30. Chapter 30
There was a sense of tension in the air as everyone began to gather. It was too risky to have this council in the open and so Hanasian issued a silent order that they would disband. The older hands knew to watch for further instruction and it arrived sure enough. The leads of the Old Company would reconvene in the largest provision tent. Mecarnil and Farbarad shepherded Rin between them and she did not protest, eager to be away from Dhak and the uncomfortable realities he presented. She had given up her throne to avoid precisely the sort of business that had just unfolded.
Dhak and his two countrymen were unsure what to expect now but freely went with their armed escort to the council tent. They discussed matters between them in a native tongue that nobody else understood as they walked. It didn't take a Wizard to sense there was some sort of contention between them. Despite that, they sat quietly after they arrived in the tent and appeared to accept what Dhak had said.
Meanwhile, Khor was taken to see Hanasian. It was obvious that Khor had played his hand in the east and was ready to respond to whatever now came, regardless of the outcome. The previous discussion between the two men was hard and formal, with little achieved. It was this that drove Hanasian to convene the council. Little did Hanasian know that Khor felt he could trust this captain of the Black Company well enough, far enough, for it to mean anything. Indeed, he was weighing up whether to throw the lot of his men in with Hanasian's Company. Perhaps, if the conditions were right. Perhaps. As they headed for the tent the council would be convened in, Hanasian and Khor were joined by Khule and some more Easterling companymen.
Shortly after that, they paused as Khor felt a need to explain himself.
"I never wanted rebellion to happen. I didn't expect it to happen. Khurg is a scourge on this land, and in his aged state, very dangerous. Yet he still has powerful followers. But even I feel the years on me, and maybe my little brother does too if he paused long enough to think about it. I know that Rhun cannot survive without the friendship of Gondor. But old rivalries run as deep as the years of strife between our nations.
"I tried to find strength in these newcomers from over the eastern sea but there is something more to these people. I think they come from a land far away and out of the reach and sight of these lands. It was not the right thing to do, but by the time I realised this, I was in further than I could conceive. Now, it there are terrible powers at play. Even the worst of the clan struggles could be more fearsome."
Hanasian studied Khor as the Easterling spoke, weighing his words and selecting his own reply. How much to trust? How much to convey? It was never easy to make that judgement in the field.
"I believe the arrival of the newcomers has distressed our King. There is a power that has prevented his eyes from seeing these shores. It was this that brought the Black east again, at his bidding. We were to discover what was occuring in the mists of the east. But, as we even set out, it seems events have taken their course as we marched. The rebellion and freeing of Khurg was unlooked for. So too was the assassination of the Prefect. We knew none of this before we departed and have marched into its maw. Also, it seems many of your younger men have taken a liking to our Company. This too was unexpected."
Khor nodded and said, "Yes, it seems my brother has done well in this."
Khule stepped around Hanasian and came face to face with Khor. He said, "I did not ask for this brother. It just happened. So they look up to being part of the Company. So? I'm not in command, Hanasian is the Captain, and Videgavia is his second. Most of us are feel the strain of all our wars and battles. Add to that the tally of the years. It is the young men that the future leans on, be they from Rhun or Gondor"
"I agree brother," Khor said, "but as to how it all comes to be is the mystery we need to watch for."
Hanasian spoke as he urged the two to move on toward the tent, "There is much in play here this day. I need to know from Khor, how I should deal with your guests? They have some power to cause much grief, particularly to my wife. Do you embrace their wishes or oppose them? I need to know, and know now, before I meet with Dhak."
Khor sighed, "I never wanted it to come to this. Witchcraft and sorcery...it is an anathema to us after all we have suffered under the Dark Lord's yoke. I bargained with these men when they first came in hopes a might in arms would be Rhun's saviour. They counselled me to wait until the passing of the King. I, and many of my men, would not live to see that day. It was then that I began to harbour second thoughts on this alliance. The sorcery they revealed only lately. It was that which propelled me to seek you out. The newcomers have disagreements of their own, and this will be what Dhak will likely speak to you about. He did not accompany me by accident or force."
Hanasian grimly nodded. He could hear the footfall of others approaching and so was brief in his reply, "I am pleased we were able to speak of this. We will speak again soon, alone. My wife joins me for the council."
Rin arrived, escorted by a vigilant, hawkish Farbarad who favoured Khor with a wary glance. Khor bowed while Khule stood tall, hoping to remedy any earlier discomfort between his brother and the Company Healer. Rin cautiously inclined her head, no more than that. Hanasian embraced her and quickly kissed her cheek as they met. This was a revelation to Khor, such warmth and affection from Hanasian. It was a side to the man he had not glimpsed before and he was not sure what to make of it. There was much about this woman, the Captain's wife, that he was uncertain of and he little liked the sensation.They continued in silence to the council tent.
Videgavia had gathered most of the old guard that weren't on the front watching. While they knew they awaited the arrival of Hanasian, Rin's arrival was a surprise in so much as she had recovered sufficiently to attend. The best of the Gondorian squads and a detachment of the Easterling legion were set as guard. As they entered the tent, Dhak stood in honour, and Hanasian waved him to sit with a wary glance at his wife who was clearly on edge. If Rin noticed any formal acknowledgement of rank she gave no sign of it. One argument, at least, had been avoided. All took up position around a large brazier that Donius had scavenged from the city and brought along with them.
Hanasian began, "We will forego the formalities and get right to it. Lord Dhak, I wish you to answer me these questions. What what are your intentions? What is it you seek from us? What power do you know of or possess that causes the earth and sky to explode?"
Dhak blinked and saw this man knew how to clearly get to the point. He looked about the people in the tent, arms folded over his chest.
"I will start by saying that our people have come far to reach this shore. The seas are strange and passage was hard. Many millennia have passed since our forefathers come over the sea from the west and settle our lands. There was in time a mighty tumult of the land and sea, and there was much destruction as the world changed. But a few of our kindred lived on, making life with what they could of what they had.
"The arrival of the two Wizards prompted much to change. In some aspects our old ways were forgotten while in other aspects our old ways were rediscovered. Our mariner's knowledge re-awakened and we were soon able to build ships to sail the seas. But we were met with nothing to our west save mists and shrouds. The sea ever drove us back. Only the Wizards could part the shroud. Even they could not accomplish this for long.
"So it came to pass that one of the Wizards too a mortal wife and a daughter was born. She is revered and feared both. She makes the sea passable. She has powers unknown to us, but her mind is broken and she is little able to control this fearsome might. It is she that threatens us all. I ask you to help us break this hold. What say ye?"
Hanasian looked at Rin to see if she was affected by the words of Dhak. She listened intently while scrutinising one of Dhak's companions. Hanasian knew there would be more to this campaign in the east than what they had hoped or expected. What his wife might see or wonder about he could not guess from her expression. It was smooth, a mask, inscrutable. Her guard was up.
"If we agree, what do you hope for?" Hanasian pressed, sensing there was more yet to know.
"The Order must be dismantled. Here first and then we must root it out at home. There will be reprisals, terrible, if we fail to pursue it back to its nest. As you have already seen, I would have us swear to the High King and abide by his rule and that of his heirs. Perhaps…an alliance? A reunification of our sundered peoples. Your king's realm would expand and in return, his protection?"
"You seem eager to swap one ruler for another. On whose authority do you speak?" Rin inquired of a sudden, her voice soft but her gaze locked upon Dhak's companion.
Her question prompted Dhak to glance at his two companions briefly and this told those that watched a great deal.
"My lady, the Order's dominion is oppressive. I cannot be certain of how many of my countrymen share our desire to throw off their shackles. There have been failed attempts in the past to free ourselves. The consequences have been dire. Many of us have families at home. Many may decide the safety of their kin outweighs all other concerns."
"But not you…and you have family there, do you not?"
Dhak answered carefully, "Yes…and had the Order not waged war against the court of the High King I would by their side now and not standing on strange shores as I do now. I have no thirst for a war that would mean our destruction irrespective of who prevailed. The Order is powerful enough. If it rose yet further to cast its shadow over the realm of your court or if it failed and we were left bereft of any guiding authority…"
Khor glanced about those gathered within the tent in a bid to gauge the response thus far. Opinion seemed divided. One, a dour faced rohirrim whose hair was showing silver and face was a map of the grassy plains of his home, nodded in acknowledgement at Hanasian's wife. He was clearly pleased with something, and Khor imagined he knew what.
"How many in your camp, Commander Khor?" the man inquired tersely and confirmed Khor's suspicions.
"I gathered some five hundred men of the various Sagath tribes. This number is further supplemented by one hundred of Dhak's country men. More are a-ship, waiting. How many I do not know."
"Three thousand," Dhak replied grimly, noticing how the noble woman's gaze still rested upon the same man, almost predatory in its intensity.
"And your five hundred, Khor?" Khule inquired.
"Will not serve any Wizard or Witch, regardless of their cause," Khor affirmed.
"So that only leaves some three thousand and ninety seven Dunedain, two wizards and one insane witch," Frea summed up.
"Perfect," Wulgof sarcastically intoned, "Un-winnable odds and a strawhead that can count."
Khor watched the dark face of a Southron split into a wide smile and some of the tension leaked from the tent. Rin shook her head as if to clear it, the gesture noted by a number of those in the tent.
"This witch of yours, she is the one that poses the threat that the king foresaw…and is responsible for the attacks," Videgavia asked as a shudder skated down Rin's spine.
"I cannot guess at what your king saw. But she responsible for the recent attack, manipulated by another. One of the two Wizards I spoke of," Dhak replied as Hanasian leant to confer with his wife.
"What is it?" he asked, aware that Farbarad attended closely on the other side.
"A…tugging…someone or something, tugging at me…" Rin murmured and shook her head again as Hanasian's gaze met Farbarad's.
"The Witch?" Farbarad inquired gravely.
"I don't know. Possibly…"
"Is it like before? Do you recall?" Farbarad pressed and something flashed in Rin's eyes at the question.
"No," she snapped, "As it so happens, she doesn't announce herself. Who'd a thunk it?"
Rin crossed her arms, scowled at the flames.
"It probably is" opined Wulgof.
"Oh probably," Rin breezily replied, "And here I was thinking this was a council and a frenzy of wild, unsubstantiated speculation and the suspicions of frightened men."
Molguv cleared his throat and kept his eyes on his boots, determined not to look at Wulgof and so avoid laughing out loud at his pet.
"Well you're fully recovered, clearly, and back to your usual charming self," Frea growled.
"Which, in itself, proves that we are not in this alone. Doc has been healed, clearly, and is being shielded now. The Valar are in play in this, mark my words," Folca stated and Rin shivered involuntarily again.
The idea that something like the Valar had any particular interest in her was far from comforting. She frowned and tucked a strand of hair behind one ear and was glad when Molguv spoke up into the uneasy silence that followed Folca's announcement.
"The only way to eat an oliphaunt is one bite at a time," rumbled Molguv, "If you must eat them at all. Stringy, fatty meat…"
"Just what is that supposed to mean?" demanded Foldine irritably.
"Well…we start with Khor's camp. Even if this trio is all we got, between our numbers and Khor's men, we will easily outnumber the ninety odd remaining."
"And the Wizards? And Witch?" Wulgof inquired and Molguv shrugged his massive shoulders.
"I suspect Folca is correct. More than mortal men are in the field and if it is through their intervention that the witch cannot wreak greater harm, then I am grateful. However the Valar will do as they see fit in this and in all things. The Company must, as ever, look to its own affairs. The decision as to whether to engage with the Order seems clear. They present a salient threat to the High King's realm, a hostile invading force. Irrespective of the disposition of forces, and whether Khor's men will stand with us or not, we must give answer to that. It is why we are here," Hanasian stated.
There was general assent to this.
"I repeat, my men will not serve with the Order. They have had their fill of wizards and dark power. Let me send word to them that you move against the Order," Khor pressed.
"We will consider it," Hanasian allowed and with that Khor had to be content.
"And, presuming we survive that, then we must decide if we pursue this threat beyond Middle Earth. One bite at a time, as Molguv rightly pointed out,"Hanasian continued, nodding at Molguv.
Bear rubbed at his chin, "You're not sure if we'll make it that far, are you Cap?"
"I can give no assurances. While the numbers may seem in our favour, there are greater powers at play."
"There usually is," Wulgof sighed, undeterred.
Hanasian considered next his wife and found her studying Dhak thoughtfully. She expelled a breath and looked at Hanasian somewhat forlornly.
"I suppose I sort of have to now, don't I?" she asked him, clearly nonplussed.
"It may be for the best," Hanasian replied, considering Dhak a moment and then nodding.
"I don't like this at all. What if I'm wrong, or if they appear more than they already are?"
"Rosmarin, you have been staring at them for nigh on half an hour. Do you honestly think you are making a mistake?"
"I suppose not," she allowed, fingers already searching for something she apparently believed stowed on her person.
"Ah…" she hedged, cheeks flushing, "I appear to have lost it."
"Is this what you are looking for?" Farbarad inquired, emptying a small pouch he had kept at his belt into her hand.
"Well, of course you'd have it," she muttered and he smiled smugly.
"Naturally," he agreed as she slipped her father's ring onto the finger she had seen Aragorn wear his on.
It felt heavy, unnatural and wrong. Dhak watched this occur, blinked and dropped to his knees as she reluctantly edged closer.
The exchange was tense. Dhak swore allegiance first and was followed by his two companions who spoke in halting Westron. All three pressed their lips to the mithril rose of Cardolan and with that, found themselves sworn to a king they did not know and a realm they barely understood. Rin was swift to slip the ring from her finger and return it to Farbarad. Men peeled from the tent, each with their own tasks to see to. Videgavia assigned Dhak and his three men to Molguv to keep an eye on. Khor found himself assigned to his younger brother and on his way to explain to no few of Khule's recruits just where he stood on the matter of Khurg. With battle to prepare for, there was no shortage of tasks to see to in the remains of the day so that they could move into position the following day.
Hanasian himself tasked Loch with the task of slipping forward with Runner's squad to see what lay head. If word could be gotten to Khor's men, it may well mean the difference between victory and defeat. In the dying embers of sunlight, Loch stood with his head bowed near his sister, both of them deep in discussion. They spoke Dunlendic quietly. Hanasian watched Rin glance to where the medics were gathered, sterlising bandages and then shake her head. Loch gestured at Runner and Rin sighed. Clearly, they were having a difficult conversation. Rin pinched the bridge of her nose and then nodded barely. This, apparently, was sufficient for Loch and he wrapped his arms around his sister's shoulders in farewell. When he pulled back, Rin spoke again, this time tapping his chest to make her point. He nodded dutifully, they embraced a second time and then he jogged away towards where Runner stood. He lifted his hand to his sister and she returned the gesture, watching as Loch and Runner moved out and into the long shadows of dusk. Hanasian set down his journal, having mostly recorded the events of recent days, and got to his feet.
He curved a hand to rest on her shoulder as he walked to her side.
"He's very good, you know…"
"I do, my love…still…"
She turned her face to study his in the sunset. Already the chill of night crept around them.
"Vid tells me that you, Farbarad and Mecarnil have barely slept these past three days. I said the Company Healer should do something about such an untenable situation," Rin said gently, and ran her fingers tenderly over his bristled jaw.
Hanasian let his eyes close at the gesture, "An early night, then?"
"A shame all the tents have been broken down," Rin murmured and something in her voice made his eyes open to consider her speculatively.
"That would hardly be restful," he remonstrated and saw a brow quirk.
"Well, not at first….but afterwards you would sleep like a babe."
Hanasian pulled her to him and rested his chin on top of her head.
"Well, yes…but such a plan would not work for the other two…unless…"
"Careful," he heard her warn, breath warm against his neck.
"Unless you have been teaching those Cats more than Vid or I asked you to."
He felt, rather than heard her laughter thrum through him. So vital, so alive, this was an unlooked for treasure that he instinctually tightened his arms around.
"I will not be drawn on who is teaching whom what when it comes to those women," Rin replied mysteriously, pulled back and gathered up one of his hands in her own. "Now, to bed with you, husband."
"Yes, wife," he replied dutifully, towing her after him on his way to their packs and bed rolls.
He was truly exhausted and no sooner had he stretched out was he drifting to sleep, Rin still fitting herself around him. He woke only once during the night to a sky clear of cloud and bejewelled with stars that seemed to flicker and dance. Rin was breathing steadily against his ear, nestled close and warm. Hanasian felt himself swiftly sink below the surface of his dreams. Elsewhere, under the same stars, one young man watched the face of another expectantly.
"You're certain?" said one of them and the other nodded.
"An opportunity we cannot squander, Runner," Loch replied, decision made as he signalled the rest of the squad. They would get word to Khor's men…and more besides. They would deal with the witch that had so nearly killed his sister once and for all, before battle began in another two days…sparing countless lives in the process. But it would not be easy. Important things never were.
Dorghat was the linchpin to Loch's plan. He had been sent with speed back to the Company to report that they had located the place where the witch from the east of the sea was living. It also seemed evident that Khor's men were nowhere to be seen. Instead, a cadre of mariners from the east made up the town garrison. There appeared to be more than a hundred. Around a rather ornate, if squat, stone palace, two large guards stood beside the door wearing black velvet tunics and tall domed helms that covered their faces. Any Easterlings that happened by steered clear of the place. Even the regular soldiers of the east passed with nervous quickness and in good order. Something was amiss and Loch could not put his finger on it. He knew that there was likely more here than what Dhorgat was going to report, so he would have to send another. With that in mind, Loch slid back to the wood where Runner and the others waited.
Loch said, "I don't have time to teach you all the silent language of the hands, for I barely know much of it. But I want you all to know these signs."
They listened and watched closely, eager to know some of the languages the Company uses. Loch went on, "The number of fingers tells how many score of men, and the four fingers at an angle tells how fast they are moving. Once placed, keep an eye on each other, and on the roads both in and out. We don't want our men walking into trouble here. Now, who's the fastest?"
A young man who may have seen eighteen years raised his hand as others pointed at him. It was unanimous.
Loch asked him, "You… Kallach, are you ready to take word to the Company? It is a matter of urgency!"
Kallach nodded enthusiastically. Loch came face to face with him and said, "Tell them we suspect there are more than the one hundred soldiers from over the sea. There is a different sort as well. Also, Easterlings with Khor's insignia have not been sighted. They must be wary on their approach. Now you get that to them fast!"
Runner said a few words to Kallach in their Easterling dialect, and Kallach prepared to travel light. He chewed some dried meat and fruit and packed the rest in his small satchel. Moments later he set off west.
Loch and Runner set their remaining men out at various watch points where they could see one another. Their number were few but they were determined. Runner was disturbed by what he knew of Loch's plan. All he could do was keep watch on him the best he could. He could see Loch, closest of them all to the palace, perched on an overhanging rock surrounded in scrub bushes. They all watched, counted and tried to calculate the numbers of men that moved about. As they did this, Loch made some calculations of his own. The thief in him identified the best way into the palace, and marked the comings and goings of the guards and others. Now all he needed was a distraction.
He didn't have to think about it and was barely ready when it happened. A cart pulled by a horse broke a wheel and spilled a load of potatoes into the street. Not only were the guards distracted, but so too was the rest of his men and he realised he would have to do this alone, without Runner. Loch slipped out and down the steep slope.
Runner was only distracted for a moment and when he turned to look for Loch, discovered the Black Company scout couldn't be seen. None of the others could see him either. Where had he gone? Runner moved stealthily toward Loch's last position and caught sight of him. At least Runner thought it was him. A man with Loch's gait was partially dressed as one of the guards and bypassed the cart as one of the door guards tried to get the man to move along. Runner, aware of what Loch was up to, wasn't going to let the man go in alone. But how was he going to get in? And where did Loch get his disguise?
It didn't take Runner long to find out. Working his way around and down Loch's scant trail, Runner found a dark stain in the dirt at the bottom of the slope. Loch had landed on one of the guards that happened to be standing there, and killed him. Runner hid the dead man in the bushes before trying to find a way inside. It was clear to Runner that he wasn't going to be able to go in the Loch did. The guards were back in position at the door. He would have to search for another way.
It seemed dark inside the palace despite the bright autumn daylight without. Loch slipped from shadow to shadow, watching and mapping the passages in his mind. On several occasions he had to freeze or move for cover while men in the ornate black velvet passed.
Once one paused, saying in their language unknown to Loch, "I thought I saw a shadow move."
But the other looked briefly down the hall and shook his head. They went on. Loch took a moment to steady his breathing. He was on his own here. Rin was nowhere near. It felt odd, unnatural even, to be doing this without her yet he did this for her. For his sister and for his Company. He was sure the woman was brought here from the ship. He moved in silence as he searched. Finding a stair, Loch felt confident would be up there. But how to get up there without being seen? The sweeping stair was at least eighty steps, and the open railing offered no cover. No thief, or assassin, wanted to be caught on the stairs. It was why the rooftops were invariably preferred.
Meanwhile, Dhorgat had reached the scouts of the Company, and soon his report had been given to Hanasian.
The Captain quickly snapped out orders, "More scouts out on the flanks, and watch carefully. Get word to Wulgof on point to move swiftly and keep eyes and ears forward. We need both swiftness and stealth, for our advance team has placed themselves in a precarious position. "
Hanasian summoned Khor, but Dhak came with him. Regardless, Hanasian asked "Where would your men be Khor?"
Khor's reply was halting as he puzzled, "They likely avoid the presence, but I am sure they not too far away."
Dhak had a look of concern and said, "It is as I feared. With the woman on these shores, it may be that the way across is being held open and more ships will come. Our time runs low."
"That just may be, but we aren't going to walk into a trap. We will get our men and Khor's men out if we can, but it will seem this will be a hard road. We better get up front," Hanasian replied, turned and called, "We need a runner to return with Dhorgat! We need to get word back to Loch."
Dhorgat was soon ready to set out without rest with a lanky young man from the Gondor legion called Mallet. Meanwhile another runner came from the east with word that a general offensive was being waged against the slowly shrinking bastion of Khurg's rebels. Intended to be good news, Hanasian knew that no further help would be forthcoming until that offensive had successfully concluded. They would have to go it alone, as impromptu allies with Khor and Dhak's faction of the mariners from east of the sea.
Kallach was making good time west when he heard a noise. He paused and started to go to ground when he heard a hiss. He fell hard as his hand grabbed at his neck. The arrow aimed at his chest had caught him at an angle and cut him deeply. He faded as he bled out with a soft, wet gurgle. His message would never reach the Company. Moments later, a soldier dressed in black approached the dead messenger. He searched him for anything written or otherwise useful and found nothing. The message had died with the messenger. Another came to stand and look at the body. The two men started to talk when a yell came from behind them. They had barely time to turn before being cut down by sharp axes of the Easterlings. Khirue's men were determined to stop the scouts the Order had sent out and most had been killed. Unfortunately, they arrived too late for Kallach. Khirue ordered his men to push west and set watch and to push east to guard the road by holding the high ridge. They would be able to see most of what was east and hoped Khor returned soon from the west.
The Company pushed on without surcease. Dhorgat and Mallet located the advance of Khirue's western watch and were held and questioned. Khirue found it hard to believe that the Black Company had people in the east, even in the city by the sea, when they had not heard of it. Loch and Runner were quite good at evasion. Once the pair had convinced Khirue that they needed to get word through, with the agreement of Commander Khor, Khirue let them through with a few men of his own. It was likely they would need help.
Meanwhile, Loch spent the hours standing in a windowsill behind a large curtain. Trapped halfway up the stair, he had taken refuge in the only place to hide. Little did he know that there would be a general gathering of the Order. There may have only been a dozen who seemed to be a part of a high council, but they kept standing and walking and talking in a language he did not understand. He had no chance to move and his legs were throbbing with stiffness. But to move would surely be his end. He would wait them out. He had to.
There was a commotion and the talking slowly ceased one voice at a time. Loch, able to see slightly through a strained stich in the curtain he hid behind, could see heads turning toward him. Had he been spotted and they now toyed with him? No, someone was coming down the stairs! Loch could not see them but he heard them begin their descent. Instinctively, he counted the steps with each footfall. His tally reached thirty three when the light dimmed with their passing. All he could see was a flash of red with long flowing dark hair. It was the woman he had come for! It seemed she had sensed him as she passed for her head turned slightly. But she didn't miss a step. On her arm was an old man in black. He could see the heads below begin to bow as the two approached the bottom of the stair. Two more sets of feet started descending the stairs, and Loch counted as he watched the floor. At thirty three steps, two shadows passed by the curtain. These must be the attendant girls. One said something back up the stairs as she passed, and they too were soon at the bottom of the stairs.
Those around the woman and the old man appeared to exchange pleasantries. Loch noticed the woman did not speak or show much of any expression when he could glimpse her face. He swallowed hard for he thought her beautiful and his resolve faltered. A bead of sweat ran into his eye, its saltiness burning. Loch didn't flinch, just watched. He had to move or fall, his legs both ached beyond anything he had ever felt. He saw the people on the floor had started to move to another room and were no longer looking up the stairs. Silence fell as voices drifted away. Loch had to take a chance. He started to move a leg that badly wanted to move yet felt as limber as a tree trunk and eased himself down to the stair. So far so good. No cries of alarm and with as much speed as he could muster to his aching and stiff muscles, he continued up the stairs three at a time. Somehow he managed to be both quick and quiet and he gained the top of the stair.
Pausing just long enough to see if the hall was clear, and unsure what he would do if it wasn't, he stepped around and looked at the doors. The ornate frame around a door three from both ends of the hall seemed to be the most likely location for where the woman was housed. Pausing by it, he again looked down the hall toward the stairs. Someone was ascending and a woman's voice seemed to be asking a question. It was one of the attendants… the one who spoke going down the stairs. Loch pushed against the door and it seemed to give way before him. His stiff legs could not control him. Loch lost his balance and fell hard against the door. It hit someone who was opening the door to respond to the ascending attendant and they fell backward. Loch fell atop her, his hand covered her mouth. The door bounced shut and he realized he was in trouble. He had one girl gagged under him and another approaching the door. He stood and pulled the girl up by her wrist, and thought putting his finger to his lips might mean something to her. Her eyes were dark but bright, and what happened next took Loch by surprise. She quickly pushed him toward an open closet door and closed it after him just as the room door opened. A questioning voice and the girl he had tackled said something in answer as she stood with her back to the closet. Loch realized he was at the mercy of this girl maybe his age if not younger. His only chance was if she kept him secret right now. Going by the exchange it seemed his luck was holding. Then he heard the latch of a lock. He had been locked in! The two voices faded and the room door closed.
"Loch, you've really done it this time," his voice in his head told himself, "You've gone from being the assassin that would save your sister from torment to the prisoner of an attendant girl!"
But he had his knife, a few of then actually. He used one to trip the lock open and he stepped out. This was where he wanted to be. The curtain by the bedside would have to do. He would be able to strike from there. But it meant more long hours of standing still.
On the outside of the palace, Runner searched. He found why a guard was placed below the slope. There was a larder in the back side. Runner managed to slip inside the door and get out of sight. He knew it was only a matter of time before the missing guard was going to be missed.
"Oh Loch, what are you thinking!" Runner thought to himself in the darkness of the cellar.
He knew he didn't have half of Loch's cunning and so he had to think himself a way to find his commander. The first thing was to find a way out of here without raising alarm. Finding the door that led up into the kitchen, he found it locked. Choices were limited. Going back out the way he came, or out this way when the opportunity arises. Runner too had to bide his time.
As the sun westered, two men wondered if they would survive to see it rise again and the Black Company of Arnor finally met with the Khor's substantive forces. The Company pulled into position at last in the late afternoon. Word had spread that Loch and Runner were in a precarious position. This meant that Rin was on hand as Khor's lieutenant laid out the bones of the matter succinctly.
"More of the mariners arrived after the Commander departed, including others we had not encountered before. From their garb you could easily think them largely ceremonial, you'd think…only the regulars along side them want nothing to do with them. Once they showed up, we pulled back and cordoned off the area. Our estimates puts their total numbers at around four hundred now. A few less, since we decided we didn't like their scouts," Khirue finished with a fierce grin that set his dark eyes to dancing.
"These newcomers…are they familiar to you, Dhak?" Hanasian inquired and man grimaced, aware that Rin was staring at him hard.
"Nothing ceremonial about them. They were a military sect, but now are widely considered part of the Order themselves. They will defend it to their last breath. Fanatics. They little like to rub shoulders with common soldiers. But that palace will be infested with them. It bodes ill."
"And what of Loch's squad?" Videgavia asked.
Khirue's mirth vanished and he rolled his shoulders. "Seem to be missing two, though. They're ahead. Cunning, stealthy…wouldn't mind having them as our own."
"Which two?" Rin demanded, pouncing on the Easterling. Khirue blinked in surprise and glanced askance at his Commander. Khor gestured with his hand and the lieutenant answered
"Don't rightly know..." Khirue responded, hesitating as he struggled to discern the correct form of address for the woman. Clearly of rank, and clad as a warrior, she was an enigma to him in all ways. At his answer, Rin scowled and spun away on one boot heel. She had clearly instructed Loch to be careful! Careful! Odds were he was one of the two, and that Runner that seemed permanently attached to his elbow in recent times was with him. She knew it. Just knew it! Rin kicked at a clod of grass. Easier to be angry with him than afraid. And she was. Fear iced her blood and in her mind was the sound of his pleading chant repeated over and over again: Please, please, please, please...
This was torture! Every muscle in his body screamed in agony. Loch ached to move, just a twitch. He'd been trying out those muscle exercises his sister had told him about, but after a time they just weren't enough. Could he do it? He'd never set out to kill a woman like this. He'd never killed a woman before. Was she someone's sister, like Rin? Was she a target because of what she was, rather than who she was, like Rin? Down such paths lay recrimination, doubt and failure. He attempted to slowly tense and relax his muscle groups and harden his resolve. He was not doing this because he wanted to. He was doing this because he must. For his sister, for his Company, for the king and realm they served.
Dorghat eased the door close behind him and surveyed the empty room. It had to be hers. Neither she, nor Loch, were in sight. But Dorghat knew that if Loch was not here already he would be soon. Madness. This was madness. He understood why it must be, but it was madness. He regretted ever telling Loch that he knew where the witch was now. But, it was done and now their fates were in motion. He padded silently to the bed by the window, crouched and slipped underneath it. There was a muffled oomph and the sensation of colliding with a body. Panic set in until a familiar, if incredulous and hoarse voice whispered "Runner?"
Runner suppressed the insane urge to laugh and briefly grunted assent. He heard Loch expel a sigh of relief beside him.
"Just as well these witches have very wide beds," Loch said and after that was silence.
There was a special way to breathe to ensure you were not detected. There was a special way to think to ensure you were not distracted. There were special exercises to keep the body as limber as possible to ensure you were not handicapped. The sun gradually sank, there was footfall outside the room. The door opened and several people came in. Runner was closest to the door and judged that there were two women and a man from the feet he could glimpse. They spoke that strange language of them, nonsense to the ears of the two young men under the bed. Though there were three people, only two spoke. The man spoke rarely, voice dry and sibiliant. A young woman also spoke.
Back and forth the feet wandered, sometimes out of view. Then, two feminine sets of feet approached the bed and a wooden screen scraped over the stone floor as it was drawn across behind them. Runner felt Loch's fingers tighten around his wrist. Carefully, oh so carefully, Loch and then Runner rolled out from the other side of the bed and peered over the mattress. Both women had their backs to the bed and window. One woman was patiently unlacing the back of the other woman's red gown. Loch recognised the witch from her garb and hair. The other was an attendant, possibly the one that locked him in the wardrobe before or one of the other two. Would they have to kill two women tonight? What of the man?
Slowly they crept around the bed and padded towards the women. Loch's grip on his knife was slick with sweat. He had to this. He had to. Runner's knife shook in the light from the sconces. By none other than sheer chance, the attendant glanced to her right and saw Loch standing there. Her eyes went wide and her mouth formed a silent ring, hands stilled on the laces she was unweaving. Loch moved his eyes to the witch and then back again, hoping she might understand, hoping that her earlier concealment of him was a tacit statement of mercy. The attendant's small hands dropped from the laces and she stepped back. It was now. It had to be now. Runner saw Loch coil and he leapt for the attendant, wrapping a hand around her mouth and literally picking her up as he dragged her backwards, so that her shoes would not scrape and scuff on the flagstone floors.
On the other side of the screen, the man heard movement that somehow seemed out of place. He frowned and turned towards the screen, goblet of what passed for wine in this land forgotten now. Loch heard the man ask a question. The question was repeated as the screen was dragged roughly to one side. The man's eyes registered alarm and then rage at what he saw and he gathered not only his powers but those of the woman that sagged in the arms of the assassin, head lolling and a curving red gash across her throat. In desperation he released all that he held and chaos was unleashed.
"Rin, time to come clean. You're more than a thief, aren't you?"
"Not by design," Rin muttered, eyes fixed on the trail that Loch's squad had seen Runner hare off down earlier in the day.
"I was never officially his apprentice and I only stayed six months."
"Look, all I need to know is whether you're up to the task of getting in and out of that palace or not."
At that, Rin transferred her attention from the trail to Khule. "Khule, how many times to you think I paid an unofficial visit to Meduseld?"
Khule studied her expression a moment and then nodded in satisfaction. He had found his last member of the squad that would be sent in after sunset to locate and extract Loch and Runner from the palace their squad had sighted them approaching. It would be a small team, numbering only four: Videgavia, himself, Berlas and Rin.
"No. Absolutely not. Over my dead body. Hanasian, tell him," Mecarnil hissed as Khule reported on his selection.
Hanasian glanced over to where his wife stood, stripped of her usual gear. No armour, no packs, no sword or bow and quiver. She was winding her braid around her head and had a length of black fabric that she would shortly wrap over her head. Khule gestured at her without looking.
"She's able to get into spaces the rest of us can't. We need a woman for this, and none of the Cats are her equal as of yet. We'll watch her like she was our own because she is."
Mecarnil muttered something in Sindarin under his breath and Hanasian reluctantly nodded. Khule didn't salute for obvious reasons, but he knew what his captain was entrusting him with. He turned on one heel and strode to where Rin stood with the other two. There was a brief conferral, most of their plans already set. Rin turned to sight Hanasian. She lifted her hand slightly and saw him echo the gesture. This was going to end well. It was. Her vision on the trail was false, a possibility already averted. That had to be it. As the sun set, four shadows slipped past the lines and ghosted towards the town. The evening stars had started to emerge. There were pools of shadow, places of obvious cover that they flitted to. Behind them, the Black Company watched and held its breath.
Rin had a particular approach in mind, confirmed as they drew nearer to the palace. It was not the smooth stone assembly seen elsewhere. Natural hand and foot holds abounded. Up the side, down through the top. The eastern face that looked out over the sea would be best. The guards would be clustered around likely access points. But no one would be expected from the inland sea. The question was, did she have enough rope for the climb. It was a relatively squat structure, but still easily four stories tall. Once she was in, did she have enough rope to secure her fool of a brother and drag him out by the ankles. Her mind was busy with such thoughts it happened. It seemed that a giant, invisible hand seemingly picked up the earth and gave it a good shake as if it were a carpet. The resultant force exploded like a great wave across the town with a dull whump.
Far aloft came the piercing cry of an eagle. The stars flared brightly and then faded back to their customary beauty. By the time the Company had picked themselves up, a heavy pall of rock dust hung in the air where the palace had been. Beneath it laid grotesquely tangled ruins, as if the palace had been nothing more than a house of cards.
"Manwe, Aule too…Varda…whatever happened, it was big," Mecarnil murmured, ears ringing.
On the road, the four people lay sprawled on the ground. Slowly they rolled themselves to relative cover. Rin shook her head and stared at the scene ahead. Fear gave way to dread at what she saw and she had no clear recollection of what occurred next. When her senses cleared next it was late at night and she sat in the rubble. The night was crystalline cold and unnaturally still, as if it held its breath. She was covered in dust, sweat and blood, and filled with the realisation that Loch was gone. Despair flooded her and dully she stared at the scene around her. Torches had been brought to cast back the night and the light danced and flickered over the ruin. Men scrambled over the shattered stones and timber, heaving what could be moved aside either alone or in groups. Elsewhere ropes and horses were being used. It was utterly incomprehensible to her until atop the largest pile Wulgof raised his arm.
"DOC! HERE! FOUND ANOTHER ONE!"
She had no idea how or why her body obeyed and yet she rose and answered the summons. And so it continued, stone by stone, victim by victim. Those not combing the ruined palace for two missing Black Company men were taken aback by the calmness of the town. The only strife had been with the men that Dhak had described as fanatics and most of those men were too injured by the palace's collapse or lying within the tangled wreckage to mount any significant opposition. And yet, the Company felt as though they had just confronted a grievious battle. They felt battered, bruised, tattered and saddened. When dawn finally spread soft delicate light over the east, some thirty bodies had been recovered from the ruin. None of them were Black Company men.