53. Chapter 53
Riding was difficult at this time of year. Keeping to the coast only meant that the snow blowing in on the stiff northerly wind was turned to very cold rain. Loch hadn't felt anything like it since a couple days when they were headed east into Rhun. He hadn't liked it much then, and he didn't like it now. Sure he knew Videgavia was the Captain, but Hanasian was still and would always be captain to him, even if he was no longer Captain of the Company and was now his brother-in-law.
Loch rode the bluffs where the ancient forests made attempts to re-establish themselves from their decimation of the second age. Groves of young trees struggled to grow, huddled together in the grassy hills. Loch found himself riding through them to gain shelter from the incessant rain and would set his camp in them for shelter and remain unseen. The days passed in an incessant parade of grey with rain, drizzle, and cold wind. The clouds did break at times, invariably at night and while that permitted the moonlight through, it left everything frozen, including himself and his saddle and his horse. Loch found himself talking to no one but himself, or Rose or Rin as if they were with him. He never thought he would be assigned a mission to do alone. He usually decided for himself when he did them, as Videgavia well knew by now. Loch guessed it might have been some sort of reward for returning? Anyway, he was alone and cold. Sleeping was hard, with only exhaustion making it possible for more than a couple hours. Just like old times when he and Rin were living wild and rough, only alone. The wind had a lonely sound to it, he thought.
The next day he found himself not far out of sight from the ocean. He kept to the bluffs unless he had to get around some broken ground. The greyness made everything look the same and nothing out of place was spotted along that rocky shore. He did not see another living soul. Likely they had more sense than to be out in this weather. As he made his way south down the coast, the coast started to curve around to the east as he approached where the Brandywine emptied into the sea. Coming to the river, he searched for sign and found none. The river mouth was too wide and deep to cross, so he headed inland along its north bank to find a place to camp. Maybe he could catch a fish or two for a meal. He could see them in the clear cold water. He had been camping cold since he left. He would enjoy a fire this night,and set a line. He needed to make his dried fruit and meat last. In any case, it was probably frozen like it had been the day before.
A fish caught and gutted, he cooked it over the fire with a stick. It tasted so good he tried to lure another one. But as easy as the first one took his line, the disappearance of the fish from the water must have alerted the others, for they only studied or lightly nibbled on his bait. It was not long before Loch gave up, and returned to his fire. It felt good and before too long he was fast asleep.
Loch woke up irritable. He hadn't wanted to sleep so hard, but the warmth of his fire, the relative dryness under the tree that overhung the river, the sound of the Brandywine River, and his own fatigue from the many gloomy days had held him in slumber. It was then he noticed the dripping of water from the trees had lessened. It had stopped raining. The wind had died to a very light breeze too. Already it felt warmer even though he was still quite damp. The brightness was welcoming, for the cool winter sun, was rising on a clear cold morning and Loch was more than ready to feel it on his face. He wasted no time breaking camp, and leaving but a little trace, that being the fresh ashes of his fire from the night before in the old rock fire-ring he had found. He rode out from the trees and paused in the rays of the low morning sun. But it seemed only like moments before the warmth started to slip away, for as the sun started to dry the land the cold air caused fog to form.
Soon Loch was riding the edge of the river looking for a place to cross but he could see little on the other side. The chill dampness closed around him and Loch pulled his cloak closer and slowly rode along. He should be on the coast looking for the Captain, not pushing through fog and scrub along the mouth of the Brandywine. When he came to where the water was swift over the rocks and the banks were shallow, he crossed. The south side was much like the north, and he rode west back to the sea. Looking over the bluff down to the ocean, he could see nothing in the grey fog. He slowly rode south again, determined to find the Captain.
It was late afternoon when the sun made its appearance again that day. Ahead the thick old growth woodland of Eryn Vorn lurked dark in the orange sunlight. He would camp under its eaves, and decide the next day whether to go in them to search the coast or ride around them. Rin was so certain there had been a boat involved. The thought of his sister gave him something to worry after. She had not been at all well when he had ridden out. If she was out in this weather…It was not long after he set camp did he hear the sound of hoofs. He moved his horse into the woods and waited. Perhaps they would ride by. But of course their footfalls slowed.
A voice sounded, "Hail traveller! Who goes about these lands of Cardolan?"
Loch thought the man sounded familiar, but he didn't say anything. A couple more horses approached. He heard them reign in and knew then that the men knew he was there.
Loch grimaced at being pinned down like this and said, "It is I, Lochared of Dunland, brother of the Lady of Cardolan."
"Loch! What are you doing down here? Who is with you?" came the surprised reply and Loch knew it to be Berlas.
Loch said, "I could ask the same. I thought you were in Tharbad."
"We were, and some are still. But some of the King's Guard have taken up the watch of the crossing. So we removed ourselves west to watch the wide lands of Cardolan. We're headed for Lond Daer where a few scouts had gone," Berlas said as he dismounted.
Loch emerged from the trees he had taken shelter in, expression grim, "Have you not heard then? The Captain had been taken!"
"Videgavia?" Berlas asked haltingly.
Loch shook his head, shaggy curls waving from side to side, "No! Not Videgavia, Hanasian! There was a raid. They got in and killed three of us, took Hanasian. So far we've been able to track them headed southwest and there is some evidence that they took to a boat."
Berlas could see in the fading light how grim Loch was and it fitted his tidings. Berlas signed to one of the riders Loch didn't recognize and the man turned and rode off at speed.
Berlas noted Loch's gaze and said, "Some young Rohan boys. Better horsemen than the Easterlings. They've been watching the river. My gut told me something was amiss. We camp here and ride hard to Lond Daer on the morrow."
They soon had fire and the three men sat and talked and ate before they lay down. Berlas found Loch was difficult to get further information out of, particularly around his sister, and that did not bode at all well. At least it was much warmer this night and it didn't feel like rain was coming. But it was still winter.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hanasian managed to get up and place his thoughts in check once more. They settled into place with cool precision. He walked slowly over to Karlina who sat up in a bed, leaning back against the wall with her eyes closed. Hanasian grabbed a nearby chair and set it down hard with its back toward her and saw she woke with a start. He sat down, slung his arms over the back of the chair and rested his chin upon his arms. He stared hard into her eyes a long moment.
Once he was sure Karlina had enough time a guage his frame of mind, Hanasian said, "I'm told you wished to speak with me?"
Her eyes were tired and hollow, as if all fight had gone out of her. She closed them and whispered, "Yes, I did."
Hanasian felt himself smile, a slight and cold thing, "That is good. I wish to talk to you as well. Hopefully you will have answers for me this time."
Karlina opened her eyes and looked at the blanket where her ankle used to be before looking at him and answered, "And you mine I hope."
Hanasian's smile vanished as he reached into his vest and pulled out a parchment. He looked it over as he said, "We'll get to yours if I'm satisfied with your answers to mine."
Karlina sighed and closed her eyes again.
Hanasian went on, eyes lifting from the contract to the woman propped against the wall, "I have this contract in my hand. Very well articulated. Doesn't say much, but it's to the point. The party hiring six people to bring me back alive to them is an unknown, for their signature amounts to an X. But I see yours here, third out of six.
"Now I know that three were slain before Rowdy was felled and I was taken. And I know there were two of you on the boat. That leaves another. Now I can't make out the last two signatures but maybe you could help me with that.
"Now, my questions are simple. Who contracted you, and where are you supposed to take me?"
Karlina sat motionless. Her eyes remained closed except for a moment where she glanced at the contract Hanasian held. After a long silence, Hanasian got up and moved the chair out of his way.
He said to the Captain of the horsemen, "I think Karlina and I need a moment alone."
The Captain stood and as he went to the door, he warned, "We don't tolerate any ill treatment of prisoners here."
"No prisoners will be mistreated. I'm not even armed. We just need to have a private moment," Hanasian said, voice mild even as his eyes simmered as they held Karlina's gaze.
The Captain stepped out as Karlina opened her eyes. They went wide when she saw she was alone with Hanasian. He wasn't armed, she had heard him say, but she was. The boot where she kept her finger knife was useless now, but it sat by her bed. Hanasian sat on the edge of the bed and had it in hand, turning it over as if he studied it. He moved suddenly, pressed against her wounded leg. He leaned toward her and covered her mouth with his free hand while his other hand moved. The tip of her knife was pressed now just beneath her eye and he face was so close their noses almost touched. She moaned in pain from her leg, but could not move without losing an eye.
Hanasian's voice was soft as he stared hard into her now wide eyes, "I may not be my father, but I have done and am fully capable still of things that would make my father proud. You will tell me what I want to know, Karlina, and you will do exactly what I say or you will lose your perfectly unscarred face. And that will be just the beginning. I wont kill you, but you will wish I had.
"Cooperate with me and help me, and I'll see you get back to Minas Tirith safely. Between those two options, there is the matter of Rowdy's death. I don't believe you were there but you were an accomplice to those responsible. The King's Court will not look favourably upon you in this matter, unless someone intercedes on your behalf. Someone like me…or better yet, my wife. Do we understand each other now, Karlina?"
Hanasian pulled back the knife a little and Karlina nodded shakily. Her breaths came in shaky gasps.
Hanasian then said, "Very good. Now let's begin again. Tell me where you were taking me."
Karlina nodded, fought back sudden tears, "We were to take the boat to Pelargir. But with the losses, we didn't have the men aboard to do it. So we were to go to Tharbad, upriver."
Hanasian sighed. Pelargir would have been bad. The gateway to the south and east, much happened there that is not accounted for, even under the king. Rin and Loch had made themselves a small fortune out of Pelargir when they thought he hadn't been looking the last time they were there. The underworld of that city was extensive and there was little that could not be bought or sold, for the right price. It was good they had slain three. Tharbad was better. He had men there, and the Rohirrim helped with the watch at times.
Hanasian said, "I see. Seems you kind of missed the river mouth, considering we wrecked near the mouth of the Isen. Once you got me to Tharbad, you would have been paid?"
"No," Karlina wiped her face with her sleeve and went on, "The deal was to get you to Pelargir. We could find assistance in Tharbad to re-man and re-fit the boat to finish the journey."
Hanasian stared at her hard and considered returning her knife to its earlier position below her eye. There was something Karlina was withholding and his patience had vanished.
Karlina eyes softened as they stared into Hanasian's, "I wasn't wanting to go to Pelargir or deliver you, and our reduced numbers was working in my favour. I was going to free you in Tharbad, figured you'd have men there. But we didn't get there."
Hanasian chuckled sarcastically, "So you were going to free me. Well, I'm free. But you aren't until you prove your words to me. We'll go to Tharbad, and we will try and find some of your people. But only because it's the fastest way for me to get to the bottom of this, so I can get home where I am needed."
Karlina nodded and looked again at where her foot would have been. Hanasian sat back and twirled the knife on his finger.
"Now, you had questions of me?"
Karlina nodded as she gained her breath. Hanasian gave her a mug of water and she drank sloppily from it. She nodded again and he set the mug back on the table.
She said in a breathless voice, "I asked you if you might remember my mother Katela. She knows of you."
Hanasian considered the name again while looking at the contract he had found. It was vaguely familiar. His eyes tracked over the signatures on the contract and found a memory shaken loose by the name after Karlina's signatur. He only saw Katela once, briefly, in Minas Tirith. She had been with child as she worked tables at the White Tree Inn. He remembered because she had come to his table and served him a pint of ale.
Katela had asked, "Son of Halasian you are?"
Hanasian recalled innate wariness but he nodded slightly. The woman had glanced about the inn, gave him some parchments rolled up and flattened, then walked away. He blinked and found himself miles and years away.
He said, "Does she now? Well, I remember a serving girl at the White Tree Inn who looked like you, about your age at the time. She was with child. I suppose she could be your mother, and that you were also there."
Karlina seemed surprised at Hanasian's answer. She pushed on, "Did she give you anything?"
Karlina was leaning forward, Hanasian noted, eager and seemingly fully recovered from her earlier melancholia.
"Yes, a pint of beer," Hanasian replied, "Maybe two."
Karlina seemed deflated. He wasn't going to mention the parchments. Not yet.
She asked, "Did she give you anything else?"
"Not that I can remember. I'll have to think on it. If you hadn't cracked my skull so damn hard, perhaps I'd remember things better," Hanasian said.
Sure, he remembered. He remembered the parchments too. He didn't like what it meant either, for he would have to look at Karlina in a different light if he thought about it. Right now, he wasn't going to think about it. He was going to use her to find and kill the ones responsible for his abduction.
Hanasian stood up from the edge of the bed, "You rest up. It will be a bit before you can travel with your leg. I'm sorry they couldn't save your foot, but your ankle was smashed and rot had set in. A couple more days and you would have died. Now, anything else you want to say?"
Karlina moved her footless leg and looked at the blanket, "I can feel it, you know. Like it's still there. The ankle aching, the toes throbbing, and in my mind I think I can move them. But I know they're gone. A high price to pay for a fools errand."
Hanasian looked out the window where the Captain stood talking to one of his horsemen. He said without looking back at her, "Why did you do it? Sign on to this…."
He held up the contract and waved it side to side slightly.
Karlina said, "I wanted to see and talk to you."
"You kill one of my men, nearly kill me, take me away from my wife and son at a time they needed me most just to see and talk to me?"
"What's so urgent about being there? Not like there's no one else there, way I heard it told. Not like she's on her own or nothing."
"Do you know, then, that my wife is with child? Twins. Due any day now," Hanasian said, tensing as his headache returned.
Karlina said in desperate voice, "I thought it to be the only way to-"
Hanasian turned and threw her knife at her. She screamed as it sailed passed her head, grazing her ear and pinning a lock of her hair to the headboard of the bed. The Captain was in quickly and Hanasian walked past him, saying, "You left her armed. You should be more careful. See to it she can ride. We'll leave in the morning."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When Berlas said they would ride hard, he meant it. The two newcomers that rode with Loch and Berlas revealed their skill on horseback, streaking ahead. Loch had not seen anything like it before. In all his years in Rohan, he had spent most of them avoiding the Riddermark. Since joining the Company, he'd seen the Riddermark in battle. But this was different entirely. The two young men from Rohan were not laden with battle gear and nor were their horses. For a good while Loch lost himself in the sheer exhilaration of it all.
The cold and the gnawing fear for those he cared for fell away and he was surprised and slightly ashamed of himself when he realised this. He was not down here on a jaunt. He was down here because his sister's husband had been cruelly taken. He had left his dearest Rose with her to protect her but feared whether any of them could protect Rin from herself. She was dismantling herself inexorably, piece by piece. In all their years together, he had never seen her quite like this.
"There's more to it," Berlas said from where he squatted.
They had pulled in to rest themselves and their horses and the Company's second in command was stretching his legs as he gnawed on some of his hardtack. Loch lifted a shoulder uncomfortably.
"You're terrible at secrets, you know," Berlas continued and Loch squinted at the frozen ground between them as he selected his words with care.
"So," he said slowly, lifting his eyes from the ground to Berlas, "Are you."
Berlas frowned, opened his mouth and then looked away. He shouldn'y be surprised, he thought, that Loch knew. Ever since the paths of these two siblings had crossed with the Company, they all knew how closely Loch watched his sister. It made sense, of course. The world could be a cruel place and Loch's sister was and is uncommonly beautiful. Right now, Loch's expression was cold and unyielding and it was directed right at him. If anyone could spot a covetous glance directed at his sister for too long, it was Loch. But Loch's reaction confirmed for Berlas that there was more and it was connected with….Rosmarin.
"We should be going," Loch said gruffly and stood.
"The raid…the attack…they didn't get Hanavia or… or…"
"No," Loch said impatiently and Berlas felt a little easier. By a fraction.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sparks was still rolling his sleeves down as he stood there, expression marked with weariness and grave concern. Farbarad held his tongue by the slimmest of margins. He had nightmares about this man and that night. Eru forgive him, but he had given this man consent to….but it hadn't come to that. It hadn't. Rin was with them still and they had saved one and Sparks' shirt was clean. No spattering of blood on his shirt this time.
"I've contained the bleeding again," Sparks said, voice bleak, as he tied off his cuffs and lifted his eyes to Farbarad.
"I won't mince words, Wolf. It's bad. She's weak. She can't keep losing blood like this. I've sedated her for now, properly…but there is a limit to what any one body can endure and she has reached hers."
Farbarad could still hear Loch screaming his refusal to let Sparks cut open his sister to save Elian. He could still see the little dagger, so carefully prepared so that it would be fast. He had ranted at them, sobbing, that it would kill her and he had been right. It would have killed Rin but it would have saved Elian and they had already lost Míriel. She is dying anyway, Sparks had said, and Farbarad had thought Loch would launch himself at the sad, desperate cutter. Poor Bells was hunched over in the corner by that time, rocking back and forth and crying. So much blood. So much pain.
"What are you saying," Farbarad demanded, voice hoarse.
"You'll need a wet nurse and I recommend seeking assistance from the Elf haven at Harlond. Bells and I…we're not…we're not trained for this sort of thing, as I have said from the outset."
It's possible Sparks said more but Farbarad didn't comprehend it. Videgavia seemed to take up the discussion, distant noise as far as Farbarad was concerned. He left them there in the sitting room and found Slippery seated on the side of the massive bed that Rin occupied. She had Rin's hand in her own and was stroking her fingers gently. The pallor of Rin's skin was painfully pale and her hand was limp, devoid of the tension that usually animated her skilful hands. Slippery glanced up at him as he approached and he dreaded what he saw in her face. She was grieving. Grieving for her friend, her companion. He did not wish to. He could not do this. Not again. No….the first time had been bad enough. He'd just gotten her back, from beyond the grave or so it seemed, beyond all hope. Had it all just come to this?
Slippery moved so that he could see better and Farbarad perched on the side of the bed himself. Covers had been piled over Rin to keep her warm. Furs and blankets and both hearths had been lit and kept burning because she could not keep herself warm. She had been cold all the time, shivering, jaw clenched to stop her teeth from chattering and that was before the latest haemorrhage. If he had looked in on her earlier, during the night, perhaps it would not now be as dire as this. She would not have lost so much blood this time.
He had been loathe to intrude. She was angry with him and so tired. The harder he tried to serve her, the greater he seemed to fail her. Slippery transferred Rin's hand to his. It felt so cold. She was still so cold. He found himself searching for her pulse and found that faint, fragile thread of life in her wrist. Farbarad laid his other hand over hers to warm it between his own, head bowed and eyes closed.
"I hate this!" Slippery whispered, her voice harsh with impotent, futile rage.
She leaned forward and twirled the brush she had just used on Rin's hair between her fingers. Farbarad glanced at her, looking at Rin was just too difficult right now, and saw that the small Gondorian's nostrils flared with each breath. Her grasp on the brush hand tightened, her knuckles went white and then she hurled it with all her might. It clattered into the hearth. Slippery stared at it and then slowly closed her eyes.
"I feel so…helpless," she whispered.
Farbarad did not dare say anything for fear of what might come tripping out. His head felt as though it would implode. He glanced back to his hands and deemed that Rin's was warm enough to slip under the covers with the rest of her. He stared at her face. The delicate bone structure was so alike her mother's. Right now, like this, she could be her mother. It was her eyes that made her who she was. Such ferocious spirit, such a bold intellect.
She had become more than he had dared hope she might. As an infant, he had thought he would watch her grow only to be swallowed by the machinations of her father's politics, a pawn to be bought and sold. He'd dreaded what might happen if she was sold in marriage to a number of Gondor's noble families. Somehow she had avoided all of that, by paths darker than any might choose to tread, and he had let himself come to believe that he would instead enjoy watching her flourish with her family. Kinder days, gentler days…almost enough to soothe his savaged spirit, and still it had all come down to this.
"It is not your fault, Wolf," Slippery breathed beside him and Farbarad started guiltily, "But if you give up on her now, I will hunt you down."
"No, you listen to me! We fight for her! We must!"
"How? What can we possibly do against-"
"The only reason she lies there like this, is because of men like Andred."
Farbarad was very still then. Truthfully, the desire to hold Andred accountable for the full wages of this attack had been chewing relentlessly at his self control for days now. If Slippery pressed him on it, his restraint might crack and he could not hope to serve if he forgot who he was: a Ranger of Cardolan, a Ranger of the North, a Dunedain man sworn to the service of the royal scions of Elendil.
"As soon as Loch returns with Hanasian, they'll know they failed and they will scurry off as quick as the proverbial rats they are. We'll be left with our dead, our brutalised and the long wait for them to take another tilt, in a manner and time of their choosing," Slippery continued.
"What are you saying?" Farbarad warily asked.
"She's saying we do a bait and switch, turn the tables about and seize back some control," said Videgavia from the doorway, "Lure the rats out on the illusion of success and crush them once and for all. It is a standard tactic that the Company has excelled at for decades now. If we can't pull this off, then I don't deserve its Captaincy."
"The illusion of success? What might that be?" Farbarad asked and Videgavia's smile was a terrifying creature.
"I was hoping you might ask that, Wolf," he replied and with that he was gone from the doorway.
By nightfall much had occurred. Videgavia sat in the kitchen, his long legs crossed before him as he stroked one of his many daggers down a whetstone with something akin to tenderness. Hanavia watched on from the floor, fascinated. Massuil was absent, volunteering himself to make for Harlond. It had seemed incongruous for Massuil to take this on. He nor his men were Rangers of Cardolan nor were they Company. Still, the elder Ranger had been emphatic. Among other things, Massuil said it would be an honour, that Farbarad had other matters to see to and that when all was said and done this was a matter of the Rangers looking to one of their own. With that proprietary stake driven home, Massuil had divided his small party into two with preemptory speed. One set off searching for a wet nurse and the other made for Harlond, both moving at speed which was just as well, all things considered.
Runner, meanwhile, had sent his remaining men out far and wide to call back the Company men in the field. There was no telling just how many rebels might be lured back and so the more they had on hand the better. There were defensive preparations to make and the last thing the North needed were a few rebels slipping the noose after they had begun to draw it close. Things were bad enough with just one monarch disavowed. If both Aragorn and Rin were disavowed, they just might set up the seeds for Rhuadaur all over again. Farbarad and Massuil had both been very clear on that. Frantic, almost. Vid was already making plans within plans. The Company men and women would be very busy indeed setting them into motion, preparing, drilling…and there was the contingency plan to see to as well should everything go sour. Fortunately, the boat was still in decent shape and it was a short voyage to Mithlond. It would be unlikely that Círdan would turn away a ship with women and children aboard from his refuge, particularly if they were scions of Elendil.
Videgavia held up his blade to the light and considered it at length. So too did Hanavia. The little boy was not yet two years of age and the events of the past week had been terrible for the adults that surrounded him. He had his mother's eyes, Videgavia noted, and they travelled from the knife to Videgavia's face with undisguised curiosity. Videgavia had always found children made him nervous, particularly Rin's son. The boy had a preternatural awareness that just reeked of trouble.
Almost as if he sensed Videgavia's discomfort, the boy offered him a small smile and returned his attention to his own task. Vid realised with a start that the boy was fashioning a dagger of his own by rubbing a length of wood against the flagstones that comprised the kitchen floor. Well then, Videgavia mused, Hanavia was his father's and mother's son and clearly well aware that something bad had happened to his parents, Videgavia concluded.
"We'll look after them, lad," Videgavia rumbled and Hanavia nodded as if he understood.
"Amme tired," Hanavia said thoughtfully, rubbing the wood back and forth on the stones, "Abba gone."
Before Videgavia knew it, he had the boy in his lap. Hanavia peered at him equally as surprised. Videgavia braced himself for whatever the boy might do by way of reaction and so was discovered staring expectantly into Hanavia's face by the Dirty Three. The last thing they expected to see was their Captain gazing at a child. They froze in the doorway uncertainly.
"Report," Videgavia scowled, feeling as if he had been discovered in a compromising position which Hanavia's sudden giggle did not at all assist.
"He's made it through," Khule replied.
"Alive, I hope. He's no use to us dead," Videgavia pressed.
"He's alive," Wulgof grumbled.
"And he will stay that way long enough to pass on Farbarad's treasonous missive, won't he. They have to hear that Doc is taking back her throne and needs their help."
Molguv sighed gustily. It seemed to be as much an affront to the Dirty Three that Andred had been turned loose, alive and kicking, as being stationed in a brewery and forbidden to sample the wares, or the serving maids. Worse, even, Videgavia amended.
"Your orders were clear, Captain. We've not lifted a finger to harm him," Khule grudgingly replied.
Wulgof had ventured as far as the entrance to the sitting room. He peered through it uncertainly.
"How's…" he asked Videgavia.
"Holding on, still. Everything that can be done, has been done. Farbarad and Slip are with her now."
"Spit, like I said," Molguv muttered and beside him Khule nodded solemnly.
Wulgof lingered at the doorway as Videgavia said, "I want you three well rested. We have much to do on the morrow. Defensive works and the like. Anvikela and Rose will handle the watch for the night."
"Aye, Cap," Khule responded, walked the few steps and grabbed at the leather baldric that crossed Wulgof's torso to tug him away from the doorway.
"If anything happens, you will know," Videgavia said, more gently than he had intended but it did the trick.
The Dirty Three trooped out and Videgavia was left with Hanavia, who was sucking on his fingers thoughtfully. Outside, Videgavia could hear the three men talk amongst themselves. Wulgof was hatching a plot to pursue Andred that, for now, Khule was keeping in check. Molguv was complaining about the fact that Videgavia had gotten to question Andred and had not shared it around. Khule pointed out that sharing would probably have resulted in a dead Andred and he was needed alive, but not for too long. Videgavia found some comfort in the Easterling's level, strategic head that came to a sudden standstill when Khule continued to elucidate how all of that would change if Rin perished. The Dirty Three's conversation veered into the various forms of reprisal they would select and Videgavia placed his hands over Hanavia's ears as a precautionary measure.
Outside, in the darkness, Molguv nodded and the three of them started to walk away, back to their barracks, as ordered. Once inside, Wulgof said, "Do you think he heard?"
"He better have. If they court martial me-" Molguv growled ominously and Khule waved it aside.
"Videgavia can hear an ant sneeze. He knows how things are. Any way, you two both saw the state Andred was in. Dare say he'd be with us, if it came down to it. I know we can count on the Cats. Reckon a few of the Company too…Berlas…Donius and Daius," Khule said.
"Loch, definitely. Farbarad too. As for Hanasian, we all know what they say about his father and we've all seen how he can be when it comes to his wife. Probably them two witch sisters we picked up along the way. There are no shortage of people who'd happily take a nice bite out of this pack of rebels even if Cardolan don't mean a thing to them. But it won't come down to that because she's hanging on. Spit, like Molguv says," Wulgof interjected and then threw himself onto his bunk, boots still on.
"Used to be I though she had too much," he continued, back to the other men, "But now I worry she doesn't have enough."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Loch slept uneasily that night, troubled by persistent dark dreams, despite the ground they had managed to cover during the day. At one point he found himself started awake, sitting up and shivering hard as the image Rin's sightless, fixed, empty eyes floated around in his head. He dragged his hands over his face in a bid to clear his head and glanced around. Berlas was tightly wrapped in his own cloak a short distance away. The man had kept to himself for the rest of the day but Loch remained confused. Berlas was a good man to serve beside and a good lieutenant to serve under. More than that, Berlas had gone out of his way to show kindness to Rin right from the beginning. Still, he was reluctant to say anything at all to Berlas about his sister. It just didn't feel right, to him, as her brother, for reasons he could not entirely comprehend.
Aside from Berlas, he saw another shape in the darkness. The moon was out and everything was glittering, beautiful and icy. Another reminder of his sister. But if only one Rohirrim was here, that mean the other two were afield. Loch lay back, listening for the telltale rumble of horses. He stared up at the night sky. Clouds wheeled by, far away and remote. He could not say how long he lay there listening. Next thing he knew, Berlas was kicking the soles of his boots in the Company honoured tradition of waking a lazy man. Or woman. Loch scrambled to his feet, blinking in the sunlight.
"That's more like it," Berlas said and shoved a warm tin mug filled with something hot into his hands.
"Quickly. Liven up. We have an appointment to make."
"Huh?" Loch managed and slurped at the bitter, strong tea that someone had brewed. It made his eyes water, which was unfortunate because it was particularly cold that morning.
"There was contact in the night. Could be of interest, perhaps not."
"With who?" Loch asked and slurped another mouthful of tea. It might be bitter, but it was hot and soon the ice on his beard and face had steamed away. He checked the bottom of the cup, worried that it might be eating through the tin. The stuff was strong enough, he thought, to manage it.
"Rohirrim," Berlas said, turning away for his horse.
"I'm not looking for Rohirrim," Loch muttered and ventured a third mouthful before he tossed the tea down his throat with a shudder.
He pulled his aching muscles into his saddle and they were off again. Blessedly, there was no fog that morning. Unfortunately, the sun was keen and the air was sharp. Loch resorted to pulling his cowl forward and winding his scarves over the top of it to shield his face from the elements. After about an hour, joints thoroughly jolted, the one Rohirrim with them shouted and pointed. Berlas let his horse veer towards the coast. At least, Loch thought it was towards the coast and he should know, given he was a scout. He hunkered down in his saddle and gritted his teeth. Soon a second Rohirrim joined them, teeth white and flashing in an unbridled grin, golden hair flying as he shot by to join his fellow countryman. Loch was reminded of Frea and Folca all of a sudden.
A few hours later, Loch saw a party take shape in the distance. One of their number shot forward and a while later called out to them. The two Rohirrm riding with them answered in kind. This, Loch concluded, must be the mystery third member of the mad horsemen. Certainly Berlas did not slow. If anything, Berlas rode harder still and Loch was forced to match his pace. He had counted himself a reasonably fair rider. Horses were not something he had a great deal of experience with. Unlike the Rohirrim, unlike even the Rangers of Arnor and Ithilien, he had not grown up in a saddle. He had not owned a saddle, or a horse, until the Company. He had not ridden hard like this, for days straight, ever before. He was a scout and he usually moved covertly. Mad dashes and wild gallops were not in his usual range. Thus, by the time Berlas and Loch reached the party, Loch's muscles felt as though he had been dragged behind his horse instead of atop it and he thanked whatever powers had interceded to keep this party in one place to wait for them.
While Loch slumped in his saddle and wrestled with his scarves, Berlas slid off his horse and strode into the men on their horses. Loch heard a shout of greeting that made him sit up straight. He stared hard and saw that for the most part the group were yet more mad horsemen. But, there in its midst stood Hanasian and he was grinning like a loon. Nearby, uncomfortably watching, was a woman Loch didn't recognise. She didn't notice him, so intent was she on Hanasian and Berlas.
Loch forced himself out of his saddle and was relieved that he only stumbled slightly. Berlas managed to step aside in time to avoid being caught between his former captain and the Company scout. Hanasian was not a man easily knocked from his feet but he winced as Loch collided with him and folded his arms around the Ranger.
"Easy there, Loch. I don't need cracked ribs to add to my collection," Hanasian wheezed, pounding Loch on the back.
Loch released him and stared hard at him and Hanasian added, "And if you kiss me, well I won't be accountable for what happens next."
Loch swallowed and nodded, as if collecting his thoughts. Hanasian sobered as he took in his brother-in-law's expression.
"What? What is it? Rin?"
Berlas watched the Company scout wrestle with himself and loose as Hanasian gripped his shoulders and shook him for an answer to his question.
"It's bad," Loch warned, voice shaking, "It's real bad."
Hanasian's face drained of colour, "Walk with me, Scout."
Loch swallowed hard, closed his eyes and nodded. Hanasian's hands dropped away from his shoulder and he turned to shoulder his way out from the men and horses. Loch drew a deep breath and trudged along in Hanasian's wake. They only went a short distance and as Berlas watched, one of the Rohirrim drew up at his shoulder.
"I take it you're one of his Company, one of the Black."
"Aye…though we're the Free Company now. Have been since Rhun, since he retired," Berlas replied, distracted and then turned to look up at the man who had spoken to him.
"I'm Berlas, formerly of Ithilien, second in command under our current captain, Videgavia of Dale. You, I take it, are the captain of these men?"
"I am," the man confirmed, lifted his gaze over to where Loch and Hanasian stood and leaned on his saddlehorn.
Aware he would get nothing further from the notoriously close mouthed rohirrim, Berlas resumed his study but not before he noticed the one woman in their number was nervously watching from her horse as well. She had a twitchy manner about her and she was injured. It looked recent. She was missing an entire foot. Well, Berlas concluded, that explained the tension around her eyes and mouth. The pain alone was savage enough, but at least they had tied off her leg. Like as not, Rin would have a fair bit to say about the woman's state if she were here. Just then, Berlas heard a distinctive groan. It did not come from the woman.
He looked over to where Loch and Hanasian were and saw that Hanasian had fallen to his knees. He slumped forward again to his hands. Loch slowly crouched beside him, hand on the other man's back. If that was not enough, the twitchy woman decided that was a good time to make a break for it. She succeeded only on creating a mild ruckus as the men around her were forced to press their horses closer. No one escaped a Rohirrim on a horse, as any idiot knew. Once she was firmly clamped into place, she threw a desparate look in the direction of the captain.
"I don't suppose you know what this is all about," the man unhappily asked.
"I'm guessing this has something to do with his wife," Berlas replied.
"Which that woman is not?"
The urge to laugh was quashed and instead Berlas shook his head hard, "No captain. That woman is definitely not Hanasian's wife."
"Who is she then?"
"I have no idea."
"Alright," the captain growled, becoming increasingly frustrated, "Who is Hanasian's wife and why has any of this got anything to do with me and my men?"
Berlas took a deep breath, "The Lady of Cardolan. Do you know of her?"
The captain shook his head and so Berlas continued, "She was queen of Cardolan until she ceded her throne to the High King, her cousin. She is a crown princess of the High Court, allied to King Elessar and to your own king here and, I believe, titular ruler of the land we currently stand upon."
The captain looked sceptical, eyes still on Hanasian and Loch, "Since when has this land been Cardolan?"
"Oh…I'd say somewhere around the early Third Age, at a guess. But not to worry, I believe there are certain trade arrangements in place so that your herds can continue to roam here. At least, that's how I understood the last arrangement between the Lady of Cardolan and Eomer King. And all so she wouldn't have to go to dinner at Meduseld. I'd say Rohan did fairly well out of that last round of negotiations, wouldn't you?"
"And for all that you do know, you have no idea who that woman is?"
"Never seen her before today."
The captain grunted unhappily at that. Berlas looked back to where he had last seen Loch and Hanasian. His former captain was on his feet again. More than that, he was walking back. His expression inspired genuine concern. Berlas had seen Hanasian angry before. Berlas had seen Hanasian frustrated, disappointed, worried, happy, drunk, depressed and gleeful. But this…this was rage he was watching and at Hanasian's shoulder, Loch appeared to be in little better state.
"Captain, were I you-" Berlas started but the captain was already on it.
More men gathered around the injured woman and meanwhile the captain kneed his horse towards Hanasian and Loch.
"I'll have to ask you to hold right there, Captain."
Hanasian rocked on his feet but halted, eyes locked on the now pale woman.
"Once again, I draw your attention to the fact that I am unarmed. I desire only a few brief words with Karlina. No possible harm could follow, unless you've managed to arm her once more."
Berlas knew that tone of voice only this time the darkness ran far deeper than he had ever heard before. He shivered.
"Lochared and I will vouch for him," he said and Loch looked taken aback but nodded.
"Aye," he managed.
"On your lives then," the captain announced, turning his horse about to face Berlas, "On your lives and your honour."
Hanasian was permitted to approach further. Berlas noted that the man had his hands clasped firmly behind his back. His grip was white knuckled. Loch looked anxious and sad, like a whipped dog. All three of them converged on the woman's horse. Berlas held the bridle and Loch pressed close to make it difficult for Hanasian to swing at her if his control shattered.
"Do you know what you have done, Karlina? This fool's errand of yours?" Hanasian inquired, voice strained.
The woman, Karlina, shook her head fearfully, "Nothing! I told you what-"
"Nothing?" Hanasian hissed and Loch murmured a warning, "My newborn daughter is dead because of the attack you were involved in. Dead. And my wife-" Hanasian staggered back a step and Loch interceded for Berlas was too shocked to act or speak.
"She is alive, Hanasian. I swear it. She and little Elian both," Loch urgently said, almost fervently, like...like. Berlas caught the note of something akin to a prayer and realised that Loch feared he may not be speaking the truth. He watched the man swallow hard and frown.
"Rosmarin," Hanasian moaned, head bowed.
"I-I'm sorry," Karlina said, voice shaking and Hanasian's eyes snapped open again.
He did not turn about to face her again. Over his shoulder he bared his teeth and snarled, "Oh, you will be."
Hanasian stalked away, head lowered. No one met his eyes or was caught in his path. He leapt up into his saddle, coiled there like a predator longing to strike, to lash out at something. His horse shifted nervously underneath him.
"Where are we riding to," Berlas asked, still holding Karlina's horse.
"I'm not sure," Loch answered heavily and washed a hand over his face.
"Loch, do you think….is Doc still…" Berlas couldn't muster the words.
"I don't know, Berlas. I truly don't know. She was when I left…but she wasn't good…Sparks was worried."
Loch clamped his hands under his arm and strode away for his horse. Berlas was left there with Loch's words echoing. If it was bad enough to worry unflappable Sparks…Berlas looked up at the miserable woman on the horse he held. One of mob responsible for the raid and like as not he would be defending her from his former Captain and the Company Scout should Sparks' fears be proven true.