43. Chapter 43
Once they had Dhak settled in a basement of a storehouse, Videgavia had given permission for Rose and Lady Anvikela to live together in a stately, well-guarded room in the building that Videgavia had taken as his command centre. Barika remained there as well, as did Berlas. The rest of the Old Company had taken the ground level, meaning anyone entering the building would have to pass that gauntlet first. While Wulgof, Mulgov, and Khule worked at getting all creature comforts available in place, to those unfamiliar with these men the gathering was a formidable one. All hard bitten warriors, impassive, coldly appraising, always armed. As far as comforts went, there was a notable gap. There was little to drink. A local sour drink did little to numb their senses, and it didn't taste good to boot. Mulgov went to work on trying to remedy this problem, but the mood on the ground floor was all the more dour for this lack.
The two sisters had little time to rest and talk with each other since their reunion. Their thoughts had centred on the Sanctuary and those within it. The spectre of a return to imprisonment behind the thick walls loomed. Despite this, the promises made to them by the Company were not forgotten and with the day's passing an evening to speak in peace was theirs. Peace, but not privacy, for Berlas and Barika both stood guard. They watched the sisters prepare the room to suit themselves. When this was done, the two women stood and regarded each other steadily. Their arms lifted from their sides and they clasped forearms, still gazing into the other's eyes. A long moment passed before this embrace closed and they drew together. In a language of their own, the sisters whispered to each other.
Anvikela said, "Beloved sister, it has been too long since I have seen you, and longer still since I could reveal myself so."
Rose pressed a soft kiss to her sister's cheek, "This is freedom. We must cherish it, as we should those who have provided it to us."
"Yes, I do. And yet I feel I betray the trust that was placed in us. This defies all that we have been taught."
"Yes sister. We were taught not to feel. We were not permitted to feel. Despite that, did you not have feelings that you wished to express? There was no trust placed in us, only obligation."
Anvikela considered this a moment before saying more.
"When the wizard, the high priestess, and our beloved sister died, I felt the release of the restraints that had surrounded us. It came to me that I was the eldest now, and so I had to control things as our sister had before me.
"I wished to return home as badly as I wanted to stay way. I am glad that I led these westerners here and have aided them. I have been re-united with you my dear sister. But now…. They wish to meet with the Mothers. This bodes ill. I know not what insights these westerners will draw from such an encounter.
"I feel lost, divided. I must go to help them and at the least shield their minds. They have no means of protection otherwise. I don't know if I have the power to shield them and shield your presence."
Rose cut in urgently, "Embrace this freedom and live! Go with them and protect them. I will shield myself. I think I can do this."
Anvikela smiled at her sister's words and tightened her embrace, "We will stand united in this, sister. I suspect yours is the wisdom in this matter. You remain here, well guarded. If they find you, there will be many warriors to shield you."
Rose kissed her sister again and drew back to hold her hands within her own, Anvikela on her cheek and then held her hands. She said, " We should remain with the westerners. We must remain strong for their sake."
Anvikela let her eyes slip briefly to where Berlas stood before she returned her gaze to her sister's.
"We must work on our powers together. As one, we have proven we possess the abilities the High Wizard said we might. Together we will continue to grow, two instead of three, for our beloved sister who fell."
Rose nodded, whispered, "For our beloved sister. You know what we must do."
Berlas and Barika watched intently as the two women spoke earnestly with each other. Barika seemed impassive but Berlas was ill at ease. His concern rose as the whispering continued, and yet he could sense no ill will seeping from the sisters. Groundless, baseless suspicion only, he knew, and yet such instincts had kept his skin intact more than once before. Were his eyes cheating him or did the air shimmer faintly, like a silvery nimbus, around the two women? He narrowed his eyes to get a better view and as soon as he did that, the effect disappated and left him standing there squinting at nothing like a benighted fool. The two women linked arms and approached him. Berlas braced himself for whatever was next.
It was Avienkala who spoke, "As I offered earlier, we will aid you as we can. We have decided to accept the offers made to us by members of your Company. This sort of camaraderie is new to us, the feelings it stirs are strange. Still, we thank you for your generosity.
"But I warn you again, and my sister agrees. Meeting the Mothers will be dangerous!"
Berlas motioned Barika to fetch Videgavia and she set out promptly to get him, please to be away from the room in truth. Dwimmer-folk made her nervous, be they Elf or Mortal, like any decent man or woman of the Mark. In her absence, Berlas Cap should be talking to the girls. Barika set out promptly to get him. Meanwhile Berlas asked questions on what offer had been made to the two sisters. He learnt then that Loch had made the very offer to Rose that Videgavia had made to Anvikela. It was an offer that would be honoured. The Company rules in place under Videgavia's captaincy were no different to those established by the Black's first captain, Hanasian. The two sisters represented the Company's best hope of returning home. They were easiest to protect within their ranks. Much easier. Provided they followed orders. Unlike the first woman they had taken into the number.
Videgavia arrived with a scant number of direct questions. The sisters appeared to answer well enough for his liking. It was done. The Company had two new members. As such, the sisters were permitted to venture into the areas of the city the Company ahd secured in the same way any other member was to venture out – in other words, never alone and never unarmed. They could also receive visitors, provided they were screened. The Company had learnt a great deal about members of rank or note from Rosmarin's presence. In fact, they'd learnt faster than she had, but that was solely down to her refusal to engage in what she denounced as the bad habits of nobility. The two sisters were much as Rosmarin had been. While not of royal blood, they were of rank and they were precious indeed to the Black as it was through them that the Black would return home.
For that reason, Dhak and those few men that had defected with him back in Rhun were not permitted near the sisters. In the unlikely event that any local people emerged to seek the sisters, they would only be admitted if the sisters wished to see them. It was near impossible to understand the undercurrents of this strange place. Videgavia was resolved to permit the sisters to know who was fair or foul, for they had the experience the Black lacked and they have proven themselves trustworthy in ways Dhak had not. Yes, Dhak was a problem. The more he thought on it, the more of a problem Dhak became to Videgavia and the further away a solution appeared.
A day passed before Videgavia assembled the Old company, Khor and his second. The sisters were there as well, seated by Berlas and holding each other's hand. It was their situation that Videgavia wished to discuss. He began:
"We've had an interesting time here. We have secured the docks down to the southern point through to Khor and his cadre of men. We hold all the high buildings still intact, meaning all available vantages within the city. There appears to be little by way of organized armies to oppose us. In fact, there are few inhabitants at all. We are not, however, an invading or occupying force.
"Loch and Runner have carried out long range patrols and we've learnt that most of the people surviving this cataclysm have gone far to the south or east, over mountains that lie there. We lack the number to press farther, but we have recruited a few locals who seem to welcome our presence to keep watch for us in the event that this exodus returns."
Vidigavia coughed, for this was a lot of talking, and eased his dry throat with water. As he did so, he prepared himself for the next nugget of truth. This would be sour tidings indeed for many of those gathered around him.
"It will come as no surprise to you that our ship will never be seaworthy again. It barely limped to port. Until we secure other means, this place will be our home-"
"About that… We may have a solution," Donius cut in and Videgavia shot a sharp glance at the man.
Donius bent to whisper furiously with Runner, before he pushed on, "Our long range recon lads have found something that is of interest to us."
Videgavia waited for the engineer to say more. When he didn't, Videgavia pointedly cleared his throat and said, "Would you like to enlighten us? Or does this require a private talk?"
Donius blinked, looked around at everyone gathered to be certain, and said, "I think it concerns us all, so don't see any harm in talking here."
"Very well then. Please tell us," Videgavia said, reigning his impatience in. This was potentially good news. A way home and someone else to do the talking.
Donius approached where Videgavia stood and addressed the group.
"Runner's squad has found another ship. I've only managed a brief look at it thus far. It's a fair ship, newer but smaller. It looks like it was never quite completed. Now we can up and move ourselves down south where this ship sits, but that will bring considerable attention to our movements. I'm thinking we can send a team down and maybe nudge it up here so we can get it ready in our secured port."
This prompted waves of whispered speculation throughout the room. The sisters traded a look and Anvikela said something to Rose in their language. With Dhak and his men absent, there was no one to interpret what passed between them. Videgavia clapped his hands together to quell the quiet discussion.
"This is good news. Donius, is there any chance the ship won't be there in say a week's time, maybe two?"
"It doesn't seem to have moved in quite some time," Donius replied with a shrug.
Videgavia nodded, "In that case, the Black has its long-term project."
Smiles, fierce and bright, blossomed around the room. A way home. There'd be no shortage of willing hands for that project. But this was not all that concerned the Black Company and so Videgavia pressed on with more immediate concerns.
"Right now we need to deal with this Sisterhood. We're unsure what they want, and Dhak has told us precious little. Loch has mapped out the terrain around their keep. We will be hard pressed to mount a watch around all sides with the people available to us. However, I will be sending a message to them in the hope of meeting with them. Maybe after that we will have some understanding of their intentions."
"It will be a danger, to you and all of the Company," Anvikela said clearly and Rose nodded beside her.
Videgavia answered, "Very likely. That is why I am going. And you two ladies will accompany me."
Rose looked concerned, "We cannot… will not go inside the gates. If we do, we will be lost!"
"My sister is correct Captain. Inside the walls, their power is strong. Even remaining beyond the walls but near will tax our strength. My sister and I must prepare for whatever it is you wish to attempt."
Videgavia nodded, aware that he now had a few options to weigh up.
"We won't go in. We may not even get close. From all we have seen thus far, it appears this Sisterhood of yours has no desire or ability to disrupt us. We'll wait until they reach out to us directly. When we do go, we will bring them food. In the mean time, you two ladies work together to prepare whatever it is you need to prepare. You're part of this Company now, and we are going to need you both."
The two sisters nodded and appeared pleased with this. Videgavia continued to consider his various paths. He wanted to send an expedition to the east but couldn't risk it with the Sisterhood in their midst, dormant – for now. He needed to secure the southern approach so they could salvage this ship. It was obvious that the seamen would have to go, along with one or both Daius and Donius. His thoughts came together in a new configuration.
"A change in plan. We will send those who can bring the ship back here. Berlas will lead this party with several soldiers to keep a perimeter secure while the work is done. We will use Runner's squad to keep in contact. Runner will go, Loch will stay. You two coordinate the messaging on either end. Anything happens, I want to know about it.
"Donius, you will be in charge of getting the work done. How long do you think it will take to get the ship up here?"
"I cannot say until I get a proper look inside the hull," Donius replied, despite the fact he was already making calculations based on what little he had seen.
"Very well. The first message I get back will be an estimate on time. Take who you need and be ready to move tomorrow night.
"Berlas, take Khule and some of his men with you. Khor, we'll keep you and your men in place here and the remaining Company will continue to maintain the cordon and watch.
We'll limit our patrols around the Keep, but with Avienkala and Rose onto that front, I doubt little will surprise from that front.
"That's it. I've said more than enough for a week. If you've questions, bring them to me directly. Dismissed!"
The room buzzed with talk almost immediately. People either milled about or left for their own quarters. Barika escorted the two sisters to their room and sat outside to keep watch. The night passed calmly, the Company preoccupied with the tasks ahead. Dawn was a grey and misty affair. A morning storm pushed in from the sea and transformed the mist into a grey curtain of rain. The pervasive dust became mud that coated ground, gear, clothing and skin alike.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The clouds gathered around the hill. The beacons were dimmed and struggled against the murk to give off light. The Mother sat, shoulders bowed and head in her hands as the weather set in. This winter would be a cold one. Would it gnaw their bones too? An attendant Sister reluctantly approached the ageing woman. So many calamities sat on her too thin shoulders as it was. And yet, this was too important.
"We have a problem, Mother. The two sisters have joined in a bond. We do not control them. We can only hope now that Dhak succeeds in winning these westerners to our cause. Through them we may return to some control. The Sisters, doubt, Mother that this will come to pass."
Control. The old woman heard the ghost of the Order whisper through the younger woman's words. Control. Her face hidden by her hands, a mirthless smile lifted the corners of her mouth. How arrogant, how foolish to think survival lay now in the failed paths of the past. Could they ever change? She was one woman. Ever the Sisters would whisper, it seemed, of control.
"We must send word to the westerners. Commander Dhak was not the right choice for messenger," the Sister said when it seemed that Mother would not answer her.
Behind her hands the old woman closed her eyes and let her silence drift on a few moments yet. When she spoke it, her voice was as thin as paper.
"Dhak was only one of our messengers. Others have been sent. Only time will tell. Patience, Sister, for time will not be controlled by our will alone."
The old woman did not glance up from her hands. She heard the rustle of robes as the younger woman bowed, then the diminishing sound of footfall as she withdrew. The Mother sighed and let her mind drift anew. The fog that gathered without seemed to settle within her skull all the thicker with each passing hour.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The party heading for the ship slipped out in the darkness of that night. They found the abandoned ship was as they had left it; virtually un-manned except for the two men that had been left to walk its deck. At times, one of the men would go below and make some noise just to keep anyone close with curious ears something to hear. Khule pushed his perimeter out another block and secured all routes in. This was the limit of his manpower. The streets beyond their line became wider and the alleys numerous. He could keep the few blocks around the docks well enough, but he planned his withdrawal all the same should Videgavia choose to move or should some unknown force emerge from those wide streets and numerous alleys.
The weeks passed and the work Donius soon began to show. There was much to be done, as before. However, unlike their old ship, this one had not been battered by the sea. His estimate was that within the second month, they could set it out to sea and nurse it to the secured docks. Meanwhile things remained deserted. This did nothing to ease Khule's habitual suspicion. His guards patrolled now and again in search of anything that might be of use. Little was to be found, but it kept them busy, sharp and fought indolence and boredom. When the time came that Donius decided to try and sail her, the last two messengers were sent to the docks to give Videgavia word. If all went well, they planed to arrive in two days.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
He really was paying attention. It was just that he had split his attention in two directions, at first. One was on the empty street in front of him. The other was far to the west. What sort of reception would he get when he showed up, alive. She'd be happy, but she didn't like surprises. Of any sort. He'd have to pick his approach carefully. Preferably when she was empty handed. More likely to survive her initial reaction that way. With that sorted out, Loch's divided thoughts turned in the direction of Rose. How had she done that? Was it real? Why did she say he had taken her dancing? He didn't know how to dance! Just never had the time to learn, what with all demands of surviving as a homeless child with a sister to care for occupying his time. Mind you, dancing had always looked enjoyable. Rin certainly liked it. He had no idea where she picked it up from, but then she was always doing that. Dancing, reading, writing…she just learnt things he never seemed to have the time for. Maybe he'd learn…and take Rose dancing.
Loch felt a grin creep over his face that did not belong to a scout standing vigil. He swiftly put it away and let his eyes slide briefly to where Wulgof was hunkered down over his heels. The other man hadn't noticed the lapse. Loch inwardly breathed a sigh of relief and reunited his divided attention on his duty. The street was still numbingly empty. Nothing to report. This was the dull side of service. It wasn't all battles and secret missions, and exploding buildings. There was lots of waiting around, for hours and hours. Beside him, Wulgof was scratching down notes on a grubby piece of paper. He'd been ridiculously secretive about it. Loch could hear the sound of the other man writing and resisted the urge to sneak a peek. He couldn't without taking his eyes off the watch and that would earn him a jab in the nose. Curiosity itched at him relentlessly.
"All that means is that you're in sore need of a bath," Wulgof muttered, grinning at the irony of one Dunlander saying that to another.
Loch scowled, "You sound like my sister."
That made Wulgof scowl in his own turn. No man wanted to be told he sounded like a woman. Particularly that woman. He turned his ire back to his list. It was near enough done. He thrust it at Loch.
"Here," Wulgof grunted and stared out at the street as Loch looked down at his offered fist, "Take it. I know you've been itching to see it."
There was no point denying that, so Loch accepted the paper and inspected what was on it.
"A list," Wulgof answered
Just as Loch opened his mouth to offer an incisive observation, Wulgof continued, "Of all the things your sister stole from us."
At that, Loch's mouth snapped shut with an audible click and he considered the list anew. It was quite a list. Oh, she'd been busy. She'd even fingered Videgavia! The urge to laugh warred with a deep seated peverse pride and the instinct of self preservation. From Wulgof's expression, it was no laughing matter at all.
"They're all Old Company names," Loch remarked.
"Lucky, lucky, us," Wulgof bit off.
"But not everyone. Bear…Foldine…Frea and Folca are missing, as are others…"
"Everyone knows she has a soft spot for those first two, as for Frea and Folca…I don't know why she let Frea off... He weren't no nicer to her than I was…"
Loch blinked at Wulgof's comment. It was clear that the man did not understand and when he said as much, Wulgof's expression darkened. For all of that, he kept his attention out on the street where it belonged.
"Oh, I understand well enough, Kid. She's a thief! A dirty, rotten, thief, through and though. Can't help herself, and she picks on those she don't much like. Anyone who ain't sweet as honey, anyone she can't wrap around her fingers, anyone she has a grudge with. Anyone-"
"That she wants an excuse to see again," Loch cut in and Wulgof shook his head.
"Do you really think she'd not settle a grudge directly? Really?"
"It ain't right!" Wulgof persisted and Loch sighed at that and glanced back at the list.
"No, probably not…but it's the best way she knows to remember you by. I dare say she'd hope that you'd not just let her get away with it. She'd never admit that she wanted to see you again, never let you see that. The Old Company names missing are those that went west with Hanasian. I wager their packs are a little lighter for it as well."
"And I say that's garbage and lies. You're just trying to defend her. Everyone knows she didn't care for most of us, mostly for no other reason than the fact that we're soldiers. Everyone. This is just her way of spitting in our eye, one last time. Why would she want to see us again?"
"Because she misses you. You've muscled your way in, carved out a space in her life, and she misses you. Simple as that."
"Eh?" Wulgof asked, his attention swung back to consider the other scout.
Loch nodded and lifted one shoulder, "She'll never admit it, but I know it to be true."
That rendered Wulgof speechless. He was still offended, angry…but…but if that were true. If she really would miss them…then-
"Sauron's Balls! Where'd that come from?" Loch exclaimed and Wulgof flinched.
That turned out to be a waif of a child, perhaps seven years of age, clad in a tattered shroud and little else. The girl stood in the middle of the street, bare feet visible beneath the ragged hem of her rough garb. Her hair hung in matted strands and fell carelessly around her shoulders to her elbows. She merely stood and stared at them with eyes as dark as her hair and far too large for her face. Her appearance and the fact that it had happened without warning had Wulgof thinking she was some sort of apparition or mirage.
"Mirage? I thought they only happened in the desert," Loch scoffed and as if in response to his words, the mirage swayed and collapsed in the street.
"Mirages certainly don't pass out, do they?" Loch asked.
Wulgof was already rising to his feet and edging out into the open warily. He saw no trace of anyone on the roof or in the windows or doors.
"No, neither do apparitions," Wulgof replied and together the two men approached the child.
The hubbub roused Videgavia from the seemingly endless procession of reports. He left his desk gladly, fingers cramped from writing, to see what it was about. He located the source of the disturbance and was unsurprised to find the two Dunlendings in the midst of it all. If there was trouble to be had, Dunlendings were rarely far away in his experience. Sparks was with them and appeared to have a large bundle of dun coloured rags in his arms. When a limp, small hand fell down between his elbow and torso, Videgavia realised with a start that the medic held a child! He was barking at those around him to clear some space and Wulgof and Loch were manhandling those away that did not move smartly enough.
"What's this?" Videgavia asked, arriving as Sparks set the child down on some hastily folded blankets.
Loch and Wulgof glanced at each other an instant. Videgavia's sharp eyes did not miss that look or a piece of paper that Loch had stuffed under his belt.
"It's, ah…a child," Wulgof started lamely and Videgavia's eyes narrowed.
"A girl," Sparks provided, "Half starved."
"Just walked up to us and collapsed. Not a word said," Loch added fast.
"No messenger from Donius?"
At Videgavia's question, Loch's eyes widened and he spun about on his heel with an oath. Wulgof trudged off after him, grumbling all the way. With a shake of his head, Videgavia returned his attention to the girl. Sparks was a capable medic, but rarely had he displayed such care as he did now. He had uncorked a water skin and was trickling water into the child's mouth.
"Her skin's awfully slack," he said as Bells hunkered down on the other side.
"Slowly then…she'll not have the strength to swallow properly."
"I'm not about to choke her," Sparks snapped irritably.
"I was wondering when it would begin," Berlas remarked at Videgavia's shoulder. The Ithilien Ranger had just arrived and was studying the child with cool appraisal. When he was finished, he considered his captain with a grim expression.
"We can't take them all, Cap. Bound to be hundreds of them about here, hiding until the desperation gets too sharp. We don't have the supplies for all this city's urchins. And who's to say they are urchins? What if their parents come looking for them, angry about the foreign army holding their child captive?"
None of this was new to Videgavia. He was about to say so when Rose slipped through the press and uttered a name in surprise. At that, the girl's eyes opened enough so that a thin, gleaming sliver could be glimpsed through her lashes. The girl managed a few garbled words, as best Videgavia could tell for she spoke the same language that Rose and Avienkala and Dhak did. Rose seemed utterly startled but collected herself well enough to turn to where Berlas and Videgavia stood.
"She's a messenger. The messenger you've been waiting for," Rose said and began to walk away.
"What do they want?" Videgavia called after her.
"I must go! We must prepare!" Rose called back, jogging now towards her room.
"Get that girl inside. I want her conscious and coherent," Videgavia ordered and the two medics nodded.
That did not come to pass until dusk. This time Anvikela emerged and what Videgavia had been waiting for finally emerged.
"They wish to meet, neutral ground. Parley, as I think it is said in your tongue," Anvikela said from her position on the side of the cot. The girl was hunkered down against her, under the woman's arm. She refused to look any of the men in the eye.
"When best suits you, Captain," Avienkela stated.
As it turned out, the time that best suited Videgavia was the time that Donius' messengers arrived to say that the ship was some two days away from port. The messengers had expected to be joyously welcomed. He brought fine tidings indeed. Instead, they found that nearly everyone was somewhere else and he relayed his tidings without any of the jubilation to Loch. The scout eyed them from the large bucket of potatoes he was peeling. No one abandoned a post without consequences in Videgavia's Company. Loch glanced over at Wulgof, who was wielding his knife with savage efficiency.
"Did you hear that?"
"I heard…we're going home. About time too, since they took all the good food with them for that damn parley. Wish they took these potatoes with them."
Loch sighed and dismissed the messengers for some rest. After the men had gone, Wulgof growled, "This is all your sister's fault. I wouldn't of been so rattled as to make an amateur's mistake were it not for her. Confounded woman!"
Loch grunted his agreement. Thousands of miles away, Rin still managed to get him into trouble.
That night the moon shone on the quiet land and lent the fields a silvery sheen. Halcwyn lay sleeping as the moonlight wove through with the trees outside. The dappled silver light danced over her sleeping face as her dreams flowed.
"M'lady, youngest and dearest of my children. You who I knew the least! Word comes from your brother…."
"Father?" Halcwyn whispered in her sleep. The old Ranger appeared to her as she remembered him from long ago and she had been three years old. However, when she peered closer, she discovered he was older and rugged. As she watched, the vision faded and she glimpsed him dancing with her mother, much younger again.
His voice whispered, "You need to see your brother."
Halcwyn started awake and found she was breathing hard. Her skin felt damp and it was difficult to draw breath. She stood and crossed to the window. Beyond she could see the moonlight filtered by the trees. Her initial alarm began to recede. The coolness of the autumn night made her shiver. Halcwyn pulled on a robe and went out to the door of the house. She opened it to look up at the full moon properly. It softened, faded from view as passing clouds raced by. Snow would come soon.
"My brother…' she whispered, "I have not heard from you in over a year. You were coming, but you were delayed. Where now has the King sent you?"
The wind tugged at the robe around her and tangled her hair about her face. Tears sprang up then and she turned and went back into her house. There were no answers to be had from the moon, as ever. Halcwyn tried unsuccessfully to sleep for the remainder of the night and, until dawn blushed the east, managed a fitful slumber at best. However, once the sun had arrived she fell into a deep sleep and was not awoken until she heard banging on the door to the house.
Fuddled and disorientated by sleep, she arose and went to it to find one of the men who worked on the estate standing there. Halrad ducked his cap off and held it in his hands before him
"M'lady, pardon my annoyance, but I worried when you did not come."
"Be not alarmed, Halrad. I slept unevenly last night and no more than that," Halcwyn answered and that didn't seem to calm Halrad down in the least.
"Well, I hope you are ready to entertain a visitor, m'lady. There is a man here to see you. Asked for you by name," Halrad said uncomfortably.
Halcwyn asked, "It is likely about some horses. Are you sure he is not here to see Enedoth my husband?"
"No m'lady. He asked for you by name. And I doubt it has to do with horses. He is clad in worn black leathers and has a device on his vest I do not recognize. But he is fair haired as one of the Rohirrim, and wears our riding cloak."
Halcwyn wrapped herself with her cloak and stepped outside to see for herself. This man Halred had spoken of stood by the fence that ran along the track to the house. He was feeding his horse a carrot, unconcerned. When he noticed Halcwyn's approach with Halrad, the carrot was gone, his horse was happy and so he stood straight and tall as he thought he should. To Halcwyn he appeared to be a proud soldier and even as she neared the wind pushed his cloak aside and reveal the device Halrad had mentioned. She recognised it immediately as that of the Black Company and as she paused, the man bowed. She noted that he held a leather binding like that used by her brother Hanasian for his journals. A clutching fear gripped her and she found then that she knew what this man had come to say. He was here to report that Hanasian had perished. The man looked on with concern as the woman's face went a chalky white.
"State your business to Lady Halcwyn of Westmarch. And be swift, for she is unwell," Halrad said sharply, alarm and a loyal protectiveness rendering him unusually terse.
The man bowed slightly to Halrad in acknowledgement and turned to the lady who stood frozen, clutching her cloak closed against the wind.
"M'lady, I am Fordwine of Rohan. I come bearing news of your brother. Rest assured that when I last saw him, he was quite well!"
Halcwyn felt her head spin a little and released the breath she did not know she had been holding. She blinked, the sun now very bright. News she always had feared did not come today.
She stepped nearer to Fordwine and asked, "You know my brother? Tell me, where might I find him?"
"I do not know for certain m'lady, for it has been some time since I have seen him. It was in the eastern lands of Rhun. I served for a time under his command of the Black Company when it rode east. I was wounded in battle there, but remained with the Company for a time. When I departed with the King's men, unable to serve, Hanasian gave me some items to deliver to you personally."
Fordwine held forward the leather binding that was filled with parchments. Halcwyn reached for them but pulled her hand back. Dark clouds were streaming, pushed and whipped by the wind.
She said, "It is foolish to be standing out here in this wind and threatening rain. I have forgotten my hospitality. Will you come inside and take some tea and biscuits? You must be hungry after your long travels."
Fordwine bowed and said, "Yes, it has been a long road. It is not easy to get here through the mountains in summer, moreso now with the first snows on the high track from Westfold threatening."
Halcwyn turned nodded and at that Halrad tended to Fordwine's horse. The two started to walk back to the house and Halcwyn said, "You know that way? It is known by so few, and most of that few live here in Westmarch. My husband and sons travelled that way to Edoras to the grand fair. He will return by the Isen."
Fordwine paused before the door, saying, "Perhaps, then, it would be best if I remained here, outside."
Halcwyn turned to look at him in confusion. After a moment, a smile grew and then a laugh. Such courtesy! From a soldier, and member of the Black Company. None of them were evil men, but so few of them were so well schooled in social conduct as this Fordwine was.
Still smiling, she said, "Do not concern yourself with such matters, Fordwine of the Black Company. If your intentions were ill, no such consideration would have occurred to you. Our neighbours are no less than a league away and Halrad over there regularly takes his lunch with me. I only wish I had fresh biscuits to offer you, for the ones I have I baked a day ago."
They went in and sat at a table that looked out over the field that reached to the river. The biscuits were a treat for Foldwine, and he said as much but did not wish to speak of what fare they had to sup on while on his long journeys with the Company. The tea he found to be hot and fragrant, as it should be.
Halcwyn said, "So you had something my brother wished to have you give me? I would receive it now, if I may."
Fordwine set his empty tea cup down and reached for the binding he had tucked back into his jerkin. He set it on the table before her and said, "They are letters he had written to you while he was away. There were so few reliable opportunities to send them. Even in sending them with me, they took a long route, and were delayed. I needed time in Minas Tirith to fully recover and heal from my injuries. Have you received any letters from him recently?"
"I have, but not recently. I must go and find the last one, but I recall its thrust well enough. My brother had met a girl and he spoke of falling in love, of all things! I've written one or two for him since, but I do not know if he receives them. I send them to Bree, in the care of the Inn of the Prancing Pony."
Halcwyn had a fond smile on her face as she brushed the leather with her hand and toyed with the leather binding.
Fordwine stood, "I am certain, then, that you will discover much in these. I will leave you to read, for I must be away."
Halcwyn stood and asked, "Will you not stay and rest for a time?"
"No m'lady," Fordwine demurred, "If I ride now, I will reach the Isen by nightfall. I wish to see my home again in Westfold. I only stayed there a day on my way here."
She thanked him for the news of Hanasian, even though it was many months old, and he thanked her for the biscuits and tea and went to find his horse. The creature was contentedly grazing at the grass that grew around the fence posts, having demolished already the few mouthfuls of hay that Halrad had set out for him. Fordwine found his mouth was not at all eager to be away, quite happy with things here at the estate. Still, he consented to having Fordwine in the saddle again for Fordwine was good to him and had, only recently, given him a sweet carrot. Fordwine lifted a hand in parting and, watching from the house, Halcwyn went back to her table and opened the binding.
Letters were stacked and sorted by date. She read through them, smiling on occasion, and frowning now and again. With her dream still in her mind, she considered his words as she went searching for the letters he had sent before. She also found a map he had made her of the lands west of the Misty Mountains, and she studied it closely. As she did, an urgent sense to see her brother grew within her.
Halcwyn spent the next days preparing for her journey. When Enedoth and the boys arrived, he questioned the wisdom of travelling so far with winter coming on. Autumn was nearly done.
"You have told me you never wished to travel north before, not since you returned here with your mother. Why do you wish to go now, when the rains and the icy winds from the north come?" Enedoth asked.
Halcwyn replied, "I have word that he has settled in the north, west by the sea with a wife and now a child on the way. His child is likely born now. I want to see him! I want to meet his wife and child."
"Then wait until spring after the snow melts and the rivers calm. Then we can take horses north. I hear a fair Midsummers market is at a town called Bree. We can sell and then go west," Enedoth counselled, trying to calm her father's restless spirit in her.
Halcwyn was silent and wished for a moment that she had left before Enedoth and her sons had returned. But she realized how foolish that would have been. She embraced him then nodded. They would journey north in the next year. A concession she had gotten from herself, and Enedoth. He never wanted to go to the market in Bree before.
She said, "You are wise to point out my folly to go now alone to the north. I do not doubt my ability to make it to where I want, but I cannot leave you to tend to our sons and horses alone. I will write to my brother and send it to him in Bree. I am sure he, or someone he trusts, will be through to collect it. May he get it before we arrive next year."
"I am sure word will find him," Enedoth answered and wondered whether this wife and child had tempered the brother of his wife. Hanasian had seemed a little…unsettled, restless, as if he was troubled by dark memories that might claim him at a moment's notice, to uncertain effect on those around him including the sister that loved him so.
They settled into their evening, and after dinner and the boys went to bed, Enedoth fell into a deep sleep in his wife's embrace. Halcwyn slept a little at first, but awoke again in the night. The moon's dappled light danced about through the window and she walked to the table where she had collected the parchments and map. She began to pen a letter to her brother in her unique flowing Tengwar script.
I hope this finds you, and finds you well. I received your letters a few days ago, delivered by a man named Fordwine who served with your Company in the east. It is only now that I know that you have married, taken this Rosmarin to wife and, more, that you had a child on the way. All going well, and judging by the dates of your letters, I presume that your child has now arrived and will be growing swiftly as ever they do.
Yet it was the night before Fordwine arrived that I had a dream. Father appeared to me and stirred my rebel spirit. When we spoke of such things with mother when we were young, I remember her instruction to remain vigilant and keep this spirit in check. Despite this, I was so close to riding out to find you on my own, leaving mother's house and my sons and my husband behind. I fought to control it, and after three days, Enedoth returned with the boys from Edoras. He spoke simple wisdom to me and we now will be in Bree for the Midsummer market.
After, we will ride to where you live, if we should be able to find it. I wish to meet Rosmarin. Your letters are filled with the love you bear her. A remarkable thing, my brother, that you have found that which I had long hoped you might. I wish to see your child. I have your map, but little Haltheod likes to look at it and I have found it misplaced at times. It will be worth its weight in fine gold to guide us, for I have not travelled the Greenway in the years since mother brought us to Rohan. If you find yourself in Bree for Midsummer, or have someone there to guide us, it will be a blessing. I look forward to seeing you again dear brother, for it has been too many years. Our meeting will be far glader this time. I promise this.
Love to you dear brother,
Your little sister Halcwyn
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.