40. Chapter 40
The storm battered the ship and the rift nearly pulled it apart. Had not Lady Anvikela put everything she had into their push east, they would have surely broken apart and perished. As it stood, Only Morcal was known to have fallen but there were three missing, presumed lost overboard in the heavy sea. All were exhausted yet their dulled senses could not shield them from the awareness that something had changed. The air smelled different and this was noticeable despite the thick briny tang to it. The rain felt different too, no more than water now and stripped of its earlier malice. The tumultuous seas had quieted and all that confronted them was a mere heavy storm. Yet Lady Anvikela remained where she was, without rest, with her hands to the sky.
The seas did not begin to relent proper for another several hours and it was only when they had completely passed through that Lady Anvikela crumpled to the deck. Berlas and Barika tended her, for she had come out of her cabin unprepared. They covered her with a blanket for her dress had been rent by the ravages of the storm. Despite the fact that she was insensate, Videgavia bowed to her and thanked her as she was carried by to her quarters Berlas and Barika. So too did the rest of those who were present on deck.
Dhak stood and watched in silence, his thought ran deep. Somehow, she had managed it alone, without her sisters or the aid of a high mage. It seemed too easy. It was clear to Dhak that there was more at work here than what had appeared. Other powers were involved, ones he did not know and could not yet guess at. He would have to ponder this and all it meant. He found, however, that this realisation brought him satisfaction despite his fear. The work of the sisterhood had not been for naught. But what had they done? A new wild card, the Free Company, had been added to their deck and it had been quickly dealt out. Only time will tell where this would lead. As ever, Dhak wanted to play his hand in a way that kept him on the side that came out on top.
The storm had subsided to vast amounts of heavy rain. They were alive and the ship was still floating. Daius and Donius had their hands full. They had managed to recruit several of the soldiers who had a knack for this sort of work, and they were hard pressed in their efforts to keep the ship afloat. Their chief concern after that was the loss of the main mast and the damage caused but its topple. It took more than Morcal's life. It stole from them their ability to push themselves through the seas. They did what they could with what they had, and the current seemed to keep mostly to an easterly direction, but another disaster was discovered.
The rudder appeared to have been damaged. After drawing straws, it fell to Daius to go over the side. Holding his breath for long periods, he went under and examined the rudder. The salty water burned his eyes and the movement of the ship made staying close to the hull difficult. The ropes about him tensed and slacked with the roll of the water, pulling him this way and that like a cork on the end of a string. He found it hard to do anything other than look. On his third dive he located the problem. The rudder's wooden shaft had splintered under the force of the heaving water and jammed itself into the hull. The shaft was barely strong enough to work now and any further pressure could snap it entirely. This would cause them to lose steering altogether. It was clear to Daius. He knew what he had to do though the prospect was little appealing. He surfaced and clung to the ropes as the water slapped at him and the side of the ship.
He called up, "What is our heading now?"
A bit of commotion on deck as the question was relayed back to the bridge. Hamoor checked his records and found it no easy thing to answer. After some time and calculations, he said they were heading due east-southeast on a natural current. This was relayed to Daius who tapped his fingers together a few times before he dove under again. He manipulated the rudder to a straight position with his hands and surfaced. Another dive to remove the shard of wood and he returned to the surface again. He signalled that he was ready to be brought up and he was hoisted up to the deck. Videgavia met him with a water skin. Daius drank deeply and coughed. He had always hated swimming.
He said, "There's damage to the rudder gear and shaft. A shard from the shaft jammed the rudder, but it is free now. But the gear is quite stiff. I fear that if too much pressure is applied by the wheel, it could snap entirely."
Vid nodded, not surprised at the news. Donius piped in and said, "Well, if another storm blows our way, there is a chance that this ship won't hold together to steer."
Videgavia nodded again and finally said, "We're here for now and we're still heading east. When we find land, we'll anchor and make repairs as needed. Now, I'm not sure how far we have to go, but Hamoor assures me from his best interpretation of the few charts we have of this eastern sea, it seems likely we will make land in three days. So everyone will need to make ready."
Donius and Daius didn't say anything further. The rest of their work party didn't either. They knew the ship had sailed its last voyage, if not on the sea, definitely crossing the rift. Vid knew too. He would worry about their return journey when the time came. He would have to find a new ship, rebuild this old one, and in either case, convince Lady Anvikela to return with them. Right now, he would carry on. Panic now would kill them faster than a sinking ship or another sudden storm. Eager for something familiar to set their minds to, the Free Company fell to preparations. Their plans were soon in place
The plan was for Khor's men to move forward and set up a perimeter around their beachhead. They had not planned on landing at a dock. As they neared land a dense fog enveloped them. From time to time they managed to sail free of it into small pockets of clarity. In these brief moments they sighted a city. To its north was a port. But as they came closer, they could see that destruction had arrived ahead of them. Berlas brought Lady Anvikela up from her quarters, followed by Barika. It was the first time she had emerged since the day they crossed the rift. She still looked fatigued, but she came to see her homeland. Wearing a purple hooded cloak, she peered out from the rails.
She whispered to herself, "It is as I thought."
Videgavia, heard her and asked, "What is m'lady? What has happened?"
She clasped her hands together and said in a soft voice to him, "The death of the High Priestess had caused the lands to break. We must be careful. Let them not find me."
Videgavia scratched at his bristly cheek and said, "You speak in riddles Lady Anvikela. Who seeks you?"
She did not answer but pointed north of the docks towards the hills inland. Upon one of them a silvery light shone out to the west, as if searching for something. Lady Anvikela whispered to those around her: Videgavia, Berlas, and Barika,
"Having tasted freedom in the outside world, they will seek for me to return. But I can not. I will be enslaved to their will once again. Before, I knew not of such things and I knew no differently. Now, I will know."
"But I thought you wanted to come back." Berlas said, puzzled.
Videgavia then said, "As others before have done, so too will it be for you m'Lady. Morcal, one of our lost, was a prisoner of ours once before he joined the Company. You have been as a prisoner, and then our guide.
"I will put forth your name as a new member, but it will have to be decided upon. Until then at least, you will have the same protection as any other member of the Free Company."
The Lady looked at him, realizing only in part what Videgavia had done. Berlas knew only too well. Barika did not fully understand, but knew it was important.
Videgavia looked at their expressions and said, "As long as I'm the Cap, we'll go by Han's rules. Same as the old Company. I've been lax on appointments and such, but as soon as we get settled here, I will rectify that. Now, Lady, you are our guide. We have Dhak, but I don't trust the man. Never have. So I will be depending on you greatly here."
Lady Anvikela looked at him, and there was a softness in the glow of her eyes. The deep sadness that always loomed there seemed to have fallen back some.
She said, "I thank you Sir Videgavia of Rhovanion. I will do my best to repay your, and all the other's kindness. May it be that no ill will comes to you or your men here. But I doubt I will remain hidden long. I will watch for them, but to keep myself cloaked from their senses drains me. If I seem, or have seemed distant and cold, and tired all the time, it is because I try to shield myself from them."
Videgavia looked at Barika and no words passed, but she knew what her duty was. She would be her personal bodyguard. May her own senses not fail her.
They came slowly toward the docks at night, unlit. Khor's men stood ready and all eyes were on the shore. The plan was that Khor's men would go forth and set up a line of defence. They would clear the few buildings that still stood nearby, take high points and set a watch. This would be their ring of steel. Of the Company, Videgavia divided them up according to their tasks. Most of the sea hands would remain with the ship or nearby, on watch at all times. They had worked the hardest on the water, and deserved what Vid hoped would be a time of rest. Some of the engineering squad that Daius and Donius scraped together from the Company hands would remain with the ship and try and conduct repairs. Donius was given command of this group.
Daius, Flint, Birds, and the rest of their engineers would accompany the main force in hopes of finding useful materials and such. Wulgof and Mulgov would be a part of this crew, and Videgavia would command it. The main force, consisting of the bulk of the newer company, would help Khor with the perimeter, set up points further in to keep watch, and scout the immediate area around their line. Dhorgat and the other remaining men that was part of Runner's conscripts back in Rhun would form the core of their scouting party, commanded by Berlas. Attached to this group would be Khule, Hamoor, and Belegost. Barika would remain with the ship with Lady Anvikela. Their growing relationship benefited the Company, for the lady had grown fond of the little woman and their talks seemed to bring the woman that was behind the name Anvikela out. The Lady felt she found a friend in Barika.
While it was a conservative plan to begin with, it was one they could and would adjust as needed. They didn't want to attract too much attention. They tied off in silence. Those few people about scarcely noticed the new arrivals. Khor's men moved with such military precision that it was hard to tell they had been cooped up on a ship for many weeks. The shadows from an obscured moon had only moved a finger length before word came back that all was secured. The main Company started to fan out through the ruined city and the scouts moved quickly and headed north towards where the light had been sighted. When they got to a fork in the road, they split into two groups. Berlas took one up the coast while Khule took some up the east fork.
Silently the men moved through the muddy streets. Lanterns burned only sporadically, an air of neglect hung thick about the place. On occasion a dog could be heard barking in the distance, but they had somehow achieved complete surprise. It didn't look like anyone of any threat was here and those few who were did not look interested in a fight.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The water had for the most part stopped Loch and Runner's fighting. They both were weak but each wanted to get the last punch in and so set to again after they had regathered their breath. Except they had no force in them, none at all. They both collapsed in heavy breathing almost as soon after the second bout began and, after a few breaths, Loch started to laugh slightly. Runner too started to giggle.
"Oww," both men said in unision, for laughter was painful
Runner wheezed a whisper, "It was a fool thing to do ya know."
Loch was out of strength to even spar verbally, he just raised his hand and nodded. Runner, never out of questions, asked, "So what exactly happened, and what do we do now? Oh, and who is your friend here?"
"You… ask too many... questions. The lady will answer the last one if she sees fit to do so. As for the second, we should see about finding the others. Easier said than done though. I'm sure I have a broken leg, my right arm doesn't work quite right, and I'm missing a boot," Loch said.
Runner leant back to pick up both his feet and waved them at Loch, "Well I'm missing two boots. Best boots I ever had. They were a bit big for me, so likely why they didn't stay on. Now, you didn't answer my first question."
Loch grunted. He looked over at the girl who had sidled off to get more water after she saw the two men weren't going to kill each other. She looked over at him as if she knew he was looking at her, and she smiled.
Loch said, "I'm not entirely sure. I've been thinking and dreaming about it for a couple days now, trying to get the facts straight for my report for Hanasian. Just when I seem to have it straight, I get it jumbled and it comes together a bit differently next time. You must remember and give a report too, since we weren't together."
The girl returned, her smile vanished and a wary, serious expression in its place.
She asked them both, "You can walk, yes? We need to go from here. I find safe place where we hide. You get better there, hurry!"
The slight crunch of stone under a boot could be heard not far away. Runner and Loch helped each other to their feet, and Runner having two mostly good legs, walked Loch toward the arch where the girl had gone. They stumbled over the rubble, through the rear of the building they had sheltered in. She led them towards an opening that had once been a door to the back alley. Out into the rain they went. While the girl stepped out, Loch and Runner kind of clambered out as a three-legged two-headed man. She had them follow the alley along. They entered a small house at the end of stone walls that seemed for the most part untouched by the destruction. The only damage was the corner of the roof where part of the stone building next to it had fallen through. It allowed the rain n, but most of the rest of the house was dry, more or less. Loch and Runner collapsed on the floor in a tangled heap and they commented at the same time, "Ow."
They sorted themselves out and propped their backs up to a wall where they could see the single door. The girl stood before the door with her hands out. She brought them slowly together and stood that way for several moments. Finally she turned back to the men and located three discarded vessles to collect water in. She brought them over to where Loch and Runner sat. She handed them each one and squeezed herself in between them. Runner was going to drink but she stopped him, grabbing his wrist.
"Wait, yes?"she said as she looked hard into his eyes.
Runner tried to hold her gaze but found that he could not and turned away. She held her hand over the jar of water in Runner's hand, then did the same for Loch's and then hers.
"What are you doing?" Loch asked.
"Unseen," was all she said, and she lifted her jar of water.
Loch and Runner knew what that meant when drinking Mulgov's brew, and they hoisted their jars and tapped them together with the girl's.
"Bottoms Up!" Loch said as the two drank heartily of their water.
The girl seemed surprised at this strange ritual. These barbarians were so amusing. She smiled and drank slowly. It was surprisingly refreshing for water drained off a roof.
Runner asked her, "What is your name?"
"I've been asking her that question for days now. Each time, I seemed to pass out before it was answered," Loch said.
The girl smiled, considered surrendering her of mystery to these two men.
She said, "As Loch knows, I am the third sister. He knows my name, a name I remembered from long ago as a little girl. It rings clear in my head. But I am not called that. For they gave us new names…"
She hesitated, as her face grew serious. She had let her defence slip and in that moment she felt her sister! She was coming home! Should she reach for her and help her? Or remain silent and unseen? Scared she would be discovered, she withdrew and tears spilled down her face. Loch and Runner drew closer.
Loch whispered in her ear, "Don't tell us if it hurts that much. I'll just call you Rose."
She wiped her eyes to correct him but instead hushed them as boots drew closer. She whispered, "Unseen, not unheard. Do not move, no."
The three sat huddled together, their eyes on the door. A man walked by, a second did too, peering in the door for a moment and looking around before moving on. The sound grew fainter and finally the girl moved.
She said, "It worked, yes!"
They had been indeed, unseen. Loch decided to drink the rest of the jar of water. Soon, the three were fast asleep.
The morning light came and Loch jumped awake. Runner was sound asleep, laying on his side to his right. Rose was nowhere to be seen. He worked his right hand and shoulder, and though it popped some, it didn't hurt like it had before. His leg still throbbed, but it too wasn't as bad as it has been. Loch knew he would likely have a limp for the rest of his life, for his foot didn't set straight. He could hear his sister even now telling him what needed to be done. He tried to turn it, but pain shot up his leg and side. He let it be. At least it wouldn't need amputating. He did manage to kick Runner in the bottom of his foot and he jumped awake.
"I'm watching… I'm …"
"Sleeping," Loch finished for him.
Runner blinked and said, "That was the hardest I slept in… I can't remember."
"Yes, me too. Must be because we were unseen," Loch replied.
Runner nodded before he glanced around and said, "I was supposed to be on watch. I was supposed to watch… Where's Rose? Why did you call her Rose?"
Loch shrugged, "I like the flower, and thought it would make a nice name. She is kind of that way…besides…."
Loch paused as if trying to remember something. Runner said, "Yeah, well watch for her thorns. She was one who was with that witch. Not sure I would trust her."
Loch sighed and said, "Part of my report that never seems to get mixed up is the fact she had made me well before anything happened. She locked me in a closet for safekeeping when her sister came looking for her. I can still see her eyes as she looked at me before she closed the doors.
"And here after I woke up she has been nothing but kind to me, and you. Looking out for us. No, I'm willing to give her my trust. Besides, we don't really have much of a choice."
'Well, where is she then?" Runner asked.
Loch answered, [I]"She does that. Wanders off while I'm sleeping, always returns, usually with something. Now, about finding the others… I'm not sure we can. From what Rose has told me of the event that put us in this condition, it seems there was some sort of disruption…"
"Oh really? I hadn't noticed," Runner barked.
Loch smiled and suppressed a laugh, mainly because they made his ribs hurt. He countered, "No, I mean something beyond our knowledge. Though I woke up in that broken building, she says she was with me for months! Said I knew her name as we exchanged them when we were introduced at a gala dinner. Said we danced and walked in the moonlight by a lakeside. All sorts of stuff."
"Right, so the girl dreams of you. How is any of this relevant to our situation and our finding the Company?"
Loch slapped him in the chest with the back of his hand, saying, "Let me finish! In my report, I know that we were there at the same point at the same time, yet I wake up here as if I was only out for a few moments at the most, while she says we had been together for months and knows more about me than most."
In fact, more than anybody aside from Rin. Runner nodded and said, "It seemed a few moments for me too. How do you know you were out only a few moments?"
Loch swallowed and said, [I]"Because after I came to, I was somewhere else, but still had the taste of Khule's stale jerky he gave us before we left. I had chewed a piece before moving in. If it was any amount of time, say days or weeks, let alone months, it would have long faded. What I'm saying is, how did this affect the rest of the Company? Where are they?"
"I don't know. I miss Dhorgat and the boys, and Khule. We need to try and find them," Runner said with an air of resignation, aware of what Loch was getting at.
Loch went on, "Well, we are still two Scouts of The Black Company! While we still live, we will gather information and report back. We need to find out exactly where we are, and yes, when we are. I think Rose will aid us in this."
The two sat and talked and made plans and talked strategy. It was well into the day when Loch began to worry properly. Rose had been gone since first light. He had never been awake this long without seeing her. He worked himself up to his feet and tried to walk. He stumbled but found that he could manage something approximate to walking if he located a crutch of some sort. Runner walked over to the door. Unsure if they should look out, they stood just inside and peered uncertainly at each other. Loch held up his hand to make a count, three fingers aloft. On three, they both stuck their heads out and peered around. There sitting on the ground against the outside wall was Rose, her knees drawn up to with her arms around them and her head face down resting on them.
"Rose?" Loch said as he walked along the wall to her. Runner came to the other side of her. She was wet and shivering, even if the rain had stopped and was replaced by a thick fog. She looked up at Loch, her eyes red and tired.
"Come inside! Try and stay warm!" Loch said as they helped her to her feet. She walked calmly as if she was blind and permitted them to lead her. They returned to the dry floor in the corner of the house where Loch threw an old cloth around her. She held it tight to herself.
After a moment she looked at him and said in a strained tired voice, "I have found my sister, but she has not found me. I helped her in her plight but she thought me a dream. She thinks I am dead, as our eldest sister is dead. But the others have now sensed me. For I have given myself to shield my sister. They have not sensed her. Have hope Lochnard of Dunland and the Runner of Rhun, for your friends are coming. For me, I have little to hope for."
Loch wiped the dirt from her face with his one good sleeve. He said, "Have hope Rose, for you are with the Black Company. We look out for our own."
He had more questions than answers. Who sensed her, and what did this mean? And right now at this point, he and Runner were the Company. That meant something important. To him, and to Runner.
"Have hope Rose, for you will again see your sister," and he his, for they were coming.
They spent the next three days moving from one place to another. Rose had withdrawn and said little in this time. She brightened when Loch talked directly to her. She tried to answer questions and keep them hidden, and they had managed to find some suitable clothing in a burned out shop. It was good to have boots again. The third night out, the fog thinned and a slight wind came from the west. The moon was bright when the clouds were not in the way. Rose sat staring out to the west.
She whispered to a sleeping Loch and Runner, "They have come."
She caressed Runner's cheek, and her eyes lingered as they gazed on Loch's sleeping moonlit face. She kissed him and whispered in his ear, "May we meet again, in dream and in reality."
And with that, she silently sped out of the door and down the alley. It wasn't long before shadowy figures moved in the night. Rose avoided them, but at a corner of a building the sight of armed men moving up along a roofline distracted her. Someone grabbed her from behind. A rag went into her mouth and a hood went over her head, and she was carried away.
The deployment of the Company went smoothly and it was a rare instance that all had gone according to plan. The perimeter was well secured, they had found some food and drink, and the city was well infiltrated by the Company. They had set their defensive web and could lie low in the daylight. After so long waiting, this night was theirs.
Dhorgat fell into the ditch and froze all movement. There were people coming. He could not see anyone and signed to Khule. Khule looked about but could not see much either. Damnable fog, Dhorgat thought, could use a bit of that moonlight right about now. Khule waved at the bowman that was with them. He signed for him to watch the road, and to shoot if he saw movement. The moon broke through the fog for just a moment. The arrow hissed and Dhorgat jumped. A shadowy man fell with the arrow lodged in his side and Dhorgat pulled the other man down into the ditch. The bound girl he was carrying fell atop them and they splashed in the water that ran through it. Dhorgat had knifed the man and pushed him down into the water. He grabbed the bound girl to keep her from drowning as she flailed about. He removed the hood that was over her head and then pulled out the rag from her mouth. He made quick work of the rope that tied her wrists too and signalled her to be quiet.
"I have hope, for I am with the Black Company," She whispered to herself.
Dhorgat heard her though. How did she know who they were? He thought to himself. She could see that the youth with her had the same sort of leather clothing that Loch had worn when she first saw him in the room. She stayed low and quiet, for more voices could be heard.
"Things are getting tight," Khule said softly as they marked their prey.
They hoped this was the last, for they did not have the numbers. They had to get Dhorgat back across the road. The men kept talking as they walked by. There were four of them. It was a good thing that thick fog had obscured the moon, for otherwise they might have seen the dead men. Dhorgat tapped the girl on the shoulder and they scrambled up the ditch and crossed the road.
"Who's this?" Khule asked.
Dhorgat answered, "She was with the man I took, bound and gagged. She knows we're the Black Company!"
Khule hesitated as he peered hard at the girl in the murky night. He then said, as he pushed them along, "You'd better be sure. She's coming with us and she'll have some questions to answer."
Rose went freely. She was not going to be taken back to the Sisters this night. The scouts had returned to the fork, and Berlas grumbled at Khule,"What took you so long? Daylight is coming and we're supposed to be back!"
"Ran into a little trouble that held us up," Khule answered.
Berlas looked at the girl as she walked by following Dhorgat.
"Great. Just great," Berlas mumbled to himself as he took up rearguard, another one.
They kept a steady pace, and were within their positions in the city before the sun rose too high and revealed them. It was the first time they had seen the sun since they were at the southernmost part of their journey on the sea. It would be a bright morning. What the day had in store was anyone's guess.
"The Black is here," Loch muttered, crouched behind a pile of debris.
Beside him, Runner grunted agreement. He was peering at the same thing Loch was A dead man. Well, not the man per se but the agency of his death. The fletching on the arrow was Black Company.
"Here and tetchy," Loch continued because something had rattled the others enough to drop a man.
But what? It was just a street. No better or worse than any other dilapidated street. Gaping holes grinned where windows and doors should have stood. Blocks of masonry, pools of water that gleamed brightly in the sun now. Just a street in this forsaken place. What had startled the Black to drop a man here? And, where were they now? They'd been searching for Rose all morning and not seen a single soul. Not a mangy dog or a skinny chicken. Not even a rat. Nothing. The morning breeze played through the fletching.
"Perhaps we should go back, let things calm down, have a think," Runner said, knowing that it was all useless. Still, someone had to be the voice of reason.
Loch resolutely pushed on, limping forward with his crutch determinedly. At this rate, they'd be shot by their own people. When he said as much a long while later, Loch waved it aside.
"We will at least have found them then," he answered and then a lopsided grin creased his face, "And if they've accidentally shot us, we might be able to buy enough sympathy to be let off for failing to report on time."
"Failing to report? That's what you're worried about?" Runner incredulously asked.
"What else is there, then?"
"WHAT ELSE? HOW ABOUT AN UNAUTHORISED ASSASSINATION PLOT THAT FAILED, BREAKING COVER, DISOBEYING DIRECT ORDERS..."
Runner's shout bounced off the ragged walls of buildings around them. The salty tang of the sea was thicker here. They were near the port. Loch just grinned at him, slid down the wall he had been leaning against. He stretched his legs out, folding the good one over his bad one, and crossed his arms behind his head. Galled at his lapse, Runner crouched. His shoulders were hunched and he breathed hard through clenched teeth. Loch's eyes were closed. He looked for all the world as if he was napping in the sun.
"Are you taking a nap?" Runner tightly asked between his teeth.
"Now? We have not found Rose…nor the Black."
"You're just full of our failures. You're mostly right, except on one count."
"The Black are already locating us."
"How do you know?"
Loch cracked open one eye and decided that discretion on this count would be the greater valour and he said nothing. Either the Black would respond to all of the noise or someone else would. He was an optimist. It would be the Black.
"Relax, Runner, you appear….perturbed."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Wulgof listened for a moment longer and then swung back to where Molguv stood. The Haradian had broken open the crate despite strict orders to leave it intact, and was disconsolately pawing through its contents. More force of habit than any preconceived plot to steal the good supplies before they found their way back to the Company. Since his cousin's death, Molguv had not been himself. Not even the threat of Videgavia's wrath brought him out of his shell.
"Vid told us to leave them alone," Wulgof said and Molguv shrugged his shoulders.
"Salt. It's just salt."
While they had crates and crates of the stuff already, it wasn't the point. Wulgof rubbed at the back of his neck and swung about as Belegost came trotting back in. The man glanced at Molguv's half hearted pilfering and then peered at Wulgof.
"We should look into that."
"I agree," Wulgof said and then, over his shoulder, "You coming, Molguv?"
The Haradian let his handful of salt drain away, "What? Sure…if we have to…I suppose."
He collected up the now ruined crate, set it on one broad shoulder and stumped towards where the other two men stood. A white trail of salt was left in his wake. Belegost's brows rose and Wulgof shook his shaggy head. They followed the hulking, salty, Haradian, on the alert for any sign of trouble. That shouting had not come from thin air and, after the contact of the night before, the unnatural peace of the place had come to a definitive end. Still, block after block was deserted. A cat careened across the street behind them, screeching like a rabid child. This swung both Belegost and Wulgof about, hearts hammering at the sudden noise in the cloying stillness. Both men glanced at the other, swords at the ready to slay a cat. A cat. Berlas would die laughing. Belegost scowled at the thought, both men stepped back and collided with Molguv. The giant had come to a standstill on the corner, oblivious to them, staring ahead. Colour had leached from his face and it was a horrified mask. He thrust a fist into the crate on his shoulder and threw a handful of salt at whatever it was that had confronted him, panting hard in terror.
By the time the other two had gotten around the Haradian, two men were coughing in a cloud of salt.
"What was that for," one protested. He had a black eye.
"It's what you do when you see a ghost," said the other, lisping through a swollen lip, "Least, it is in Rhun. Guess it's the same in Harad too."
Wulgof felt as though he had been hit over the head. Of the three of them, Belegost was the first to recover. He scratched at his head, stowed his sword and then grinned at the two men seated on the ground against the wall, taking their ease.
"Hooo….do you have some questions to answer, scouts! That leg looks bad, Kid."
"It's nothing, 'Gost. Not twisted….Rin'll set it straight, though before or after she tans my hide I can't say."
Wulgof punched Molguv in the arm and then bent with Belegost to assist Loch up. Runner tagged along easily and Molguv trailed in their wake, another handful of salt at the ready in the event they really were ghosts.
Word reached camp before they did. Videgavia, Berlas and Khule strode out to meet them. Sure enough, Lochared and Runner were escorted back by a grinning Belegost, a baffled Wulgof and a dazed Molguv. Both looked worse for wear but very much alive. Videgavia waved them off in the direction of the two remaining medics.
"Where's Rin?" Videgavia heard Loch ask as Bells and Sparks approached.
Videgavia rubbed at his jaw. "Damn," he muttered after a while and Berlas glanced at him and realised the man was thinking the same as him….of a woman, fair and pale, shattered by grief, bereft of everything, now forging her way in the belief that she was utterly alone, far to the west.
"She dreams…she sees…" Berlas offered and Videgavia wiped his hand over his face.
"Let us hope so," he replied and started for where the medics were working. There was quite a crowd gathered already.
When at last he won through to where Runner and Loch were being tended, Loch had discovered some of the truth of what had happened. He was grim and had lost his cheer. His dark eyes were heavy.
"She thinks me dead," he said as soon as he sighted Videgavia and the man nodded.
"She looked for you, Loch. Searched for days and nights, refused to leave the ruins, refused to believe you had perished."
"Where is she now?"
"West…she went west with Hanasian. Your information concerning Rocks panned out."
"The letter," Loch guessed and Vid nodded.
"Wulgof delivered it up to her after…after the funeral, as you asked."
"And the outcome?"
"We have not heard…and I think we would have 'ere we sailed had things gone ill."
Loch nodded, features tightening in pain as Sparks worked on his leg. In this silence, on the other side, Runner piped up.
"There were three women guarding the witch. One of them was with us. Have you seen her?"
"Her and her sister both. They are in camp. The third perished that night. It was nigh on ten months ago, though. We wintered there, set out mid summer and it took us months to reach this shore. What have you been doing here all that time?"
Runner and Loch glanced at each other and Berlas interceded,
"Another time, perhaps. When they have recovered somewhat?"
"Of course," Videgavia relented and with that he withdrew.
The rest of the afternoon saw any lingering Old Company men or women about stop by to see with their own eyes the first two Black Company men to have returned from the dead. By sunset, Loch found himself in the company of Wulgof once more. Khule had joined the Dunlending and both perched on the slender wooden frame of the cot Loch had been installed in while his leg was being tended. The frame creaked under their weight as they passed a flask to and fro. Pleased and relieved as he was to see their faces, he could not shake the weight that was on his shoulders. His sister grieved him. Even now, far away, she grieved him. He knew what this meant, the enormity of it. She had been his world and he hers. And all of it had been taken away from her. The last time something like that had happened she had withdrawn into herself and not spoken for three terribly long years.
"Where's Molguv?" Wulgof asked across him to where Khule sat.
The Easterling rolled his shoulders, "Recovering. He took quite a fright today."
Khule passed the flask to Loch and Loch found he had no appetite for it.
"Sure is good to see you, Kid," Wulgof said, clearing his throat with emotion that crowded it.
"Kid…you sang of him as brother, if I recall correctly. That was what you sang, wasn't it?" Khule prodded.
Wulgof grimaced, recalling the words of the funeral dirge all too clearly. Recalling the forlorn sound of another's voice as it rose and sank through the traditional song. He tipped a mouthful of the flask's contents back, some local firewater they had found here, and after a moment spat it out into the darkness. Molguv materialised and Wulgof, surprised, stammered a rare apology.
"Didn't see you there," he finished.
The large Haradian did not so much as pause or flick a glance at him. His eyes were locked on the man on the cot. He strode up, towering over him, staring hard. A hand balled up and thudded into Loch's stomach. His breath wheezed out of him in a hard hush and he doubled over, gasping like a grounded fish.
"She grieved you hard!" Molguv grated at him.
Loch nodded, vision teared, and gasped, "I know! I didn't mean for it!"
"Hard!" Molguv snarled and wrapped a giant hand around Loch's shoulder to wrench him back.
Frozen in one place, Wulgof and Khule stared at each other. Molguv studied Loch's face. Whatever he saw there seemed to be enough.
"You will make it right," he rumbled.
"Yes! As soon as we get back. Going straight there! Wherever she is," Loch emphatically stated and Molguv nodded, released his shoulder and held his hand out for the flask.
"Where is she?" Loch asked as the Haradian tipped his head back for a long swig.
"Oh we know. Made it our business to. We've our own score to settle with the thief," Wulgof said and Khule muttered something about how unholy it was to rob a man twice.
"Excellent….we already have our next mission in mind then," said Runner from the neighbouring cot, "Only there's just one thing. What do we do now?"
"Drink little scout….more," Molguv demanded, thrusting the flask at Runner's face.
When the flask was lowered, Runner frowned and Molguv's teeth shone in the darkness as he smiled, "Now…. questions?"
Try as he might, Runner could not remember a single one of his many questions.
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.