31. Chapter 31
The devastation of the blast not only collapsed the palace, but it had caused some damage to nearby buildings. As the search and clean-up went on into the morning, Hanasian de-briefed and recorded in detail everyone of the Company men that were a part of Loch's squad. They were at the time of the blast stationed at points in the hills above in an attempt to get a better understanding as to what may have happened. Most reported a flash of light before the shaking of the ground was felt. Then a shockwave of heat and cold blew past them and the air had a strange odour. This account was all the same with the difference in what odour was noted to resemble. Then they all reported they fell unconscious. Likewise, Khule and Khor questioned any locals that were nearby and other than the amount of time and what their senses noted. It was all pretty much the same.
Hanasian could see that Rin had retreated into herself and was silent yet dutifully treating the injured one after the other. There were a lot of them. Everything from minor scratches to shattered limbs. She started to treat Ghorn, one of Runner's men for a severe head wound when he woke suddenly. Hanasian was right there. He was asking what happened!
"Let me bandage your head before you start talking and moving around too much!" Rin barked at him.
He settled back as if scolded by his mother, and Hanasian let his wife finish her work before pressing him for more information. It was then that Videgavia came with his report, and Hanasian brushed Rin's hair with his hand and let her know with a look that he wanted to talk to Ghorn, and her, but was going to step away and hear what Vid had to report. They walked some steps away, still in sight but out of earshot, before Videgavia started speaking.
"Still not sure what happened Cap. Dhak is with the few of the black mariners that survived trying to get anything from them, but they are a tight-lipped bunch. Dhak said something about the rift being closed, but it didn't make much sense to me.
"Since they speak in their language akin I believe to old Adunic, little of it we can make sense of. And I'm not so sure about trusting what Dhak says either; being he's the only one we have to translate. If body language and vocal tones are to be trusted, they seem to be arguing more than anything."
Hanasian waved Mecarnil over and asked, "You of all of us are the most learned in the languages of the Old Edain. I have seen you intently listening to Dhak and his companions when they go off talking to one another. Have you been able to make any sense of it?"
Mecarnil shook his head in such way it was difficult discern whether he meant yes or no.
He said, "Cap, all I had found was some old worn parchments that were quite water damaged. I have studied more the writing than the spoken... being that nobody in Middle Earth speaks the language true anymore.
"We have some key words and phrases that we use that we have learned being raised in Arnor, and you, me, Farbarad, Aragorn, and some of the old Greys know them. But what we know is not a language. So no, I can't tell you any that's being said, but I listen and pick up the inflections I think is the punctuation inscribed on the old scrolls. I'm learning Cap, but I can't tell you anything."
Hanasian nodded, and said, "Farbarad will have to stick with Rosmarin for a bit, help in healing and observing her. I will too within my abilities to do so while leading this Company. Now, Vid, what is our situation?"
Videgavia looked around and then started to speak, "Overall, it looks like we as a Company came out reasonably well, apart from Loch's command. We found one dead, three badly injured, and the rest shaken. Khor's men he had in town suffered wounds, and some of the Mariner regulars that were nearby were killed with a dozen more wounded.
"It seems most of the dead were clustered around this palace, and were those of this 'Order' that Dhak referred to. Unfortunately, we have three missing."
Hanasian glanced over at Rin who had Ghorn sitting up and looked back at Videgavia, saying, "Loch, Runner, and who else?"
"Ravenclaw." Videgavia answered.
Hanasian then asked, "Ravenclaw?"
Mecarnil looked about and mumbled, "Yeah, that would be about right."
Hanasian turned and asked, "What did you say?"
Mecarnil spat and said, "Nothin'"
"Didn't sound like nothin'." Hanasian said.
Mecarnil looked at Videgavia who huffed out a sigh and said, "Let it out Mecarnil. You've been itching to for some time now. I know you want to tell me that you told me so.
"A bit of background Captain… as you know, when you were off honeymooning, it was left to me to recruit and get things set to head to Rhun. Ravenclaw, otherwise known as Hamoor, was one of the men who volunteered.
"I didn't like the man, especially since we all had rejected him first time he tried to join when we were in pursuit of Simra. But this time I thought we could use him here. So far it seemed to work- -"
"I would let it out if you would shut up." Mecarnil cut in, "I said at the time he had a bad air about him. Didn't like bumping into him on Hanasian's night, didn't like him years ago, and certainly didn't like him becoming part of the Company. If I wasn't so wrapped up in the royal business at the time, I'd have made myself clearer."
Hanasian put his hand up to his head as they bickered, and then grabbed both by the collar of their tunics. He dragged them close, nearly knocking their heads together.
"Enough! Yes, he stinks, yes he has history, and there is something about him I don't like either. But what's done is done, and like it or not, he is Company! Now I don't need this from you two right now, or ever, really. There are many reasons men go missing.
"Remember when Mulgov was missing three days the last time we were here in Rhun? He went to relieve himself in the woods in the dark and ended up falling down a steep slope and knocking himself out. He eventually found us again. So, for now I write Loch, Runner, and Ravenclaw down as missing in action. Now Vid, how are we in numbers?"
They both were silent, and as Hanasian let go of them, they stood straight and adjusted their tunics. Hanasian could see that Rin had noted the discussion, and signalled that Ghorn was ready to talk. Hanasian gave her sign that he would be there shortly, and listened as Videgavia finished giving his report.
"Except for Loch, we have the rest of the old crew, fifty-three from the Gondorian recruitment, and sixty-seven of Khule's Easterling recruitment. Of them, there is only a half dozen of Runner's squad of swift feet left fit. Kallach is confirmed killed on the trail by Khirue, two have broken limbs and will not be moving swift anytime, Ghorn is badly hurt and being attended to, and as reported, Runner is missing.
"Khor has ninety-six with his main body under Khirue, and says there are another fifty or so posted on the outskirts. He has sent word to have all but sentries recalled. Of the mariner regulars, there are sixty-four who we have contained comfortably, being treated as prisoner-guests as they seem to listen to Dhak, and we have seven of this Order in captivity.
"Dhak said some of the regulars have reported some of the Order's elite guard had left the day before, which corresponds with what Khirue said when they killed the ones who killed Kallach."
Hanasian nodded and said, "Thanks Vid. I want to have a Company meeting this afternoon before it rains. Let the old crew save Mulgov and Khule know we'll meet there by those trees in an hour. Have Mulgov and Khule come see me now, and let their companies know there will be a meet in two hours by the destroyed palace.
"Until then, have them rest, for the night has been long and the march before that longer. Meanwhile, see if any sign of Ravenclaw can be found. Khor has the locals still rummaging through the rubble for sign. I'm going to see if Ghorn can tell me anything more."
They parted with a grasp of the hand, and Vidigavia and Mecarnil headed up the hill where the old crew was, chuckling.
Vid mumbled, "Mulgov had to be a sight… laying there knocked out for however long with his breeches down to his knees…"
More chuckles, and when they tried to contain themselves upon reaching the old crew's camp, Mulgov looked at them and said, "What's so funny?"
Which set them both laughing hysterically. Vid got a hold of himself and managed to say without laughing, "You and Khule need to go see the Cap right now. He's with Rin at the aid camp in the field below."
Mulgov waited for Khule before setting off down the hill, saying, "I wonder what is tickling them?"
"It's best you don't ask," Khule said, not having a clue what it was all about, "I'm more worried about what the Captain wants."
Hanasian came up to Rin and gave her a kiss. He could see the deep worry in her face beneath her professional demeanour. She was going to go attend to another when Hanasian stopped her.
"I want you with me to hear what Ghorn has to say. The others say he was closest and was moving to cover for Runner."
Rin hesitated, then said, "I don't know if I want to my love. I'm not ready to accept Loch is dead."
"He isn't dead, he is missing," Hanasian said, "If you feel the need to go to tend others, then do so, but I ask you to stay."
She paused and thought as an Easterling soldier was brought with a rag tied over his right eye. Rin squeezed Hanasian's hand and said, "I would for you my love, but Rocks and Two Bells are working without break, so too should I. I'll only be a few steps away, tending this man. We will talk later of all this."
Hanasian gave her a kiss and she set to work on the man next to where Ghorn sat. She was likely within earshot anyway. Hanasian sat down next to Ghorn, who tried to get up and stand at attention. He was in every way a proud Easterling member of the Company, and thought having the captain talking to him a great honour. Hanasian steadied the young man and helped him sit back down.
"Easy. I need you in good health. Let us talk some. Tell me all that happened as you remember it."
Ghorn started when he saw Loch's last signal. He had been busy counting the order's elite guards moving out. Four troops of twenty, of which one group went up the hill. The approach of Khule and Mulgov distracted him slightly, but made him want to be as detailed as his memory would be. Hanasian signalled them both that there was possibly eighteen of the Order elite somewhere outside of the town. One of the least bandaged of the runners was sent to the camp on the hill to get word to Vid and the others. They would have to be on the alert as it was obvious these men were dangerous and unpredictable. Hanasian made a note to speak with Dhak and see what more he would say about this. But right now, Ghorn was reporting.
"When I again looked to signal my numbers to Loch, he was gone. Runner too was out of position, but I spotted him heading for Loch's last position. He was puzzled by Loch's disappearance too.
"I signalled him my numbers and he signalled back to me he was going in. He remained in sight by the palace for a short time, but disappeared from my sight around the back of the palace. I started to work my way down to cover and the others set new positions to keep full watch.
"I took up Loch's old position and it was a long time, maybe hours before I decided to move down. I had not seen any sign of Runner, or Loch, and I got this feeling that something was happening inside. I had counted and had it signed to me that all but the twenty of the guards had come back to the palace, almost as if they were summoned.
"It was right when I stepped down that everything went white. Heat and cold both blasted me and I was thrown back against them rocks, and I remember no more… wait. A vision. I don't know if I was awake or sleep, but I saw Loch and another.
"They were flying, as if they went by me. It was not Runner with him though. It could have been the effects of the blast but it seemed so clear at the time. It bothers me that I don't know who was with him. Next thing I know is I am lying here in pain. That is all I know sir."
Hanasian took his hand and squeezed, saying, "Very well son. You heal and get well. We need you back with us!"
No better words could he receive. He smiled and gratefully lay back down, obviously dizzy. Ghorn watched as the captain stood and directed Mulgov and Khule to summon their commands and have a meet before the all Company meeting. Many decisions had to be made this day, none easy.
Ghorn said as Hanasian began to walk away, "Sir, if I remember any more, I will let you know."
Hanasian nodded to him and said, "Yes, do that. Consider it an order."
Hanasian felt he was starting to gain a handle on working these Easterling Company worshippers of Khule's. He was headed to talk to Dhak when Two Bells came to him and said, "Captain, there is something you may want to see."
Hanasian detoured and went over to where the rubble was being sorted. A wisp of smoke, steam, and chill icy air weaved around each other from the pile. A precarious opening was made that led down into the cellar of the palace. A couple locals braved entry, and brought out a broken bloodied body of a girl.
After they crawled out, one said in the dialect of Rhun, "There is another! May be alive!"
Two Easterling Company men pushed their way in one after another. They found them partially buried in dirt and trapped under a beam.
"Breathing but not conscious," one of the men said out to another of his comrades outside the hole.
The commotion that someone had been found alive spread and Rin looked up. She resisted leaving her patient in mid–operation to see if it was her brother and returned to her task of removing a huge splinter of wood from the man's eye. The eye would heal, but wouldn't be able to see much from it. Rin needed to believe her brother was alive, but she prepared herself as best she could to accept he was dead. She didn't miss a move when word came that it was a woman found alive.
The two men worked to free the woman from under the beam. There was no little room to work but they managed to use a part of a beam as a lever to get the pressure off of her. They could see her gasp for air and breathe easier but they had lots of work to do. They dug away the dirt and rocks, and managed to move her. She moaned in pain but it had to be done.
The man outside the hole said, "You two nearly done in there? We hear creaking so hurry up. The whole place may soon fall on you!"
The two heard creaking too. They had placed support from the pieces of wood and rock around the best they could but knew they were changing the dynamics of the structure. They freed the woman free and worked her to the opening, where she was pulled free. A cracking sound followed and things began to slide. They scrambled out as the remaining framework came crashing down. Too close! Hanasian would get their names and give them each an award of honour later. Right now he wanted to know about the two who were pulled out if the rubble.
One was dead, but the other was not. He sent for Rin to tend to the girl, and sent for Dhak, Khor, and had one who appeared to be an officer of the surviving Order elite brought forth. He wanted answers and he was going to get them. Two Bells examined the surviving girl and cleaned her face. To Hanasian, she didn't look like she was from any race of men he had ever seen in these lands. Of the closest, the dark hair, tanned skin, and facial features reminded him most of the women of Khand. But not enough to be Khandese. He suspected that she and the dead girl beside her were from east of the sea, perhaps a people long sundered in the beginnings of the song? He hoped answers would come. Dhak was the first to arrive. He was astonished to see the girls.
"They didn't!" he said in the eastern mariner language under his breath.
The girl heard him and stirred. She looked over to see the face of her sister and wept as she reached for her hand. She said something that only Dhak could understand.
When pressed by Hanasian, he said, "She wants to know where her sister is, her other sister. Captain, don't let any of the Order see her. They think they're all destroyed."
Hanasian agreed and countermanded his instruction to bring the officer. He and the rest of the Order were instead were put under the watch of Wulgof, Bear, and some of the Company men that had just recently arrived. Wulgof inspected a building one of Dhak's companions suggested they use and deemed the cellar perfect for the job at hand. The prisoners were herded into the cellar and the place guarded several trusted Company men. Hanasian was satisfied with this arrangement and pleased that newly arrived men were used by Wulgof. For whatever reason Dhak didn't want them to know about the girls being found, he thought it was best the guards didn't know about them either. There could be powers at work here he did not know of. He would have to deal with them later.
He listened as Dhak interpreted what the girl said. He asked her how many sisters were there and she answered three. Dhak talked with her for some time, and told Hanasian of the three sisters who had come over the sea to tend to the witch. They were apprentice students, hoping to learn what they could from her, and given the task because the three triplets had shown some sort of a benign shielding capacity.
The Order hoped they would protect the witch through their proximity, but it seemed things went horribly wrong. Hanasian didn't think Dhak was telling him everything, but he had to fear the worst. Thinking this girl may hold the key to what happened, he wanted to know more, but right now the girl only cried. She could talk no more.
Rin's arrival prompted immediate action.
"You men! Get some blankets! She is barely clothed and is shivering! And cover her sister and move her away! What's the matter with you?" she cried in dismay.
Hanasian pushed the others away and let Two Bells and Rin tend to her many wounds. The girl's leg was smashed and her ribs were bruised with some of them broken, but she would survive. The girl slid into and out of consciousness, knowing her older sister was dead and her younger sister missing. She was surrounded by strange voices speaking strange languages she did not understand. She was in a strange land, all alone, and as she drank some water with something Rin had given her, she fell into a deep sleep.
Setting a guard around the girl , his wife and the Two Bells, Hanasian gave orders that she be taken to somewhere warm and dry once Rin approved her being moved. Hanasian went next with Dhak, Khor, Khule, and Mulgov to where Wulgof was keeping the prisoners and interrogated the officer of the Order. He got little information and left Dhak to verbally spar with him until they were sealed in. What to do with them were just one of Hanasian's problems this day. He had another renegade band of these Order fanatics on the loose in the land, Dhak and his soldiers, scores of wounded soldiers and townsfolk, a seriously hurt woman from across the sea, scores of dead to be buried or burned, a grieving wife, and the mystery of three missing men. It was only mid afternoon too, and the rain started to fall from the grey sky. They were going to get wet during their meetings.
The call to a compulsory Company meeting arrived just as the rain started to rush from the heavens. Thick, angry drops splattered, hurled resentfully down. It only added to the general misery for those working on the ground.
"You have to be kidding! We're up to our necks in blood, bone and mud here. A meeting now?" Rocks protested when Babble arrived with the news.
The man nodded, shoulders hunched beneath his rain cape and strode off towards where the Black were camped. Rocks glanced back to where their healer was. She didn't appear to have taken any notice. Rin was in grim shape. Every time they brought someone or something out, he saw hope turn to ashes in her face. The fact that he could discern anything of her thoughts revealed a great deal in itself. This was a woman whose capacity for self containment rivalled some of the best. Her leathers were ruined, abraded and gouged after a night and day of forcing herself into dangerous places to provide emergency treatment before the located victim could be removed. She'd been on her feet through a day and a night and now most of this day. He knew she was reserving her strength, parcelling it out so that she could make it last for as long as possible. Farbarad had asked to step down and rest already and she had refused him, staying that she would not leave until Loch was found. When she went down, it would be hard. Rocks glanced at Bells and issued a covert signal for the younger man to head off to the meeting. Once Bells had complied, Rocks cautiously approached Rin.
"You know, I seem to recall you telling us that the only thing more dangerous than a medic who didn't know what he didn't know was one that worked while exhausted."
He had anticipated her silence and so continued to apply relentless pressure, "Never figured you for a hypocrite, Doc."
At that, her fingers stilled a moment. He saw her jaw bunch and she swallowed hard. Then she resumed her stitches. They were good and the civilian she was working on would heal cleanly as a result, but they were not her usual painstaking perfection. Another sign of how exhausted she was.
"I would have thought that you had enough trouble to wallow in without adding failure to report as ordered to the pile."
"If you don't let me concentrate, I'll stitch your mouth shut," she growled and Rocks smiled and jammed his hands under his arms.
"If you don't show up to this meeting, you won't be stitching anyone's anything as you'll be on report. How useful will you be then, eh?"
In this time she had finished up the stitches and she shot him a look that suggested she was repressing the urge to clip his ears by the slimmest of margins. Rin expelled a sharp breath and beckoned one of the Easterlings over. Once she established that the man could do a decent bandage they were on their way.
Donius and Daius had done their best to rig up some kind of shelter with what they could set their hands to. Even so, it was not nearly enough to keep everyone dry. Rain thrummed over the capes and hoods of men and women who clustered together. Rocks realised they were amongst the last to arrive. What happened next, however, surprised him. People parted way silently to admit them, a silent mark of respect for the particularly grim work the four of them had been doing and, Rocks suspected, a way of offering some comfort for the woman who had lost a brother. He was lost, as far as Rocks was concerned. The rubble was their tomb, their tangled cairn. It was a thought he kept to himself as he followed Rin through the press, and he was not the only one to think it.
Upon sighting Rin, Frea levered himself off a camp stool and beckoned her to it. She took it reluctantly, pushed her hood back and revealed that her composed mask was in place again. Rocks headed to where Bells and Sparks stood on the other side, near Wulgof, Molguv and Morcal. Many eyes darted between the three medics on one side, the healer on the other, and the command of the Black Company in the middle of it all. Hanasian swiftly called the meeting to order and Videgavia opened with a summary of their current situation.
"Which brings us to the three Black Company individuals currently missing, and our next course of action," Videgavia finished, glancing to Hanasian.
"Missing? We know where two are, even if we haven't found them yet," Wulgof interjected belligerently, eyes flashing.
Rin's jaw tightened and her head bowed so that her chin nearly rested on her chest, arms tightly crossed and fists clenched so tightly that her nails dug into her palms. The pain gave her something to focus herself on. She kept her eyes fixed on her muddy boots. Folca's hand lightly brushed her shoulder and she jerked away.
"As for our next course of action, it's as obvious as the nose on my face. We find this Order and hunt every last one of them down. What has happened here demands an answer!" Wulgof finished.
"There is nothing obvious about this," Hanasian cut in sharply, "Nothing! We don't know nearly as much as we guess. Loch and Runner could be anywhere here. Have you searched every nook and cranny of this forest, Wulgof? First things first, anyone who has knowledge of where Ravenclaw might be is to step forward now."
Wulgof muttered darkly, but otherwise there was no response. No one stepped forward.
"Right… we have three men missing, a number wounded, some eighteen elite hostile foes and some hard decisions to make."
"If Loch were about, we'd have found him by now. It's been a day, a night and a day," Wulgof persisted and Foldine's temper snapped.
"Can you have some respect, some decency? Must you be so eager to declare him dead and buried, in the face of his sister?"
"Look at her, you fool! She knows! Just look at her! This devilry demands answer! The longer we equivocate, the longer will justice be denied!"
"Justice? Sounds like another Dunlander thirsty for vengeance to me. Thought you'd outgrown your barbarian roots," Foldine sneered and at that angry voices began to rise.
Tension rose inexorably towards dangerous heights. People jostled against each other. Hanasian, Videgavia, Mecarnil and Frea shouted for order frantically. They were tired, heartsore, overwhelmed and if any one of them drew a weapon against their fellow soldier, catastrophe would follow. The sound of a piercing wail sliced through the mayhem like elven steel through summer grass. It startled them all, including the woman responsible for it.
Rin found herself on her feet, panting hard and shaking so hard her teeth threatened to chatter. She ripped the Company brooch that pinned her muddy cloak to her throat free and flung it at Wulgof's chest with all her remaining strength. Her cloak soddenly slumped around her boots and the pin bounced off Wulgof's chest and fell to the ground heavily. Seering rage burnt in her eyes.
"WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE ANY OF YOU? WHO! Is this what the Company is? Is this what we stand for? Thugs and mercenaries?" she rasped, voice husked by grief.
She strode to confront Wulgof, bare inches from his face, "Lochared is NOT DEAD! Yet, even if he was, who are you to demand vengeance in HIS NAME? After all we have endured!" she savagely demanded of him.
"How DARE you! How dare you incite anyone to spill blood in my brother's name! How dare you render him a savage effigy! Is THAT WHAT YOU ARE? Ravenous, hate filled, bent on revenge, another monster marauder from Dunland?"
Wulgof's eyes were wide with pain at Rin's onslaught. "No, Rin! No-" he mumbled, eyes dropping and she teetered back a step.
She turned, still quivering and the tow of one boot kicked the brooch. Rin stared at it a long moment before she raised a grief ravaged expression to Hanasian. The hush amongst the Company was absolute, broken only by the drumming rain. Her back was to the gathered Company and she could not bare their pity filled eyes.
Rin turned her head and asked over one shoulder, "How many of you believe Wulgof is right?"
A great number of hands raised. She knew this because she saw in the grim expressions of Hanasian and Videgavia.
"Then I was wrong about this Company…and I will have no further part in it."
Bells, Sparks and Rocks gaped at her flat statement, devoid of inflection, weighted with despair. She turned and pushed through them, headed back out into the rain without cloak or hood. Hanasian shot a pleading glance at Farbarad and the Ranger hurried after her, grabbing the nearest medic and dragging him with him. Hanasian drew a deep breath and steered the meeting back onto course as the two men trudged after Rin.
"I need something to knock her out. She can't continue like this," Farbarad said plainly and Rocks nodded.
"I know just the thing," he replied, the very thing Rin had been using on the various survivors in mind, a refinement of Molguv's Special Reserve.
It was not the only thing in the medic's mind and his thoughts jarred, clashing with each other. They caught up with her down at site, where a small number of injured people had gathered under the canvas rigged up over the medical area. She was so exhausted that her reactions were already lagging. Farbarad placed two gentle yet firm hands on each of her shoulders and resolutely turned her about. Rocks pressed the soaked scrap of bandage over her nose and face. It was a simple thing, easily done. Her eyelids dragged down over her betrayed expression and Rocks' thoughts cleared into a single realisation. He couldn't do it. He just couldn't do it. Silver Fox hadn't paid him yet. Yes, he was giving up a veritable prince's ransom, but he couldn't. As the last remaining tension fled Rin's body and she sprawled against Farbarad, whose expression was achingly sorrowful, Rocks felt a great weight lift from his shoulders.
Rosmarin was sound asleep in their tent and Hanasian thanked both Farbarad and Rocks for all they had done. She would be asleep for some time, so Hanasian sat by her side and updated his annals. It pained him, but he made note of Runner and Loch as 'missing and presumed dead'. It would be their status until hard evidence proved otherwise. Other men of the Company had gone missing and were written off as dead the same way with even less proof, because there was just nothing to find. Hanasian referred back to the List of Names and read through them. All had been accounted there, and even those who served the least of time were remembered. Caras, a young Gondorian who joined as they rode out of Minas Tirith toward Rhun the first time to battle the warlord Khurg had burned to ashes in the ambush of fiery spears. There was nothing to find but his belt buckle days later. Or Faradas and Ergono who went out on a scouting patrol when they were in Khand. Neither were ever seen or heard from again. They disappeared withut a trace. Back in the war in the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Malach was so badly hacked up and trampled, the only thing recognizable was the hood and the mangled brooch of his grey cloak. Hanasian thought about them all and could see each of their faces, laughing, yelling, arguing, thinking… he reached over and played with a curl of Rin's hair and sighed. Sometimes you want to believe they are alive, but the pragmatic side of your thinking says they are dead. Runner was a good lad. He practically worshipped the ground we Company men stepped on. Loch… a wild and free spirit, who embraced too well all that the Company was about.
Hanasian didn't want to, but it was in the best interest of the Company. Rosmarin was relieved of her role as Company physician. Temporary mind you, but definitely now. The loss of her brother and the stresses of the life in the Company has taken their toll on the Queen of Cardolan. Two Bells, being most capable, will have to fill in. Rocks will back up, and a couple of the Easterlings seemed to have taken interest in the healing arts, which was something not widely considered in the Easterling armies. Perhaps he could get Rin into teaching some of them a bit of her healing arts? The Company cannot have too many medics and it looked like the Easterlings would be a major part of it from now on. Maybe in a few days she would be more acceptable of this?
Hanasian decided to give the Company some down time if they wished it. Many took it upon themselves to conduct the clean-up around the palace while the locals, many of the Easterling legion, and Khor's men helped elsewhere in the coastal town. The Gondorian legion took up the outpost guard with some of Khirue's men. There had been raids on some of them and a few were killed. There seemed to be none of the raiders killed. It was the renegade Order squad. They would have to move on them, and soon. Mulgov and Khirue organized some raiding parties of their own, and sent them out at night in search of the renegades. They proved elusive, but a few had been killed.
Meanwhile, those who were in the town worked to had painstakingly remove the rubble of the palace stone by stone. Runner's squad of swift messengers were there doing their part, and the old crew got into the digging. It was likely more to do with them wanting to find their comrades and always holding an ever dimming flame of hope that they would find them alive in some wine cellar enclave. But alas, it was becoming evident that this hope was futile. A knife hilt with burned marks on it where the blade was had been recovered, and Wulgof identified it as Loch's. A warped belt buckle was identified as Runner's, along with small pieces of cloaks from them both. The finding of Runner's homemade Company patch, and Loch's right boot in the debris of the palace largely confirmed it for Hanasian's records if not in the minds of the rest of the Company.
After two days, all that could be found there had been. The remains of bodies found were identified as men of the Order, and blasted fragments of flesh and red silk were rightly identified as that of the witch. An aftershock bounced the land and it was fortunate the search through the palace rubble had concluded. For it had caused the collapse of a few weakened and damaged buildings around the town, and Dhak seemed very pleased that the building housing the captured order had fell in on them. Nobody was in a hurry to see if there were any survivors under that wreckage.
On the morning of the third day, Hanasian announced that Runner and Loch were listed as missing and presumed dead, and they would be holding the Company service for their missing comrades. It wasn't an absolute acknowledgment of death, but it may have well been. It would be a wake of memory, and there would be much to remember.
Little had been seen of Rin by Hanasian's design since the events of the last Company meeting. Only those few who he permitted into the tent had set eyes on her. Farbarad, Mecarnil and Videgavia all were stricken by what they saw. Pale, silent, all too still aside from the recovered dagger hilt that she turned over and over in her hands. No matter how many blankets, no matter the amount of wood stuffed in the brazier that Farbarad had found, she shivered. She ate, barely, when told to. She slept poorly, driven mercilessly by dark nightmares of distant events.
Round and round the dagger hilt turned. How he had brandished them in Mithlond, chuckling with delight. A matched set, elvish make, that he swept about in absurd, grandiose flourishes like a rank amateur. Which he was not and it had made her laugh until her sides ached. That late afternoon memory, on the decks of the ship that took them to Pelargir and their first Company deployment, now seemed so very remote. The dagger hilt spun again and then, a gentle yet strong hand wrapped around hers. His touch was so warm, so vital.
"Are you sure, beloved?" Hanasian asked her, crouching over his heels in front of her and studying her anxiously.
She nodded at him but Hanasian was not in the least convinced she was up to this. She was wan, and her dark garb only further underscored it. All the spark, all her brightness had been snuffed out of her. The delicate structure of her face struck him as fragile, her eyes too large. She had lost weight and he was reminded powerfully of their first encounter. She looked more forlorn and stricken now than she had then and once again he found himself tempted to forbid it. Yet he could not bear to deny her this. His wife had lost every member of her immediate family to deaths that were too soon and far too violent. She had never had the chance to farewell any of them, until now. He did not think she would forgive him, no matter his motivations, if he prevented her farewelling her brother.
"Very well," he said softly, and pressed his lips to her brow.
He drew the hood up over her head and slowly they emerged into the dusk. It was a clear, bitterly cold, night. Torches flickered in a stiff wind that came from the inland sea down at the collapsed palace. The light danced over those who had gathered. The stars had begun to reveal themselves, one by one, and the moon seemed over large. Slowly, down the slope they went, followed by Mecarnil and Farbarad.
The crowd was surprisingly large. The Company was there, of course. Khor and a great many of his men where there, as were the Easterlings Khule had unofficially recruited. A great many of the townsfolk gathered as well, for many considered that the two men were responsible for freeing their town of an entirely unwanted and sinister presence. What surprised Hanasian most, however, was the presence of so many of Dhak's men. They stood as solemn faced and respectful as all of the others. For Rin, the faces largely blurred. So many of them, all around, none of them Loch. Every time she saw a Black Company uniform she found herself looking for her brother. Her mind had taken to deceiving her cruelly.
Runner's squad clustered on the shore. A small boat had been found and filled with candles and keepsakes. It was their custom to release their fallen upon the sea, to be taken to the sacred isle at its heart. A great many voices urged Runner's spirit to the protection of that isle. When the chanting was completed, the line was released. It slapped into the water and the greedy tide ensured that the little vessel bobbed away from shore. A silence fell over those assembled as they watched the glittering candles, protected from the wind by the gunnels of the boat, drift out over the waters of the vast inland sea.
But it was not yet done and Rin had started to shake hard. Still she managed the first step towards the pile of rubble. Hanasian made sure that she reached it and she sank to her knees before the stones to set her hand upon them. He heard her suck in a breath and then placed her other hand upon the tumbled stones. Her head bowed between her outstretched arms. Brother…are you cold? Was it fast? Did you suffer? Did it happen before you knew of it or did you lie here, listening to us look for you, death devouring you slowly, piece by piece, hour by hour? Have I failed you? Did you know I looked for you? So many of us searched? Did you think I abandoned you? The stone she touched held no answers, no memories. Slowly she raised her head and the hood slipped back to reveal the gleam of her hair under torchlight. She did not know if she could muster the strength to do what was needed but she knew that he would try for her. Rin drew a deep breath into her trembling body, lifted her head and began.
Never before had anyone gathered there heard Rin sing, not even her husband. The lament was a reflection of the land and people it sprang from and Wulgof sucked in a breath at hearing his people's dirge. It was fair, wild, fierce and perilous. Wulgof joined his voice to hers once he found it and together they wove the two verses as custom required. He sung of the strength and loyalty that all Dunlanders were expected to epitomise. She sang of the hearth and home that all Dunlanders were expected to protect as ferociously as required. The third verse, however, Wulgof did not take up. It did not belong to him. It was not right for him to sing. There was only one to whom it belonged and the fact that she sang alone, where there should have been many, made it all the harder for him to bear.
There was no shame in grief and Loch had touched many lives in his brief time with the Company. His generosity, his good cheer, his steadfast loyalty and his rascal's smile had left their mark. Once the lament was ended, there was a period of protracted silence. Then, either alone or in small groups, people began to drift away. Hanasian knew the way of his Company. Up at the camp, there would be people talking long into the night, sharing memories. Rin slowly rose to her feet again, hand lingering on the stone as if loath to surrender contact. Her fingers traced the grain of the stone, badly damaged by the forces that had held forth here. A gust of wind tugged at her cloak and dark skirts and sent her hair flying. She seemed lost somewhere else entirely. Recalling the barrows on the northern downs and fearing what these stones might reveal to her, Hanasian stepped forward to pull her hood back into place.
His fingers grazed her cheek as he did so and she took in a breath and turned to face him. Rin stared intently at him and he had the impression that she was seeing him for the first time in days. Her eyes roamed his face, searching for what he knew not. Then she spoke his name. It was like she was waking from a dream, a dark dream. He traced the fine line of her jaw softly and her eyes drifted shut.
"It is done, beloved," he told her and took up her arm again to return to the camp above.
Wulgof squinted against the morning sun, his head pounding more than it ought to. It had been a late night spent with Molguv, Khule and the others. He shaded his eyes with one hand. His other hand fidgeted with an envelope. It was thick, crinkled and grubby from being crammed into a soldier's pack. Wulgof looked back to where the others stood and saw them shoo him on. It was time, they said. He didn't argue with them over that. However, given his last encounter with the letter's recipient, he was not in the least convinced he should be the one to give it to her. Molguv and Khule outvoted him on that. He heaved a sigh and trudged the rest of the way.
Hanasian had decided to make the most of the bright winter day. He had scared up a table from somewhere and some mismatched chairs. He had installed Rin in one and then headed off to check in with Khor, Dhak and the men that guarded the Order. Rin had a book open that she wasn't paying any attention to. Instead, she was staring at the ruffled surface of the sea, lost in her thoughts. The funeral garb of the previous evening was gone. In its place she wore her battered leather breeches, a thigh length tunic with a frayed hem and her badly abused leather jacket open over it. Her boots were unlaced and her hair was only loosely braided and had started to come free. A beggar princess, Wulgof thought, surprising himself with the poetic concept. When Wulgof's shadow fell across the table, she drew in a deep breath and blinked to refocus those remarkable eyes of hers on his face. The Dunlender felt his gut tighten.
"I'm not here to argue or give you a hard time," he said as hesitancy entered her expression.
She lifted a pale brow at that and she said, "Not even if I deserved it?"
Wulgof found he couldn't really answer that and her eyes dropped away from his face and back to the sea. He sat down at a spare chair and wondered how he was going to do this.
"If you're here to see me in any official capacity, I must advise you to seek out one of the others. I have been stood down indefinitely," she said.
"Look…your brother asked me to give you this if anything should…happen…"
Wulgof pushed the tattered envelope towards her across the table and she stared at it like he had brandished a poisoned dagger in her face.
"Rin…I hope this isn't out of line…but me and the others just wanted to say that we're sorry…and…well you're Black too whether you quit or not. We do right by our own. Not that the Cap don't do right by you or nothin'…" Wulgof's voice trailed off and he found himself wishing that Khule had done this instead of him.
She continued to stare at the envelope and so Wulgof stood and left her to her privacy. She swallowed hard and reached for the envelope. Her fingers only shook a little as she folded out the paper inside.
If you are reading this then I am dead and I just want to say that I'm sorry. I didn't do it on purpose. I really do listen to you when you tell me to be careful. Please, don't be mad with me-"
Rin jerked her eyes away and back to the sea below. Her heart pounded in her ears. Paper crumpled in her grasp. She closed her eyes and focussed on her breathing. It was shallow and unsteady and her head was starting to spin. Only when she felt she had a grasp on herself did she recommence reading Loch's letter. His cramped handwriting made her heart ache. So many arguments back and forth about why it was important to learn how to read and write. He had forced a whole page out, a significant effort for her brother. She could hear his voice in her head as she read and she steeled herself to push on. As she read, the warmth the sun had left in her blood faded.
She folded the paper up again and placed it back into the envelope. Her heart was pounding again but this time it was anger that propelled it. As chance would have it, Rocks ambled down the slope towards the town right at that moment. Her eyes tracked his progress as her mind tried to come to grips with this information. The question was: what, if anything, to do with it? And, when? Her answers came willingly. Enough was enough. She was sick of being hunted. Sick of running and hiding. Sick of watching the treachery of others cut down those she loved the most. Rin slowly stood and set off down the slope. Enough. Was. Enough.
"Company meeting mid afternoon, remember?" called Farbarad after her and she lifted a hand in acknowledgement without pausing.
Hanasian watched the Company arrive for the meeting. His wife arrived late, her expression taut. She was walking very closely behind Rocks. Rocks peeled off to sit with the other medics, seeming unusually rattled. Rin stood with Farbarad and Mecarnil off to one side. She met Hanasian's eyes a moment and he realised then that she was icily angry. She turned slightly and murmured something in Mecarnil's ear that made the man go utterly still. She placed a hand on his forearm to stop him from drawing his sword and spoke again. He shook his head, clearly disagreeing and her expression became colder still as she spoke a third time. His arm relaxed and she turned next to Farbarad and whispered to him. Farbarad's spine stiffened and his head whipped about to stare at her. The pulse in his temple started to throb. She spoke on, the skin around Farbarad's eyes tightened and he nodded once. He pushed Rin firmly behind Mecarnil, whispered something to his colleague and swiftly departed. Mecarnil set a flat stare directly on Rocks.
Farbarad materialised again, this time directly behind Rocks, was not lost on Hanasian or the medic. As much as Hanasian desperately wanted to know what was happening, the rest of the Company had arrived and it was time to attempt this meeting once again.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.