36. Chapter 36
The hours stretched as night drew in and Elladan watched and waited for Elrohir's return. The temperature plummeted and his vigil was edged with concern for the one he watched over. There was no moon but the sky was clear and the starlight more than sufficient for his keen Eldar vision. Though he had advised Elrohir against the wisdom of pressing in on their own, he calculated various approaches that he might attempt on his own. The light from within the farmhouse flared on the snow outside whenever a curtain was twitched aside. He knew they watched.
From his position in the fringes of Eryn Lasgalan he could mark the dark shapes of the stones they had set on the cap of the well. He would be able to get to the well if he were swift and remove the cover. But that was the least of his concerns. He had no way of knowing if she was able to climb out. If he had to go down to retrieve her, they would be vulnerable for he would not be able to watch from above. Not only that, those in the farmhouse would surely note something amiss and they would not permit him to go unchallenged. What would follow after that was simply too risky to countenance. He would act in haste if he had to. If he must. That time had not yet come, he resolved, and so he remained where he was.
Hanasian fought despair as the night closed around him. So many wagons came and went in Esgaroth and none of the wagons they had been able to track down had been the one they were chasing. The cook had given a detailed description of the wagon and the men driving it. She'd been taken hours ago. He should never have let her into the kitchen. Never. And now…he could not think upon what was happening now or it would drive him mad and he needed his wits. It was nearly midnight and he squinted at the shape of Stillwater as the man returned them. They were on the outskirts of Esgaroth and Slippery thought she had seen the spokes of a wagon wheel in a fire that several vagabonds had built to fend off the chill. That had been enough to send Stillwater in.
"It's Doc's," Stillwater said upon return and Hanasian nearly missed pulling Farbarad back from the man. Farbarad's restraint had been whittled away hour by hour until he was now little more than a fight waiting to happen.
"What did they say?" Mecarnil said as Hanasian shoved Farbarad back.
"Two men, wagon full of ale barrels. Stopped, removed a woman from one, unhitched the horses, set off west with the woman on the horses."
"West…Eryn Lasgalen," Rowdy said.
"And farms between the forest and Esgaroth," Hanasian added and in his mind the task became impossibly large. The time needed to search each farm thoroughly and the sheer scale of the forest did little to inspire hope.
"We should split up," Frea suggested and then, from the darkness, came an elven fair voice.
"A very bad idea for I believe we have need of every sword you have," Elrohir stated plainly.
"They have her!" Hanasian cried and Elrohir extended a hand and set it on Hanasian's shoulder.
"Yes. Elladan and I have seen her. She is being kept on the farm nearest to Thranduril's realm."
"Is she safe?"
"She is in a well. I imagine it is very cold. She was not dressed for it," Elrohir replied, uncertain of the wisdom of speculation for he believed there was something else awry given what they had seen as she was dragged out and thrust into the well.
"I will take you there. Elladan watches to prevent anything else befalling."
"Else? What else?" Farbarad growled sharply.
"We don't have time for this," Hanasian snapped and nodded at Elrohir, "Lead on, Elrohir, with all speed. I'll not have my wife freeze to death in a pit waiting on us."
It was all they could do to keep up with the Elf in the moonless night, for he moved with characteristic swiftness through the snowy expanses. Weary and frantic as they were, however, they made no complaint and no one lagged. Not even Frea and Folca, who were no longer young men. Elrohir led them past the other farms, their twinkling warm windows and the pale plumes of smoke from their hearths. He led them into the bare, dormant boles of Eryn Lasgalen's trees. On he led them until the promise of dawn blushed the eastern horizon. Only then did he pause and make a bird call that Elladan promptly answered. Elrohir stole forward through the trees until he reached to his brother.
Elladan did not look away from his vigil. The farmhouse was dark, no light from its windows peeked forth. A small stable stood on the far side, closest to Esgaroth. The house stood twenty paces from the trees they sheltered in. The well stood in a straight line from the door, some ten paces from the house eaves. Elladan held up eight fingers to indicate how many he had detected inside the house. Hanasian flickered a hand sign to him and Elladan shook his head. There had been no sound or signal from the well. At that, Hanasian turned to his own people and gave out the command by hand signal. The others faded away to move into position before dawn arrived to illuminate the snowy farm properly.
In the well the darkness was absolute. It pressed upon her like a great barrow, outweighed only by the chill that emanated from the frozen earth around her. The rotting water had iced over. So had her clothing. It had been damp with ale, sweat and blood. Ice hung in her hair too. Rin had her knees drawn up to her chest. Her muscles screamed in fatigue from the constant shivering, the earlier beating and her attempt to escape this nightmare. Her jaw ached from the constant chattering of her teeth. She had not eaten nor drunk anything for a long time. Her thoughts were slowing, becoming muddy and dull. All she could do now was hang onto one thing and one thing alone. An idea. A thought. She must not go to sleep. She mustn't. She had no idea why anymore. Only that she mustn't. The icy material over her knees crunched as she pressed her brow against them. She mustn't go to sleep. No…no…only it was so warm there. So warm…why mustn't she go there? It made no sense. None at all… In fact, it was silly, because it was so warm there and so cold here.
They moved with the first proper rays of sunlight. Most moved for the farmhouse. Rowdy and Kholas were the first to enter the place. The sound of shattering glass as they bulled through the windows on the far side was the only signal the others needed. The door was pulled open and Frea, Folca, Stillwater and Slippery pressed in from the other side while Elladan and Elrohir waited with arrows ready should any flee from house. Three Rangers converged on the well, tossed the lid aside and shouted down into it. Only silence returned from the well, carried on a blast of frigid air.
Elrohir glanced to where the Rangers were crowded around the well, foreboding seeping through him.
"RIN! RIN! Hurry, rope, Mec! RIN!" Hanasian bellowed, voice echoing off the walls of the well shaft.
It was a sure sign that he was right to get out of the company. He had lost his edge. Maybe love caused that or maybe he just didn't read signs as he should. How could he allow his wife to be taken again? Short of chaining her to himself, he couldn't keep her safe. Self-doubt filled Hanasian faster than he could drain it off. He didn't have the Company anymore, and so his whole being was focused on his love. Perhaps coming to Esgoroth was the wrong decision. Maybe they should have just headed west to their home and set about making it proper. Now, because of his lapse in leadership and thought, Rin was put in danger again. This was it. If she was alright after this, they would go west and not give a care to the world outside. He swore he would not let her out of his sight again. They would live happily together, not bothered by anyone.
It wasn't long before a rope was brought, and it was secured to Hanasian as he worked his way intp the well. He lowered himself slowly down, hoping he was not too late to save his wife and child. He found her slumped in the fetid, icy waters, cold to the touch, and removed the rope from himself to secured it around Rin. At his signal, the others above worked to pull her up. He watched her go, sending his enduring hope that she would survive and vowing that those responsible for this would die. Once again he had to let her go out of his sight and the rope did not fly back to fast enough. He scrambled to get out of the well and he saw that two men were being held by Kholas while Farbarad was restrained by Frea and Folca. A third man was walking out of the house with Stillwater and Rowdy, a slight grin on his face. He looked at Hanasian as he stepped forward. Elladan rested his bow and went to tend to Rin, who lay covered in cloaks. Elrohir kept his at the ready and trained on any potential target.
If anyone saw it coming, it was Farbarad. A blink of an eye was too long for the events that unfolded as the muffled silence of the snow-covered lands erupted into chaos. Hanasian ordered Farbarad to be released. As the hands of Frea and Folca relaxed their grip, Farbarad shook them away and considered moving against the third man. But what he saw only caused him to react with instinct. With a hand that moved so fast and sly, Silver Fox ripped himself from Rowdy's grip and smashed Stillwater in the face with a fist. Before Rowdy could react, the man had Stillwater's knife and slammed its hilt into Rowdy's face. Elrohir let his arrow fly but it only sliced the neck of the swift-moving Silver Fox. The man had taken a swift step forward and sent his stolen dagger sailing right toward Rin where she lay. Elladan turned his head when his keen eye marked the blade's flight. He lifted his hand up to knock it away but Farbarad jumped forth in front of the flying knife to shield Rin. He took it full on in the side between his ribs and his blood spilled in a crimson stain upon snow, Rin and Elladan as he crumpled to the ground. Reactions to this were swift and chaotic. Kholas slammed the heads of the two men he held together hard. One fell backwards dead as shards of his broken skull pierced his scalp and brain. The other spun away, but fell as the concussion caused him to lose balance. Mecarnil stopped his fall with a knife to his belly. He twisted and turning it hard and fast, and then pushed the man backwards off his blade so that he too fell and bled out in the snow. Hanasian lunged after Silver Fox but the sly Cardolanian rolled in the snow, regained his feet and ran for Eryn Lasgalen. Hanasian gave pursuit, his blade in hand and the two men had disappeared into the woods within moments. Kholas set out after them but Mecarnil signalled him to go with him to the right. Frea and Folca together ran off to the left of where Silver Fox and Hanasian had disappeared in the wood.
The chill wind sifted the falling snow all around in the gray skies. Hanasian followed the trail Silver Fox left; it was quite easy in the snow. Not only did he leave heavy footprints, his bleeding neck left a blood trail. Hanasian didn't know what he would do when he caught up to the man, but his mind was filled with rage at what had been done to his wife by this man. Not thinking what took place at the farmhouse in those moments, Hanasian pressed on and gave no rest to the man he pursued.
Silver Fox dodged his pursuer and worked his way slowly to the right in the wood. Hanasian had little trouble following, for the crimson snow pointed the way. It was when the Silver Fox had to climb over a huge fallen tree that Hanasian caught up to him. Malagorn rested as he straddled the log. His strength departed with each drop of blood. The elf's arrow had done more damage than had first appeared. His breath gave out clouds of silvery steam as he looked at the approaching Hanasian.
"You sully all who call themselves Arnorians," Malagorn gasped.
Hanasian slowed but his determined demeanour did not alter. His knife in hand, Hanasian continued his approach towards the man and said, "You, and those that think like you have failed. It ends here. Here and now!"
Silver Fox laughed, "So you will kill me and you will think it will end? It will not. You know that. Another will take my place."
Hanasian was nearly to the log and was about to grab the man and pull him down to finish it but instead Malagorn fell on his own. The loss of blood from the arrow from Elrohir's bow had found its mark. It had taken time for the man to bleed out. Hanasian stood before him and watched the snow turn scarlett and pink, and fought the urge to stab him viciously. He stood over the man and cursed him. With that he hoped that now he and Rin would have peace. Rin! He had to get back to his beloved! He had sworn in the well he would never leave her side again, yet he found himself in the snowy woods alone. He turned just as a knife blade dug into his shoulder. It was aimed for his back behind his heart. Hanasian fell and rolled, pulled the knife out. A ranger's knife of Cardolan! Now, it was he who was staining the snow. Hanasian wondered if he would see his wife again as a shadow crept over him.
"You stupid half-breed…" a voice said quietly. Hanasian tried to roll and see who stood over him. But he knew the voice. It went on…
"Not even that, really. Your Lossoth bastard blood speaks loudly of all that is wrong with Arthedain. You would have us go the way of Rhuadur and mingle, and mingle again. But aside from our great King, true pure Dunedain blood only pulses through ever so few, and the fewest, yet purist, are Cardolanion! You have sullied our rightful Queen you who call yourself Arthedainian. You are from a Lossoth-mingled line, and only half so. You should call yourself Rohirrim since you are half so. Now you mingle the blood of the Rohirrim into our line, and you think we would follow you? No, you will die here, and our Queen will be cleansed and will bear a child of true Cardolanion blood, and our people will continue!"
Though Hanasian heard the words, he could not bring himself to believe what was being said. He lay on the ground and stared up at the man that stood over him, he wheezed a response breathlessly, "Mecarnil… we are brothers in arms! We rode the Paths of the Dead with our King! You know not what you say!"
"I know exactly what I say, 'brother'. It has not been easy for me these long years. Yes, we served our King, and yes, I served you as my Captain in the Company. But you are no longer my Captain, and are no longer a Company. I regret it has come down to this, old friend, but Cardolan will again rise from the ashes of the destruction of men."
Mecarnil raised his knife and sent it down hard toward Hanasian's chest but he was knocked off balance when a log hit his head. The sound of the wood cracking on Mecarnil's head was muffled in the snowy trees and Hanasian's knife instead plunged into the chest of Mecarnil as he fell on top of him, the sound little more than a soft scrape. Standing over the two men was Kholas, his head bloodied down one side.
"If you are going to kill, then kill. Waste not time talking." the Easterling said flatly.
Mecarnil fell to the side of Hanasian as he pushed him off. Hanasian stood and looked at Kholas, who stared at Mecarnil. Hanasian brished the man's bloody hair from his swollen cheek, wrapped his arm around his neck and drew him close.
He whispered, "This did not happen this way. He died in the pursuit of Silver Fox. He deserves to be remembered with honour."
Kholas was confused; his head still rang from the clubbing he took from Mecarnil. He wasn't sure what Hanasian was saying but the sound of footsteps brought the two to turn about. Frea and Folca approached through the trees and stopped when they saw the two bloodied men standing. Looking about, they saw the two dead men.
Folca noted the blood-stained snow and asked, "What happened here Cap?"
Frea was not far behind his twin and also paused to study the scene. He looked at the two dead men and then to Hanasian and Kholas's wounds. A silence followed, but Hanasian finally said, "I'm not really sure what happened. My recollection after Silver Fox hit me with his knife and knocked the wind out of me seems to have blurred in my mind. I think they killed each other in the fight while I was down."
Folca looked at Kholas, who was still dazed and unsure what to say. Folca asked, "What do you know of this, Easterling?"
Kholas swallowed and said as his arm wiped the blood and sweat from his brow, "I don't know for certain... I was hit with a log or something from behind as I pursued. Mecarnil was not far behind me. I heard a scuffle and I turned to look, and everything went black. When I came to, I came over here to help Hanasian up out of the snow. It looks like the two men fought and killed each other while we both were down."
Frea wiped Kholas's head with some cloth, and he jumped away, "Our Captain is wounded! See to him!"
Frea looked at Silver Fox, then at Mecarnil, then stood and looked at Hanasian and saw to his wound. Folca looked at Kholas, then at Hanasian, before saying, "You all go. I will tend to our fallen."
Frea paused as did Kholas and Hanasian. Frea said gruffly, "Go! See about the others! And us go see Rin!"
The brothers looked at each other before departing, and in silence told each other it happened the way Hanasian said it happened… even if it was a load of lies.
The three set out back through the woods toward the farmhouse. Folca was noted the tracks. If their Captain said it happened a certain way, then it happened a certain way. Any sign to the contrary would soon be obscured in the falling snow. Right now, their concern was whether the others, and particularly Rosmarin and her unborn child. They returned to find the elf brothers had transferred those alive into the farmhouse for shelter. Elladan and Elrohir tended Rin, who was just now starting to stir as warmth returned to her limbs. They found Slippery tending Fabarad, who still barely lived despite the severity of his wound. Stillwater had a broken nose, and Rowdy had a cut on his face but both men were in no danger of perishing from their injuries. Hanasian fell to his knees beside Rin as she opened her eyes. She smiled shyly as if in a dream and Hanasian leaned over and kissed her forehead.
"I love you Rosmarin."
Fatigue and the loss of blood finally took him at that and Hanasian fell to his side. He sank into a world of dreams. It was his turn to be tended. The sounds of voices sounded so far away, and Hanasian struggled to hang on to this world. He did not want to go to sleep… at least not before knowing Rin was alive and well. But the voices filled his head, and he faded into dream….
He was only a boy and he sat with his sister as his mother and father talked. Another young man was there; he recognized as his brother Hayna. But he left and his father and mother argued. Father was leaving, dressed for battle. He looked at him and said,
"You will understand one day."
Then he turned back to his mother. She cried as he kissed her on the cheek. She did not kiss him back. He turned and walked out the door, and little Hanasian and Halcwyn wondered if they would ever see him again.
He opened an eye and saw the yellow of a blazing fire. They were still in the house and it was warm. He felt hot. He tried to move but couldn't. It was then the most beautiful face came to him. Rin leaned over and kissed him long and slow.
The room in the old farmhouse was filled with the scent of wood-smoke as the fire worked at trying to keep the place warm. Hanasian woke up from his dream to find his shoulder wrapped tight and Kholas sitting there by the fire with his head bandaged. It looked like the available bedsheets had been sacrificed for the purpose. Farbarad was closest to the fire but he wasn't awake. Both Stillwater and Rowdy had bandages on their noses and were sitting at a small table playing a card game. Where was Rin? Hanasian tried to get up but the pain in his shoulder went all the way through him and made it hard to breathe. He began to cough. Slippery came in, followed by Frea who said, "You settle down there now Cap. As doc tells it, you took a severe blade hit that caught a bit of your lung."
Hanasian managed to catch his breath but refused to lay back down. He asked, "Doc? Where's Doc? Where's Rin?"
Folca arrived then and found Slippery was tending to Farbarad, but he quickly rounded her and Rowdy back out of the room. Folca said, "We'll only be a few moments."
When it was only the four there, Frea said in a low voice to Hanasian, "We prepared the body of Mecarnil and figured to bury him today. We were hoping you would wake for it."
"How long have I been out?" Hanasian asked.
Folca answered, "This is the second day. Didn't miss much. Been a full blizzard out since the fight until this morning."
"Where is Rosmarin?" Hanasian asked sternly.
Frea said, "In the other room by the fire. She's been sleeping a lot too. Worry not, she and the baby are safe. We're more worried about you and Farbarad. It looks like you will live. Farbarad we're not so sure. He lost a lot of blood. The sons of Elrond tended to him and you. I think you will be fine with rest. We hold hope Farbarad will make it."
Hanasian leaned forward and motioned the three to draw close. He whispered, "Who knows what here?"
"Just us." Folca whispered in Rohirric before saying in Westron, "We know that events moved beyond all reason. We pressured Kholas to tell us, which he did finally after we pointed out the many inconsistencies we noticed. We all agree it's the best for everyone, and for the Company record."
Frea and Kholas nodded, and Hanasian nodded as well. The conflict he felt within him it reminded him of the day in Khand nearly twenty years before. Decisions had to be made faster than there was time for thought. Now a trusted comrade in arms from the war and in Company campaigns had fallen. Hanasian resolved that he would bury the ill that erupted at the last and remember the good. It was what captains had to do. Mecarnil had proven himself a better man that the final madness that had consumed him
Slippery stuck her head in and said, "I have to tend Farbarad. You will have to take your meet elsewhere."
Kholas went over to sit by the fire while Frea and Folca stood up. Hanasian said to them, "Help me up and take me to see my beloved wife."
With one on each side, they walked Hanasian through the doorway to the kitchen where a blanket hung, separating where Rin rested from the rest of the room. Hanasian looked in on her and saw her peacefully sleeping. Hanasian said, "I'm going to lay down here with Rin. Wake us when the service is ready."
He got as comfortable as he could and buried his face into her hair as he held her close.
She ran on cool, soft grass that sprang under her bare feet and tickled them in such a way that it made her giggle. Ahead was a dappled array of sunlight that pooled here and there on the ground. Sunlight streamed over Loch as he streaked away ahead of her. He was older. His legs were longer. But sometimes he would let her catch up and they would tumble beneath the trees and laugh. She loved this game. She loved running through the trees and sunlit patches. She loved the feel of the grass under her feet, the warm summer air on her skin, the breeze in her hair that had tangled despite her mother's care to brush it out earlier. There would be knots so ferocious that tugging them free would bring tears to her eyes no matter how Da and Loch teased her. She'd be sitting in Ma's lap, giggling and squirming, eyes screwed shut come evening. She didn't care. It was worth it.
Rin called ahead to her brother. His answer floated back to her, singsong high and taunting. If he were heading for the brook there would be trouble. They weren't allowed there, not after last week. She hadn't fallen in. Loch had pushed her in because he thought it was funny. It was, until their parents found out. Now they weren't allowed near it, even though summer had made it all slow and shallow and the frogs could be seen hiding in the cool, sucking mud of the bed. Today would be a day that Loch would not let her catch him. He'd run right up to that brook and hop across it like he was a frog himself. Unfair as it was, she knew why. It was because she was growing and she was getting faster. She'd catch him, one day soon. She knew she would. She'd catch him good and all on her own and not because he let her.
But not this day. One of the nearby ferns reached out and lightly touched her shoulder. She blinked, confused and discovered it was a hand. A hand gently grasped her shoulder and shook it but it was not Loch's hand, nor Ma's nor Da's.
"Shhh…Rin….Shhh….it's me," Frea said as his cousin's wife flinched from his touch. Folca was stirring Hanasian to wake on the other side.
The confusion and fear on Rin's face in that instant made his heart ache but once she had her bearings she hid it away again. He released her shoulder and she turned to where Hanasian lay.
"Doc…Doc no, not now. It's time and you're not yet strong enough," Folca said and Hanasian managed to lift a hand and wrap it around her wrists.
"He's right, my love," Hanasian said and drew her hands up so that he could kiss her knuckles.
"Time for what?"
"Mecarnil," Hanasian answered.
Understanding dawned in her face, chased by something else that she hid away. Daylight was failing, the blizzard had subsided in what was proven later to be a momentary respite. It was time to farewell a friend, one he would remember as a friend, a brother in arms. It had to be that way. By the time those able to attend had been girded against the cold, Elladan and Elrohir had returned.
Solemnly, they picked their way to the site prepared. It was under the eaves of Eryn Lasgalen, a clear view down to the lake and the twinkling lights of Esgaroth. Behind the forest rose the peaks of the Misty Mountains. Ahead rose the Lonely Mountain. Torches had been lit and thrust into the frozen ground as far as possible. Because the ground was frozen, and because the rites of Mecarnil's people did not involve pagan pyres, the only option remaining was a cairn of stones.
Large rocks had been positioned around Mecarnil's body already. Hanasian suspected it was the work of Elves. Certainly Elladan and Elrohir had been busy and likely it had been more than them. He could not see any of Thranduril's folk now but that did not mean they were not there, watching. With Farbarad still unconscious, Hanasian realised the rites would fall to him. Rin stood silent, uncertain of what to do because she did not know such things. Mecarnil had made it one of his chief purposes to educate her, but his focus had been on matters of the court rather than funeral rites. She stood there eying the stones, thoughts hidden behind her eyes. Folca stood on one side of him, Rin the other and Frea next to her.
The cold was already leeching into his bones despite the measures taken to keep him warm. He did not know if he could say the words. There were many to speak and his lungs had not yet recovered. Nor was he certain what Mecarnil would make of a half-breed leading his final rites. But he could not think of that, would not think of that now. His grip on Rin's forearm tightened and he drew a breath to begin. The action made him cough and Rin's fixed stare on the stones shifted then to her husband.
Pits and stones…she hated them. All this death was her fault. Had she not gone to the aid of that man. Had she not crossed paths with the Black. Had she not stepped forward and remained just Rin, just a thief and a healer and Erían remained just a sad tale of a little girl lost all those years ago. Now Mecarnil was dead, Farbarad was dying, Loch was dead and Hanasian just might perish too. It was all her fault. What sort of healer brought such death? It was no wonder that Mecarnil was so bitterly disappointed in her. In under a year, she'd killed off half the Rangers that had survived her father's ambitions. She just might wipe them all out. Loch was buried under stone and now Mecarnil would be too. She could sense the pain Hanasian was in. How was she to just stand there and ignore all of this? HOW?
Elladan and Elrohir sensed the difficulty Hanasian was having and began for them. In their years they had observed enough Dundedain funeral rites to know their form. As the rites were performed, those around slowly added stones to the cairn. While this happened, Hanasian sensed the pain within him begin to ease. He implicitly understood why this was but it was not the time or place to chastise his wife for it. She was healing him, no matter what anyone had to say about it. She got far enough that he was able to walk forward with her to the cairn. Rin bent and gathered up two stones from the pile at the foot of the structure. She passed one to Hanasian, the smallest so that he could find the strength to set it into place.
As he did so, he struggled to find the words of farewell. So many things jostled within him.
"Rest, old friend. Rest in honour and peace for your service has been long and true. I will never forget that, never forget you," he ultimately said in Aduanic.
Rin understood none of this and Hanasian resolved that he would remedy that in the time they would now have for each other. So many things he could tell her about her people, her history, even if he were of such mingled descent himself. Rin set the final rock in place with a single phrase in Dunlendic.
"Forgive me," she whispered, fingers lingering on the rock.
Hanasian found himself hoping that the rocks would not betray Mecarnil's final moments. Her fingers left the stone and her expression was unchanged as she returned her hand to his arm and guided them both back. There was only one left now and he lay gripped in a battle that came of his unflinching loyalty.
With evening falling thick and fast and the wind beginning to lash them again, there was nothing left but to set the final rocks in place and seek the shelter of the farmhouse once again. By the time they had regained the warmth, Hanasian was lightheaded and his limbs shook with the strain. No sooner had he been guided to one of the few armchairs that had survived the attack did Rin move in again. Elrohir murmured for the need for caution and Elladan sucked in a gasp at what followed.
While not healers, they were the sons of a master healer and what they sensed was, strictly speaking impossible. Lienduril's Quickening was not a mortal technique. It was not for mortals. Mortals never performed it. There were very good reasons for this. However, despite the adaptations made, there was no mistaking what Rin was doing. It should not have worked. It should have been catastrophic.
"No, enough!" Elladan burst out when he could not bear it any longer.
Rin removed her hands and Hanasian felt no stronger. He drew a breath to say something and then realised something. He could draw a breath without coughing. His eyes widened at that and Rin brushed her fingers along his jaw.
"What have you done?" he asked with a combination of concern and wonder.
"Remember our stowaway – Morcal?"
Hanasian nodded his assent, "He proved that the rot and nonsense sprouted about Lienduril's Quickening was precisely that. All it needed was a little tweaking, a bit of practice, some patience… But I can't do anything about the blood you have lost, my love. That you will have to manage on your own. Rest, warmth, food. Don't let yourself be gulled. It will take some time before your full strength not only returns but can be sustained."
"This is madness," Elrohir muttered.
"I've not lost one yet. If that makes me mad, then so be it," Rin replied as she straightened to her height.
Before she had turned away Hanasian knew what she was about to do next. He also knew it would be easier to talk the sun down from the sky than dissuade her. The sons of Elrond had no such experience.
As Rin turned to deal with Farbarad, Elladan planted himself in her way with the pronouncement, "I cannot permit this."
"I do not recall asking your permission."
"You cannot do this!"
"Can I not? I have just buried one Ranger sworn to my service. And now you would have me stand here and wait to bury the last Ranger of Cardolan? He will not last the night."
"You do not know that."
"He will not last the night and I will not fail him! I have one Ranger's blood on my hands. I cannot bear another's."
An Elf and a woman of pure Dunedain descent in a contest of wills was a rare sight. Her expression was implacable and remorseless and Elladan's attention slipped to the man in the armchair. Hanasian subtly shook his head at his friend.
"I cannot allow it," Elladan persisted and at that Rin held her wrists forward towards him. The bruises left by others were still dark tattoos on her pale skin.
"Then bind me. Hand and foot. Make the knots tight for else I will find a way out. Then lock me somewhere, and watch the door and windows night and day without surcease. Do not open the door, not once. For if you do, I will find a way out. There is not a lock I cannot pick, a door or window I cannot dislodge. I can even find my way out through rooves if I must. I found my way out of that well and had they not beaten me senseless, I would have again. If you would stop me, then that is what you must do."
She knew it was a cruel tactic. Elladan and Elrohir were both aware of the torment she had endured as a prisoner only days ago. She was being so very unkind and manipulative, but she could not countenance another death. Not Farbarad. Not after Loch and Mecarnil. No, not another. She was fighting for his life and there was not a thing she would not do for either. For had he not thrown his life down for hers? Did she not owe him at least this?
Stricken, Elladan had no answer. What she presented him with was a sickening choice. Around them the others were silent, frozen into place. Elladan dropped his eyes and only then did Rin move past him and continue on to where Farbarad lay. He felt her begin again, only this time drawing deeper. He shook his head in his dismay and caught Hanasian beckon him nearer.
"My friend, you cannot dissuade the tide," Hanasian said, studying his wife's back as she worked, " She has been wielding this technique for some time during her service to the Black. It tires her, but no greater harm than that seems to arise from it. Indeed, more than some have been grateful for it."
"What do you know of the Quickening?"
"Little," Hanasian admitted, "And you?"
Elladan made to answer and then paused to glance at his brother. Without knowing it, Hanasian may have made a point.
"I have but a little art, Hanasian. No more. Neither Elrohir or I are our father's equal."
"Might it be possible, then, that the only healer amongst our number knows something we do not?" Elrohir stated.
"Of course…but if it tires her when she is strong and well, what now will it bode for her, or her child? It is a marvel she has not lost it already and Farbarad's wounds are grievous."
"She is stronger than she seems. Tenacious, bloody minded, mule stubborn and fundamentally unable to do as she is told. But she is also a truly gifted Healer. I have seen it for myself and now I suspect you have too. See? I have not coughed once. More than all of that, I know my beloved will do nothing that would endanger our child. After all that she has endured, nothing could be so precious to her."
Hanasian's final words were intended as a warning for her and she marked it well even if she made no open response to it. There was so much damage to repair and she was not in the least certain that she could prevail for all of this talk of strength and gifts and impossible techniques. He was tired, weak, and vulnerable and what she was doing was demanding that he fight. If she drew so deeply on herself that she sacrificed the child she carried, then she would never forgive herself. Nor would Hanasian…or Farbarad for that matter. While Rin worked, Slippery kept things organised. The woman was inordinately attentive. Rowdy was watching too, but then he was always watching. Hanasian kept Elladan and Elrohir engaged with talk of future plans.
When Rin became aware of her surroundings again it was late. Men snored, even Rowdy. Slippery's eyes were heavy. Hanasian was dozing in his armchair and she knew that once she gave in to her own fatigue it would own her entirely for many an hour to come. Outside the renewed blizzard howled balefully and the farmhouse groaned in its jagged teeth.
"Foolish, remarkable, impossible," Elladan said.
"It may not yet be enough," Rin replied, "He has lost so much blood. I fear too much…so much blood for a realm that should never have been."
"Will you rest? Please?"
For the life of her, she could not remember her answer. Nor could she remember cleaning up, getting to her feet and returning to their side of the kitchen blanket with Hanasian. She could not remember dreams. She could not remember a thing. Rin woke with a start at a sudden sound.
"Sorry," Stillwater said from his position by the kitchen hearth. He had been stirring new life into the fire there.
Hanasian was still asleep and this, Rin thought, was a good thing.
"You'll put it out that way," Rin observed and Stillwater waved a hand at her.
"You get out of that blanket and it will mean both our hides. I never met anyone who openly provoked an Elf before."
"Do what you're told, lassie," came a tired growl from the other side of the blanket.
At that, Rin smiled in relief and snuggled back under the blankets against Hanasian.
"Well I'll be," Stillwater exclaimed, stunned at the sight of an obedient Company Healer.
He managed to coax life out of the kitchen fire and went immediately to convey the tidings. Frea shook his head.
"Impossible," he stated flatly.
Hanasian kept his eyes closed but could hear the banter go back and forth on the other side of the blanket. Rin settled back in against him and set her head upon his chest. He knew she listened for his heartbeat. He could feel their child cradled between them. He felt her draw a deep breath and sigh as she tightened her arms around him. He felt so languorous that he easily drifted back to sleep again. When he woke again the farmhouse was bright with midday light and the wind had abated. It was also very quiet and Rin was gone. He quelled initial alarm, roused himself and pulled the blanket aside. He found his wife there, peering curiously out the window along with several others. Farbarad was still asleep. Everyone else was pressed to one of two windows.
"What is going on?" Hanasian asked and at that his wife left the window and came to where he stood.
"There are Elves out there, talking," Rin told him, "I don't know what it's about."
"Elladan and Elrohir are out there with them. Talking in Elvish," Stillwater added, not peeling his eyes from the scene.
"Fancy that. Elves talking Elvish. What a shock," Slippery muttered and by his side Rin grinned at the woman's sarcasm.
"They're coming back!" Stillwater exclaimed and at that, those at the window scattered back around the farmhouse and strove to appear nonchalant.
Elladan wasted no time, "Given events here, Thranduril has recapitulated. He's prepared to offer sanctuary until such time as you can make your way West. We'd take you now, but Farbarad will need time before he can travel. So frankly, will you. It is too vulnerable and remote to remain here."
"All of us? Thranduril would take all of us?" Hanasian inquired.
"Seems he's not prepared to explain to his son how he came let the cousin of the High King perish right on his very borders without so much as the offer of temporary sanctuary. So, Esgaroth or Thranduril…which is it to be?"
It was, to say the least, a surprising decision to be presented with. Hanasian looked to his wife and found her looking at him, brow furrowed.
"What is it, love?" he asked for it may be that she sensed something important.
"Who is this Thranduril anyway? And if he's so eager to help, where was he before? Sounds like a typical noble to me, bending this way or that according to the direction of the wind."
Hanasian wasn't entirely how to begin answering those questions and so he turned his attention back to the more immediate matter. Esgaroth or the elven realm of Thranduril. Esgaroth had already proven perilous. Thranduril's realm was far the safer option, provided his wife did not ask the wrong question at the wrong time.
"I will return to Esgoroth. You take refuge with the elves. It is best to keep eyes and ears in Lake Town. Besides, the pretty serving girl, Tarina, still favours me even though I was not completely honest"
"How do you know that?" Folca asked.
Kholas answered, "It was in the way she looked when we left. She didn't like my deception, but she was saddened to see us go. I will return, and if I'm right, I will enjoy my time there that much more."
Hanasian agreed, saying, "Yes, meeting a beautiful young woman can have that effect. You go, watch and listen, and we will meet again one day."
Kholas bowed and saluted, and turned to go. The rest of the party prepared to follow the Elven guards.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Videgavia and Berlas ran the Old Company in their own way. Vid sought to make his mark and so daily training was the first activity before a late breakfast. This rigid discipline was the source of constant grumbling but the grit of the men who had chosen to stay didn't truly object. They just couldn't say that. It was one of the jobs of soldiers to complain. A friendly competition sprang up between themselves, the Free Old Company commanded by Videgavia as they came to be called, and the Free Company of Rhun commanded by Khor. It kept both companies on a keen edge despite the constant chill weather that tried to dampen their spirits.
A small yet much needed trickle of Gondorian seafarers made the trek to serve the Old Company, seeing it as a calling by their King, and were swiftly put to work on the ship. Easterling soldiers who wanted a home in arms and did not join Legate Khirue's Home Guard, were those who wanted to join the Old Company. Only a few were accepted and only then on a recommendation from one of the Old Company's Easterling recruits. Khor accepted some into his Free Company of Rhun. While those who did not make the cut would have been welcomed in earlier days, the fact they were going to be taking ship to lands unknown meant their available room would be limited. Had they two seaworthy ships and the men to work them, larger companies would have been welcome.
In training the Rhun Company trained more as an army unit as it was mostly comprised of Easterling military soldiers. The Old Company trained more as a covert and marine force. The seafarers of Gondor joined the Old Company and would form the hands to man the ship. Khor's Company would be the muscle should they succeed in landing on a far shore. Privately, Videgavia hoped Khor would be the one who would be looking for the fight should it be needed, for they will likely be restless having to spend endless days on a ship at sea. Though the numbers of men in each company were roughly the same, it will be the strength of the Company of Rhun that will hopefully get them out of any scraps they might encounter. Until the winter storms passed and the ship was deemed seaworthy, they trained.
On the ship, Donius worked below deck to repair some of the sealing that had deteriorated to a point of falling out. It was all he had been doing for some time now. Finishing a stretch near the bow, he drank some water and splashed some more on him to wipe away the grime and sweat. While it was chilly and damp outside, the same gray mist and drizzle day after day, in the confines of the ship's hold it was quite stuffy and humid. As he rested, he watched his brother come down the old wooden ladder. His weight on the last rung caused it to give way and Daius stumbled to the bottom.
"Damn! This ship seems to be falling apart in front of our very eyes!"
"I agree with you, brother," Donius said as the hard fall made a bit more old seal fall away. He went on, "I don't know how anybody expects us to get, let alone keep, this old girl seaworthy."
Daius came over and handed his brother a small bottle. Donius uncorked it and winced as he smelled it.
"Not sure…" Daius answered as he shrugged.
"Khule found it and was delighted. Said it was a decent version of the harsh draught they would use in the war. Orcish in nature, but the Easterlings tamed it some. Still, you will warm up if you're cold, or cool down if you're hot. Whatever it is, it doesn't go down too bad once you get past the smell."
Donius shrugged and said, "Bottoms up."
He took a long swig off the bottle. After a bit of a cough, he rasped, "It burns on the way down, but in a soothing way. Now, how are we going to get this ship to stay together? It wasn't in such bad shape when we took possession of it."
Daius took the bottle back and had his own swig. He went to say something but he had to pause for a moment while his voice came back.
"Remember that hulk we came back from Harad on? That comatose mage was doing something to the ship with his mind. It literally fell apart before we got to Pelargir."
Donius nodded as he thought. He said, "Maybe the same thing here, only in reverse."
Daius went on, "Thinking they needed the mage and the young witch to keep it all together?"
Donius nodded and went back to work on sealing. Daius said, "Little good working on it if that be the case, is there?"
Donius pressed some pitch into a crack between planks and tapped on the plank. He said, "The wood is solid and not eaten. Very good wood this, even for the age of this ship. No, we can get her fixed up. Besides, would you rather we be outside drilling with the rest of the Company?"
Daius thought about it and nodded, "Good point. Vid said we're going to sail, so we best make it as seaworthy as we can. We'll have to tell him of our suspicion though."
"We will tonight." Donius said as he worked the sealing harder. Daius went back topside to continue working on the masts.
The weeks passed and the fog and drizzle was ceaseless, except for when it would rain properly. The only way to know if there was a full moon was by the way the clouds glowed in a subtle faintness. Strong hands and some shipwrights from Pelargir arrived and set to work on the ship, intrigued by the tales of a Numenorean ship having been found. They got what they came for, and more. With the help of their knowledge of the craft, the old ship started to look and feel better.
On shore, daily drills and training would give way to materiel movement. The evenings were spent around their fires, or for the old crew, their building they had made into a bar. Some of the men had decided to open the bar to others who were in their company. WulgoF and Mulgov charged higher prices for the cheapest of ales and they were making a fair haul. They would have grown too comfortable had it not been for Videgavia's consistent drills.
As the weeks passed, Anvikela grew more comfortable in their presence, and it seemed she had eyes for their Lieutenant. Berlas didn't seem to mind her attention but thought it ill advised to get too close. All professionalism aside, he was concerned about his Captain. Vid was the first to really reach out to her and get her to come out of her shell. But Videgavia was not interested in anything further. He even encouraged Berlas somewhat. After a time, the men would comment about 'his girl' and Anvikela would slightly smile when she would hear that. If Berlas became a bit more protective of Anvikela, it was because she was their eyes and ears into this world they would try and get to when they set out.
And it wasn't going to be too long before some fair weather and friendly seas would come.
The sun slanted between the bare boughs. Earth peeked between drifts of snow. Sun was rare still. Snow had relinquished her wintry empire to sleet, and sleet then to rain as winter passed. While it had not been easy to reach the sanctuary offered by Thranduril, the rewards of their efforts clearly showed. Farbarad's recovery was near complete. Hanasian had regained his strength swiftly. Rowdy's broken nose had largely resolved itself and Rin seemed to glow with renewed vitality and vigour. She had even been heard to laugh. Above all else, the care of Thranduril's folk for the mortals sheltering in their midst, was evident in that silvery sound. It came only occasionally, but that it came at all spoke volumes. Rin had not been heard to laugh outright since the initial march from Minas Tirith.
In that rare sun strewn moment, Hanasian was on his knees and talking to his child while Rin laughed from above. They were not alone. Farbarad was perched nearby and Rowdy was somewhere close at hand too. The more Farbarad got to know the Gondorian, the more convinced he was that the man would make a fine addition. After all, they were missing a man after Mecarnil's death and with a child to defend now…and he was only one Ranger. One Ranger, who sat at his relative ease watching a charge he had long considered dead flourish in the fullness of motherhood. She wore it well. Verawyn would have as well had she not Bereth and his politics to contend with. Rin was quite literally her mother's image, except for when she was up to something. Verawyn had never worn so devious a smile as her daughter did. With the rebels dealt with, there was nothing left but a long and fruitful life. He'd finally made it through to the other side. He missed Mecarnil sorely for it. As proper and exacting as his fellow Ranger had been, at his heart Mecarnil had only wanted what Farbarad now saw. Safety, prosperity, good life and health.
As if she grasped the cant of his thoughts, Rin tipped her head back and laughed at whatever Hanasian said. The man had his hands on either side of her belly, fingers splayed, and he was smiling in that quiet and heartfelt way of his. A twinkle had returned to his eyes. Initially it had been difficult. Hanasian had not been able to tolerate his wife's absence from his sight or hearing for even a moment. It underscored just how frightened Hanasian had been. In the immediate aftermath, there had been questions about the bruises on his wife. Farbarad recalled the dark, insidious stain at her wrists. Hanasian suggested that there was far worse. Yet, when questioned, all Rin would say was that those responsible were beyond mortal justice. Certainly she recovered strongly, particularly once Thranduril's healers were able to take up the work for her. Now, clad in a green velvet gown fashioned in the elven style, no one would know what she had faced and survived. Not just with these rebels, but with the death of her brother and all the long years of desperate sorrow.
Movement off to one side drew Farbarad's attention. Though they were well within Thranduril's realm, he would never completely relax his guard again. He knew that just as he knew the sun would set this day and rise again the next. Elladan and Elrohir emerged from the forest. They lifted their hands to Hanasian and Rin, who paused in whatever game they were playing to study the elves, and continued on to where Farbarad lounged. Their faces were solemn. Farbarad knew that his time of reflection and relative good cheer was ending.
"They've fired the farm," Elrohir said quietly, without preamble.
Farbarad frowned, "Who has?"
"We do not know. Nor does Kholas," Elladan supplied and Farbarad grunted at that, mind wheeling.
Firstly, the fact that they'd spoken to the Easterling confirmed they'd ventured as far as Esgaroth. That meant that the report to Bard had been made. If Kholas didn't know, it meant that the Easterling hadn't seen anything in Esgaroth and if Kholas hadn't seen anything… But surely they had them all in hand? Surely!
"Arrows dipped in pitch and set alight. We found the arrowheads in the ruins. The heat marked the metal," Elrohir answered.
Farbarad scratched at his jaw and weighed this up. Fired arrows meant that they struck from a distance. Uncertain as to their reception should they close and take more direct action? Why would they bother? Assuming it was yet more of these fools, what could they possibly have left to gain? How many were there? Farbarad's attention slid back to Hanasian and Rin. They were deep in discussion again, earnest exchange of thoughts. Rin's expression showed a candour rarely seen by others. As Hanasian made his reply he brushed a fall of sunlit pale hair back from her cheek. She leaned her cheek into his palm. How much should they know, he wondered? He was loathe to let such matters intrude on this precious time of peace. They had known so little of it since their paths crossed. And yet, to keep it from them both would be an unforgivable breach of trust.
"We should set out for Imladris as soon as we may. If they lay in wait for us, I would rather chance it while Rin is reasonably agile on her feet. If we wait…"Fabarad rumbled.
Rin was now some five months along and though she wore her pregnancy well, with the grace her mother had before her, she was unmistakeably pregnant. As the weeks passed, she would find it increasingly difficult to travel. The mountain passes would be all but impossible. They would slow, vulnerable…no, he could not chance it.
"There are some of Thranduril's folk who have a mind to summer in Imladris. They would bolster our numbers, increase protection," Elrohir stated.
"We're all going too," Farbarad returned, aware of the thoughts of the others.
Frea and Folca were intent on making Bree again. Secretly, though, Farbarad knew that neither man wanted to miss the chance to greet their cousin's child. Stillwater and Slippery had no interest in returning to Gondor or Rhun. Something waited for them in Minas Tirith that neither were keen to encounter. As for Rowdy, well Farbarad had all but recruited him. He was good. He was very good. Quiet, discrete, attentive, and not in the least cowed by a certain Company Healer. Rowdy woul just batten down the hatches and let Rin storm around him in a way reminiscent of her foster brother. Loch would do the same thing, except he would have the temerity to grin at her which only fuelled her ire further.
"Then preparations are required," Elladan said and the decision was made.
"I'd best tell them about this," Farbarad said, and resolved to do exactly that tonight.
This is how it came to be that he sat with Hanasian and Elrond's Sons in the glow of dinner's aftermath. Rin was elsewhere, head close to Slippery's. The two women were up to something. Slippery had that smile he had come to appreciate so well. Every so often there was chuckling, nodding of heads, grins. It was making Stillwater nervous. But it kept Rin preoccupied and that was a good thing. The last thing he needed was to cast a new shadow over her head. While he kept an eye on Rin, Elladan summarised their earlier discussion.
"Two weeks…if you think she can be ready," Elrohir replied and at that Hanasian thought a moment before he nodded.
"She will be. She will ensure she is. Rin wants to go home, wherever that is. Aside from fatigue, she is hale and well."
"Fatigue?" Farbarad inquired and heard the sharpness of his tone.
"It is to be expected. She is nurturing a child, Ranger. The child draws on her strength as proper. It is the way of things," Elladan reassured him and Farbarad nodded.
Elrohir caught a smirk upon Hanasian's face, "Fatigue? Is that your excuse?"
"It is. Ask her…she finds the need to nap now. My wife naps."
"Of course," Elrohir murmured and Farbarad realised the Elf was being wicked.
For weeks now, neither Hanasian nor Rin could be found in the late afternoon. Hanasian might ascribe it to naps, but Elrohir's gentle game had Farbarad wondering. Rin may well be fatigued, but what was Hanasian's excuse? Her pregnancy made her glow. Did he really expect them to believe that all that happened was napping? Before or after? That was the question that Farbarad wanted to ask. Mecarnil's memory and the fact that the man would have been scandalised, made him hold his tongue.
Hanasian told his wife of their plan to set out for Imladris in the coming weeks that very night as they readied for bed, but he said nothing of what had been discovered at the farm. She had only just started to sleep through the nights free of night terrors and he was not inclined to see that change. News that they would commence their long journey home made her eyes luminous with hope.
"Home," she whispered reverently and he gathered her into the circle of his arms.
"Home, my love, as I promised. Our own. Four sturdy walls, a roof that does not leak. A garden too, for whatever it is we would grow…a warm hearth, a safe place. Ours. Our own. Never to wander again."
"Home," Rin repeated as if tasting the word and settled in against him.
That night, Rin dreamt of many things. As her child grew, her dreams became strange. No longer frightening, but vivid and fantastical. She dreamt of home as she knew it, the sing song voices weaving around Hanasian's in a child's song and the sound of waves. She dreamt of the only home she had known before this glimpse of the future. She dreamt of Loch that night and it was so profound that it woke her. Hanasian drew deep, steady breaths beside her. Loch's presence was palpable. She could hear his voice. Sense him. So close that it ached. She dreamt that he had been sitting, watching the dying embers of a hearth in an unfamiliar and yet comforting room. There had been a carpet thrown over the flagstones of the floor. Curtains had been drawn over the window at his back, set into a deep sill. He had been seated on a couch, legs crossed at the ankle, boots caked with mud, and he had been smiling. Lopsided, but not devilish. A deeply happy, contented smile. The sort that came when all was good and right in his world. She could almost smell him. And yet, in this elven chamber there was only herself, her beloved and their child.
Rin considered waking Hanasian to tell him of this but decided against it. Instead, she lay down again and wrapped her arms around him. Loch was gone, a deep rift, torn away too soon, but her beloved was here beside her and they were going home. Each night Rin had the same dream. It varied only in one details. Sometimes Loch would glance up as if he looked in her direction and she would see his dark eyes gleamed with a heartfelt warmth. Two weeks passed and at last all was ready. Between their numbers and those venturing west for summer to Imladris, their numbers stood at a score. If anything or anyone lay in wait for them, they would come to rue their wicked plot.