33. Chapter 33
The trio of the old Company had let Rocks know in no uncertain terms. Some things are just dealt with. The Company seemed to do that on those occasions that it is needed. Hanasian didn't want to know about it, but Hanasian had also felt his leadership and his ability to lead this fast-changing and wide-ranging legion of men had come into question. His marriage to the queen of Cardolan and his need to exercise his duty as Company commander was a hard thing to balance. Rosmarin's presence added further difficulty no husband easily dealt with. Hanasian did not know of any man who would ever be comfortable with the dangers his wife faced in the course of her duties. Rosmarin did not withhold herself either, did not expect to be sheltered or protected. She seemed to throw herself into what could only be described as harm's way in her service to his Company. She was not just another soldier, not to him and not to the two Rangers sworn anew to Cardolan. They were circumspect about their concerns but he knew they ill-liked the situation and he could not blame them. They had sworn to protect a woman in an impossible situation and they would answer to censure from the highest levels if they failed. She did not make it any easier. In his heart and mind, Hanasian knew what he had to do for himself, for Rin, and for the Company.
He awoke from the uneasy sleep he had found himself in. Rin slept soundly beside him, her breathing coming in long deep breaths. Where her thoughts and dreams lay this night Hanasian had no idea, but he was relieved to see she rested. He played with the locks of her hair that had fallen across her cheek, and after winding them around his fingers for a while he set them back into place again. She was beautiful and the love of his life. If that compromised his decisions in any way, it was because he could not help it. But should that compromise cost just one life or many of his Company, he could not live with that. No, the Company needed someone who could lead without burden. Still, the Company was his, and this day dawning was the day they expected King Aragorn to arrive.
Hanasian let Rin sleep, as he readied himself. Before going out to see to call the Company to arms, he woke Rin.
"Wake up my love and ready yourself. The Company is being called to arms. Parade grounds in an hour."
He gave her a kiss and left the tent. With the first of the Runners, an honorary title given to the remaining men of the messenger and scouting squad that Runner had gathered, Hanasian sent word to all the commanders in the area. It was made clear that everyone should wear their best. Within the hour, Hanasian and the Company stood ready. Rin was dressed in her battle leathers, the only uniform presentable enough left to her, at his side as Aragorn and Eomer made their final approach. It was a welcome any field Company would have been proud to give.
With the battles in the north done, Aragorn sought to reconcile Rhun under it's own rule. He wished to avoid the need to leave an occupying force, but the only way this could be done effectively was if all the clans come together. This appeared to have occurred rather easily, for the word of otherworlders landing on the eastern shore of the great Eastern Sea had spread and made the Easterlings tense. Only the most stubborn would not see an advantage with an alliance with Gondor. The leaders of the clans answered the call to join the Kings of Gondor and Rohan in the east, in the town of Skhar where the Black Company was positioned. They travelled the road east swiftly for the winter was nigh. Aragorn wanted to see for himself the origin of the disturbance and would not be swayed to delay the trek until spring. The weather was chill and wet, with a steady drizzle falling nearly all the way. So it was until they descended from the highlands toward the city. The skies remained was grey and threatening, but it was dry.
The Company had prepared tents for some of the men, and space for the tents of the kings and their men were readied in the fields near the town. Aragorn approached slowly and studied the sea and its horizon. The obscuring of his vision east came to an end with the great shift of the ground. He was surprised to find things so well in order here, but he knew why that was. He had the Company to thank for that. They had handled matters as they encountered them and had even turned Khor aside. He and Eomer dismounted before Hanasian and Rin, the Company standard snapping in the breeze, black and silver against a grey sky. Both men bowed formally before Hanasian greeted them.
"It is good you have come m'Lords. There is much to discuss and settle, and I believe we have much to reveal to the other."
Aragorn nodded as he embraced Hanasian, said, "Much changed since we saw each other just a few short months ago. A new threat had come unlooked for, and unseen, yet not un-felt. I will be very much interested in knowing of that, and how you dealt with it."
Hanasian sighed, "I think it would be wise if you and I met privately before we all gather."
"There will be time. It will be at least two days before the clan chiefs I have summonsed arrive," Aragorn said, "I will need to talk with your man Khule, and also Khor, for I understand he is here?"
"He is." Hanasian replied as he scratched his cheek, "I have found him quite amicable and have given him some autonomy in administering his territory here."
Aragorn frowned in thought, then asked, "Do you think that was wise? He was likely active in planning rebellion."
"There is more to it than that…" Hanasian answered, "There is much to discuss, and now is as good a time as any, for it will be some time before your tent is raised. Come, let us walk."
The two walked slowly about, with the King's Guardsmen not far behind, and was Rin left to deal with the king of Rohan and no immediate option of escape. Hanasian explained that Khor had quite a number of men under his command with able commanders. Even with the Company expanded by the Gondor recruitment and Khule's Easterling intake, their losses in battle had their number around one hundred. It would have been unfeasible to challenge Khor in battle without known reserves. He spoke also of the mariners from across the sea who had taken over this city due to its usable port, and though Khor accepted them at first, he did not like their demeanor. It was apparent now that they were beset with their own political differences. While Dhak wished to pursue an alliance, others appeared to want subjugation. Talk about Dhak and the mariners led Hanasian to explain the events as he knew them, and that Loch and Runner remain missing after the collapse of the palace. Aragorn was sure there was no direct intervention by the Valar, but it seemed the events progressed faster and in a way that none had anticipated. Hanasian took Aragorn to meet with Dhak, and to see the girl they had saved from the palace ruin. Afterward, they both walked to the ruins of where the Order had died, and then to the quay to see the two ships.
Aragorn stared long at the ship,"The art of Numenor is in those timbers yet they are foreign. It will be well to know from where they came, but it is well beyond my reach to go there. Would it be within the Company's grasp to find out?"
Hanasian answered solemnly, "It may well be in the Company's grasp, but it is not in mine. To ask us to leave these lands may be a tall order for many. Yet there may be some who would answer such a call. I know Loch, our lost apprentice standardbearer would sign on if he were here. He was in a natural element when he was aboard ship sailing south. I think a hardy crew of seafarers will be required to man these ships and we have few such amongst us."
He paused and looked about and they started to walk back before he continued, "I intend to resign my commission in the Company."
Aragorn didn't seem surprised by Hanasian's statement, "It's a hard thing to do, to have your wife with you in harm's way. In truth I expected this day to come when you returned from Ithilien last."
Hanasian said, "Well, it isn't just that, though that has dominated my thoughts. There are still desperate people who wish to kill Rin, and there are severe dangers in being a healer on the front lines. Sometimes in her independent thought, she is reckless. I find myself second-guessing decisions I know to be right, for the fear of harm that might come to her. But it is not only that. The veterans amongst us are aged, and even I feel the years. The younger recruits have a fire and a will of adventure, but they lack the battle experience. Those who survive their first and second battles usually will do well enough, but I don't feel I could lead them."
Aragorn nodded as they walked, aware of what Hanasian wasn't saying. He could not watch the next generation die around him in this Company. The king's thoughts ran deep for a while before he spoke again.
"What is the state of your Company? Who would you have succeed you as Captain?"
Hanasian was silent for a few steps as he formed his response, "Well, Videgavia would do it and do well, but he is not much younger than the veterans. The twins from Rohan, Wulgof, Mulgov, all are aged and some would not do well with leadership. Khule could do it, as could Mecarnil, but he will resign to stay close to Rin, as will Farbarad. I think the best and steadiest of the younger men would be Berlas. Give Vid the captaincy and make Berlas his second. That would be my choice."
Aragorn agreed, "I could see that. But I will have to ponder the future with all that I have heard here. I see my tent is set. I think I will retire for a few hours and rest and think."
"As will I." Hanasian said and they clasped hands as they had of old, allies, friends, men of the North.
Aragorn said in parting, "These are interesting times, for the last of the old warlords have gone and peace may be at hand. Much will change before this week is passed."
Hanasian nodded, "We will speak further this evening over dinner. The Company will gather, as will the Easterling commanders. There is much to be done."
With that they parted. Hanasian walked back to his tent and found Rin sheltering inside. He silently took her into his arms and kissed her.
The day had been an eventful one. She had known that Hanasian would resign but she had not expected it to be now. Though it made sense, it still caught her by surprise. So too had the fact that she had been left to entertain the King of Rohan. Eomer made her distinctly uncomfortable and the reason for that reminded her painfully of Loch. Now evening approached and there was to be a dinner. It was some kind of formal event, with nobles and officers and the sort. Really, she would rather just remain in the tent, where Hanasian had found her hiding from Eomer upon his return from his meeting with Aragorn.
"Is Aragorn upset?" she asked warily as Hanasian moved about the tent in preparations.
He shook his head, picked up one of his boots and began polishing it.
"No. Why would you think that?"
"Well…isn't it my fault?"
Hanasian head lifted and he considered her where she sat, cross legged on their camp bed. A number of possible responses ran through his head.
"Captains do not remain Captains their whole lives, if they are fortunate enough to live them out. There is no one to blame. Change in command is inevitable, indeed a healthy thing."
Rin nodded but appeared unconvinced all the same. She dropped her eyes away and considered the dagger hilt beside her. She spun Loch's hilt less and less with each passing day, he had noted. Rin was fighting against grief and despair and was slowly winning ground, but she was still not wholly herself.
"Out with it," Hanasian prompted and her eyes lifted to his, mouth already open to protest her innocence.
She reconsidered when he cocked a brow at her and sighed, "None of this would be happening if I hadn't signed on…if our paths hadn't crossed. You wouldn't have these concerns to worry about. You'd still be Captain…and now Aragorn has lost one of his most experienced commanders in the field."
Hanasian was still a moment and then, with deliberate care, set down boot and the rag he was using to polish it with.
"Did you just ask me if I wished we had never met?" he inquired, voice deceptively mild.
Rin flushed under his scrutiny but her resolve firmed and she challenged back, "You're being evasive and that means you know I am right. I'm onto something!"
"A fast horse to madness, woman, and that is no mistake. I thought we agreed on this. Do you expect me to believe that this," his hand swept the interior of the tent, "Is what you want for the rest of your days? If so, you certainly have an odd way of telling a man. Most career soldiers base their accomplishments on following orders."
"I do follow them, mostly, and you want people to think for themselves! And I am most certainly NOT a soldier!"
"Mostly," Hanasian teased and he saw the foundations of a genuine smile there in her face for the moment.
He picked up his boot and rag and resumed polishing, "I know what you're up to in any case and the answer is no."
"No to what, precisely?"
"No, you cannot hide the night away in this tent."
"I'll find another tent."
"I'll pull them all down. You're going. That is an end to it."
"I have work to do," Rin grumbled and pushed out of the tent.
Hanasian shook his head. He distinctly remembered standing her down from her duties. So much for mostly following orders. Or was this her version of thinking for herself?
"And I have nothing to wear," she called from outside and that, he realised, was true.
Hanasian was nothing if not a resourceful man and Rin was prepared to admit that she liked what he had sourced through Donius, only not outwardly because she was still nonplussed about the dinner. Hanasian could tell, however, from the way she studied the clothing she wore. She played with the tunic that skimmed narrowly down to mid calf. It was local garb and so was slit to her hips in the manner of women's clothing here. The hues were that of the coast, muted blues and greys that suited her fair colouring well.
Muted grey pants were so full underneath as to appear as a skirt. A creamy long sleeved shirt under the tunic. The fabric was warm, soft finely milled wool and heavy cotton that had a faint sheen to it. There were no draped, billowing sleeves or skirts, velvets or silks. There was no stitching or stones. As much as he enjoyed her in such things, this had an exotic and unmistakeably feminine appeal that he also enjoyed. While Hanasian's thoughts wandered down enticing paths, Rin bent and reached for her sword belt and Hanasian shook himself back to their tent.
"Put that down."
"I mean it. Donius has gone to considerable effort."
"This is more than simply finding you something presentable aware, a common enough occurrence for I have never met a woman as hard on her clothing as you. This is about the local commanders meeting with Aragorn and Eomer."
"Really?" she retorted sceptically and shook the sword belt she had yet to release in his general direction, buckles jingling, "Because this does not look like a meeting or an Easterling. And, by the by, I was not in the least responsible for what became of my last tunic, if you care to remember."
Hanasian remembered well indeed, had been remembering all afternoon as he had polished his boots with rags made from its remnants. But, her ploy to distract him, while artful was not going to work. Vixen.
"How many local women have you seen sporting weapons, even simple belt knives here? Not only that, what have you to defend yourself from? Or is that those also attending cannot be trusted to protect you? That is how such things are viewed here, my love. "
Rin sighed in defeat and dropped the belt onto their bed, "Fine…Anyway it would look odd with these impractical slippers. I can't even run in them for fear they will come right off."
"That," Hanasian murmured as he straightened his formal uniform, "Is general idea."
Despite Hanasian's assurances and the fact that he cut a truly delightful figure in his uniform, Rin was not convinced that the evening would go well. Aragorn's warm greeting only served to deepen her unease. Eomer was there again, and just as determined to strike up some sort of cordial rapport as he had been the other two times their paths had crossed. They took their seats at the table reserved for nobles and officers and the conversation was polite around her.
"Hanasian reports that your men have acquitted themselves well, Commander Khor. Indeed, he credits the general state here in no small part to you,"Aragorn said as he smoothly plied the currents that ran under the surface.
Khor glanced with some surprise at Hanasian and then his sardonic smile emerged, "Only fitting, really, that we assist to remedy the mess made here."
"Do any of this Order remain still at large?" Eomer asked.
"No. Only two survived the initial earthquake and our subsequent engagements. One appears to be an officer. Both are under guard."
"Neither will capitulate," Dhak added to Khor's account.
"And yet you did," Aragorn pressed and Rin shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
She stared at the food before her. Loch would be scandalised by her lack of appetite. 'Insects, Rin. We've been so hungry we ate insects once and that, right there, is lamb…or least, I think it is.' She prodded at it with her fork but couldn't muster herself to eat it. She knew that it had been a mistake to take that oath from Dhak. She'd not only made a mess of things for Hanasian, she had started on Aragorn's court. Rin sighed, because this was entirely the point she had made to Mecarnil at the outset. She was not qualified for this sort of thing. She knew not a thing about it. She was a damn good thief, an even better healer. Give her a terrible disease, a broken body to mend, or somewhere to get in or out of that she wasn't supposed to. The rest belonged with others who knew their business.
Dhak meanwhile smiled gallantly at the only woman at the table, "Surely it is no surprise."
Aragorn inclined his head and Hanasian squeezed Rin's hand under the table.
"Indeed not. In this it was fortuitous that someone of sufficient rank, and charm, was present with the Black," Aragorn stated and glanced at his cousin. "It was astutely done. The oath will be honoured."
"Is it common practice now for the West to embed highly ranked nobles in such Companies?" Khor inquired.
"Absolutely not," Aragorn said and Eomer agreed.
"I understand there has been some debate over it in Minas Tirith," Eomer continued.
"It's none of their business! What I do, where I go, how I occupy my time is solely my concern!" Rin stated and Aragorn held up a hand to placate her.
"M'lady," he began and she expelled a sharp gust of distaste that made Khor's, Dhak's and Eomer's mouths twitch with amusement, "They are naturally concerned for the safety of any heir, no matter how distant, to the high throne. Especially one that has been missing for so very long and discovered in such spectacular circumstances. There is nothing for you to be concerned with. The matter is well and truly in hand."
"Oh…come now Aragorn. You cannot suggest that your court does not want her precisely where they can keep an watchful eye on her?" Eomer added mischievously.
"I think, in this instance, I will be generous and permit the Lady Rosmarin to first grace your court, Eomer," Aragorn said dryly and Eomer's laughter boomed out through the gathered men and women.
"Done! Now you shall have to come visit, by merit of Royal Decree," Eomer said victoriously and twisted to where Gram stood quietly listening, "And we shall truly see if this maid with hair as gold as Meduseld's eaves cannot manage our rowdy marshals."
"When next I seek my sister, we shall be sure to take up your invitation, m'lord," Hanasian said firmly before Rin could dig herself any deeper.
"How wonderful," Rin muttered, stabbed at the lamb on her plate and felt a pang at how much she missed the grin that Loch would have plastered all over his face right now.
Once the evening meal was done, Aragorn moved to discuss more broadly the many matters that had drawn him here. He spoke of the need for Rhun to know peace and stability and his hopes that it could be delivered by a hand other than his own and without a sword. He praised the bravery, skill and accomplishments of the Black Company and Khor's men in resecuring this port. He welcomed Dhak and his adherents and spoke of his hopes for renewing the bond between peoples long sundered. He spoke of the danger posed by the Order to the freedom of all. Hanasian knew the king was sowing seeds.
"How would you deal with those who seek to throw us under their yoke?" asked a voice from the crowd, and Hanasian thought he recognised Wulgof's voice.
"Deny them…but I would not sit here and merely wait. If they can come to land here, then it is not beyond them to put a hostile naval fleet off the coast of Gondor itself. They have proven able to defeat even the palantir."
There was murmuring amongst those listening until a voice spoke out, "It's obvious what we have to do."
"The Company has reached a fork in its road and the paths it might follow are many. They cannot be decided now. Before you can do that, you must know who would lead you."
"That we already know, Sire, and a fine job he has been doing of it too! Hanasian will lead us," called out a voice towards the back but the more experienced men were not in the least certain.
It was an open secret amongst the inner core of the Company that Hanasian had other concerns that would surely take precedence over the Black. In any case, he had a life to shape with his wife and one that he surely deserved begin before the years slipped further away from him. They were aware of just how much their Captain had given of himself, first in the war as a younger Ranger and thereafter in the formation and leadership of the Black. The older hands, those who knew this and who just how dearly he loved his wife, were not in the least surprised at what followed.
"Brothers and sisters of the Black, and those who have fought by our sides, the time has come for me to step aside and to let this Company continue to flourish beyond my limitations."
Molguv and Bear called for quiet amongst the more recent recruits and Foldine asked the necessary to reach what appeared to him to be a mostly forgone conclusion.
"Who will lead us?"
"Hanasian has endorsed and I have approved Videgavia for the captaincy," Aragorn replied and Videgavia nodded at the reaction because that surprised not even the newcomers.
"And, to assure the secession of strong leadership within a Company that is essential to the stability and interests of the Reunited Realms, Berlas of Ithilien has been promoted to second in command."
Not everyone was surprised, but Berlas certainly was. Videgavia found it hard not to laugh outright at the expression on the other man's face.
"Let us all pause, and consider all that Captain Hanasian has achieved for the Black, for the realm, for each of us here. It is for good reason his name stands large amongst the many worthy men who have served us."
There was silence, and then a rousing cheer of approval and gratitude as a toast was made. Another followed it for Videgavia, and then for a bewildered Berlas and then for Khor's men and then for Dhak's men and, last of all, for all those that had fallen along the way.
When the tankards were lowered, Aragorn turned to where Rin quietly sat by Hanasian's side. Her hands were wrapped around her tankard and her expression was sorrowful no matter how she attempted to hide it. Aragorn knew that that fires most siblings never faced had forged the bond between Rin and Loch. Hanasian himself reported that she had witnessed his violent, untimely death. It was not the first time she had been confronted with such catastrophes and she endured with the steely determination that must surely be thickly woven through the cloth of her spirit.
"I was grieved to learn of Lochared's untimely death. From all reports, he served with unstinting loyalty and valour the Black, Cardolan and the Reunited Realm. I am sorry I did not know more of him."
All Rin could manage to do was nod and Aragorn pressed on, "One of the many customs our respective peoples shared was the recognition of those who served with particular distinction."
"The Companion of the Rose," Rin said quietly, glancing up and surprised Aragorn.
"Yes, as it was in Cardolan. In Arnor it was Companion of the Seven Stars. It seems to me that your brother surely merits such recognition."
"Indeed," Hanasian replied and watched Mecarnil and Farbarad nod emphatically.
"With your consent, I would confer both titles upon Lochared. While it cannot restore him to you, it would ensure his contributions are duly recognised,"Aragorn said.
Hanasian squeezed the hand he still held and Rin was unable to speak. Her eyes were bright with bittersweet gratitude that was palpable to those who watched. The night passed swiftly as did the day that followed. One by one, clan chiefs arrived until all had gathered. In that time, Aragorn met individually with Hanasian and the others. By the time he had spoken with the Company's outgoing and incoming captains, Khor, Dhak and Khule, his idea was formed.
The next day he and Eomer would meet with the clan chiefs. That night, they sat in his tent and shared a far simpler and quieter meal. He had pulled in Videgavia, Hanasian, Mecarnil, Farbarad and his cousin to join him. The meal passed simply and Aragorn had watched how Rin picked at her food. It seemed odd to him that a woman who ate so little did not look gaunt. She was back in her leathers and keeping her own counsel. At a guess, and he knew healers well enough, she was preoccupied with her work. The others had tamped their pipes and were enjoying them.
"Are you not hungry?" Aragorn pressed her, leaning forward and she shrugged one shoulder.
"She should be. She's barely kept anything down all day," Farbarad said from around his pipe and she sent him a scowl because he was supposed to simply do his job and not spy on her.
"I'm not hungry. Clap me in irons and toss me in jail!" she muttered caustically.
"Very tempting, is it not Hanasian?" Videgavia said mildly and Rin sighed at the unjustice of it all. Men always stuck together.
Aragorn leaned back in his chair and diverted matters away from Rin before she did something reckless, as Hanasian might put it. She shot him a relieved glance when next he spoke
"Hanasian, Videgavia…I desire your opinion on something, your free opinion," Aragorn said.
"Of course," Hanasian answered.
"I have spoken to Khor and his brother. The clan chiefs that assemble tomorrow expect me to announce an occupying force will remain to assure Rhun's stability. I would rather the formation of Rhun's first Free Company, comprised primarily of Easterlings."
"And Khor to lead it?" Hanasian swiftly guessed and Aragorn inclined his head.
"A Free Company is risky…it could be suborned, won over by partisan interests," Videgavia answered.
"I would require an oath that it never take up arms or rebellion against the Reunited Realm."
"Then are they a Free Company at all?" Hanasian asked.
"They are free to act as they see best, provided they comply with the laws of the land and do not engage in rebellion. I know it is dangerous, and that is why I hope to second Khule across to assure its…neutrality towards the West."
"How did Khor put it last night…Rhun cleaning up its own mess? It is a gamble but it could work," Hanasian said and Videgavia nodded reluctantly.
"It would give those who do not want to take ship somewhere to go…no dissolute warriors wandering about with nothing better to do," Videgavia said.
And so the matter was set. All that remained now was to have the clan chiefs agree to it, and after that split the Black Company and then this matter of the conspiracy in Esgaroth. Aragorn wanted to question the agent himself because it was a perilous venture that his cousin proposed. Perilous and possibly reckless. She was not nearly as careful with herself that anyone would like and of course, the same could be said of him, Aragorn mused. But that, naturally, was entirely different.
The incessant rain did nothing to dampen the talks amongst the clan leaders of Rhun and the High Kings of the West. The days stretched into weeks and the chill kept the fires burning throughout the camp. Yhe political aspects for the most part left Hanasian to his own devices for Rosmarin would at times choose to go and sit with Kings Aragorn and Eomer during the talks. Hanasian had other concerns. Splitting the Vompany was proving a bit harder to manage than first thought. As a whole, it was full of factions based on origin and when they were recruited. The old crew was just that, old, and Hanasian's announcement that he was retiring set many things in motion.
Wulgof who found kegs of black local ale in a cellar of a building reduced to rubble by an aftershock. Mulgov, Donius and Daius, Morcal, Videgavia, Belegost, Folca and Frea, Bear, Foldine, and Berlas all set up their bivouac there. Sometimes Khule, Mecarnil, and Farbarad joined them. Each night they gathered and drank some of the ale in any sort of utensil that would work as a makeshift cup. Th discussion always turned to their collective futures.
The night was particularly cold. Rain that was really drops of melting snow felt like small knives when they hit exposed skin. The makeshift shelter the old crew had built over the cellar was particularly crowded. Everyone was there except for Hanasian and Rosmarin. Dhorgat had been accepted and was the "Kid" now, after Loch, in Wulgof and Mulgov's eyes. Like the before, the talk moved to what they were thinking of doing in light of the Captain's retirement and the future new Company.
Wulgof stated in a fairly loud voice, "Well, it is good the Cap can quit and go off and make a home with Rin. He has that option. Me? I have nothing back in Dunland, so I will be staying with the Company, whatever that means."
"Me too," agreed Mulgov and a tin cup clashed with a flat pan, splashing ale around and they downed their ale.
Folca said, "Well, I'm getting too old for this soldiering. As much as I hate the smell of horse dung, I'm thinking Westfold would be good to see again."
His brother Frea didn't say anything but nodded in agreement as he rubbed his shoulder and moved it around to work out the stiffness the damp cold had caused.
Videgavia then said, "Well, I'm committed to the Company no matter. And if a blade or arrow or a bolt of lightning doesn't take me down, I'll be here. From what I hear, things are going to change quite a bit. But that is only rumor."
"And I will be a part of it as well," Berlas said, stood and lifted his clay pot of ale.
Belegost agreed with a hearty assent and lifted his proper mug. It looked quite out of sorts. The brothers Donius and Daius also concurred.
Bear shook his head and said, "I haven't been right since Tharbad. As much as I love this, I don't have the fire, or even the strength to push onward unless the captain asked me to. I think I will take the option to go home if it is offered."
Mecarnil said, "I will go with Rosmarin."
Farbarad stood and said, "As will I!"
There was silence after everyone took a drink and all eyes turned to Khule. The man had been very quiet. He looked up and realized they all were waiting for him. He just shrugged and went back to looking at the floor.
Dhorgat saw the opportunity and said, "I will go with Company, I Company man! And the Runners will all go too."
He too looked at Khule and finally the man stood and spoke, unable to ignore his painfully young eyes.
"You all don't get it do you'? This is it. Here in Rhun, the Company ends. The man who started it is giving it up. And the rest of us are going this way or that way. But there is more to it. We have here two fair armies of Easterlings, one of which is Company and seems to grow with new recruits from the rebellion campaign each day, a fair if small company of Gondorian recruits we picked up before heading here, and us old crew. Now I'm Company all the way, but I am being asked to make other considerations."
A voice in the dark said, "And it will be good to know what it is you all are considering."
Heads turned to the opening that was covered by canvass to help keep the heat of the fire in and the cold wind and freezing rain out. Hanasian pushed it aside and stepped in.
Vid jumped up and asked, "How long have you been out there?"
"Long enough to know what most of you are thinking about doing. If you drunks would have thought of posting a guard, I wouldn't have been able to gather such information from your banter."
They all looked at each other and eventually their eyes swung to Morcal. He had stepped in to warm himself by the fire for a few minutes when the discussion and drinks had started. He had been pondering his future when Hanasian first spoke.
"Sorry sir, I had been out there for some time, and needed to warm up."
Hanasian nodded and said, "I see that, being you're the only one wet from the rain in here. Dhorgat, you relieve him. Give us warning if anyone approaches."
Dhorgat's chest puffed with pride and he smiled. He wasted no time grabbing his cloak and sword, demonstrating the same tolerance for unpleasant duties most avoided where possible that his namesake, the original "Kid" had. It was a good choice for now Hanasian had all of the old crew there. It was time to tell them about the future of their Company.
He said, "You might want to give me some of that ale."
A wooden bowl was found and some ale was poured and passed to Hanasian. He took a good drink and then set it down as he started to speak.
"After much talk, several things had been agreed upon tonight. Mainly, the future of Rhun and the future of the Black Company. First, Rhun will be a free state with an alliance with Gondor.
"The chiefs are weary of war and fighting, and too many sons have been lost. They hope peace will prevail, but will have an army on call if Gondor calls for aid. Likewise, Gondor will come to the aid if Rhun should outside influences or outright invasion should come from over the sea.
"In this Rohan abstained, but agreed to support Gondor in the east should the need be required. This army will be Khor's army, but Khor will not command it. His second, Khirue will command. Khor has chosen to take a core of his men and will be readying for a voyage.
"Now, about the Company. By order of King Aragorn, the charter has been withdrawn and the Company is disbanded."
A commotion of murmurs and rumblings and gasps was be heard, but Hanasian quietened them again.
Hanasian went on, "Now… listen up … all this means is we are no longer bound by the restrictions placed on us by it. Since change was coming to it anyway, it was best to make other changes now as well.
"Anyone who wishes to go back to whatever lives you may have had or want to make will be paid out. You'll return west with Rin, myself and the Kings.
"For those of you who remain, you will be paid to conduct a mission on behalf of the King of Gondor and the new Legate of Rhun. You will be a Free Company that will abide by the traditions and rules made by the Black Company and, in effect, an extension of the Black. But you will be a Free Company. With the task that is set before you, this is a good thing."
Hanasian drained the ale he had, and went on, "Those of you who wish to go west will put yourself forward tomorrow. Those of you who wish to remain here will venture forth as the Free Company of the West, for where you are going, it will be well east of here."
Hanasian spoke impassively. He was both reluctant to miss the adventure they would encounter, yet relieved he would not be a part of it. The men grumbled and whispered to each other as to what this all meant. Hanasian spoke again when their questions seemed to be forthcoming.
"And it gets better. Dhak and his remaining few will also join, as will Anvikela, the girl pulled from the ruins and healed by Rin. All I can say about your next mission is you will be seeking her homeland.
"What that entails is a mystery to me and everyone else. Yet you know what we have encountered here. All I can say is that it is best to be on the utmost alert, for the unknown will be daunting and from what we know, full of peril."
The men were subdued. With the rest of the night and the keg of ale, each would make their final decision.
Up in the hills above the town, the Gondorian component of the Company was set on watch for the night. There, the rain was a bit more frozen but it wasn't quite snowing. It did manage to soak everything within its icy grip. Huddled around a struggling fire stood Flint, Two Bells, Things, and Sticks. Flint was a master with fire,and did all he could to keep this small one burning. The hissing of the wet wood and falling slush seemed to make as much steam and smoke as it did heat, and they huddled around to discuss matters.
"I knew it would not be just adventure and sightseeing," Flint said as he piled some branches atop the burning embers.
Two Bells, nodded and said, "I have to say I learned quite a bit from Rin. All I did to get noticed is to care enough to help fix a man hurt on training. Now, I think I have found a good calling."
They all managed to stay as warm and dry as they could, aware in their minds that they would be left with a big decision to make come morning.
Morning arrived and the weather remained unchanged from the day before. The only good thing was it warmed somewhat and this made the rain less icy. The Kings and those whose path took them west gathered. And those whose path held them there also gathered. The formal decommissioning of the Black Company took place with little fanfare and Hanasian handed over to King Aragorn the annals of their years. They would be homed in the royal library of Minas Tirith. Once this was done, a new commission for the Free Company was provided.
Those who remained were sworn in and their orders were handed to both Videgavia and Khor. They were to make ready to take ship east to find the lands from where Dhak, Anvikela, and the Order had come. It would prove to be difficult since the way between lands had been severed with the death of the witch and the wizard of old. However, Aragorn remained optimistic that it would be possible after he met with Anvikela. It would take them some months to ready. It was never wise to set sail on the open sea as a northern winter settled over them. Anyone with seafaring or even river boating experience was called to the port.
The Free Company as well as the Gondorian, Rohirrim, and Easterling armies were culled for volunteers. No fewer than a hundred stood waiting when Aragorn's host set out west. This new Free Company would have many new faces, and the half dozen old faces would have to do their best to carry forth the traditions. With the Easterling followers who joined, it would not be too hard, for they knew and even worshipped the Company and their ways. At last the time arrived to set out west and they did so under the cover of winter rain, for it fell on that day as it had most other days. It would be a long journey in the short gray days, and it would be sometime past midwinter when they would arrive in Esgoroth.
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.