35. Chapter 35
As it did most every night in winter, the chill northeast wind blowing across the lake spread a light dusting of snow over Esgaroth New City. The freezing temperatures rarely let its grip loose, unless the low sun found a break in the gray blanket of low clouds and fog during the peak of the day. But even then, it would warm barely enough to melt some of the collected snow into wet gloppy slush and mud that would freeze again in the waning daylight. On the nights after those days, one had to watch for ice under foot and under the fresh snow. But for that moment of the struggling breath of warmth, the days it didn't warm were better.
It was such a chill night, with random stray snowflakes falling steady as Tarina, the serving maid at the Gilded Lantern, walked home from a hard evening of waiting tables. Barely enough snow had come after nightfall to leave tracks in. There was enough to hear the light crunch of footfall. The sound made her feet hurry a little faster towards home. Her last look back to see who may be following revealed a faint shadow in the distance and she turned to run the last block home. But the hidden ice claimed her step and her feet went out from under her. By the time she turned to try and get back to her feet, the shadowed figure stood over her. A hand reached down and helped her up. But he wrapped his arm around her and his other hand pressed over her mouth, silencing any sound she tried to make as she was drawn into the alley and out of sight.
A voice hissed, "Cease struggling girl! You will be safe! I'll let you go but I expect only whispering from you."
Tarina nodded and his hand relaxed. She took a few hurried breaths, each one let out a silvery plume in the chill air, before she whispered, "I expected you days ago!"
"Have you found anything for me?" the man asked.
Tarina found her anger as her breathing began to slow, "You scared me half to death! You could have come to the inn!"
The man wheezed, "No, I could not. I paid you to be my eyes and ears there. So tell me, what do they see and hear?"
Tarina pulled free of the man, straightened herself and said, "These eyes have seen a lot, but these ears have heard very much. There have been some travellers coming into town, most are traders looking for a place to winter. Words are the usual… the price of tea from the south, or of pipeweed from the Shire. Where the inns with the best beer are, and how the roads are much safer now that King Elessar rules."
The man grew impatient and gripped her wrist hard.
"Stop! You're hurting me!" Tarina cried faintly.
She saw the blade the man now wielded, and he pulled her to him, grasping her under her arm and spinning her back against him. The blade rested against the pale skin of her neck.
She wept and gasped out faintly, "Please! I have a father who needs me. Please don't kill me!"
The stench of his breath blowing over her shoulder from behind caused her to wretch, and the movement of her neck as she tried to keep her stomach in check pressed the knife into her skin. A light crimson trickle started to run down her neck and started to stain the collar of her shirt.
He wheezed in her ear, "A coin bought your eyes and a coin bought your ears. They best start seeing and hearing more than the usual common room chatter lest I claim them back for the money I spent. Much is seen and heard in common rooms, usually in the shadowy corners out of the way. Now, I will ask again, what have you seen and heard since I saw you last?"
Tarina sniffled as tears ran down her cheeks. Her voice shook and was breathy with distress, "Please! I will tell you… days after you left…"
The man began to relax his blade from her neck, but he and Tarina heard next was a loud thud. The man fell forward, his weight pushed Tarina to the ground for he was knocked out cold. She looked up into the dark alley above her and a young man who held a log of firewood reached for her, grasped her hand and helped her to her feet for a second time that night. She looked at the dark body sprawled in the snow and then at the man who hit him. The man spoke in heavily-Easterling accented Westron.
"Do you know him? He was hurting you."
Tarina again looked at the man laying in the snow, then said, "No. He paid me a sizable tip some days ago, and thought it should buy him other favours."
The Easterling then said, "I am Kholas! I come look for you to give tip. You served me a good dinner and kept my ale full. I wanted to give you something but they told me you went home. I saw your tracks in the snow. Then I saw them turn with others into this alley. I stood by the wall and listened, and when I heard your voice I took log from pile there. He was cruel to you, yes?"
Tarina smiled slightly, then said, "Yes, he was."
Kholas pointed at the blood on her shirt and said, "You are hurt!"
He considered swinging the log he held at the man's head again, but Tarina grabbed his arm, saying, "No.. no… I'm alright! Leave him be…."
Kholas nudged the man with his boot but he was still out cold. A breeze carried ever more snow with it, and it was falling harder now. Tarina picked up her bags of leftover bread and cheese rinds from the inn and said, "Will you walk me home? I can be certain I am safe that way"
She smiled up at him and he nodded. Kholas walked over to the woodpile and set the log back exactly in the same place he had found it. Tarina had her bags mostly gathered and he hurried over to help her with one. She almost slipped and fell again on the ice but he grabbed her around the waist. Tarina didn't seem to mind as she smiled. Kholas returned it and let her regain her footing. She took his arm and they started to walk down the street.
"I would say introductions are in order, yes? I am Kholas of Rhun, merchant, trader, and traveller. I travel to trade merchandise."
Tarina smiled and said, "Pleased to meet you Kholas. My name is Tarina of Esgaroth. I am a serving maid at the Gilded Lantern Inn. I've lived all my days right here. As for travels, my brother and I set out once. We tried to walk all the way around the Long Lake."
"Did you make it?" Kholas asked.
Tarina answered, "No. We left north, and we forded the river that feeds the lake from the Dwarf King's Mountain. We worked our way south, but the river leaving the lake was too deep and swift. We lost all our belongings and only barely managed to get back to the east shore. We found an old boat that had been abandoned in the bushes, and we made it ready to carry us over the lake back to Esgaroth."
"I boated some, along the edges of the Sea of Rhun. My boat leaked a lot. How did your boat fare?" Kholas said excitedly.
Tarina sighed and said, "Not very well. It was abandoned for a reason. Fortunately, my brother rowed while I scooped the water out. We were in sight and approaching Lake Town when some rot gave way and water poured in. It sank and we swam the final leg. So ended my days of journey."
Tarina didn't live far away and both Kholas and Tarina took ever smaller steps as they talked. Kholas said, "Perhaps someday you will go elsewhere and see many sights. It is a big world out there."
"I would like that. Maybe one day."
They walked along silently for a short time when she stopped.
"This is where I live."
They stood in front for a moment as she took the bag from Kholas. She smiled and said, "Thank you very much for what you did for me tonight. My father would be quite pleased with what you have done."
Kholas smiled and said as the snow drove ever harder and faster in the building gale, saying, "Please, I will shake your father's hand and tell him I was honoured to help you get home tonight."
"No…" Tarina said with some sadness, sighed and said, "It would not go well Kholas of Rhun.
"My father fought in the Great War and it was on the battlefield south of here where an Easterling axe hit his helm, splitting his head taking his mind. Another Easterling axe cut his leg giving him his limp. Though he healed and lived, he has not been right since. He remains bitter in his old age. Part of him died that day, or so I believe."
She looked at the ground by their feet and sighed again. After a moment, Kholas said, "Your father and my father fought. Perhaps they fought each other. I was just a baby when he marched away towards Dale in the Great War. He never returned."
They stood there in silence a moment and then, on chance, Kholas held his arms out and Tarina embraced him. They stood quietly together for a moment, buffeted by the wind before Kholas said, "Such is war. May there be no more wars."
Tarina nodded as she burrowed in Kholas' cloak, saying, "May it be so. Yet things I see and hear, I think there is still much trouble in the wide lands."
Kholas looked over Tarina's shoulder into the dark gray shroud of the snowy lands and asked, "What have you seen and heard Lady Tarina?"
She pulled her head back to look at his face. He looked at hers as the snow flakes caught in her hair. He reached to pull her hood up about her cheeks as she answered.
"There is trouble brewing here. That man tonight, he wanted information. I don't know who he is, he just paid me one night to gather it. I didn't want to tell him, but he nearly forced me to had you not done what you did.
"I will tell you for I have seen you are alone. A small and very secretive party of travellers arrived at the Inn nearly a week ago. They rented many of the rooms, and reserved the private dining room for themselves. I was able to observe them rather close that first night, for I served them the ale and food. Not all are still there, some left after that first night. Three Rangers of the North and woman of their people left and have not returned. Between that man and these people, I smell trouble all over."
Kholas's finger went up to her lips and tapped them and she stopped talking.
"Fear not. There will be little if no trouble Lady Tarina. Come, let us get you home before you are missed."
Tarina nodded and they walked once again. It was only about fifty paces to get to her house, and Kholas noted its location. She started to go when Kholas said, "Wait! I wished to give you this! It was to be your tip tonight, and why I left the inn to find you!"
She turned and he handed her three coins. Two were silver like those she had gotten from the shadowy man. The other was a gold coin of Rhun. Its worth was in its weight, not the value embossed on it. She looked at it and said, "Thank you Kholas, but this is far too much! It would buy a week of meals at the inn!"
"No, it is for you, for your kindness to this man from the lands of a once hated enemy. This hour tonight means more to me than you will know. Please take it. Keep it secret and use it at need."
Kholas said as he closed her hand around the coins.
"But this one is Rhun gold! I cannot use it without drawing suspicion. What do I do with it but to have as a keepsake of this night?" she said as her eyes started to tear up.
He wiped them away and said, "You keep it. In the right time, at the right place, you will know when to use it. You may want to visit the smith at the livery."
Tarina's father opened the door and peered out into the darkness.
"Tarina! That you? You're late! Who is with you?"
Tarins smiled at Kholas then turned and said, "A gentleman, Da. I had a bit of trouble on my way home tonight and he helped me."
He grunted and tried to make out the figure beside his daughter in the driving snow. He finally said gruffly, "Well you are home, so he can be on his way!"
He slammed the door most likely to try and keep the heat of the fire inside the walls. Tarina smiled and leaned up and gave Kholas' bearded cheek a kiss.
Kholas smiled and said, "Maybe I will see you again? I'll likely not leave for days. Weeks maybe. I might be convinced to stay until summer! The weather's very bad now you know. Nowhere to go."
Tarina kept smiling as she walked away, not turning back toward him, but said over her shoulder, "You know where I work."
Kholas smiled and turned to walk away. He mumbled to himself as he walked into the wind, "Same place where I am staying."
He followed the barely noticeable tracks they had made. But for where they had stood for a time, they were already obscured by fresh snow. Kholas was careful and all the more vigilant in not making any noise in the quiet night. Only the wind howled mournfully. He was especially careful when he returned and saw the man he had knocked cold was no longer where he had laid. The amount of snow where he had been gave Kholas a rough idea on how long he had lain there. He looked about, expecting a sore-headed man come flying at him at any moment. But there was only silence. He followed the tracks down the alley and saw the door of which they led. He then returned to the street and walked to the Inn, and he again slipped inside into its warmth.
Mecarnil sat and ran over all those he had watched that day. There was nothing out of the ordinary really. He had hoped they would be able to coax out any of those who still wished to kill or take Rin captive. He hoped their numbers would be so few they would finally die. But like a bad rash, there was always one who wished to keep the idea of an independent Cardolan alive. They had to find something in this cold snowy town. Rocks said they would be near here. With the weather as it was, if they were hiding in the outskirts, they would have to come in at some time. No, they were here. Surely they have the Gilded Lantern watched. Surely the arrival of their party, as late in the season as it was, had been noticed by someone.
Trying to remain unnoticed was at times proving difficult. There were a few around who knew Hanasian, and even he almost ran into someone he knew. The best man they had to get out regularly was Rowdy, Slippery, Stillwater, and the old twins Frea and Folca. Also, arriving much later, was Kholas, an Easterling that Khule recommended from his original twelve who came to him to join the Company. He spent the first night out in the wood, and the next day as well. On the third day he arrived at the Gilded Lantern and he looked every bit the part of an Easterling trader. He was the best source of independent eyes and ears for them in the common room.
While some of the others would come and go, and at times sit and listen and watch, they never acknowledged Kholas, nor he them. He rented his own room, which by sheer luck was directly above the private dining room. It was also by sheer luck that the private dining room was where an unused floor hatch accessed the underboards. It wasn't on the map Bard provided, so was probably never used. Being it was sealed, it would take a bit of work to get it opened. It was a matter of luck that Kholas in his room the first night noticed a large knot in the floorboards .
He carefully managed to work loose the knothole so he could whisper to those in the room below. The knot he worked loose was tapered the right way so he could simply drop it back in place to conceal it. He thanked the tree for growing a branch just so, and the mill for cutting the wood so, and the builders for using this plank so. It however wasn't so easy for the men in the dining room below. To get near it, one had to climb up close to the ceiling in the corner of the room to be able to hear him. They needed to avoid the noise carrying and occupants of both rooms had to be careful about who might be outside the respective doors. This meant that an intricate process of moving of a table and then clambering atop it in the corner of the room was needed to get someone up to hear Kholas. Still, it was worth it to keep Kholas separated from the Company in the eyes and minds of the locals.
Rowdy early on had noted that the young sandy-haired serving girl seemed to spend much of her day serving them. He had to assume she would be listening to conversations and watching carefully those who came and went that weren't regular. And they weren't regular. It was in the afternoon that Rowdy sat at a table with some locals playing cards. On the afternoon Kholas first walked into the Inn, Hanasian would have been proud of these two new men, recent inductees to the Company from two different cultures in two different places, not knowing each other beyond the divisional patch they shared.
They communicated with just a sidelong look. Kholas knew before he ordered his first meal who to watch and she was rather pretty, an unexpected treat on this very serious matter. It was Kholas watched her that night and again the next day and into the night. She was definitely listening if not watching. He had managed to not catch her eye, but he did talk to others about trading, filling the air with words of no meaning. When she left for the night, he followed her.
Returning well chilled to the common room, Kholas shook off the chill with the snow all over him after he entered the Inn. Rowdy was in a card game with a couple remaining locals but noted his face. He found her and had information. It was time for him to retire from the game.
The next hand he scraped up his winnings and said to the two remaining players, "Don't worry, I'll be back tomorrow night. Maybe you will win it all back!"
They grumbled and decided to call it a night. Rowdy went to the dining room, and Kholas had a small mug of stout before retiring to his room. The innkeeper went and locked the doors for the few hours before the Inn would open for breakfast. It was only a few minutes before the knot was lifted. There was a quiet scramble to get Rowdy up to hear what Kholas had to say. He was direct in his report.
"I found the serving girl. She was paid to gather information. She was good in not telling for her contact threatened her. I took him down and I spoke with the girl at length. She has noted the coming of the Company and has noted everyone that arrived the first night. She knows there are some missing from the inn and can provide basic descriptions of who, or rather what, they are. I think I can keep her from talking to anyone else. Make suitable adjustments to accommodate her eyes. She will be here at work again in the morning."
The knot plugged the hole and Rowdy climbed down.
He said to Frea, "We've been noticed by the serving girl. What's more, someone paid her to talk of what she may see or hear. Kholas took care of him and her for now. Nothing is believed to have been said. We need to talk with Hanasian."
Frea chuckled and Folca said, "He's been out of sight, holed up with his wife in Bard's hall. Surely he will be paying us a visit by morning."
Rowdy considered that and believed it would be doubtful Hanasian was seen any time soon, all things considered. He knew what he would be doing were he in Hanasian's boots.
"One would hope. But in case he doesn't, we need a back up plan. Now that I got a job at the smithy, I'll be outside this inn. So I hope this will not be a problem," Rowdy said.
Frea asked, "You are a blacksmith?"
Rowdy answered, "I've some experience. Made chain mail mostly as an apprentice. Didn't like it much, but it will be enough to get me by. I won the job in a card game. Any of you get any work?"
Folca answered, "Yes, in the livery, which is right next to the smithy."
Nobody else answered. It was about that time that the hatch was worked free, and at the right time. Hanasian came crawling up a few minutes after it got opened. The first thing Hanasian did after emerging was to go to the hearth and tried to warm up.
He said, "Damn, those crawlways may be convienient to move about under the city, but you're only inches above the water and the wind gets under there and freezes you to the bone! Now, tell me what you all know."
They let Rowdy fill him in on what Kholas told them. Hanasian nodded and considered their situation. It was always the serving girls, he noted. His father had been quite fond of several, especially the sisters at the Forsaken about the time he was born. Why mother put up with him he would never know. Hanasian himself befriended a few along his path as well and found they were well placed and often valuable assets. They always hear and see more than people expect.
He asked, "Is she a threat?"
Most were unsure, but Rowdy said, "Kholas says he has her handled."
"Good," Hanasian replied, "I think the man who was asking for information that may be one Rocks' contact here. We need to find him."
Plans were made as to where they would look, but it was unanimously agreed that the best chance would be for this man to find Kholas. They were sure he would have a grudge to settle. The tap code got Kholas to pull the knot, and instructions were given that pleased him to no end. He was to keep befriending the girl and keep her close, and in time the man would make his move.
Hanasian returned from the Gilded Lantern filled with news and chilled to the bone once again. Rin piled wood onto the hearth in the parlour as Mecarnil and Farbarad closed in. Elladan and Elrohir had left some days ago, intent on searching Mirkwood and hopeful of seeking aid of some sort from Thranduril. As Hanasian reported the details, Mecarnil's expression lost some of its frustration and Farbarad's gained a fell light. They had a lead; the net was being drawn tighter.
From her position by the hearth, Rin observed that having something to focus on did the two Rangers as much good as it had done her. Hanasian had been artful indeed and well she knew it. At first, he had ensured that he had drawn her full attention in ways only he could. With Mecarnil and Farbarad out during the day, and Elrohir and Elladan absent, they had the rooms to themselves and Hanasian had found an excellent use for them.
"We owe Khule a great deal for sending Kholas along," Farbarad said once Hanasian had finished and Mecarnil grunted, stroking his beard as he pondered.
"And I owe Rowdy an apology," he allowed a moment later because he had harboured enduring suspicion of the man.
"Another to add to the list," Rin observed and Mecarnil's head twisted about to catch her quiet smile.
"Well played," he admitted, they were each as proud as the other, and Rin lifted a shoulder in half a shrug.
"I'm learning," she casually answered as she walked towards her bedroom, for it was late.
She had caught Hanasian's smile as she brushed past him and a moment later Farbarad asked, "Speaking of learning, how goes those other lessons?"
"I didn't burn the pastry at all today."
"Pastry? Is there a pie? Why haven't we seen it?" Farbarad persisted, aware that he was onto something.
"Note she referred to the pastry…not the filling," Hanasian murmured and Mecarnil chuckled.
At her request, Rin had been permitted to venture into Bard's kitchens. Rin's plan was simple. In under a year, she'd have a family to care for, plus two hungry Rangers and there were things she needed to know how to do, despite her unorthodox upbringing. Hanasian was well aware that a preoccupied Rin was far safer than anything else and he was running out of energy as the week progressed. He had agreed once an initial check of the kitchen's staff and security met with their exacting satisfaction.
Thus far, she had mastered the art of burning things that should be edible. Ovens, like beds she had discovered nearly a year ago, were trickier to use than their simple appearances suggested. It had only been three days. Tomorrow, she was sure she would have something to show for her efforts. As she closed the bedroom door to prepare for sleep she heard them discussing who between them should take on responsibility for the cooking once they had settled in at home. Apparently, the three men out there were not nearly as certain as she and this only made her more determined.
Elsewhere that night a man grimaced as his split scalp was closed by another. Silver Fox silver paced to a fro, highly agitated. The man was at his most dangerous in such states and the others in the room watched him carefully.
"Fool!" he eventually snarled, turning to face the injured man, "If your carelessness tonight proves our undoing, I will take it from your hide!"
The injured man kept his expression neutral and lowered his eyes in acceptance. There were no excuses to satisfy Malagorn at this time. That Easterling had appeared from nowhere and had he had more time with the serving girl, things would be different now. Now all he had to show for the night was the gash in his scalp, a pounding headache and absolutely nothing other than unsubstantiated hunches and suspicions. Silver Fox looked away and focused on another man.
"Your report," Silver Fox demanded and the man nodded.
"The farm is ours …the old man was only too pleased to be quit of it and with a reasonable sum of money in his possession. The well is dry and will prove a secure location that she will not be able to escape from. No locks to pick. The farm house is in reasonably good repair and far enough from Esgaroth that no one of any account will notice aught amiss."
Malagorn nodded, pleased with the development on this front at least. The discovery of the farm had been a boon. Taking up residence in an abandoned building drew attention, but this farm was not abandoned. The old man had proved amenable to selling, his wife dead and his children scattered and the well dry. And that well! What a find! A perfect place to keep someone for a protracted period of time. They would need to hold her for at least nine months, presuming they were met with success immediately. It was also valuable tool to use in bringing her into submission, for that would be necessary. Isolation, darkness, they could cap it and leave her there without food and water for a time. Yes, perfect. And, once they had what they required, simply cap it and walk away. They'd never find the traitor. Never. Cell and grave both. Ideal!
Pleasing as that was, however, it was clear that there had arisen salient threats in Esgaroth that could undo all of this. The attack on his man tonight might merely be chance, but Malagorn had never believed in chance. It was likely that their traitor was in Esgaroth already. If she was here, the fact that she was not already in their hands proved their agent within the Black had been compromised. The Black were notoriously effective in acquiring information. And he knew Mecarnil was here based on a suspected sighting some days ago.
Farbarad was unpredictable, wilder. Mecarnil, however, was easier to understand. The man worked according to strict principles of honour and integrity. Had Farbarad been spotted, Malagorn would not know whether Erían was nearby or not. Mecarnil, on the other hand, made it certain that she was somewhere in Esgaroth. There was simply no conceivable way that Mecarnil would leave her. Malagorn knew this, just as he knew it was wise to presume that they not only knew of of this conspiracy, but it's aims. Erían, Farbarad and Hanasian had not been sighted to confirm any of this conjecture. They therefore would be holed up somewhere safe. If Erían was in Esgaroth, then she would be in the safest placed there was – Bard's Hall.
Bard's Hall was not easy to penetrate. He'd sent men to sign on there as a precaution in the preparations for Mettarë, when the hall would be full of guests and hands would be short. The men he had sent were skilled but had not managed to gain a foothold in the hall itself. Still, the whispers they had heard of guests of great import only confirmed the suspicions that had formed upon possible sighting of Mecarnil. Malagorn's attention moved from the man responsible for acquiring and preparing the farm to the three men who had failed to gain employment in Bard's Hall.
"Well?" he growled.
"We've found a provender who keeps Bard's larders full of ale. His labourers found themselves unable to attend work yesterday. Ale barrels are very large and frequently heavy."
Malagorn tilted his head. This was something, at least.
"If you see an opportunity, take it. No unnecessary risks," he said and beside him, ensconced in a chair by the hearth, a man of a similar age to him cleared his throat.
"Indeed? If we do not seize opportunity, like as not she will slip through our fingers. What purpose can caution serve now? Is this not our final gambit?"
"Not necessarily but that is not your concern, Glarvis. I recommend you look to your own son for he had best be ready!" Malagorn snapped and his gaze flicked to the younger man that lounged behind his father's armchair.
That one had said nothing and spent the evening admiring his nails. While his reputation preceded him, Malagorn had doubts about the boy.
In his chair, the man's father snarled, "He's ready!"
"This is not some trembling milkmaid you can merely slap into submission! She will come for your throat!"
At that, the younger man smiled coldly and lifted his eyes from his nails to Malagorn's face.
"Fear not, I will pull her claws," he murmured and Malagorn's doubts shifted at that. He moved his attention back to man's father.
"Have a care, Glarvis, lest your son ruin your ambitions. She must live to bear this heir if it is to be any benefit to your House. As for you," Malagorn swung back to the injured man, "I want that agent dead and I care not how it is accomplished."
"Aye, Silver Fox."
It took him another two days to contact his bar wench. It would have been faster, but the Gilded Lantern was a busy place and he was convinced now that some, if not most, of the men that came and went were Black Company. he even spotted the Easterling and tempting as it was, he knew he could ill-afford to inspire further censure from Malagorn in some spiteful vendetta. He had work to do, something to accomplish and he could ill afford to be recognised before he had done it. Ultimately he found his opportunity came when the wench came out the back of the inn to toss out scraps. He seized her arm and dragged her sharply to one side, the wooden pail clattering to the ground.
"Time to earn your keep, wench," he snarled into her frightened face.
"Wh-what do you want?" she cringed in alarm and his face twisted into a scowl.
"I want you to fetch a man out that is inside, here, to me."
"What for?" Tarin asked and gasped as his grip on her forearm became brutally tight.
He bent close and hissed, "Because I said so, wench!"
She blanched and he went on to describe the agent. Her eyes grew wide and he knew then, he knew that the turncoat was inside.
"I haven't seen-"
There was a crack as the back of his hand caught the side of her face and she let out a soft cry of pain, "Don't you lie to me! Bring him out here, or I'll take my argument up with you. Do you hear me, girl?!"
He shook her hard to jolt her and she nodded, one cheek an angry red already. Then he released her and she stumbled back inside, bucket of scraps forgotten. He pulled back to wait, hand still stinging as he slipped it under his cloak and wrapped it around the wooden stock there.
Inside, Rocks folded his arms and sighed. It wasn't going well, he knew, even if no one would dare speak of it. They were never going to make contact with this man Kholas thought he could track down. Grudges didn't mean a thing to these men. What they needed to do was let him out to the place he was supposed to have been at nearly a fortnight ago. They needed to let him make contact, as arranged, to set it all up, draw them all out. These men were smart. Kholas had been back to the building he had marked and found it empty and nothing of any use there. Rocks could have told them that too. Not that they listened to him. Rin would have, were she here. Instead, they had her cooped up safely. She was their other best chance, perfect bait and they had her warming her hands by the fire under their over protective guard. She'd give them hell, the Doc he knew.
Still, after several days of waiting for the serving girl's benefactor to reappear, they had at last deigned to let him sit in the Gilded Lantern's common room. It was a small improvement. Perhaps, by summer's end, they might start to see things his way, he sourly thought. The re-appearance of the serving girl barely caught his attention at first. Once their gazes brushed each other, her eyes grew wide. He could see she was shaking hard and that someone had recently used the back of his hand on her. He drained his water, for there was no ale for him, and nudged it towards her to give her an excuse to approach. Folca and Rowdy were at work. Frea was holed up with the others in the dining room because Kholas had just come back with an arm load of nothing to report.
The girl collected up his empty mug and swiped at the table with a rag.
"Sir," she mumbled awkwardly.
"You have the wrong man, if that's the case," Rocks replied dryly. Rin would have chuckled, but this one just looked ready to burst into tears. Kholas might fall for the helpless lamb charade but he really couldn't see the appeal of it, no matter how pretty the face.
"What's the problem, girl," he asked with a faint shake of his head and she glanced over her shoulder towards the kitchen.
"I- There's a man out back…wants to see you," she muttered miserably, her shaking increased.
Rocks snorted, "That so? Well what's he waiting for? I'm sitting right here."
"P-please sir," she stuttered, bottom lip quivered, "He says if you don't go out there, he- he'll – he'll…"
Rocks sighed and inwardly cursed his newly formed conscience. Life was much simpler, easier and clearer before a certain Company healer. There was a time when he'd send the girl on her way without a second thought in her direction. It was her problem if she accepted money from strange men.
"Is that who hit you?" he asked and she nodded, a tear spilling over as she fiercely twisted the rag between her hands.
"Right…follow, but not too close. Don't let him see you, no matter what," Rocks said as he gained his feet.
He trudged out through the kitchen with his serving girl ghost haunting along at a safe distance. He paused at the door, glanced back at her and shook his head. He could not believe he was about to do this. Chivalry was overrated. He stared at the hand he had on the door latch for a moment, took a deep breath, and opened to door to step into the alley. He nearly tripped over a discarded bucket of kitchen scraps at first. The alley appeared empty but Rocks knew better.
He heard the whack of the hammer an instant before the quarrel thudded into his sternum and shattered his chest wall. He grunted in surprise at that. He had not expected a crossbow. It was one of the screw ones, the sort that were small enough to conceal, accurate enough over short distances and easier to reload. When the second bolt tore into him, he thought it unnecessary. The first one had been enough and bolts were expensive. His vision was darkening as a man stepped out. His contact glanced at him appraisingly, found everything to his satisfaction, and then strode out of Rocks' line of sight.
Tarina heard muffled sounds that were unfamiliar and frightening as she pressed her ear to the kitchen door. She heard boots crunch over the snow in the alley and become distant. Unable to help herself, she cracked the kitchen door open and saw a bright, garish splash of red snow. The man lay slumped, as if he sat on the ground and leant back against the wall of the inn. His legs were canted and folded unnaturally and two thick things protruded from his chest. His hands were limp in his lap. His head sagged, eyes open but they saw nothing. Horror flooded Tarina at the sight and her chest heaved as it threatened to overwhelm her. Where was Kholas? Her hand fumbled for the golden coin, tucked into a pocket of her apron and then she recalled his words.
She left the door hanging open behind her as she flew into the alley, stumbling in her hurry to reach the smithy near the livery. She practically fell into the hot and dark smithy and tripped over the doorframe in her haste. A man, bare from the waist up in the oppressive heat, stood with the biggest hammer she had ever seen raised over his head and frozen there. Fire made his skin glisten and he wore a thick leather apron. He stared at her hard and then his hammer swung down but did not collide with the horseshoe he was fashioning on the anvil before him. He strode towards her, through the fumes of iron and fire and steam reached for her.
She jerked back as if stung and Kholas' gold coin fell heavily to the floor and spun a moment. Rowdy crouched and closed his hand around the weight and studied the girl that had burst in. Then he turned about and headed deeper into the smithy. She stared after him, agog. He emerged again, dressed in a shirt and throwing a cloak over his shoulders despite the terrible heat and the way the shirt already clung to his damp skin. He placed one hand under her arm, not cruelly but firmly all the same, and retraced her steps until he found Rocks. The girl uttered a low moan at the sight and Rowdy swiftly towed her past it and into the kitchen of the inn.
"You know who did that?" he asked on their way to the dining room and she nodded miserably, pale with that greenish tinge that suggested someone was about to wear her breakfast soon.
He pulled her into the dining room without knocking. Slippery shot to her feet, Frea scowled at him and Stillwater froze at the sight of Rowdy and the serving maid from his vantage atop the table. Kholas wisely fell silent.
"Rocks is dead. They know we're here," Rowdy said, releasing Tarina now they were inside the dining room.
"And in your grief stricken madness, you decided to bring her in here," Slippery snapped, eyed Tarina dangerously as she wrapped a hand around a dagger hilt.
"She brought me your coin, Kholas," Rowdy replied, ignoring Slippery's sarcasm.
"Kholas?" Tarina tremulously said and from the roof came the sound of an Easterling curse.
"I'll get Folca," Frea said.
"Watch your footing out back. Treacherous," Rowdy warned and Frea took his meaning immediately.
"And I'll fetch Hanasian," Stillwater said as he climbed down from the table.
"Kholas?" Tarina repeated and Slippery rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
"Well, Prince Charming," she quipped and another Easterling curse was shut off once the knot of wood was plugged back into place.
Slippery could hear Kholas' boots on the floorboards overhead as he crossed to his door. She returned her attention to the serving maid. The girl was frightened out of her wits.
"Tarina, isn't it?" she asked and the girl nodded jerkily, "Tarina, I suggest that you grab a seat and take a few deep breaths to steady yourself. Perhaps some water might help."
"W-why? What's going on?"
"Well," Slippery said, glancing at Rowdy who shrugged, "Soon this room is going to be filled with irritable Rangers with a lot of questions for you."
"But I didn't do anything!"
"They'll be the judge of that," Rowdy said and Slippery shot him a scowl because he wasn't helping and she did not know why the man had suddenly decided to be so loquacious.
"What's going on?" Tarina demanded with greater force, loosing any composure she may have recently regained and becoming agitated.
"Have you ever met a princess before, Tarina?" Slippery asked as Kholas admitted himself to the dining room.
Tarina shook her head from side to side and Kholas said from behind her, "Well, appearances can be deceiving."
"You're no trader," Tarina spat at him as she whirled about.
"No…though one day I might be. Perhaps," Kholas said with no small trace of regret at her response, "But you have met a princess and a queen."
"Do you recall the woman who left with the Rangers of the North?"
Tarina looked from him to Slippery, who nodded, to Rowdy who simply returned her gaze impassively. She recalled the woman clearly. She had been very tall, with pale hair like morning sunlight and such remarkable eyes. Tarina had never seen anyone quite like her before. She had not been very happy. In fact, she had struck Tarina as so very sad that she hid it behind anger.
"You're going to hurt her! I won't allow it! I- I'll-"
"You'll sit there quietly, Tarina, of your own free will or not," Rowdy said and Slippery rolled her eyes at him.
"Not very helpful, you clod," she snapped at him as Tarina became fearful once again.
Kholas stepped forward and she shrank back from him several steps.
"I swear it, Lady Tarina, we are not here to harm her, or you."
"That is actually true," Slippery helpfully added and then settled in to wait for the hatch in the floor to pop open again.
Stillwater emerged, along with Hanasian, Mecarnil and Farbarad and one other Slippery had not expected to see. She appeared to be wearing flour. It coated her forearms where she had rolled up her sleeves, smudged her nose and cheek and hung in her hair. No sooner was Rin on her feet did she turn to face Rowdy.
"Where is he?" she demanded.
"You can't go out there. It isn't safe," Rowdy replied and Rin took a step closer, bristling.
"Where. Is. My. Man?"
With that question, Slippery understood why Rin was here and she glanced sympathetically at three Rangers who were none too happy about it. Rocks may be a traitor, but Rin still saw him as hers. Her Duckling, her medic, one of her men. She had been as fiercely protective of her Ducklings as she was of her Cats and there wasn't a Black Company man or woman who didn't know it, Rowdy included.
"He's in the alley. There's nothing you can do for him, Doc," Rowdy answered once her scrutiny got too much to bear.
"We can bury him. Not leave him there like garbage," she hissed.
Rowdy looked past her to the three Rangers and Hanasian reluctantly nodded.
"Bring him in from the alley. Bard's men have been notified. They will collect him."
"The cellar," Tarina said, surprising herself and then discovering all the attention of a princess, a queen even, and three Rangers settled on her.
She swallowed hard and continued, "There is a spare room there and it is quiet and cool."
"Thank you," said the queen, just like she was any other woman Tarina might bump into on the street. Like she had thanked Kholas the other night, grateful and not haughty at all.
"Rowdy, Stillwater, see to it," Hanasian said.
"Cap," they murmured and followed Tarina out.
Slippery sidled closer to Rin and the two women exchanged a knowing glance that spoke volumes.
"So, how goes the wife classes," Slippery inquired lightly and despite it all, Rin actually laughed.
"Slowly, unless the art of it lies in burning anything edible."
"She's mastered that," Mecarnil rumbled.
By the time Stillwater and Rowdy returned with Tarina, Frea had returned with Folca and it was time get on with things.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"Yes…that's it…now keep an eye on it, your Highness. Young Rob here has been heating that oven for you since before dawn."
"Please! How many times?"
"Until you quit burnin' them-"
"No…the titles!" Rin interrupted sharply, both hands on her hips and a deep frown on a face flushed from the oven's heat. With things on a knife edge out there, no slip was too small to ignore. Since Rocks had been killed two days ago, everyone was on edge. They were all out, combing Esgaroth and its surrounds for anything out of the ordinary. They were all on edge, her included. She lived in dread. Dread that Rocks' fate would find others, find Hanasian, or the others. It dogged her day and night. Hanasian, Mecarnil and Farbarad left before dawn and rarely got back before midnight, if indeed they returned at all.
"Oh…well…I know….but it isn't right. Not right at all," the cook said abashed and caught sight of a sack of potatoes being set down precisely where the whole kitchen will trip over it.
These new labourers had proved no end of trouble and he bellowed at the man responsible. To his great chagrin, the man stared right at him then turned about and walked back out to the wagon. Of course, this needed to be corrected at once and it gave him a chance to escape an irate princess of the highest court. No sooner had he reached the door to berate the labourers, a blast of the morning's chill permeated him, was there a terrible cracking, grinding sound. The barrels in the wagon had come free and crashed into the snow bound courtyard. Some of the barrels split, others remained in tact. Ale was spreading over the snow, freezing before his stunned eyes. Two of the labourers had managed to avoid the crush but the third had not been so fortunate. The cook stared and then he spun about to face the kitchen. Everyone within was frozen in alarm with the exception of one. Rin came to stand at the door with him and surveyed the disaster outside.
"Hot water, now…clear that table, send someone to fetch Bard's cutter immediately and find me clean cloths, whatever you have…sharp knives too, the paring ones," Rin said in a firm voice and the cook nodded, jowls swaying with the movement.
She placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed so that he would pay attention, "Keep this door shut until I call to open it. We need it warm in here. And get as many as you can out of the kitchen, so we do not trip over them as we work."
He fumbled at the latch and she did not look back as she continued into the courtyard. The fallen man lay twisted at unnatural angles in the wagon tray. She picked her way towards the wagon carefully, assembling the scene as she went. The wagon wheels had not been braced. A rope lay, snapped through, on the snow. The man appeared to have climbed into the back of the tray and it would have tilted or rolled under his weight.
Rin harboured no illusions. It may already be futile. The temperature was frigid, but her pulse was roaring as it always did. Ironically, she never felt more alive than when death drew near at times like this. There were two other men in the courtyard and one was trying to re-position the barrels while the other secured the wheels. Their movements betrayed a waxen quality that suggested shock to her. They'd need to be brought in as well, but the fallen man came first.
If any of the Black saw her now, they would be howling with anger, but so too would the family of this man when they heard a Healer had been available and cowered inside for fear of her own life. It was as simple as that. In truth, the fact she was taking a risk did not occur to her until after she was already in the wagon. Instinct had taken over and it rode her hard now. This was who and what she was: a healer. Multiple, catastrophic injuries, blood was freezing, jagged bones protruded from skin and clothing, and parts of him had been pulped by the heavy ale barrels that had slammed over him. Somehow, despite this, he still breathed.
His eyes fluttered as she knelt as carefully as she could to avoid upsetting the wagon further. She paid little further attention to the other two men and set her hands on the broken man's shattered body to begin. At the least, she could ease his final moments. At best, she could keep his heart working while those inside marshalled what was needed to bring him in and start work proper. She could hear his lungs filling with blood and labouring. His breathing was shallow, wet and gurgling. It was so cold that he was not in immediate danger of bleeding out. His wounds were clotting with frozen blood. The internal bleeding, however, would kill him. In this instance, the temperature was an ally, for it had slowed his heart and thus the bleeding inside.
"Don't strain," she said advised but he could not help it, his body was screaming for air and his pain was excruciating.
Rin glanced to the kitchen door and wondered if enough time had passed to ensure they were ready inside, provided he survived the transfer in? It was a delicate balancing act and as she weighed it all up a coarse cloth was pressed over her mouth. She heard the stricken man gasp as her consciousness fled and the full force of his pain returned. Once her weight was absolutely limp, the two men moved swiftly. Within minutes, they had her secured in an empty ale barrel in the tray and the wagon was on its way, bouncing through the streets. They left the dying man with the fallen barrels in the snow of the courtyard, a necessary price for this success.
Bard's cutter paced around the kitchen table within impatiently a moment longer and then barked at the cook to open the door. While the medic was perplexed by what he saw outside, the cook was horrified by what he did not see there in the courtyard.
"Is this some kind of jest? I am not here to be dangled at a noble's whim, no matter how highly she might be born!" the cutter growled and the cook slammed the door shut.
"GET THE RANGERS NOW!" the man cried, aghast.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rin stared up into the darkness overhead. Her clothes were soaked in the fetid water she had been left in and caked in the mud and slime that coated the belly of the well. The fabric of her skirts had started to ice. Dare she try it? She could just make out the shaft of the well. It was bricked but it was old and there were footholds and handholds there. She just might be able to work her way up. There was a wooden cap over the well. She did not know if it would be barred or locked. If she fell…well, it would be fast, at least. She would be spared the horror and humiliation of what she knew lay ahead of her. When would it begin? What would they do once they discovered she was already with child?
Her decision was made with that thought and so she stretched to her full height, scrabbled for a crumbling hold and was pleased no one else was in the well to watch her lower limbs kick and scramble indecently for some leverage in the vault's roof. A root proved her saviour and she set her weight against it, gathered her strength and propelled herself up in a surge. It would take hours, and all her strength, to get far enough up that she could brace herself across the shaft of the well. It placed inordinate strain on her legs, but it gave her arms respite. Then, back pressed on one side, feet on the other and hands pulling and pushing, she began to wriggle her way back up to whatever was above.
Rin's head brushed the underside of the well cap as the day's shadows reached their zenith. Exhaustion had her muscles shaking. She expected the cap to be locked or weighted but even so she tested it. She could not face a certain death without at least trying, no matter how futile. She nearly burst into tears when the cap started to move. She steeled herself, sucked in a breath and shoved the wooden well cap aside. It fell into the snow drifts around the well. A few more inches and she would out! Shoulders above the lip of well, she brought her arms up to lever herself out, for her legs were about to fail her entirely. As she struggled, the wind at dusk icy on her damp face and clothing, she began to wonder at things. Did they watch? Where was she? How would she escape once out of the well, particularly as she knew her legs would not be able to walk, much less run? Where would she find shelter so she would not freeze tonight?
Questions crowded her exhausted mind and at that moment the strength in her legs failed and her arms took the full extent of her weight. Death's maw yawned beneath her, hungry and dark. Panic suffused her in an instant and there was nothing she could do. A cry was dragged from her throat, hoarse and dry from panting with her exertions. Then two hands, like iron, were under her arms and she was pulled sharply up and out of the well. Her head spun as she was dropped into the snow. A moment later, she was hauled up. Rin's vision cleared and the twilight revealed a face she did not recognise at all. She tugged in new alarm but she had no strength left and it made little impact on him. He dragged her through the snow towards a farmhouse. Light twinkled out between the curtains drawn over the window. Another strange man stood by a door, watching impassively. Smoke curled from a chimney overhead. The man by the door pulled it open as they drew near. She was roughly shoved through the door and into what felt like a furnace compared to the chill outside. The door closed hard behind her and she stumbled to her knees on the floorboards of the farmhouse.
"Had I known you to be so eager to begin, I would have sent for you earlier," said a silver haired man.
Rin pushed herself with great effort to her feet. Her knees nearly buckled and so she pressed herself back against the wall. The man who had spoken stood slowly from his chair and clasped his hands behind his back. He approached the shaking, filthy woman and considered her at length. Her expression, despite her obvious vulnerability, was an inscrutable mask. Her father had worn the same mask in his time and the fact that she had managed to climb out of the well displayed Bereth's determined fire. That fire had availed him naught in the end, as his treacherous daughter would soon discover.
What Malagorn was struck by, however, is how hauntingly she resembled her mother. This could have been a Queen they could have been proud of. Fair, proud, strong, and provided she had been true to her people and properly matched to a suitable Consort, Cardolan's future would not require such a grievous assurance. They would have willingly rallied to her had she just merely proved faithful and true to them, to her heritage, to her birthright and blood. Instead, she had reduced them to this. Malagorn's hands tightened at his back. Rage, no matter how justified, would serve no purpose. Instead, he stepped back and angled just slightly so that she could see the other two men in the room.
"Well?" he asked the other two men.
Rin knew predators when she saw them. She had learnt that lesson early in the most brutal way imaginable. Loch would kill these three in a heartbeat were he here to see them. The two men that Silver Fox spoke to regarded her like she was nothing more than an animal. She had no idea who they were but she knew the threat they represented. The younger one spoke first.
"As you said, though she is filthy."
"Something I am sure we can remedy," Silver Fox replied, the others smiled and her skin crawled.
He turned his attention back to her, "Introductions are due, your Majesty. You, of course, are Erían, Queen of Cardolan by undisputed birthright and traitor to your people as demonstrated by your perfidy and actions of late."
Malagorn watched her composure flinch with some satisfaction but was then surprised when at last she spoke. Her voice was a low growl of outrage and contempt.
"I know who you are, dog, and I care not for the names of your curs," she snarled dismissively.
It was a ploy, she knew, but she desperately needed to gain some power if she was not to be torn to pieces by the men in the room. She watched the Silver Fox's expression carefully. A raised brow, a tight nod and a small smile. He had been chief counsellor to her father, her birth father. Silver Fox, Malagorn, as dangerous as a rabid bear and as smart as his namesake. Even Bereth had feared him and worked hard to retain him as an ally.
"Well then, it seems we can dispense with formalities, your Majesty, and begin in proper," he said and at that, the young man rose from his seat with a cold smile. She saw then a belt had been wrapped around one hand and he slowly unfurled it.
It was dark and the sky was clear when she was brought back to the well. Her back was on fire and the frigid air only made it worse. Two men accompanied her. One held a lantern and the other dragged her. She was barely conscious and the brilliant stars overhead left dazzling trails as they streaked over the sky. She blacked out entirely before they reached the well. The two men lowered her down with rope and once she had reached the bottom they simply let go. The well cap was replaced and heavy stones fetched from the eaves of Mirkwood secured it into place to ensure a repeat of the day's near miss would not reoccur. It was unlikely anyway, given the state she was in after that beating. Not so much as cry or word, but they'd heard the sound of the lashes and the soft grunt of the man who delivered them.
The well secured, the two men returned to their stations to maintain a watch. Vigilant though they were, their mortal eyes could not penetrate the shadows of Mirkwood to find two Elves concealed there. Elladan had a hold of his brother for Elrohir had stiffened and nearly broken cover at what they had just seen. So very softly, Elladan spoke to his twin.
"Seek Hanasian, and swiftly."
"No! We will not make that same error again. We left her last time and came to rue it. You saw her as did I…you saw what they did!"
"Aye…but it will take two of us to bring her out, and they will know. Even if we shoot both guards, they will know. We are not enough, Elrohir. Seek Hanasian! I will keep watch!"
"And if they come for her?"
Elrohir's voice spoke of a more personal grief and Elladan knew it. Their mother's suffering had been immense and it had driven her from mortal shores. They had found this nest of foul, cruel men too late to prevent whatever had taken place already, delayed by their attempt to seek the aid of Thranduril's people. Elladan laid a hand on his brother's forearm.
"I will defend her, brother, even if it be the last thing I do."
Elrohir knew the truth of that and so darted away, moving over snow and through the trees with deadly speed and grace.