4. Chapter 4
Rin carefully sat up and realised that a small pile of belongings had been left near the saddlebag she had been sleeping on. She peered at them, uncertain of why they were there. Loch noticed his sister sitting and he gestured at the bundle she was cautiously staring at.
"Yours," he called over with a grin. He waved his hand at the stream at the bottom of the hill. "Go wash up, Rin. Food'll be ready soon." Rin stared at her brother, but he said nothing further and turned back to resume the conversation he'd been holding with Khule, Wulgof and Molgov.
"Is she doing it?" he asked the other men, not daring to look around to check.
"I think so," Khule replied, studying Rin from the corner of his eye as she picked up a shirt almost large enough to fit two of her in. He winced and looked away.
"She's going to tan your hide," he said to Loch. Loch shrugged and grinned.
"She always has to catch me first, though," he said with a wink.
Rin collected the cloak and huge shirt. It smelt clean, which was more than could be said for herself. She scanned about her. No one seemed to care overly much what she did. Rin cautiously picked her way through camp. Those that glanced in her direction merely nodded their head amicably, some greeted her. It was utterly disconcerting. But then, these had only been men and not monsters to her hours ago. Shaking her head, she trotted down to the stream, found sufficient tree cover and divested herself of the mud and blood and various detritus left in her hair from her sprint through the forest yesterday.
The water was cold, and after the initial shock she could feel the fatigue sluicing away from her. The shirt was made of a pale and worn fabric. She sat in the sun to dry before putting it on. Not a single soul ventured to disrupt her. She recalled Hanasian's comment from yesterday afternoon only distantly. No one would bother her, he had said. It seemed laughable then, but she'd been too unwell to voice her doubts. Soldiers were soldiers and she'd seen what they could do for herself. It was this chilling awareness that prevented the music of the water to completely unravel her caution. Loch may have relaxed, but she for one would not relent.
Rin dried quickly under the spring sun and she soon ducked into the giant shirt. It fell to her knees and the neck was so large that it kept slipping off one shoulder. Still, it was a large improvement on the torn bed sheet, some of which she had lost the night before treating fallen men. Hanasian caught the bright flash of her bright hair through the trees as she dressed. Rin didn't notice him, and he gave her privacy in hopes of gaining her trust. She stood wondering what to do next for some moments. The idea of rejoining her brother and the soldiers up the slope was not an appealing or particularly wise one, but nor could she skulk about in the bushes on her own for goodness knows how long. Her choices were few. She could press on without Loch for the time being and hope good sense eventually caught up with him before misfortune did...and it would, considering the company he kept. Or she could venture back into the fire to rejoin him. Rin heaved a deep sigh. Perhaps, after she had managed to find some food, she could slip away again.
Unable to overrule her empty stomach, Rin started back up the hill with her misgivings persistently circling in her head. She was initially startled when Hanasian emerged from cover elsewhere. Instinct saw her pause and it was only then that she noted the fatigue stamped on his face. He moved stiffly, she noted and glimpsed a tell tale tattoo of blood over his left ribs. "You're injured," she said. He nodded distantly but said nothing further. She followed him back to the camp.
"Something's drawing the orcs to New Tharbad. Don't know what. No sign of them here," Hanasian said, eyeing the pheasants with interest. Loch scratched at his beard, considered his sister and grinned. She had an expression he was familiar with and she was intently studying the ranger. He hadn't been certain the promise of food would be enough to lure her back. The emergence of a patient had sealed the deal.
"We'll stay the day, move tonight. We face lands unfriendly," Hanasian continued, glancing to Wulgof and Loch who both bore the stamp of Dunland in their features, unlike Rin. The men nodded and Hanasian turned to sort out his own gear before settling down for rest. He sat, knowing Rin stood at his back. Rin shifted her weight, tucking mostly dry hair behind her ears.
"You're injured," she repeated.
"And what do you plan to do about it?" Hanasian asked, mind busily turning, as he looked through his saddlebag. It was the one he'd propped under her head earlier. It was clear that this one was a healer, unable to help herself no matter how difficult the situation or patient may be.
"I could wait until you're asleep," she replied. He heard the mule-headed note to her statement clearly and hid his smile at it.
It was that stubbornness that had enabled her to overcome her fear, aversion to soldiers and his horse last night. Hanasian looked up at her with a carefully blank expression. If she thought she was being manipulated, he sensed she'd bolt and given what had happened this was not the sort of place a lone, underfed woman should wander in unarmed. The sun stood behind her, illuminating her. She shrugged in half an apology and smiled shyly down at him. The Ranger sat back on his heels, his inspection of the saddle bag he'd left under her head completed.
"Nothing missing, so why not," he said dryly. Rin crouched to his left and eased back clothing. The blood had dried and stuck his shirt to his flank.
"Nothing missing yet," she corrected, wetting down the fabric to free it. "You'll need more water and kingsfoil by the time I'm done."
Hanasian blinked in surprise, for such things he carried on his belt and not in his saddle back. She had lifted both without so much as a snag. Healer and thief, both useful for a Company such as his. "How," he paused to let pain pass as she worked, "Did you know that was there?"
Rin was bent, cleaning out the one slash that an orc had landed through his guard last night. She looked up into his face and smiled openly.
"You think I can't smell kingsfoil?" she asked rhetorically before returning to her work. So close, it was impossible to miss the presence of Numenor in the delicate structure of her face.
"Athelas," Hanasian murmured. Rin muttered something about names being meaningless and the importance of holding still. She seemed unaware of the heritage he saw in her appearance, and indeed in her healing skills. Rin finished cleaning the wound, muttering about orcs as she worked, and started to wrap his torso in now washed lengths of bed sheet. Hanasian looked across to her brother as she worked.
The men seemed to have recruited him already. They may have picked a scout already, it appeared. He smiled faintly and studied next Rin's bowed head. Her hands were deft, sure and gentle. There was much more to this woman than what meets the eye... it was then that a thought of a day some years ago passed through his mind. But he let it pass without much consideration at this point. She tied off the bandaging once she was convinced it was secure, trying to ignore the closeness of the Ranger she worked upon.
"Thank you, Rosmarin," Hanasian said quietly once she was done. The sound of his voice wrapped around her name did curious and unexpected things to her. Rin put it down to lingering disorientation from fever, because rangers and soldiers were men to fear and deal with accordingly. She sat back on her heels, reached for her composure and nodded.
"You are welcome, Hanasian. Keep that clean or it will inflame," she said calmly. As well he knew. Having worked wounds in battlefields, cleanliness he knew was important. Many a man who could have lived, wouldn't for lack of clean environment to heal in. While it wasn't always possible to have, one could do what they could to try. Healers, as a rule, were particularly insistent on this score. He'd heard more than one berate a ferociously armed warrior over it in his time.
"Hey Rin, you want this leg," Loch shouted from the fire. That snapped her head about and she was off to retrieve the food on offer. Khule looked across to Hanasian, who had lowered his shirt and was now smiling into the distance. He caught the Easterling's meaningful look and nodded at the man. Hanasian watched the siblings again, as if checking his own thoughts and decisions a final time. They had settled in around the first of the pheasants that had been roasting over the flames. It would be good to get some real food them both, particularly Rin. The fever seemed to have burnt most of her strength away. It was a chance to go talk to the men too. He left the paid huddled together and called the men a short distance away to their own huddle. Hanasian had only a couple things to say really, and it seemed they knew the answers.
"Sign him up already. We saw and knew less of Berlas over there than we do now of Loch," said Khule. Berlas was a silent one, new to the company while they were in Minas Tirith. A young Ranger of Ithilien during the lead-up to the war, he was dismissed by Faramir recently for some "indescretions". He would not say what, and nobody asked. Each man's business was his own, as long as it didn't interfere with their commission to the King. With Faramir's discussion with Hanasian and signed approval, the dismissal was sent to the King as one who "volunteered" for the company. Berlas was satisfied with it, needing to get somewhere else.
Mulgov agreed, saying, "Yeah, we kinda like the kid. Has grit him. He'll do alright with us."
Wulgof nodded, adding, "We kinda adopted him. We can teach him some finer skills of soldiering, and maybe help him gain a bit of discipline. Besides, we'll more than likely to be in need of a thief at some point in the future."
"How true that," Hanasian thought as he pondered about his days of pursuit of the elf Naiore. "Yes, Rin comes with us too. We need the healing hands... but you knew that already. Treat them as company members, just don't say anything right yet to either of them. I want to have words with Loch first." They seemed pleased with this turn of events.
Before could head of to set things in motion, Molguv asked a question of his own.
"Cap, what of these orcs? Got us good, and here in King's country too!" Hanasian turned back to the men as Loch trotted up with some bird for the men,
"They were bold, and it says that bands are roving in the Mistys still. Messengers have been sent from Tharbad to King Eomer and in turn to King Aragorn about this, and surely the Rohirrim will ride in force to rout them out. They seemed to be only on the south side of the river, as there is no sign of them on this side. Still, we will be wary on our ride north to Bree," Hanasian replied and looked up at the edge of the hill where Berlas kept watch. His Ithilien Ranger attire made him most suitable for concealment in green lands. Berlas signaled all was well, and Hanasian nodded and turned to Loch.
"The bird smells good. I'm glad to see your sister is eating her fill. Walk with me to the far ridge."
"Why? Where are we going," Loch asked. Hanasian didn't reply and instead started to walk up toward the lip opposite Berlas. Loch followed, aware that one thing soldiers do is what they are told by their commanders. A good commander can keep his men in line. A bad one won't bother. At the top of the hill, the grass rolled away down toward the west into scrub and a few young trees.
Rin was not at all impressed by the sight of her brother headed off with the Ranger, leaving her in the company of soldiers with a leg of a pheasant as means of defence. Loch ignored the itch between his shoulder blades as he walked away with Hanasian. Rin gave up glaring at her brother and turned her attention to those in her immediate surrounds. They were met with a wall of silence, which Kule opted to broach. If they were going to be part of the Company, someone had to try it.
"Why don't you like soldiers?" he asked. Rin considered not answering. She glanced over at where the Easterling sat. It seemed a genuine question, and he wasn't the only one interested. Others seemed to be waiting for a response.
"I've seen what they can do," she reluctantly replied.
"Not all soldiers are the same," quietly challenged Wulgof.
"Possibly… but tell me what makes one better than the other?" she responded. Molguv listed several attributes, honour, bravery, loyalty and skill. The others nodded as he spoke.
"And I suppose, depending on which side of the dispute you might stand on, you'd think your side had those things and the other did not," she said. Wulgof grunted at that, surprised at how ably she had caught that peculiar quirk of human nature.
"And so, if you're caught in the middle of so many, and no one is on your side so to speak, how then must it seem?", Rin continued. She did not have the slightest idea what possessed her to do this. Perhaps this brashness was also the fever's handiwork. Arguing military ethics with soldiers whilst armed only with a pheasant drumstick unarmed was not her wisest decision, she reflected. Molguv appeared thoughtful at her question.
"Some things are absolute, regardless of your allegiances," Khule persisted. Rin shrugged at that.
"Yes," Rin said quietly said, bringing her eyes squarely to the Easterling. "Some things are, including the stark reality that the strongest or fastest or cleverest wins, regardless of whether they are honourable or not."
There wasn't a man there who had not seen what she described. Wulgof seemed a tad uncomfortable and looked away, recalling earlier years. Molguv and Khule studied the woman with renewed interest. It was the first actual conversation they'd had with their pet. Rin's jaw firmed as she resolved to opt for silence now, safer by far. Above on the ridge, Hanasian eyeballed the first of his prospective recruits a moment.
"You know what's out there over those far hills? The sea. I wanted to go there, to a port of old called Lond Daer. Was hoping it would happen this time, but alas, it will wait. I have to make for Bree. You and your sister will ride along with us." He looked north and squinted. Nothing to see this clear crisp morning.
Hanasian continued, "When we get there, we will get you and your sister outfitted with proper attire. You two are joining the company... if you so wish of course. I'll need your advice on how to broach this with your sister." Loch looked genuinely dumbfounded by this. He'd seen the same look on the young man's face when he had discovered what Rin had done to Khule and Molguv yesterday.
Could it actually be that he had managed to turn their lives around, Loch wondered. He had thought it would be Rin who would do that, given that she was plainly the smarter of them - most of the time. Loch could not possibly comprehend the true reality of military service. However, Loch could appreciate more than most the value of having a legitimate position in life. The world could be cruel to those that drifted like flotsam and jetsam on its currents. It was getting harder and harder to protect Rin too. One of these days, he'd be too late. He'd long believed that what happened to his parents didn't if you knew how to handle the non pointy end of a sword.
"Just a few things you will need to know before deciding to join. First, is you will honour our commission. That is to our King Aragorn. You will at all times try to conduct yourself in a manner worthy of a soldier of the King. My core of veterans will train you in all that." Hanasian looked into Loch's eyes and read him. Loch did not turn away, but gazed back.
Hanasian said, "You know the life of a soldier, especially one in this company, can be, and usually is, short-lived. Take Amira and Belgon…. They been through tough times with the war, and they rode far and had battled in the east by the Sea of Rhun where Khule's people are from, and they were overrun by Far Haradians when we were away south, and they lived to tell about it against all odds. Yet here in the King's own country, they are slain by a mob of renegade orcs. Bear too could perished but for your sister."
Despite Hanasian's warnings, Loch's opinion did not waver. Better to be holding the sword at the correct end by far. In the past, he had discussed this option with his sister. The risks were many, but the food and pay were mostly regular and it was an honourable living...to accept the King's coin. Such discussions with Rin always ended in argument. Rin had failed to appreciate his perspective and Loch knew just how hard headed his sister could be. On this, he believed, she was not at all clever. Loch understood only too well where her fear sprang from. He had witnessed what she had.
What he could not understand was how she would let that fear stand in the way of a better life. Loch sighed heavily. It was as irrational as it was strong. The simple fact was that if he told Rin outright of Hanasian's offer, she'd take flight and a whole army would not be able to stop her once that happened. On this occasion, Loch concluded, he would have to act on her behalf in their combined best interests. He was her brother. He owed her at least this much. Hanasian's offer was a generous one, and Loch accepted it gratefully.
"I won't make you regret it," Loch assured the Ranger.
Hanasian paused, "At least you're entering with your eyes open. All I ask of you is your best. We've made it official, but won't say anything until we get to Bree. Now let's get back down there and eat some more bird before the others have it all." With a signal to Berlas, they started back for the main camp below. Hanasian could see Rin was watching them intently, brooding. As they walked back, Loch turned over how best to handle his sister.
"Rin's stubborn. Push her hard she's unmovable. She'll take six leaps backward for every push you make." Loch's voice held a telling rueful note that told the tale of many failed attempts over the years. He thought further as they walked back down the slope. He knew she'd not go far without him for now. So that meant that she'd stay if he did, under normal circumstances. They were each other had had for so long, anything else was inconceivable. An idea itched in his mind.
Loch paused, then asked, "How far is it to Bree?" Loch had never ventured so far north, nor seen the sea. He no idea how to visualise what may lay ahead.
"Seven days, give or take," Hanasian replied.
Loch nodded at that and sighed,"Well, if in seven days my clever sister doesn't realise how wrong she is about some things; I've got bigger problems than I imagined. Provided no one sprouts horns or fangs, she'll see sense. She won't be able to help herself."
Loch's hopeful tone was not lost on Hanasian. The Ranger nodded imperceptibly at the men upon returning to camp. Rin knew something was afoot just by looking at her brother's expression to know something was definitely afoot. She shot to her feet upon his return, a storm brewing already. Fast talking was needed, Loch knew, and it was needed now. He kept walking towards her, grabbed the back of the oversized shirt she wore and towed her backwards to a reasonably safe distance without so much as a hitch in his step. Khule winced from behind a pheasant leg, Molguv chuckled. He did not need his company hearing him getting his ears burnt by his younger sister. Loch, like any man, had his pride. Hanasian sat with the others, let the pair sort things out and made the most of the remaining pheasants.
"Lochared, quit that!" Loch released his sister's shirt and she spun about on her heel to face him, clearly angry now. "You had that same look when you told me of your plan to intercept some 'travellers' only yesterday," she declared.
"They were travellers," he insisted. "And if you hit me again, Rosmarin, there'll be trouble you don't want," he added for good measure. Rin flushed at the memory. Not her proudest moment. It took some of the wind out of her sails, which is what Loch had been counting on. "
I know what you think, Rin" he continued in a gentler tone. He didn't like manipulating her so, but his sister gave him such little else to work with sometimes.
"Hanasian has offered to take us both as far as Bree. It's a good offer, a generous one, and I've accepted it." Rin threw her arms up in disgust, relentlessly quashing that little traitorous spark of delight at spending longer in one particular person's company. Loch stared at his sister, catching something not quite as he expected in her face. Was she pleased, he wondered, looking closer. Of course not, he dourly realised a moment later.
"Loch, how could you do such a thing? Since WHEN did you start making my decisions for ME! These men are… dangerous!" Loch stared down at the ground between them. At least she'd stopped shouting after her second sentence.
"Yes," he replied slowly, honestly. "They can be… but not to us, Rin. Look at yourself! You're wearing the clothes off their backs! No one's laid a finger on you or me, despite the fact that you robbed them. They could have just left us to fend for ourselves at any moment. They could have had you hanged for theft! They've protected us, fed us, clothed you and more! They've done more for us in one day than anyone since our parents."
Loch took a breath, astonished that Rin hadn't interrupted him. She stood, arms crossed, frowning at him. There was an uncomfortable truth in what he had said and she didn't like it one bit. She was quiet because she was trying to think a way around those truths. Loch placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Rin, I'm going with them. You're more than welcome to come as well, if that is what you wish to do. I'm not making your decision for you. That's all there is to it. Rosmarin… I… I know you can be smart about this. Please? For both our sakes?" Rin searched her brother's face and realised Loch meant it. He hadn't said it, but he meant it. He would go with or without her.
He wouldn't say that. He hadn't the heart to be so cruel, she knew. But that was what he had meant, and he had asked her not to force him to go without her. Loch squeezed her shoulder, dropped his hand and walked back to the other men. He didn't feel so good about the half truths. He had concealed the fact that he had joined the Company and he'd made no mention of Hanasian's offer to her. Still, he had to handle this one hurdle at a time. He couldn't bear to think about what he would do if she forced him to make a choice between her and the future Hanasian had just offered him with. He had given his word to Hanasian, but she was his sister. Rin remained where she had been towed to by Loch. She stared at the ground as her thoughts careened about her head.
All of this had not been missed by the men. Khule and Molguv had started wagers on who would throw the first swing and who would win if it came down to that. Wagering had intensified Rin had shouted at her brother. It died down again as Loch had evidently talked his way out of an argument with her. Their banter drifted away discretely as Loch rejoined them. He sat with a heavy sigh, threw a glance in Hanasian's direction a moment. The Ranger read much in his expression. Loch nodded, the gate was open but the whole horse had not yet left the stable. Loch looked back to where his sister stood. She was thinking, he knew, and there was no telling what she'd come up with once she started thinking. All he knew was that he was tired and there was little else he could for now. Loch stretched himself out on the ground and plunged headlong into sleep. Hope, wrapped around a newly forming sense of achievement and place in the world, sped him to rest.
After a while, Rin sat with her back to the camp. She tucked her legs up under the giant shirt, wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her knees. Things were changing and she needed to decide what she thought or felt about them. Loch was probably right, but it didn't make it any easier for her. Was she going to be one those people that always hid, cringing through their entire lives? How could she just forget what had happened? Why did she keep thinking of that damn Ranger? If Loch went with them and she didn't, then what? If she did go too, then what? Through it all, the conversation she had unwisely had with three of the soldiers circled around and around. Rin's fingers played with some loose fabric of the shirt she wore as a dress. Clothes off their backs... yes, they had been uncommonly generous, honourable too if she had to admit it, but how long until that ran out? Two tag alongs would wear out even that sort of welcome... unless...
Rin sighed with the realisation and her chin lifted from her knees. Loch had enlisted! That's the only way he wouldn't wear out his welcome. Loch would earn his place among their number. So now she had to look to herself. Rin pulled up a handful of grass from beside her. What sort of position did that leave her in now? She twisted around to peer back at her brother. He was snoring, as were a number of others. Rin straightened and threw the grass away from her. She put her chin back to her knees, re-wrapped her arms about her legs. She needed to think, not cry or wail or shout. She stared at the horizon with a steely determination.
To Hanasian, it looked like the day was going to get warm. Maybe a sign of the summer to come? Possibly. Most of the men took the opportunity to stretch out and take a nap while the ground was reasonably soft and the sun warming away the chill of the wet days before. Hanasian let then rest, and even rested his own eyes, though his ears were attuned to the sounds around him. Molguv had relieved Berlas. After some jocular bantering about he not being the newb anymore, making Lock a bit nervous. Berlas took a rest as well. Hanasian squinted open an eye and looked at each one in his company as his thoughts turned.
Too many new faces in the last couple years. Most didn't last, and too few he could find since returning from the south worthy of joining their number. The war veterans who couldn't settle either joined long ago and are now dead, or they haven't and managed to make peace with their demons. None of us are getting any younger. For men, Dunedain blood or no, time takes his toll. The future of the company lies with younger blood. Is that why Loch appeals to him? Only time will tell...
He watched some of their movements in slumber, but stopped his squinting gaze on Rin who sat some distance away with her back to them. He had no doubt that she knew Loch had signed on, and what she would do was a mystery to all. Hanasian stood and walked toward her. She didn't seem to notice his drawing near, so he cleared his throat a bit to warn her of his approach.
"Do you mind if I intrude on your thoughts?" Maybe she did sense his presence. She seemed unconcerned with his presence, didn't say anything. She just motioned her for him to sit. He did so, sitting in front of her so that he could get a clear look at her and she him.
"I know you don't care for the company of soldiers, and this lot can be a bit harsher than most, but my offer to you is the same as that offered your brother... to join this company. Knowing your disdain, I still hope that you will consider it as you ride with us to Bree. It will likely take us a week to get there. That should be sufficient time to really get to know what we're all about. Once there, you can decide whether to take up this offer, or go freely your own way... "
Rin's thoughts bumped into each other, tangling in her head. The realisation that he thought her disdainful made her flush. How could she possibly look down her nose at anyone given she was a penniless, homeless thief. Still, despite his assessment of her, he still offered her a place within his company. It was extraordinary to her and clearly caught her off guard. A silence drew about them, and after a few moments Hanasian stood.
"Think about it until then. Right now, we will ride before the noon hour. Rest now and be ready to go."
He looked at his shadow and judged they would rest one more hour. The breeze tugged Molguv's shirt relentlessly off one of her shoulders. Rin looked up at Hanasian as he stood in front of her. He could see the thoughts leaping behind her blue eyes.
"I am no soldier. What possible use could you have for me?" she asked.
"My company needs many skills, including those of a healer," Hanasian replied. Just like that, Rin knew what Loch must have felt in his own turn. A place, a place long hoped for on cold, lonely, dark nights. A dream, foolish but ever present, at times cruel in its mockery and at times respite against despair. A path forward, a future. Could she countenance becoming one of the very people she loathed? Could she countenance not at least considering it? Hanasian saw something shift and fall into place in her mind. He extended his hand down to where she sat. Rin looked at it, took a deep breath and placed her own within it.
Hanasian easily towed her up to her feet and then released her hand a moment later. Her fingers tingled. She flexed them as she studied the camp. Hanasian started to walk back. She followed a little way behind, still cautious. Rin returned to the cloak that Khule had given her a second time on the preceding night. It was dry. It was warm. She sat on it and studied her brother for a long moment. He was still snoring. Then she looked down at the cloak she sat on. It was like an island. She had a week to find out if the sea that surrounded her truly was inhabited by monsters.
Loch woke with the general movement of the camp around him. Khule's application of his boot against Loch's own feet saw to that. He sat, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hand and saw that Rin was nearby, in the camp, still present and her hair braided. That meant that she meant business.
"I'm glad, Rin," he observed, a relieved grin on his face. She set a steady blue gaze on him by way of reply. He wasn't sure what precisely she was angry about. There was no telling what she had figured out by now. His conscience suggested that perhaps she'd figured out the whole truth of the enlistment and resented his duplicity. Now wasn't the time to get into it, he resolved. Being a man of some wisdom, Loch elected to go scare up a ride rather than risk further comment. He honed in on Molguv. The Haradian had a large horse to accommodate his bulk.
Rin stood, collected the cloak and shook it out. She folded it and considered it a moment, squared her jaw and searched out Khule. Her heart was hammering in her ears when she found him adjusting the girth strap of his own mount. Khule straightened, caught a glimpse of her and jumped.
"Where did you come from," he exclaimed, looking about to see if anyone else had noticed him startled by the woman that stood with his cloak in his arms.
"I want to give this back to you," she said and held it forward.
"No holes this time," Khule observed, tossing a dark glare back over his horse towards where Molguv had mounted with the other of the company's newest pets. He turned back to face Rin, surveyed her a moment. She had only the Haradian's shirt between her and the wide world. He wasn't sure why, but she reminded him of his sisters. He would not want his sisters wondering about in such a fashion.
"Keep it, for now," he said, perhaps more gruffly than he'd intended. He was perturbed by the turn of his thoughts. Why should this woman remind him of his sisters? He saw her flinch, startled though she tried to contain it. Her arms lowered and she frowned at the cloak.
"Scat! Go find a horse, woman! It's a long walk to Bree!" The last thing he needed was a woman that reminded him of his sisters following him about. This, he reminded himself, was the woman that had robbed him. There was no cause for him to start feeling all...protective. He checked to ensure he was still in possession of his purse, shook his head and swung into the saddle muttering to himself in his own tongue. Rin saw that all around her, men had mounted up.
"Are you coming," Hanasian asked from his own horse. She looked back up at the Ranger and nodded, settling the cloak back around her shoulders. Hanasian fetched out yet another apple and tossed it down to her.
"Eat it on the way," Hanasian said and kicked his horse closer. Again, he held out a hand down to her. She gripped his forearm let herself be swung up behind him. Hanasian turned his horse about once, checking that they were ready to move out. Rin's right arm snaked around him to hang on as she settled in behind him. They rode out at noon, striking north for Bree. Everyone knew they had two new recruits, although it hadn't been officially announced. They also had the queen of the land they travelled through, a fact no one was aware of, including the woman in their midst.
"If I joined, I wouldn't be a soldier?" Hanasian smiled faintly at the query delivered quietly from behind his right shoulder half an hour after they had started riding.
"King's service, sworn to uphold your duty to the crown. But a healer, who can properly fend for herself on the battle ground," he replied. He felt her sigh behind him, weighing this up with a mind that he was fast concluding was rarely ever still.
"OW!" Loch cried ahead. An apple core bounced off the back of his head. "What was that for," he asked, turning an injured look on his sister.
"You know," she said enigmatically from Hanasian's right elbow, peering around the Ranger at her brother. Loch scowled at her and turned back again.
"Of course I do. I can read minds," he grumbled to Molguv's broad back, rubbing his scalp and picking bits of apple out of his hair.
Through the afternoon and twilight they rode. Rin was silent behind Hanasian for the most part, watching and observing the men around her. They maintained a steady pace, watchful and alert. As Loch had predicted, Rin found it increasingly difficult to maintain her idea that monsters surrounded her. All she saw were men. When they reigned in for the night, Loch earned his training drill and first watch assignment. Rin was left in their midst in the darkness. Nothing untoward happened, only proving that these were also honourable men even when they could get away without being so.
The next morning saw yet another training drill for Loch, this one with Khule. Loch was fast recovering his strength with regular food. With it came his reach and a growing strength. He was a broad shouldered man, of a good height. He was, however, reluctant to employ it against those he squared off against in training. Training was different to the previous scuffles, fights and clashes of his past. There was no grubby alley. There was no tavern common room that had exploded into a brawling, violent morass. He also needed to learn how to handle his feet.
They rode through the next day, stopping periodically and camping through the night. On the third morning, silver laughter bubbled out Loch's sister as he tumbled and sprawled. It was the first time they had heard her laugh. Some of the men smiled themselves. A woman's laughter had not been heard in their midst before for many of their number. Loch scowled at her and she looked away, a smile of particular mischief still in place, and back the task of fletching arrows given to her by Wulgof the previous day. "
I think she enjoys it when I get hurt," Loch said, turning back to Khule.
"Aye, women can be particularly heartless creatures," Khule lamented, moving in to resume.
There was another training session at lunch. They were working Loch hard. Rin, busy with her own task, let the sound of the men around her fade. The sound of men chuckling, the ringing of swords all melted away as she intently worked. Distantly, only distantly, she heard some men mutter dark disapproval at some jibe or comment she'd paid no attention to. Then her brother roared and ice shivered down her spine. She stood and turned, arrows tumbling from her lap as she did so. She snatched the canteen Wulgof had been about to drink from out of his hands.
"I'm being robbed!" he cried in outrage. Rin paid him no heed and pushed through a knot of men that had tightened at first and then fell back as they sought to clear the area between themselves and Loch. Loch's enraged roar had brought Hanasian running hard towards the camp. He spotted the clear indication of a fight emerging, and noted the pale golden head of his would be healer weaving through the press of men.
"Get out of my way," she hissed, shoving past Berlas and finally stumbling into the cleared space that contained Loch and Khule. Khule had backed away and Loch kept him on the back foot with a flurry of wild, swinging blows. Loch's sword lay out of reach. The Easterling was trying to preserve his own life without taking another. No one, oddly, seemed inclined to assist him. Khule's eyes widened a fraction as he saw Rin all but tumble out from the men and into the cleared space behind her brother.
"Get that woman out of there! He'll tear her to pieces!" Hanasian's bellowed command rolled through the gathered men.
Rin threw herself hard at her brother's back. They went down in a tangle of limbs and her hair. Loch threw her off. She hit the ground hard. Her vision whited out and she was slower this time in getting to her feet. Loch had already clawed back to his feet and was blindly bearing down on his latest assailant, no idea of who she was. Wulgof grabbed at her from behind to try to yank her out of harm's way. Loch reached her first. Wulgof later would swear that she stepped towards him, despite the lunacy such an act surely demonstrated. She instinctually raised an arm to fend off a blow. She knew he had no understanding now of who she was or where he was.
Loch grabbed her lifted arm and lifted her off her feet. Pain arced through her upper body as her weight was suspended. Cracked rib, she dully noted. She landed a kick as hard as she dared against his kidney. He dropped her, rocking back several steps with the pain she'd caused him. Now on her feet and with a moment to her advantaged, she flung the contents of Wulgof's canteen in her brother's face.
Loch took a ragged gasp as water filled his eyes, nose and mouth. He shook his head groggily. Berlas threw her another canteen and she repeated the process. Another canteen and another until finally, Loch was on his knees, lungs working like bellows. Empty canteens littered the ground. Molguv pulled her firmly back, his large hand a weight on her shoulder. The Haradian peered at her a moment and then moved onto her brother. Her head was spinning. Some one else collected the empty canteen that still dangled limply from her hand.
"Crazy," Wulgof said.
"No he's not," she said. He shook his head at her. "I wasn't talking about him." Someone, Berlas she realised, grabbed her other shoulder and steered her away from the gathering men.
Hanasian pushed through to where Loch still sat. Wulgof crouched nearby and was muttering to the recruit, his dark eyes flashing angrily. Khule stood a distance away and was in quiet but urgent conversation with Molguv. The Easterling looked… ashamed. Molguv shuffled away, as Hanasian arrived.
Khule's jaw bunched. "Pushed him too hard. He wasn't properly engaging… should have known better," the Easterling replied.
"How?" Khule washed a hand over his face. He was ashamed, Hanasian realised.
"I said some things… to get under his skin…" The Ranger let him pause and waited him out. "I went for something that I knew would get a reaction."
Khule's eyes had drifted from Loch to where Rin stood unsteadily between Berlas and Molguv. Molguv was offering her his special canteen. Hanasian stared hard at Khule.
"I should have known better, cap."
What would you have done if Loch had been talking that way about your sisters?" Khule glanced back to Loch. They both knew that there'd be a dead man to bury if the boot had been on the other foot.
"I'll make it right, cap," Khule said. "
See that you do," Hanasian replied and looked about. He had to deal with Loch next. Loch looked up as Hanasian approached. His face was one of a man sick to his stomach.
"Is she hurt?" he asked. Hanasian looked down at him. "I'm sorry," Loch said hoarsely.
"This sort of thing cannot be tolerated against your own company," Hanasian said.
"Yeah, I know," Loch mumbled. "Am I out?" With his head bowed, Loch didn't see Wulgof subtly shake his head at Hanasian.
"I'll let you know," Hanasian replied, turning to look for the other recruit. Molguv was re-stoppering his canteen and Berlas was shaking his head at him. Rin stood between them, eyes closed. They opened at Hanasian's arrival, slightly glazed. He didn't know if it was pain or drunkenness or both. Regardless, he was curiously furious with the woman in front of him.
"Again, I find myself wondering what the hell you were thinking," Hanasian growled. Rin blinked, gathering her scattered thoughts.
"Healer, you said. I can't heal the dead. Prevention's better than cure … " Rin's voice trailed away as she measured her breathing.
"Are you hurt," he asked.
"It's nothing…" she said after a long pause, closed her eyes and smoothed her breathing again.
"She hit the ground pretty hard, cap" Berlas said from nearby.
"I can still ride," she insisted. Her words slurred, Molguv's special reserve sending warmth eddying through mind and body.
Molguv chuckled as she was eased down by Hanasian to sleep on the ground. Out cold was the best thing for her and he tended her the best he could with what means he had. Khule and Wulgof went over to where some birch saplings were growing and cut a couple to make a travios with. The trunks would suffice and the stripped bark made ties for a wool blanket Hanasian used for his bedroll. It would suffice for the rest of the day. They still had a league or two to ride before the twilight closed in.
Before they set out, Hanasian turned and looked into each company member's eyes, and a nod here, a twitch there, and a turn of a head gave him the answers he looked for. Of the two remaining originals, Videgavia, a Northman who had managed to survive growing up in the rough north Rhovanian during the dark days just before the war when Khule's Easterlings rode un-challenged through those lands, moved his fingers in sign. It was said he never learned to talk, but some of the old company begged to differ. Trouble was all save one have been laid to rest in fields near and far. Only Belegost of Gondor maintained Videgavia could talk. What Hanasian got was an affirmation of what he was going to do anyway.
Hanasian turned back to Loch and said,
"You're not out. That would be too easy for you. Instead, you're way in. in over your head in dung. Now I'm guessing you just need some practice getting along and taking some shit. The last thing you should have done was let Khule get under your nails. He was just giving you a bit of what an Easterling renegade would do with Rin. Here in the company, it don't mean nothing. You remember that. When Khule, and any of the guys hand you shit, you hand it right back. But you respect the company. We are family, and you will understand that soon enough. I'll not tolerate that happening again."
Hanasian turned a hard, ruthless stare on Loch. The young man seemed defiant at first, but it crumbled and he mumbled acceptance.
"Now get ready to ride. Since you care the most about your sister, you will ride Berlas's horse with Rin on the travios. You may have noted that Berlas has disappeared since shortly after your little display. He will meet us shortly and will want his horse back at that point."
Hanasian then went to check on Rin and ensure that she would be secure on the travios. He couldn't help but wonder at the strength of his ire with her. She had deliberately put herself in harm's way. His Company did that as a matter of routine. It was a puzzling reaction that made little sense to him. She was only doing what he expected those in service to do. Hanasian decided to ride behind the travois, to keep watch over her. He leaned down and whispered quietly to her. She stirred only slightly and then seemed to sink deeper again. They were ready to go.
The way was well marked but little used. The growth of the grass was fast with the recent spring rain and the last couple days of sun. But as they went north, the chill of the winter past still had some grip on the clear night air. It would be colder this night. Hanasian was hoping to reach the fork in the road where the Greenway curved north from the road to Sarn Ford.
The shadows grew long and a chill northerly breeze was in their faces. Hanasian directed them past the fork and camp in the grass between the split of the roads. It was far enough away to not be easily seen, but close enough to see any who may come from any of the three directions.
"We camp cold tonight. There isn't anything to burn here anyway. A couple more days and we may reach Andrath, a gap in the South Downs. We will be able to camp more comfortably with fire when we get there. Here, enjoy the grass, for the rocks of the downs can be unforgiving."
He went to see how Rin was faring.
Soft words in her ear, words that did and did not make sense. They drifted through the fingers of Rin's mind like smoke on the wind. Sun drenched blue flowers, the music of water leaping past river rocks, the sound of wind singing through the trees. The rhythmic thunder of horses under moonlight. Dim silhouettes and a woman who wept. She looked like her and yet she was not. The voices of her parents, the shattering of glass and the stillness of her mother when it was done. The flat, brittle gleam of their eyes. Desperate, drunk on blood and violent lust, some of them sickened yet hiding it. Fear, they stank of fear and none of them resembled the men that surrounded her. Rin woke with a start into the darkness, disorientated. Her head throbbed counter point to her ribs and her mouth was dry. Hanasian's face swam into view and he was speaking to her.
Molguv appeared then and peered at her hard.
"More," he asked her. It took her a moment to grasp what he meant.
"Water, I think," Hanasian said, and lifted a canteen for her to drink from. The effort sent a greasy tide of pain through her.
She sank back, biting off a moan. The vaguely coherent part of her mind, a small island, made a mental note to determine what Molguv had put in his canteen as a matter of purely professional interest. The rest of her mind found the notion of professionalism vastly amusing. This culminated in a burst of laughter that only drove more pain through her ribs. She stifled it with effort and pinched the bridge of her nose to try to clear her thoughts.
"Thank you," she managed.
Molguv ambled away with a nod and a grin, his teeth white in the darkness. Men were setting up camp around her. She knew the sounds by now.
"How long?" she asked Hanasian, who was intently watching. She had no idea how much time had passed.
"The afternoon only," Hanasian replied.
"So, healer, since you have now acquired my bedroll," he plucked at the wool beneath her, "Perhaps you'll give me the truth this time. Are you injured?"
Rin would have sighed if her ribs permitted her. She could not know if he was still angry. The man was impossible to read when he chose to be.
"It's not bad. Nothing broken," she replied.
Under her cloak, her fingers probed the curving bones of her ribs. The swelling made it difficult, but she could feel no jagged edges beneath the skin. Still, they were likely cracked and if she did not bind them, could easily break with an incautious movement.
"Well then, on your feet and let's have my bedroll back," Hanasian lightly said, calling her bluff.
Rin knew that if she rolled to her right, there was a reasonable chance that she'd make it to her feet before she passed out. The Ranger shook his head as he watched a woman too stubborn for her own good attempt to meet his challenge. She did manage to sit up and she was trembling with pain by the time she got that far.
"Down you go," he declared as he eased her back.
"I can," she insisted.
"You could sooner fly," he replied.
"They're cracked. Don't bother," he said as her mouth opened to protest anew. She closed it again.
"Rin, do you trust me?" The question surprised her, but not as much as her answer did.
"Yes," she replied. At that, Hanasian stood and vanished into the darkness.
Hanasian returned with the rolled lengths of the bed sheet she had stowed in one of his saddlebags, and crouched again by her.
"Ready yourself, this will hurt," he warned. Rin clenched her jaw, swallowed and nodded.
Spit, Hanasian recalled Molguv saying of her. Far too much of it, Wulgof had added. The darkness and cloak afforded as much privacy as could be had. Hanasian started to wind the fabric around her and heard her breathing become markedly shallow. Still, not a single whimper as he worked.
"How often does this sort of thing happen to Loch," he asked. Distraction would give her something to focus on.
"Not often, only enough so that..."
She broke off for a moment before continuing, "I know how to stop him before things go bad."
"Does it happen at every threat," Hanasian asked.
"No – just… the ones that remind him of – home." She paused again, breathing hard through her nose.
"I think he blames himself… doesn't want..."
He was tightening the bindings and she fell silent.
"... doesn't want it to happen again." Hanasian said, finishing for her. She nodded, clearly exhausted by the pain. Every breath, every word, every movement would be agony for her.
Hanasian tied off the bindings, eased down the shirt and pulled the cloak back up and over Rin's shoulders. Shivering would be murder for her tonight. Unbidden, the image of that shattered farm over twenty years ago floated across his mind. He'd seen for himself what had driven so many from their homes in the border regions of Dunland.
Fatigue tugged relentlessly at her. Hanasian knew she'd need more water, food and rest, but by morning she may indeed be able to ride. As he saw to that, the Company saw to setting a watch. Loch drew first watch. He hunched his shoulders against the chill and stared out at the dark landscape, pushing images of past and present down, far below> down and away where they belonged.
"Don't take your eyes off the watch," said Khule quietly as he approached the recruit.
Loch nodded once, Hanasian's hard words circling his mind along with the sickening thump he'd heard when he'd thrown Rin to the ground.
"I owe you and your sister an apology. My words were dishonourable, but there was no intent and no malice behind them. I would never do such a thing. Never such a thing to your sister."
Loch clenched his jaw. The Ranger had been right.
"You're wrong," Loch said hoarsely."I should have known better, I do know better… She's all I have left, but that's no excuse for what I did. It's I that should apologise."
Loch's gaze never wavered from his watch, but his expression hardened.
"Loch, what is it that you fear?"
Khule's question startled him. The Easterling crouched beside him and waited patiently.
"It's happened before, though not to Rin. Too young to do anything then, but what if I fail now? What if I become like them? Either way, I lose her."
Khule searched the man that stood watch beside him for a long moment.
"Two things I know. We can breathe life into our own fears if we hold them tightly and long enough."
"And the other?" Khule smiled at that question.
"I don't think you'd ever manage to scare your sister off."
Loch smiled at that bitter-sweet truth.
"You still prepared to train me?" Loch asked. Khule clapped a hand onto Loch's shoulders.
"Lad, you need it more now than ever. Tomorrow we'll start again."
Loch nodded in the darkness. Relief made it hard for him to speak and Khule retreated back to camp. Family, Hanasian had said and Loch's had wondered if he knew what such a concept was. Khule had just shown him, he suspected.
Wulgof relieved him several hours later.
"She's fine, boy. Don't chew yourself into a mess over it. Words are wind," Wulgof said as he took up Loch's post.
Loch returned in the darkness and found that it was so. The saplings that had formed the travois frame had been removed and she slept soundly. Hanasian slept on the other side of the blanket, his back to his sister's. Loch studied her for a long moment. Moonlight caught her braid as it trailed over her left shoulder. He saw her shiver and her breathing caught. Loch stretched out on the other side of her and dove headlong into black, featureless sleep.
The morning arrived with a chill breeze that tried to cut through everyone and everything.
"Did I hurt you?" Rin's question sliced into Loch's sleep. A bruise the size of her foot had formed over his kidney.
"Nothing I didn't deserve," he told her and pushed her fingers away.
"What of you?" Loch asked.
Hanasian replied for her, voice drowsy."It's not bad, nothing broken," he said and Rin nodded, looking relieved.
"That's right," she affirmed.
Loch peered at her a while and then got to his feet to find some food.
"Thank you," she said to Hanasian after her brother had walked away. She didn't want Loch to know, or his conscience would eat him alive. Hanasian waved a hand, eyes still closed.
Rin got to her feet with some effort, the bindings on her torso giving her support. She tugged Khule's cloak around her and followed her brother in search of food. Hanasian pulled the vacated part of his bedroll over him. It still bore her warmth and scent and was curiously reassuring.
"You're robbing the cap now?" he heard Molguv ask her. Hanasian cracked one eye to see her fish out an apple.
"He's got a whole orchard in here," she replied and then eyed the Haradian speculatively.
"What do you use to make that 'special reserve'?"
Molguv chortled at her question.
"You're bold enough to rob me, then the cap and now you want me to divulge all my secrets? Oh ho!"
Hanasian watched the Haradian amble off, followed doggedly by Rin who had started to list possible ingredients around the stolen apple she had wedged in her mouth. Hanasian closed his eyes again and smiled faintly.
"How long are you going to keep this up, woman?" Molguv asked.
"How long have you got?" she replied.
Molguv rolled his eyes and groaned.
"I think I like you better when you're unconscious," he said.
"Was you that wanted pets that could talk. Told you the frog was a better idea," Khule drawled.
Rin resumed her list of possible ingredients until Molguv shooed her away. By that time she had narrowed it down considerably. All she needed to do was experiment.
"Whatever you do, don't drink anything that she offers you," Loch whispered to Molguv. "I know that look. Now she's really dangerous."
The men started to mount up again.
"The truth this time." Hanasian said to Rin. She had the grace to flush at his words. "Are you fit to ride?"
Rin nodded. "Yes?" Hanasian heard the question in her voice.
"Then prove it. Give me your hand."
Rin clenched the apple between her teeth and set her left hand in his. Hanasian swung her up behind him again. Rin's head swum a little, but she settled into place. She wrapped her right arm around him smoothed out her breathing. Another day, another ride.
"Ready?" he asked her.
"Giddy up..." she replied dryly.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.