56. Chapter 56
Broken sleep was all Halcwyn could manage that night. Enedoth was not talkative, aware that she would not give him any answers. He knew only that something lingered. It would be of no use to ask or press her on whatever it was. She would talk when she was ready.
It was some weeks later when two riders of the Westmarch Guard paused on the track by the gate. Halcwyn watched them from the porch. The riders talked to each other for a few moments before one dismounted and approached.
"Hail riders!" she called out as he neared.
"My lady. I hope all is well with you and your family?"
Halcwyn stepped down off the porch to meet him, "It is. May I get you some water or perhaps tea?"
He bowed and said, "The offer is most kind, but no, we cannot remain. We pause only to pass on tidings."
"What news do you have?" Halcwyn asked.
"A woman was found dead in Enedwaith, not far north of the river. We want folks to know to be aware."
Halcwyn shifted and looked in the direction of Enedwaith, "That is well north of here. Who was this woman?"
The rider shook his head. He said, "It is uncertain. We do not know her name or kin. She does not hail from Enedwaith or Rohan. Our Captain was troubled, though. He seemed to know something further than he made mention of. He instructed us to set out and inform the residents, and… "
"And?" Halcwyn said, a cold shiver making her tone sharper than she wished it to.
Her mind raced. What if she left a sign? What if the riders suspect more? What if this man sought to discover if she knew more than she should? Halcwyn forcibly ordered herself to calm. The rider watched her face and nothing would mean certain discovery than a display of skittish shiftiness. She was glad Enedoth was out tending the herds. She had not been good to him of late. She has been cold and distant. Words were few between them since that day.
The rider looked into her eyes and continued, "… and to warn everyone to be wary. We do not know where the people responsible may be or what their intentions are."
Halcwyn drew a deep breath and hoped the rider put her nervousness down to his ominous tale, "Yes, of course. Nothing out-of-place has been seen around here. Still, we will be on the alert."
The rider bowed and turned for his horse. Once he had mounted up he said, "We expect to return in a week or so. It is possible that we may know more then."
Halcwyn lifted a hand in farewell as the two Rohirrim rode on. She knew as she stood there that she now had to speak to Enedoth. While he had been accommodating of her dark mood, his concern mounted and it had rendered him impatient. He spent longer and longer in the fields and their exchanges were terse at best. But she could never tell Enedoth what she did, or why it had been necessary. And so, Halcwyn resolved to bury it within her and renew herself. She would become the woman her husband loved so well and put her darkness from her. Word would come from her brother any day now of new nieces or nephews. Glad tidings would mark her transformation and Enedoth knew that at times her thoughts ran black. Once she emerged, he would gladly welcome her back into the light.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hanasian pondered something for the rest of the journey home. While he had been fortunate enough to possess his mother's ring, a family heirloom that he had given to Rin, Loch had no such thing. The best to be hoped for lay in the markets at Bree. From time to time, something of true worth came through. If one looked hard enough at the right time, the occasional ancient Arnorian ring could still be found. No further mention of it was made on the journey, for Loch proved sensitive about it. Thus, no sooner had they reached home did Hanasian send Loch off to Bree, for news. If the younger man knew he was being dispatched to locate a ring for his betrothed, Hanasian knew it would go poorly. The way Rin had eyed him as he issued the instruction, approving silently, confirmed his judgement. And so, Loch was on the trail again, with Molguv. Surely, Loch thought to himself, he would find something suitable there. And markets were where you heard the best news…markets and taverns. Everyone knew that.
As Farbard had said earlier in jest, Loch found in truth that Bree's markets held no rings of power. Nor any other kind of ring that Loch considered worthy of Rose. While he trawled the markets, Molguv trawled the taverns. There was little of news either. Just the usual buzz about Fornost and the King's decree. There were posters everywhere as well, calling for those that might wish to serve Cardolan's Rangers. But talk of Cardolan played a secondary role to the true concern of Bree at that time. It was planting season and Fornost continued to do a lively trade with the settlement. Thus, with little news and no ring, Molguv and Loch set off once more. Loch brooded and Molguv nursed a thumping head on account of his last night at the Pony as they rode through the ancient Barrow lands, the dead heart of Cardolan now grassy knolls and leaning stones.
Loch eyed the nearest barrow and, partially in jest said, "Maybe I could sack one of these tombs and find something worthy…"
He hadn't forgotten what was said to linger under the green grass. He hadn't forgotten how pale and haunted his sister had looked after straying into their margins. She'd yet to explain how that had happened to his satisfaction. But then, he knew she'd not been able to articulate it satisfactorily to her husband either. And Mec and Vid had been ropable
Mulgov glanced around him, for all the world appearing like the idea had never before occurred to him. In fact, it had some time ago. He remembered Hanasian's words clearly. It seemed like an age ago since the Captain had said it. And then Doc had just wandered off as if he had not said anything at all. It would have been all very amusing, had she not looked like a ghost upon her return.
"One might find much. Much they wished they had never found. The world is now much quieter and evil has fled, it remains best to leave the tombs of the dead alone. Especially these dead."
They rode on quietly for several moments before Mulgov eyed the man riding next to him sidelong. Loch had turned the Bree markets inside out and he had not been hunting news. The Haradian knew what he looked for even if the scout remained secretive. He fumbled around with an old leather bag he had always had on his belt and looked through it. He hesitated, then pulled out a ring that he weighed in the palm of one of his large hands. Loch had missed none of this and was trying to simultaneously watch without being seen to watch. A difficult feat, considering there was only the two of them on the road at present and little else to look at.
"Kid, don't ask me where this came from, for I don't rightly know. It was in with one of my early hidden stores from way back that I reclaimed when we were in Minas Tirith before we headed north and ran into you and Doc.
"I used most of that cache for expenses, but I kept this and a few other items which I brought with me north. I ended up having to stash them here in Bree before we left to catch the ship south.
"Now, I did have it appraised and judging by the value given it, it would be worthy of a lady such as your Rose. I was going to give it to a lady myself, once I found one. Seems I never will. Old warhorses like me don't settle easily. You take it Kid, and give it to your Rose."
Molguv deposited the ring into Loch's hand. Its gold band had deep red and blue stones embedded in it. His sister would know in a flash whether the red stones were garnets or rubies. She had always had the sharper eye for appraising such things. Loch held it up to the light and decided that they probably were, and the blue stones were definitely sapphires. He placed it on his little finger and judged size indeed would fit Rose. But he could not take it. He knew that. He could steal it, but he could not take it.
He turned to Mulgov, "This is a nice ring Mulgov. But I cannot afford to pay you for it."
"Aw, you're good for it," Molguv said and quickly looked away.
Loch rubbed at his jaw, thinking, "Molguv, I know you. What do you wish for payment?"
Mulgov looked back, earnest, "I ask nothing of you Kid. It is a gift from me to you. It isn't worth anything to me. Although, if you should feel that you would want to do me a favour sometime, I wouldn't refuse…."
"There it is…" Loch sighed, "Look Mulgov, I can't have this be something that will bind me to you. I will pay you what its worth… once I have it appraised myself…. Eventually. For now, I thank you much for this, for I need a ring, and I think this would be worthy of Rose."
Mulgov nodded, content with this, and smiled. He really had no idea what it was worth, and had he of known he likely wouldn't have let it go so easily. Likewise, Loch would not be able to pay its worth had he known or was to find out. But both men understood what had really been said under the words, and the matter was left to rest without further thought. By the time they had reached the end of their journey, all thought of independent appraisal had vanished from Loch's mind. He instead set out to see Rose right away. But his steps became evermore hesitant the closer to the house he got.
What a fool I am, Loch thought to himself. His walk slowed to a meandering shuffle. You don't just pick up a ring from anywhere, he thought, yet I just take some ring from Mulgov of all people. I didn't even steal it, which was absurd now that he thought on it further. In the early evening, light glowed from the windows of the house. Loch stopped and pulled the ring out to look at it in the lamp-light. No, he would not go tonight. He wanted to look at it in daylight. He turned and set off to where he was quartered. He would have to sleep on this and think. Is this unknown ring worthy of being worn by Rose? Yes, this would take much thought.
Somewhere in the night Loch slid into an uneasy slumber. The morning brought with it a short burst rain. With the sound of water dripping, the sun seemed to make every droplet glisten like it was a crystal. Rin was up already, in the garden, after the rain. He could hear her laugh at Hanavia and warn him away from the carrots for they were not ready to bring up yet, she told him. Loch made his way outside and started to take the ring out so that he could look at it in the sunlight, on his own.
Lady Anvikela appeared as if from nowhere to stand before him before he could take three steps. He was so startled that he almost dropped the ring into the wet grass. His fist closed around it at the last moment and it remained in his grasp.
"M'Lady, how are you? It is a wonderful surprise to find you out this early on a wet morning!" he exclaimed and then winced because he knew his cheer sounded forced. His sister would be rolling her eyes at him. Anvikela, however, was expressionless.
She said, "Morning walks are refreshing, no matter the weather. It helps me keep my head clear."
She paused and looked into Loch's eyes. He found it unnerving and wanted to turn away but didn't.
You have gotten a ring to give to my sister, no?" she said, more statement than question.
Loch was silent as he tried to guess how she came to know this. Likely Molguv's big mouth, and if Anvikela knew then did Rose know? He didn't want her to know. Not yet.
His answer was hesitant, "Yes…"
Anvikela's lack of expression endured, and Loch thought that she was almost as good at it as Rin. If those two women ever sat down to play dice…or worse yet, allied themselves…He shivered at the thought.
She asked, "Would it be too much to ask to see it?"
Loch hesitated but he really did want to look at it again in the daylight. He soon had it in his hand and considered its beauty. Anvikela's extended her own hand so that her fingers hovered over his palm. They moved in the air just above the ring but did not touch it. Loch considered putting it away but found he couldn't. After what seemed like an eternity to him, Anvikela withdrew her hand.
"This ring is very old and very well crafted," she told him.
"Do you think it worthy of your sister? I ask because I love her very much, and I want this to be right."
It would not occur to Loch until later that perhaps Anvikela's use of the word crafted to describe the ring meant more than he had understood at the time.
Anvikela looked at Loch and nodded, "Your words are sweet Lochared of Dunland. You have captured my sister's heart… and I would like to believe that she has captured yours. Though I do not understand. I doubt I will ever feel for another the way she does. Still, I see this is a wonderful thing to happen to my sister. She has always been a dreamer. And you, Lochared of Dunland are her dream made real."
Loch shuffled and may have blushed a bit. His words had abandoned him and he didn't know what to say.
Anvikela asked him a question, "I wished to ask you if you have noted anything different or unusual with my sister since the raid?"
Loch found the sudden change of topic a welcome one and he straightened as he considered the question. There had been something as best as he could tell. He had asked her about it shortly afterward, but Rose did not wish to talk of it. She soon returned to her happy self after a few days, and Loch thought no more of it.
He answered, "No, nothing specific. She was a bit withdrawn after the raid, but it was passed off as fatigue from your linking and the intense demands of keeping the illusion of looking like someone else. Why?"
Anvikela was quiet for a few heartbeats, and then, "I was curious. Since that raid, there have been times that I have not been able to reach her, as if she has shut me out."
Loch weighed up whether he should point out what was obvious to him and decided that he should. Anvikela was not his commanding officer, the Dirty Three or his sister.
He looked at Rose's sister and said, "perhaps she has. Maybe she wishes privacy in her thoughts and memories."
No sooner had he said it did he realise that he probably could have been a touch more tactful. Anvikela nodded at his words and seemed to withdraw as if she had a realization confirmed. She started to walk away from him.
Over her shoulder, she said, "You are quite right in what you say Lochared of Dunland. It is a great thing that you have come into the life of my sister. I will worry not of her now, for she has you."
Loch nodded as she walked away toward the trees. He didn't quite understand her words. Perhaps Rin might. He decided that he could wait no longer to see Rose but he would wait a little longer to present her this ring.
Hanasian leaned back in his chair and considered the letter he had been writing to his sister. There was much to tell her of but finding the right words was proving difficult. Enedoth would look dimly on any tidings that would send Halcwyn on the long, arduous journey north again and certainly this would do precisely that. But to leave something out seemed…wrong. He rolled a shoulder and heard it crack. He'd been at this too long. Rin was outside. He could hear her ordering Wulgof and Mulgov around the garden. It was hard to believe she had once been terrified of them. He rather suspected she terrified them now, though they'd never own up to it. And he could not fault them for that. Intimidated though they were, they were putting up a spirited defence out in the garden.
Rin was ferocious when it came to that garden. A kitchen and healer's garden both, it was doubly precious to a healer who had spent most of her years with an empty belly. Molguv and Wulgof were not there, in truth, to help. They were there to entertain themselves. She had pressed them into labour, handed them the necessary tools and was now doing her best to keep Molguv out of the patch she used to cultivate certain plants the Haradian was fond of smoking.
Hanasian rubbed his jaw and turned his thoughts back to the letter he was writing his sister. He'd just finished explaining that despite the attack, Rin continued to recover. And it was true. On the surface, at least. Every day, rain or snow or sun, she went to that grave. Every. Day. He knew she mourned. The demands of motherhood meant she could not seal herself away but he sensed she would have if she could have.
And what of him? He too had lost a daughter. A child he had sung to through the months. A child he had felt jostle his hand in response to his touch. He did not go to her grave each day. He grieved…but differently and in a way he found difficult to describe. He knew his wife wondered. But none of that could go in this letter, he resolved, and took a deep breath before he picked up the quill. As he dipped the nib into the ink well, Loch slouched into the study looking thoroughly dejected and then slumped into a chair to stare at his boots. He had a look Hanasian was very familiar with. The scout usually wore it after he had done something wrong and it had been discovered.
"Trouble?" Hanasian prompted and Loch shifted as if he had not noticed Hanasian there.
Loch nodded, chewed on his lip, " I'm just…waiting."
"I am not hiding!" Loch exclaimed and then flushed and muttered something in Dunlendic.
"You can't have upset Vid because he's not here to upset."
"It's Rose," Loch muttered and returned his attention to his boots.
The chair creaked as Hanasian leaned back, "She heard that you didn't come and see her immediately upon return, did she?"
Loch looked at him, flummoxed and deflated even further, "That was a mistake, wasn't it?"
Hanasian nodded and did his best not to grin at his brother-in-law. Loch raked his fingers through his sandy hair.
"To make matters worse, I think I went and upset her sister this morning as well."
"Not on purpose!" Loch pointed out in a hurry, "It's all these….words! Women can be so…such…"
Loch's response trailed off.
"And so, the plan is to what…hide in here until it blows over?" Hanasian surmised.
Loch lifted a shoulder, half hopeful, and Hanasian shook his head, "Start at the beginning."
Loch warned, "You sure? It'll probably only confuse you as much as it has me."
Hanasian waved the man on and so Loch embarked on his account of the morning. As he spoke, Hanasian made a mental note to have a quiet word to Molguv. A married man had no business owing a favour to that particular Haradian. Once Loch reached the exchange with Anvikela's about Rose's withdrawal, however, something else occurred to Hanasian.
"Do you believe that is what it is? A desire for privacy?" he asked Loch and saw the man shrug.
Hanasian pushed his chair back and opened a window. The garden ran all the way along the rear of the house and right now he could see his wife. The sunlight gleamed on her hair in a way that he was much enamoured with. But right now he needed her inside, for more reasons than one. For starters, she was advancing on Molguv's back with a rake at the ready while Wulgof looked on with a smirk.
"ROSMARIN!" Hanasian called in his best Captain's voice and was pleased to see it worked.
Rin whirled about, eyes already wide and innocent. Molguv glanced up from his mischief and only then noted the rake she held and her proximity.
"I DIDN'T!" she shouted back at him.
"YET!" Wulgof called and grinned widely when she swung about to glare at him.
"INSIDE," Hanasian called and Molguv begun to grin at that.
"NOW. I NEED YOU IN HERE!"
Hanasian did not wait for a reply. He withdrew and closed a window and watched on as his wife glared at the house and then threw down the rake to stalk inside.
"That's just great. All I need. I already have two women unhappy with me," Loch muttered fitfully as he looked on.
"She needed to come in anyway. It will be some time yet before she can labour all day under the sun."
"That had better not be why you brought me inside," Rin growled as she prowled through the study door to scowl at them both.
Her attention settled on her brother and she crossed her arms, "What did you do this time? If Molguv has emptied the entire row because of something you did, I'll take it out of your hide, Loch. You can be certain of that! Do you have any idea how much it costs to buy that stuff from Bree?!"
"Rosmarin," Hanasian said and she swung around to him next.
"And since when did you start giving orders again? Hmmm? When? You are NOT my commanding officer any more, Hanasian! You haven't been for a good two years! I am not some trained dog to come and go at your bidding and I-"
While his wife dressed him down, Hanasian had returned to the window, opened it and given Molguv a very clear warning about his wife's garden that had sent the Haradian scurrying out of it. He closed the window again and turned about to face her. Rin had broken off now and decided silence was going to be her best option. Her arms remained folded and there was a deep furrow between her pale brows. She was clearly agitated with them both. It was in the shade of her eyes, a brilliant blue, and the delicate flush to her cheeks. Molguv had been in the garden for some ill gotten harvesting. Wulgof had shown up to enjoy the show.
"Have you been keeping an eye on Rose?" he asked her and clearly took her by surprise.
"Should I have been? More than usual?"
"Loch…tell her what you told me," Hanasian said.
Reluctantly Loch did so and as he spoke, Rin shifted mental gears so that the garden was all but forgotten now.
"I'll actively monitor Rose…. Her sister as well. Might be nothing, might not be," Rin said.
"Anvikela didn't think it was anything to worry about. At least, that's what I think she said."
"What did she say?" Hanasian asked and Loch reported Anvikela's parting words.
Rin rolled her eyes to the ceiling and Loch exclaimed, "What? What did I do wrong?"
Hanasian considered Rin and shrugged at her. Just as lost as Loch was, she realised. Men! She loved these two dearly but sometimes they could be as dense as a rock.
"Alright…let's look at this from another angle," Rin said, 'How did you feel, Loch, when I became betrothed to Hanasian?"
"Is that all?"
Loch squirmed uncomfortably and looked away. Hanasian took himself back to his chair and sat down at his desk.
"Go on, Loch," he said, reasonably confident he knew where Rin was taking this.
"I was happy, really happy," Loch persisted but his sister just kept looking at him the way she did when she wanted the honest truth out of him, "Alright, fine. It was a bit….strange. One minute you're my sister and the next minute you're his wife…and…well…it's just odd."
"I imagine it is, particularly when your sister is all you have had for so long," Hanasian said calmly.
Loch contemplated that and then frowned, "But what I can do about that?"
"Loch, have you given any thought to what happens once you and Rose are married?" Rin asked and Loch grinned at her.
"Plenty!" he enthused and Rin rolled her eyes again and then frowned at her husband, who was grinning along from his desk.
"Where will you live? What will you do? How will you provide for children? You won't be about to bounce along with the Company forever and a day," Rin said, a touch impatiently.
"I have to retire?"
Right at that moment, Elian woke up and announced to the world that she was ravenously hungry in the only way she could. Rin paused to let her daughter's insistent protests make an impact on her brother and then left to go to Elian, muttering about men as she went.
"This is complicated," Loch said once she had gone and Hanasian nodded sagely.
"That it is, brother. That it is."
Much later in the day, after children had been bathed and fed and dinner and Loch had continued his attempt to redeem himself into Rose's good graces, Rin found herself in the sitting room with her daughter and her husband. Hanasian was stretched out on a divan, having just finished off a pipe and seemingly content with the world. Elian was as content as her father, full belly and snuggled into her mother's arms. She was growing quickly, Rin thought. She no longer looked so small and fragile. Her little hands were curled up and her mouth was slightly parted as she slept, twitching with dreams. What did an infant dream, Rin wondered and not for the first time.
Winter had passed and it was Spring proper now. Still the nights in the north were cool enough for a fire to be lit and the sound of wood popping and crackling flames filled the sitting room. It was a peaceful silence and rare in this house. Rin looked away from the hearth with its flickering flames to her husband and found that he was watching her, eyes half closed. When she caught him, Hanasian smiled and his eyes opened. She was reluctant to break the comforting solitude of the moment but she had an idea concerning Loch, Rose and Anvikela. She broached it with Hanasian gently and found that he agreed with her.
"It has a certain elegance to it, love," he said.
Hanasian scooped his daughter up so that she could nestle into the crook of his arm, "Talk to Loch in the morning and offer him the stewardship of the southern holding. If he accepts, I will speak with Videgavia."
The next morning, Rin drew Rose and Loch together and spoke to them of the stewardship position on offer.
"What does it involve? Writing and ledgers and the like?" Loch inquired suspiciously.
"We'll take it, with our deepest thanks," Rose declared.
"Wait! What?" Loch protested but Rose was not finished yet.
"Will there be any objection to bringing my sister with us?" she asked Rin directly.
"Now, just you wait there. I'm marrying one of you. Just the one!" Loch protested anew.
"Of course you can, Rose, if that is what Anvikela wishes," Rin answered and noted the way in which Rose seemed to…unravel…like a spring finally released after being wound too widely.
"I believe she will," Rose said, "But I will ask her."
As Rose left to do exactly that, Loch hurried after her.
"How about someone asks me first! How about that, eh?" Rin heard him bluster in the hall in Rose's wake.
"That went well, don't you think?" Rin said to Hanasian and he was no fool. He nodded his agreement with his wife.
"Just what to you expect Loch to do as Steward?" Hanasian mildly enquired.
"Oh…not burn the place down…or bankrupt the holding. Rowdy's men are there to keep a steady hand. And he has Rose. Thank Eru. There's nothing wrong with Rose, by the by. She was just concerned for her sister."
"All packaged up neat and tidy then."
"Yes," Rin said with some satisfaction and did not add: but for how long?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Haldeth wasn't sure what he had expected when he took service with Cardolan as a Ranger. He had feared he would be house bound, tending to whatever needs a royal household with two small heirs had. On that score he was relieved to be proven wrong. While Haldeth was welcome at the house, and there was always a warm bed and a meal for him there, he had spent most of his time where he loved it most and that was in the wilds. It was relatively new country, for until he had taken his latest oath he had kept himself on the northern side of the Branduin for reasons he had not thought about overly much.
The journey from Fornost had been uneventful but then the Wolf was a canny Ranger and Captain Hanasian's field craft was renown. They had hidden, as it were, in plain sight. No trappings of nobility, no airs and graces. Just a family and their household on their way somewhere. Haldeth had been warned by Massuil to throw out any expectations he may have formed of Cardolan's Lady. The warning had come just prior to his oath, made before her and under her scrutiny. It was the nearest he had approached her. But nothing he had heard or been told had prepared him. Nearly a month had passed and he still had no clear idea who she was.
Haldeth paused in the early morning to fill his waterskin from a clear, fast running stream. Ahead lay Eryn Vorn and it was the most thickly wooded expanse left to Cardolan. For some reason, this cape to the north of the realm, had been left untouched and the forest looked wild to Haldeth's eyes. It reminded him of the Old Forest further inland and to the north. Perhaps it was the untamed nature of it that drew him on. He had ever taken delight in the wild places of the world and precious few of those yet remained to his way of thinking. Haldeth stoppered his water skin, reattached it to his belt and leapt across the stream lightly. Before long, he was lost to the bright morning light.
The first thing Haldeth noticed was how close the air was within the trees. He could almost hear the trees breathing. It was darker, of course, but he had expected that. He trod as lightly as he could. Eryn Vorn was some 40 or so miles across at the widest and roughly 100 miles in length. It would take him some time to plumb its depths. As he pressed into the forest, it seemed unlikely that anyone, Man or Elf, would make a home here. Not even old Tom Bombadil would, Haldeth thought. His heart raced for a reason he could not grasp. No creature tracked him. He would know if one did. And then it occurred to him that creatures could be more than flesh and blood. The trees! The trees marked him! It was their scrutiny he sensed.
Haldeth paused and crouched in the damp leaf litter. The air had an earthy, moist manner to it. Why would trees startle him so, even if they did mark his passing. He had given them no offense. They did not reach for him with gnarled fingers. He was no mere boy, given to flights of fancy. And yet….And yet…. Had it not been his ancestors that had so ruthlessly torn forests such as these down for their ships. Is that what they saw, what they sensed? Whatever the answer was, Haldeth deemed it unwise to linger overlong in one place and so he moved on as carefully and swiftly as he might.
It was difficult to judge the passage of time beneath the trees. Haldeth found a place that seemed suitably protected, though from what he was not certain, and settled himself into it. His muscles ached with long use as they would after a long day of creeping through the wilds. Perhaps it was nightfall. Perhaps it was only midday. Whatever time of day or night it was, Haldeth needed to rest. Despite that, it was difficult for him to close his eyes. Once he had, in that dark and dangerous place, he found his thoughts wandering to the reason he was there. The Lady of Cardolan was as fair and remote as….as….as one of Varda's stars. And perilous. So very dangerous.
Sleep was treacherous, coming and going like the ebb of a tide. For all of that, Haldeth was woken by an unwelcome prick at his throat. He slipped from greasy sleep to find he was at the business end of a spear. The haft was roughly made, likely scrounged, but the blade was a long and well fashioned one that he could see very clearly. It was just like the blades used by his fellow Rangers. Steel, good quality, clean lines. The spear was held by a man whose face was difficult to make out. His garb appeared…rustic…tanned leathers stitched together and little woven cloth. Haldeth also quickly noted the soft rustling of boots in the leaf litter. He had more to contend with than the one man who had prodded him awake with the point of his spear even if he could not see the others.
After a moment of staring up at the shadows around the man's face, Haldeth heard him speak. It was a garbled string of words, none of which made any sense. None of this made any sense? He had not been sleeping deeply. He was a skilled, experienced Ranger. And he had seen no trace of any other people in the forest. People always left a trace. Always. And yet this…whatever he was had managed to creep up upon him all the same. Haldeth frowned, partially in confusion and mostly in chagrin. The man repeated whatever he said, only louder this time. It was no improvement.
Haldeth watched him gesticulate at one of his companions. He heard a woman's voice then, in the same incomprehensible language. The man holding the spear gave an answer. It sounded like an argument to Haldeth. If it was, the woman clearly paid him no heed for she crouched close by his sword arm and peered at him. Close up in the grainy light, he could make out her features. Grey eyes frowned down at his own. Dunedain, he wondered, startled. She said something to him, speaking slowly. It still made no sense. Her eyes travelled over him, pausing at his sword and belt and then at the pin that closed his cloak. She tapped it curiously and then said something. Haldeth guessed she was asking about the rose there.
"Rose," he tried and then, "Cardolan."
This made the woman blink at him and then scowl up at the man who hovered with his spear. Haldeth watched her straighten and step back. She was also clad in the same rough leathers, dark hair braided in a bundle of little braids down her back. What happened next Haldeth could not recall, on account of someone applying his spear once again to the side of his head. At least they used the haft instead of the pointy end.
Because time was difficult to pin down within Eryn Vorn, Haldeth had no idea how much had passed before he emerged once more. Days, weeks or months. Certainly it had been slow going at first. The only thing that had saved him was the pin at his cloak, which was ironic given that Haldeth had been reasonably certain that Cardolan's device would likely be the thing that killed him when all was done. The sun felt hot and bright on his face when he stepped out. He walked a few steps and then turned back to face the trees. He could see them there, faltering dark shadows. As best he could guess, these people had not set foot outside of Eryn Vorn since the Second Age. And that had likely saved them. Why they had remained there was uncertain. Haldeth was able to make out a sense that they feared the Elves that they thought lived on the northern shore of the Branduin. Why they feared them, he did not know. Perhaps they feared the war and pestilence that had scoured the rest of their people.
One thing Haldeth was certain of. The people that now gingerly edged out from the trees, blinking in the brightness, were Dunedain. Long forgotten in Eryn Vorn, he had lumbered into the midst of the last enduring kernel of the realm of Cardolan. Aside from the Lady's lineage, that is. It had been tales of her and the safety of the world beyond that had tempted these few emissaries out from the wild, forest fastness. One was the man who preferred to use the pointy end of his spear. Jerlin was his name and he still did not like Haldeth. His companion was the woman who had argued with Jerlin. Haldeth did not know what her name was. Apparently, it was rude to ask. She would give it to him if she chose to and that was that. Haldeth could not call her Woman, though, and so he ascribed her a name all of his own making: Fae. It seemed….apt.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Wind carried the chill of the north down over the Westmarch one last time before the warmth of Spring finally took hold that day. Halcwyn had taken to riding alone each morning over the fields. Enedoth could feel the distance yawn between them in the evenings. Thus, he was unsurprised that once the children were tucked into bed, his wife asked him to join her outside. He strode out into the cool night air, mind and heart unquiet, and stood beside Halcwyn. They stood there in silence for a long time. He did not know if Halcwyn saw the stars she gazed at. He did not, in truth. Not until a bright stream of a falling stark cut a dazzling streak over the horizon. That somehow bestirred his wife.
Halcwyn asked Enedoth, "Have you ever killed anybody?"
He found that he had not expected that and he looked at her profile in the night for a moment as he chose his response.
"I have not," he began and sensed her withdrawal begin anew, "But I have seen people killed. It is painful to talk of."
Enedoth drew in the cool night air to give himself strength, "I was but a small boy when the war came to us. My father killed three Dunlendings before he was slain."
He was unaware of the pain that flickered in his face as memories long silent stirred.
Halcwyn found herself regretting her question now, "I am sorry my love. I did not mean to bring sorrowful memories back to life…"
Enedoth raise his hand to block it all from him, but realised at the last that to retreat would make the distance between himself and the woman beside him insurmountable. And so he reached for her instead and embraced his wife. He looked into her eyes.
"Memories such as those can never vanish. I have only learned to live with them. It is well past time that you knew. Had I been older and stronger then, I would have killed those men. But had I done so, I would likely not be here now to tell you of it. I remained hidden and only emerged after nearly a day after the Dunlendings left. But I have to ask you this. Why the question?"
Halcwyn had known he would ask her this but only now did the answer emerge in her troubled mind.
She said quietly, "Because I have, my love."
It took a moment for Enedoth to uncover his reaction. Her words had startled him on the surface. Yet, deeper, he was not in the least surprised. The temptation to question her further was strong but he heard the grinding reluctance in her words. Halcwyn was not ready to tell. He put his arm about her shoulder, and they stood silently watching the stars.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Videgavia's return from the northern patrol was a brief one but well timed. The Company soon settled back into a routine that came face to face with the growing number of Rangers that now populated and circulated the area. It made for some interesting encounters that Hanavia found fascinating.
On a lazy spring afternoon, Hanasian and Videgavia set out for a walk. The two men had much to discuss and finding somewhere to do so privately was difficult now. In the main, their talk centred on Loch and his role in the Company. His betrothal to Rose and subsequent appointment as his sister's Steward made it likely that he would need leave, if not outright retirement, from the Company. However, Hanasian was convinced that Loch would find either option unbearable. The young man that Hanasian had recruited a day after arresting him had lost none of his desire to be a Company man.
Hanasian vaulted over a fallen tree smoothly and, upon landing on the other side suggested, "This may work to the Company's advantage after all."
His companion did not look nearly so optimistic, but that was to be expected with the Daleman. Still, Videgavia did at least try to appear open minded. Command had altered him in subtle ways.
"Yes, I could see some advantages, but how would it work?" he replied, dusting bark stuck to his hand as he followed Hanasian along through the forest.
Hanasian paused, selected a path that led away from the coast before he continued. Videgavia twisted about and caught the flicker of a Ranger just as Hanasian vanished behind a tree. That made the Daleman smile and he hurried after Hanasian on his preternaturally quiet feet.
Hanasian picked up the dangling thread of their conversation once Videgavia had found him and the Ranger that had been following them had not.
"With Loch's appointment in the south, Rosmarin has given him command of Rowdy's men – she sent them all down there as a precaution a month ago."
Videgavia nodded, recalling well just what sort of precaution is was. A double edged one that he had personally approved of. Stability in the south, along with distance between the men that had been bought and paid for by Lord Voromir and the woman he had tried to assassinate. Hanasian's wife had started to display a clever hand with these sorts of things.
Hanasian continued, "Now some, I don't doubt, will likely resign or worse still, remain but not be committed. For all of that, it could be a de-facto base in the south. We may have to send some of the old crew down just to make sure all is well. "
Videgavia nodded but countered, "Yes, may be best. But only if you can trust the current Rangers of the North. Massuil knows them well, but with all this trouble with Cardolan… who can be sure?"
Hanasian shook his head solemnly, "One cannot be certain about anything. Still, we must live our lives. These Rangers of Massuil's are good men. You, Vid, will have to take the Company forward. There is much for it to do, for the king and others. With Loch in the south, I think it will prove good in the long run."
Videgavia frowned as he fell deep in thought. He finally said, "I sense you are right even if I do not know how. I do not see what you see. I don't know if I have this same sense of mission that you have. This is why you will always be the Captain. Me, I'm a namesake alone. My role is to keep things in order for the next Captain. I am no longer a young man and I do not have your Dunedain blood."
Hanasian sighed and put his hand on Videgavia's shoulder, "You know that in time Loch will be captain, don't you. He's made for it, whether he understands it or not."
"Provided he doesn't get himself killed first," Videgavia interjected, for the only person more adept at placing life and limb in harm's way than Loch was his sister. Considering the company both kept, this was no mean feat.
Hanasian took it in stride, "The same could be said for any of us, really. The years pass for us all, Vid. Aside from Khule, the other old hands will never do more than lead a unit. Khule may once have commanded legions of his own, but he no longer desires that now.
"No, Loch… he has the fire in him. But do not dare to let him know it… yet. Give him those men he thinks he needs, and any who wish to go south with him that he will accept and re-oganise those that remain here. He will handle it.
"I hope he and Rose will have a good life together. But there is something that tells me he has already found his home in the Company and one day will be its captain… "
While Hanasian and Videgavia stalked through the forests, matters were afoot as per usual back at the house.
The discussion between Rose and Anvikela had gone on for quite some time. No one, not Loch or anybody else for that matter, could really understand the language that Rose and Anvikela spoke to each other. The sisters assumed that their native language gave them a privacy all of its own. No need for escaping into the woods and eluding watchful, cautious Rangers. No need to worry about eavesdroppers, despite the fact that the Company was rife with that sort of behaviour. What neither woman grasped that that Loch had begun to pick up words here and there. Khule prodded him to divulge details mercilessly. However, in a surprising turn of consideration, Wulgof pulled the Easterling back when he noticed how worried Loch had started to look.
The conversation being listened too fell into a natural lull and Loch used this to address Khule sternly, "You can wait until they are done."
Khule shrugged, accustomed to such bluster and bravado from the scout, and glanced over at Mulgov who shrugged in his turn. They all knew it had something to do with Loch and Rose going south, and whatever was being said was at times rather heated. They also knew that with precisely applied pressure and impeccable timing, Loch would spill it all. All they needed was the right lever. Unfortunately, Rin was nowhere to be seen, busy with other things – like infants and small children.
What happened next took the four men lurking outside by surprise. A rumbling started up in the room. The door vibrated in the frame and refused to open when Loch began to earnestly tug on the door handle. The ground shook if only a slightly, but it reminded those who had been east too much of the day Loch had disappeared. And the day the sky had cracked open. It passed after a few moments and a few moments after that, the door openly smoothly as if it had not been stuck shut at all. Rose walked out wiping away a tear. Loch went to her as she stopped outside the door.
"What happened?" Loch asked as he folded his arms around her and peered through the open door into the room inside, "Where is Anvikela?"
At this, Khule stepped past Loch and Rose to enter the room. The breeze made the curtain by the open window dance.
Outside the room, Rose said, "My sister has gone."
"Gone? Gone where?" Loch asked and looked up at Khule who emerged, head shaking from side to side.
Rose looked up, caught Loch's confused frown and placed a finger over Loch's lips as she calmed herself.
"Do not be troubled. She is well. She wished to leave, and I could not convince her to remain and come with us. We…fought as sisters do from time to time. I am stronger than my sister now and I could have taken her powers. Instead, I gave the core of my power to her. I need them no longer. I am to be married to you, Loch, and will live a good life with you. Anvikela wished to go out into these lands and find her own way. She has greater need of them than I. We bonded one last time and she left. She may return to visit one day."
Stunned, Loch said after a moment, "I think you will have to tell the captains of this. They will want to know."
Rose nodded and took Loch's arm. They walked out, trailed by Wulgov, Khule, and Mulgov, who were even more confused by what had happened.
That night, the gibbous moon hung heavy in a clear spring sky as Anvikela emerged from the shadows gasping for breath. She found herself standing under a fair oak tree that grew on the eastern side of the hilltops. A flick of her hand took another breath from her as a night bird flew out from the tree. The Ranger standing on the hilltop watched the bird for a moment but turned again to watch the tree, ever alert. Men such as these are not easily distracted. Anvikela remained motionless for she had no further strength to conceal herself further. A gust of wind came from the west to rustled the trees and make the dappled moonlight dance. Anvikela used that to step away down into the brush. The Ranger kept his watch even as another approached and looked to where his companion's eyes were affixed.
He whispered, "What do you see?"
"I'm not sure. It may have been a bird, or the wind, or a small animal. But I was sure for a moment I heard someone gasping and movement."
He pointed at the tree and both Rangers stared at it silently for a time before slowly approaching. Anvikela had gone in this time and they found nothing.
As the Rangers retreated to their positions, "There was an odd feeling there. We will look there again once daylight comes."
Anvikela rested in a thicket down in the valley below. She would need rest, for the parting from her sister had drained her much and she had a long walk yet to reach the road. From there, she would make for Bree.