world. Wrapped in each other and their beckoning future, they were untroubled by the world that slumbered around them.
In Minas Tirith
The Company seemed to relax and unwind as the first week drifted by. That is all but Farbarad and Mecarnil. The two rangers stood shoulder to shoulder in a cell. Both men studied the body of a man that was sprawled on the floor in silence. He's been brought in with the turn over of the city guard, and they'd not reached him before someone else clearly had. Cullith had put up a fight. Mecarnil turned to the guard that had discovered the prisoner's fate.
"Did he say nothing else?" the ranger asked heavily and the guard shook his head.
"Nothing that made sense," guard replied.
"Let us be the judge of that, if you will," Mecarnil replied.
"Two words, then. Stop and wrong, that was what he said."
"And you saw nothing, I suppose," Farbarad said without turning around.
"Nothing like this has ever happened before. I saw nothing, and neither did Mithgorn."
Farbarad washed his hand over his face and blocked the ghastly bloody smile that yawned across Cullith's throat from his sight.
"It don't make sense," the guard murmured, more to himself.
"What doesn't?" Mecarnil asked sharply.
"He turned himself in, you know. Wild claims about that spate of assassin killings in the city of late and all them rebel supports what turned up dead over the past week. Raul brought him in, said he was desperate to get locked up. Why would he be so desperate to come to the place he would die? Man cunning enough to kill all those men? Don't make sense."
Farbarad shook his head and walked just behind Mecarnil as the pair made their way back out of the city jail's narrow corridors.
"We'll never know what he needed to tell us so badly he was willing to risk arrest and execution for," Mecarnil said.
Farbarad studied the stones of the street he walked in the night, turning over what he knew of Verawyn's younger brother. Cullith had ever walked the edges. Whatever seemed bad enough, wrong enough to stop to him must truly be a horror. But what? They'd been looking for the rebels that were surely in the city for over a week now to no avail. What had Cullith uncovered that they had not?
In the second week, Videgavia was summoned to the palace by Aragorn.
With the service of tea the King asked him, "I understand you have been named Company Lieutenant?"
"Yes, it seems so."
The King nodded and said, "You have served admirably in all your days. Do you get on well with Khule the Easterling?"
Videgavia hesitated before answering, "Sire, you must know of my loathing of the Easterlings from the past. I am a man of Dale. Yet Khule and I have reached an understanding despite the tumult of our people's history. Our last mission east has tempered me somewhat in this regard."
The King again nodded and after a few sips of his tea and a thoughtful look into his cup, he inquired "What is your assessment of Khule's ability to lead?"
Videgavia swallowed his tea in a great lump, wondering what this was leading to.
"I think he is a good soldier, and will step up if needed.... Sire, may I speak freely?"
"I expect it Videgavia," the King answered.
Videgavia asked, "Sire, these questions seem best posed to our Captain."
Aragorn considered his tea a moment before he replied.
"Leadership is a hard thing. My days as Chieftain saw me depending on my second and good friend Halbarad to lead the Rangers in my absence. So too does Hanasian look to you. Hanasian may not return to the Company at all. Therefore you would be Captain. While he is not here, my questions fall to you."
"Yes, sire. Khule is very capable and would likely do well in need."
Aragorn drained his tea, unsurprised by Videgavia's report.
"I'll need you to pick three of the Company for a special mission led by Khule. They won't be returning any time soon, so you best spend the next couple weeks seeing who would wish to join, and seeing who will be accepted. Consider the strengths of the men you would choose and how they complement each other. You have until tonight to consider your preferences on that basis."
Videgavia bowed and departed, mind crowded with the many challenges his tea with the king had set before him. The first was to find Khule, and then hope he was sober enough to see the king.
The Silver Bark
"That was you?" Frea exclaimed, astonished as Loch nodded.
"Yup! Right up the northern escarpment," Loch replied smugly, "The way down wasn't so easy though," he added.
Loch mimed windmilling arms and a sudden drop, face first, into the ground. There was laughter around the table.
"No surprise you weren't the graceful one," Wulgof said, wiping at his eyes.
"Not me. That was Rin. Meduseld's guards had cut the rope," Loch corrected and the laughter doubled.
The image of the Company healer falling face first into the ground particularly amused Wulgof. She was always so in control of herself ordinarily. Always so...together. Aside from that morning a little over a week ago, but she had been clearly intoxicated then. Loch launched into the rest of tale.
"There's what, fifty marks now Folca?" Frea inquired of his twin brother.
"Fifty seven marks on your heads," Folca supplied and Loch seemed particularly impressed with that. So too did Molguv, the closest rival to the title of professional thief in their number.
"What did you do with the cheese?" Molguv asked, well aware of the reports of the cordon Eomer had drawn in on Edoras in the wake of the humiliating theft.
"She ate it, of course," Loch replied, grinning as men rolled their eyes.
Videgavia had, naturally, missed none of this. For all of his innocuous ways, the scout had proven himself capable in more ways than one. Hanasian had spotted immediately that there was more to the young man than appeared on his slightly scruffy equable surface. Videgavia agreed with his captain wholeheartedly. Khule was situated across the table from Loch, dozing fitfully.
"Here's trouble,"Foldine rumbled good naturedly as Videgavia stepped forward and into sight of those gathered at the table.
"He awake?" Videgavia inquired.
Morcal obliged with a rousing slap on Khule's back, between the Easterling's shoulder blades. Khule started up in his chair, focus already evident in his almost black eyes. They glittered dangerously, for all of their lingering bleariness.
"Not good enough," Videgavia declared and Molguv's face split into a blindingly white grin.
The Haradian emptied a bucket of water over Khule's head and then wisely stepped back. Khule was a veteran, a proven capable commander, and an accomplished assassin. By this time Khule was on his feet, murderous expression fixed on his normally cool features.
"Come on then, we have business Easterling," Videgavia grated and, to Khule's credit, the Easterling's attention swivelled to the lieutenant.
The man had discipline that most officers would give their eye teeth for. Discipline and cunning. Who else to put with the man, though. None of the Rohirrim. They'd stick out like sore thumbs if Videgavia guessed the purpose of Khule's mission aright. Maybe the brothers from Anfalas. Maybe Loch and Wulgof. Maybe Anwar. Perhaps himself, but what if Hanasian didn't come back? Videgavia knew, were he in Hanasian's shoes, he'd not return to a life of service. Too many left their wives and children to a life of hardship and loneliness in the name of duty. Videgavia pondered such things in silence as he escorted Khule to his appointment.
Khule and Videgavia met the King in a low hall of the city, not in the palace proper. Looking much more like the Ranger Strider than the King of the United Realm of Numenor in Exile, he nevertheless carried himself with authority. He eyed Khule who stood wearily, but professionally beside Videgavia, and wasted no time.
"You are Khule the Easterling, of Rhun?"
"And you joined the Company when?" the King asked.
Khule shifted his weight ever so slightly as he swallowed, finally saying, "When the Company was last in Rhun, after the defeat of Warlord Khurg."
"I see…" the King replied. He walked a few paces and turned again toward the two, asking, "Commander Khule, do you have family in the east?"
Again, Khule shifted, hesitating, "M'lord, I have no ties to the east. All that was became forgotten when I was accepted into the Company-"
"Yes, I know of Hanasian's requirements of his Company," the King cut him off. "But my question stands. I would prefer you to answer me truthfully."
Khule took a deep breath, knowing the King Elessar could likely read his thoughts anyway.
"Yes, yes I do. I have a half-brother whom I did not meet until just before the war."
The King did not reply, just stared into Khule's eyes as he continued, "My father & mother no longer live, and the mother of my half-brother had another son, which makes him my brother in some sort of way I guess."
The King nodded, "Yes, and you don't have any ties with any of them. Relax Khule. Videgavia will tell you what you will need to do."
Videgavia was a bit dismayed at that. He wasn't sure what Khule would be doing, but he did know what was needed. He turned to Khule, "You, along with two others will be on special assignment for the King. I'm going to say to take three others, but two at the minimum."
Khule looked around, and the King took up where Videgavia left off.
"You and your men will travel east to Rhun, and there will meet the Prefect. Afterward you will likely journey to the far reaches to the east. You may be asking yourself why, and why you. Well, you know the lands and the language. You also may have some local contacts to assist as well. Videgavia has some thoughts on who should go with you."
Videgavia nodded more to himself than for anyone else's benefit, finalising his selection even as Aragorn spoke.
"I have assigned to you Wulgof, Berlas, and Lochared."
Khule was about to say something but Videgavia held his hand up to prevent interruption. As Videgavia's expression was was all business Khule wisely elected to keep his silence.
"I send these three with you because Wulgof won't stand out, Berlas is a master of not being seen, and Loch is sneaky. All these traits will come in handy I believe. Now, what is it you will be doing…"
The King stepped in at this juncture.
"I need some good reconnaissance. Normally I can perceive enough with my mind and stoneto know what is developing in distant places. But since returning from Harad, I seem to only see and sense vagueness far to the east. There seems to be something there, but whatever it is seems to be able to shroud itself. My prefect seems uneasy, and with him the clan chiefs of western Rhun seem uneasy. There is little else I can grasp. Therein lies the problem. So you will needs be my eyes and ears. I must know what is happening on the ground. You will likely have to go east, and you will avoid trouble. You will gather information, and then when you have a good idea what is going on, you will make for the Prefect's compound, or if need be, back here to Minas Tirith."
Aragorn seemed perturbed for a moment, but returned to his stoic self. He said to Videgavia, "Make sure they are ready by morning, for their escort will leave after breakfast."
He handed Videgavia a parchment and turned to go, saying, "Thank you both for your service. You may return to your Company."
Videgavia and Khule saluted the King as he left. He seemed to disappear down the dark hall, gone out of sight even though Khule and Videgavia were right behind him.
Videgavia told Khule, "You have your orders. Grab Loch, Wulgof, and Berlas and spend the rest of this day getting provision together. You will be a light mobile force, so you will have to pack what you can and scavenge what you need as you go. You will be well received by the Prefect when you get there. He will see you have what you need should you arrive without it."
Khule was silent and his face was grim. He had to be a commander again. He took a deep breath and let it escape through his lips in a hissing sound.
"Fine…fine. Do I have to take the kid? I mean…. Anras or one of the brothers from Anfalas…"
"It's been decided. Loch will do alright. And you may have a need for his unique abilities. Don't make the same mistake you made on the way to Bree. Neither he nor his sister are to be underestimated."
Nothing more was said. When they arrived where most of the Company was, Videgavia soon had their attention.
"Listen up. Wulgof, get provisions for the road. Loch and Berlas, you get yourselves ready to go. You will be accompanying Khule tomorrow morning on special assignment. Anything you want to leave behind have ready for the Company to pack when we move out. Foldine, you are temporary Standardbearer for the company. Wulgof, you're Khule's second. Daius, Donius, you go and screen any wouldbe adventurers who want to join us. They will be gathering at the Mean Mead. If you deem any worthy, have them go to the Silver Bark tomorrow night where the rest of us will look them over. Now, this day is still here, so, let's get ready."
There was grumbling and questions, but they knew Videgavia was serious. The man rarely jested and Khule's expression left them in no doubt. Something was up, and so preparations were made.
The next morning came and the whole Company was ready to move out. They marched in formation to the docks where Khule, Berlas, Wulgof, and Loch boarded a small river barge. They were loaded down with packs and had satchels of provision with them as well. Berlas would lead them off on the east side of the river to where horses had been prepared for them. The parting was somber and professional, though Loch seemed to be his usual affable self. His manner was more befitting a camp-out with a couple friends at first. When the barge shoved off he sobered, aware that for the first time ever he had no idea when he would see his sister again. Slowly the small barge faded into the morning mist that hung over the river.
No sooner had they turned to march back to the city in formation did Mecarnil get Videgavia's ear about what had transpired the night before.
"He's dead," Videgavia repeated and the two rangers nodded.
"And this is a bad thing?" Videgavia guessed from the expressions on their faces.
Mecarnil seemed taken aback by the question, but Farbarad shrugged his shoulders.
"Perhaps...we're not sure," Farbarad replied and Mecarnil turned a startled expression on his fellow ranger.
"Cullith was our only line, our only connection on what Malagorn was up to and now he's dead. Yes. It is a bad thing. Even if we ignore the fact that yet again, she's lost another member of her immediate family prematurely, this is a bad thing."
"Who's Malagorn?" Videgavia asked, trying to follow along.
"Silver Fox," Farbarad replied distractedly, addressing most of his attention on Mecarnil.
"We don't know exactly, Mec. Cullith was not what you'd call reliable... or predictable. He's-"
"Dead," Mecarnil said emphatically.
"Dubious...and his methods are even more questionable. There's been a string of assassin's taken out in the city, and you heard what that guard said as well as I. Cullith claimed responsibility for that, and whatever else blood he took upon his hands beyond the city gates," Farbarad said.
"So...we've a few less assassins and rebels, and an unreliable man of questionable values is no longer a risk," Videgavia summed up, ignoring the fact he was still none the wiser on who Silver Fox/Malagorn was.
Mecarnil nodded and Farbarad frowned.
"So, I suppose, it is worth bringing them back early?" Videgavia asked, hopeful that they might agree and the Captain would be back sooner than later for entirely selfish reasons.
"No," Mecarnil and Farbarad chorused.
"Better by far she's out of this for now. It's a rotten business however you look at it," Mecarnil said.
"So, what has this got to do with the Black Company exactly?" Videgavia asked.
"Well... nothing...yet," Mecarnil added as Farbarad cleared his throat.
"We're not sure, Vid. We don't know what we don't know. I think we should spend some time fixing that, while we have it up our sleeves. I just don't think it's wise to presume all is well as ends well," Farbarad persisted.
"If you can spare us, Vid," Mecarnil threw in.
Videgavia grunted at that and nodded, "Sure. Truth be told I'll sleep straighter knowing there isn't some great ambush waiting for them on their return."
Videgavia eyed Mecarnil closely as the ranger seemed suddenly uncomfortable, "What?"
"Well there is an ambush, but it's for her own good. For everyone's. She has to sign those succession documents before she leaves the city. If I have to ambush her with them, I will. I make no apologies for it."
"Except that one," Farbarad said with a grin at the apologetic yet defiant tone of Mecarnil's voice.
"Good luck," Videgavia said earnestly, unable to stop himself from grinning either, "From what I heard, a liberal application of dwarven spirits may render her more...agreeable," he helpfully suggested.
Mecarnil muttered something under his breath, Farbarad grinned widely at the man from Dale and the two were off to see what they could unearth. Videgavia's smile lingered a moment and then faded slowly.
"It just isn't fair," he said to himself, considering the fact that Rin had again lost a member of her family before she even managed to be introduced. Just as well she had them, he supposed.
"What's your story then?" Donius said, sick and tires of adventurer tales.
"Want to serve, do something useful, travel. The usual," the fellow replied and then launched into a tale of how dull his existance was and how valuable he would prove to the Black Company. Daius waved a hand to bring the song and dance show to an end.
"Fine, whatever. Silver Bark tomorrow night," he intoned and then fixed his attention on the next would be member of the Black Company.
This one was a woman, wearing an outfit similiar to the one Rin had sported not so long ago. She had Daius' attention and vote. Donius was inclined to agree with his brother, only he had a little more concern for avoiding the inevitable ribbing he would get if she proved to be nothing more than wonderful to look at.
"Skills?" Donius asked.
"Yes... yes, do tell us your skills," his brother enthused, leaning forward.
"Relevant skills," Donius added as he saw her expression brighten.
"Oh...well, I'm hard working and eager to learn."
"Recon, infiltration, theft, diplomacy, combat, healing?" Donius inquired, ignoring Daius statement that she seem suitably qualified from his vantage.
"Scouting, tracking, hunting, weapons, sabotage,espionage, assassination, engineering?" Donius continued as her smile faded into uncertainty.
"What's recon?" she asked.
Daius glanced with irritation at his brother as Donius shook his head.
"I'll teach you," Daius promised and her smile grew again as he stood and set off for a more private table away from his boorish brother.
"Next," Donius intoned, rolling his eyes before they settled on a nondescript man of average height and average appearance.
Donius squinted at him and blinked. Remarkable! The sort of everyman that no one would pay a second glance too. Quiet, just fitted right on in no matter where he was. Perfect camoflague. The man just sat there studying Donius in return.
"You're fit and able?"
"A talker then," Donius' smile grew as the man imperceptibly shrugged. This one would give Videgavia a run for his money.
"Perfect," Donius said, "Silver Bark-"
"Tomorrow night. I'll be there," the man replied, nodded calmly and moved off. He barely made a ripple in the crowd despite the press of people.
"Perfect," Donius repeated.
The rest, Nilrick observed, got short shrift. Only a couple more, and the one who had decided he was perfect was clearly favouring those who would make his preferred candidate shine. Nilrick did not smile. He did not feel satisfaction. He glanced to one side and saw the effusive, talkative man that had gone before him was sitting at the bar.
"Derran," he introduced himself and shook Nilrick's hand enthusiastically.
"I can tell we're going to get on like a house on fire, what did you say your name was?"
"Nildrick. And I didn't."
"I didn't tell you my name before."
"Oh, no matter. Bygones be bygones. I tell you this, Millrid, you and I, we're both in."
"Really?"Nildrick replied, ignoring the mistake Derran had made with his name because bygones were, as he had said, bygones.
"Truly... I know this. We're in. We're in the sharpest, meanest Company of Arnor and Gondor combined," Derran confirmed and held up his tankard for a refill.
"And you're pleased by being part of this sharp, mean... presumably deadly and risky Company," Nildrick observed.
Derran looked at him a moment and then winked.
"Oh yes. Sharp, mean, deadly and risky...but worth every moment, every drop."
"Enjoy living dangerously?"
"You could say that."
"Have you seen her? Saw her in Pelargir, in that uniform. All that leather... a very dangerous business. And, she's the Captain's wife if that's not dangerous enough for you."
"Ah, the Company healer."
"Can't wait to get healed," Derran said, grinning, and tipped back his ale.
Nildrick considered his own tankard a moment and Derran's attention was soon pre-occupied with a pretty face on the other side of the bar. When Derran turned back to Nildrick, he found the position occupied by someone else. This, somehow, seemed natural. Derran shrugged and turned back to the bar maid.
"As I said lassie, we're soon to sign up service to the king. Yes, loyal men, steadfast and true," Derran continued, knowing just how well women liked men in uniforms.
It would be an interesting time at the Silver Bark. Anras was put in charge of security, and he along with Belegost made sure the place was secure. The owner was paid handsomely for the rental of his establishment. It took a bit for him to leave, taking the dancer Oganyan with him. Gone too was Loch's girl, and all of the ladies who attended them on Hanasian's night. A few daughters of local families, after assurances to their fathers that no funny business would be had, were permitted to work that night and were paid well for it. It was a private gathering of the Company, and drinks were taken lightly as it was all business. With the approaches to The Silver Bark watched by shadows that were Frea and Foldine, Bear's ominous presence stood outside the door to make sure nobody got in.
Each band of recruiters had given out a series of unique passwords to their prospects that they were to keep to themselves. With these words linked to names, and descriptions of each name well detailed, it would be known if any had shared theirs. If any did, they would be stricken from consideration. Donius, Folca, and Morcal each checked their respective prospects, and everyone who was even remotely serious who made the cut showed up. Videgavia got them all to listen, and after a brief on what was expected of everyone who was accepted, a few had second thoughts. After they left by the front door, they were sequestered by Mulgov and led around to the back into a storeroom and held until the end of the meet. Five in total through the meet decided to "leave". Those who were decided upon by Videgavia as good prospects were given new passwords and were told to meet at the White Tree Inn by the gates of the city the next afternoon. Those that weren't were led to believe they were, given someone else's old password and told to meet the next afternoon again at the Silver Bark. Again it was a test of confidentiality.
When it was done well past the midnight hour, thirty-three were to go to the White Tree, and a few more than that were to go to the Silver Bark. There were many Gondorian soldiers who were too young to fight in the war, with a couple older professional veterans. But there was also in the mix a scribe, a thief, trader who knew many languages, a smith, a carpenter, a sailor, and a farmer. Derran and Nildrick managed to make the cut. Finally everyone was allowed to depart, and the Company remained for a time for a parting flagon of ale.
"Some lot," Mulgov muttered, not too impressed with their prospects, "Why are we looking at taking in so many anyway?"
Mulgov's question was aimed at Videgavia, who was enjoying a slug off his ale before answering.
"Have you had a look around here recently? With Khule, Loch, Berlas and Wulgof gone, Mercarnil and Farbarad off dealing with this Cardolan matter, and the Cap'n and Healer gone for a couple more weeks, there isn't too many of us left. We could be as likely as not ordered out before the Cap returns, and we will need some strength in numbers. Most of these prospects will likely end up as fodder, with a few standouts that know how to survive. We don't know what is coming our way, but from what I get as a feeling, and with this business our four are on in the east, I know it isn't good. So quit griping about what we got here and offer some useful critique on any of them."
"Well, for one, I don't like the chatty guy. Something about him…. Anyway, if he makes it, I'm watching him,." Mulgov said whimsically.
Videgavia said, "How right you are. For you, Mulgov, have just been promoted to sergeant of the new Company."
With that, Videgavia drained his flagon and let it slam to the table. He stood up and said, "Now, everyone back to our quarters. Get some sleep, for we have work to do tomorrow."
They formed up in ranks and half-timed it back. Some of the lingering recruits saw them go and were impressed.
The next morning, research into some of the new prospects went well for Videgavia. It was mid afternoon in the market area where he was approached by a rather large man with braided locks.
Videgavia took a second look at him and said, "You are the conga player at the Silver Bark from a couple weeks ago."
"That's right. Hamoor is my name. I would like to join you."
"Join me? Sorry, I don't swing that way."
Videgavia was a bit puzzled at Hamoor's request, but figured he would see where it goes. He listened as Hamoor started talking again.
"You are a funny man. You know that I mean the Company."
"Of course I do," Videgavia said.
He finished his dealing with a food vendor and started to eat. He said with a mouthful, "If you're interested, be at the Silver Bark by sunset."
"Or maybe the White Tree?"
Videgavia slowed his chewing for a moment but carried on, mumbling, "As you wish Ravenclaw"
Hamoor smiled, and with a wisp of wind, he vanished into the crowd.
Videgavia was troubled at the security leak, but it didn't throw him off too much. A man like that has the ways of a good Company man and he couldn't just pass that up. Even if he had his own agenda…
Getting back to their quarters, everyone was polished up and looking like they belonged to a fine military outfit. Videgavia took Folca and Frea, Donius and Daius aside.
"As expected, we had a breach. I don't think it's a bad one though. Remember the man we ran into at the Silver Bark on Hanasian's night? He will be here late. His word is ravensclaw. Hopefully we'll be done with the rest of this lot by then. Anyway, Anras, you and Morcal will deal with the Silver Bark cadre. Tell them they're all in, and that they need to get themselves as a company to Pelargir forthwith for training. Their collective password will be 'guardwatch'. And when they arrive, they need to report to Mungoloo. They will be the city guard's new recruits."
"Listen carefully. Make no mention of Khule, Loch, Berlas or Wulgof. Also, none of the Cap or Rin. They're likely to be known, but what they're up to is none of this bunch's business. So, let's see this through."
That afternoon at The White Tree, they gathered in a private dining room. Videgavia stood up on a chair and addressed the thirty-three prospects.
"Right, you have made it this far. You are the first group of prospective recruits to the Company that will have some set requirements. First of all, we aren't interested in your names. You were each given a password to get in here. Those words are recorded with your names, and they will become your names. Secondly, many of you likely come in here with some sort of agenda or are hiding from something or someone. That could go ill for you. I give you fair warning that this Company is at present sworn to the King, and therefore all the King's laws. If any of you have run afoul, well, you will be given up should you be discovered."
One of the recruits whispered to another, "We could be in deep water here."
The other, a petite Gondorian woman maybe in her twentieth year, whispered back, "Relax, he is saying not to get caught. If that happens, then we're in deep trouble of the worst kind. We'll be fine. Besides, we didn't use our names, and we won't be called by the names we did use."
Videgavia noted the whispering pair, and he went on, "Third, if you have anything to say to each other while I'm going over all this, you will have to answer to me. So… Stillwater and… Slippery… Slippery??? Who gave out that password?"
A restrained and muffled chuckle from Mulgov and a few in the crowd was heard, but Videgavia just rolled his eyes and continued, "Yes, you two. You have something to hide. Fine. Don't we all. You best make sure your house is in order before signing the oath. Yes, you're in."
Derran mumbled something to the guy next to him, "Maybe if we mumble and whisper to each other we'll get in too."
"You!" Videgavia yelled, pointin at Derran, "Thanks for volunteering. Now quiet! No more talking from any of you!"
Derran wasn't sure if he should be pleased he got in, or worried that he just got every nasty detail to come along. He decided to go ignore his talkative nature and the urge to inquire which it should be and kept his mouth shut, with difficulty.
Videgavia leaned over and whispered to Mulgov, "That one … 'Babble', he's your new corporal of this new Company. Since he talks a lot, we'll see if we can out it to good use."
Mulgov turned away, mumbling "Crap…"
"What?" Videgavia questioned.
Mulgov replied, "Delighted."
"Don't worry too much about it," Videgavia said, "The first few days will see who washes out and who has leadership qualities. We'll get those old vets to help out on the training."
Videgavia looked back out over the group and said, "Now, most of you are wondering if you, like Stillwater and Slippery, are in. Well, that remains to be seen. Go now and get your affairs in order, and be out on the far wall of Pelennor by mid morning. The hard work will begin. We'll see how you all go, and we'll make things official afterward. You're all dismissed…. Except you Ravenclaw."
As Videgavia expected, Hamoor had managed to slip in un-noticed. He had been there most of the time, and Videgavia guessed in his mind that he was at the Silver Bark the night before. A good one him.
"Grab a chair at a table. Let's have a chat…"
Farbarad and Mecarnil sought high places and low, the bright open spaces of the city and the dank, dark underbelly. They revealed nothing. No whisper, no scrap, no sightings and no names. In short, the city that had bristled with threats was suddenly clear of them. They extended their search into the surrounding countryside and returned empty handed. Whatever Cullith had stumbled over had vanished. Farbarad had an alternate theory that suggested Cullith's end came as a result of the company he kept rather than the information he possessed. Mecarnil could not ignore the fact that someone with sufficient reach had assassinated a prisoner within the city's jail cells within hours of his capture. Minas Tirith was not Umbar. As much as he wanted to believe Farbarad's alternate theory, he could not bring himself to do it.
Defeated and ill at ease, the Rangers trudged into The White Tree. Videgavia was over talking to the hulking braided man they'd seen several weeks ago. Farbarad favoured him with a suspicious inspection as he ordered his ale.
"You! I've heard about you, and you too," said a man neither Mecarnil or Farbarad had met before.
Farbarad grunted sourly and ignored him. Mecarnil stared fixedly ahead, waiting for his ale. Molguv folded his arms and watched Babble sink himself even deeper into the hole he was already in.
"You're those Rangers what served Cardolan, right? You are, aren't you. You're the ones left, at any rate,"
"Congratulations," Farbarad growled.
"Who might you be?" Mecarnil inquired.
"I'm one of you now. Least, I think I am, aren't I whathis name...what is your name by the way,"
"We're not using names. My passcode is Rowdy," said the most nondescript man Mecarnil and Farbarad had ever seen. Rowdy nodded at them midly and continued on his way.
"Anywhere, where was I? Oh, yes, new recruit, passcode Babble."
Farbarad turned his back on Babble to face Mecarnil, "He must be joking. Tell me he's joking, Mec."
"Ah.... Mec... short for Mecarnil... that makes you Farbarad eh, the one sworn to protect the crown princess of Cardolan. Is that what she is now? Where is she anyway? I was hoping she'd be here tonight...but absence makes the heart grow fonder, eh? Oh, no, no. No need to scowl like that, Farbarad, I was just joking. Yes... harmless fun.... Hey, Stillwater and Slippery! Wait for me! I am rather enchanted with your name, Slippery. Who recruited you, eh?"
Babble was a man who knew when to make himself scarce. Molguv decided that he'd need to have a word to the man that now scuttled away from a now openly bristling Farbarad. The ranger swung back to Mecarnil.
"I'm going to break his neck,"
"Drink your ale first," Mecarnil advised, turning to watch Babble with his suspicions forming.
Tankard in hand, he turned to lean against the bar and take in the people in the room. There were a great many new faces. A veritable crop, most green but some moved the way an experienced fighter did, including Rowdy. Unsurprising there was a woman in their number, likely encouraged by the precedent set by Eowyn Dernhelm and now Erían of Cardolan. This newest recruit had the look of trouble, Mecarnil thought, eying the small woman. Still, not his problem unlike the absent bundle of trouble. Mecarnil sighed at the thought. Despite her flagrant disregard for courtly manners and propensity to argue any point he might wish to make, his bundle of trouble had a particularly fond spot in his otherwise tired heart and he wasn't the only one. Babble had earned himself the unwelcome distinction as the recruit most closely scrutinised by the current Company men for his ill advised open curiosity in the Company Healer and the protective regard each felt for the woman. How many others had been drawn here by Cardolan, Mecarnil wondered. Farbarad turned about and expelled a breath.
"You know what I'm thinking?"
"That somewhere in this room is the answer we've been turning Minas Tirith inside out for?"
Farbarad blinked at his fellow ranger, "You have a devious mind, my friend."
"Oh, ignore that, Farbarad. I'm just worn out and worried that we've failed her,"
"But what if you're right?"
"I'm just a paranoid, old man."
The more her name was dropped, the tighter the Company tensed. It was clear to him that this would be no easy task. The Black would not surrender the traitor queen up quietly and with their numbers swelling, it would become only further perilous. Still, there was not a man better suited for the task before him. Nor was their any other way but the path he had selected. Infiltrate, allay, worm his way in and extract her when the opportunity arose. And there would be one, for in a military unit such as this, the potential for distractions and cover was limited only by their assignments.
Molguv found Babble in a side alley. Babble was not alone. Frea, Folca, Foldine and Bear had the recruit cornered.
"Just watch yourself,"
"We're done here," Bear said.
"No, not by half,"
"Next time you shoot your mouth off about the Doc, I'll knock your face down your gullet, pull it back out and start over again," Molguv said matteroffactly.
"I was just joking," Babble said nervously.
"Find something else to joke about."
"Half the city's talking about her. There aren't enough of you to go round."
"Did he just say what I think he did?"
"I believe he called our bluff," Folca agreed.
"I was just saying that she's a popular topic of discussion is all."
"That's it. I warned you. Didn't I? I warned him!"
Derras' mouth snapped shut as the Haradian surged forward, fist clenching.
"Tomorrow, save it up for the wall tomorrow,"
"Yes, tomorrow. We'll be waiting for you, Babble. Welcome aboard," Frea taunted and Derras was let slide away.
"I don't like him,"
"You never like the recruits," his brother observed, "Heck, you didn't like Doc for the longest time and yet here you are."
"Yeah, well, then she knocked two Green Rangers over and took a swing at me. I was just reserving my judgement."
Molguv snorted and Bear tossed Foldine a knowing look.
"He's my corporal. If anyone's going to sort him out, it will be me,"
"Well, be quick," Foldine advised, "There's a line forming. Farbarad's at the front of it and I don't reckon Mecarnil's far behind."
"He's my corporal and that's that. Any risk he poses to the Company is one I will deal with. You have my word on it."
Molguv turned back for the inn, leaving the three rohirrim and Gondorian heavy out in the alley.
"Reserving your judgement...what a crock!" Folca said after a moment.