6. Chapter 6
They made Bree in the early afternoon of the following day. The streets were crowded, Big People and Small. It had been so long since Hanasian had been there. Despite that, little had changed aside from some names of businesses and the number of men and halflings. Trade was booming as a result of the reconstruction of Annuminas and thought being given to the raising of Fornost from the dead. A fair trade with the halflings of the Shire seemed to keep the town supplied with good ale and produce. Rin found herself fidgeting with her cloak, the press of people's eyes weighing on her. No matter how she adjusted, she couldn't hide the fact that she was clad only in an oversized shirt and little else. People shook their heads.
"What's wrong with you" Loch asked. Rin just fixed a slightly resentful glare on her brother. It was easy for him to ask. He had pants.
Hanasian was pleased to reach Bree, and to do so with two new recruits. In all appearances, he had gained a healer for the Company. Getting them all to the door that stood below the sign of the Prancing Pony was no small feat, with southern and eastern members curious about life in this northern town. It was fortunate they arrived in daylight so as to not have to be quizzed by the gatekeepers. The world here was much safer than years passed, but it was a town custom to question new arrivals after dark. Memories of the chill days of the war had failed to fade, and indeed were amplified in children's minds with each of their varied tellings. Yes, they were at the Pony, and it looked like everyone would settle in for an afternoon and evening of relaxation and revelry.
A team of stable hands emerged for horses, and the men were happy to hand to care of their mounts over to someone else for a change. Rin did her utmost to remain in their midst. That worked well enough until they were indoors. Men peeled off, some headed for the bar and others for a table. Loch tagged along with those that made for the table. That left Rin standing on her own, staring at the floorboards in a bid to have them swallow her whole by sheer force of will alone. She would be disappointed.
Hanasian saw to the rooms. The annex to the old inn built on the south side allowed the regular guests new rooms and left the old rooms to their party. Loch and Rin would have each a semi-private sleeping room, with a common room in the middle. The rest either had a place in the parlour room, or if they paid for it, their own room. Hanasian saw to it that Rin was attended to by the innkeeper's wife, and seeing all was well in hand, slipped out unseen. Outside, he met Videgavia and the two headed off into the crowds.
"You know we're taking a chance here. Leaving them all alone at the Pony, and with what we know of Loch, and his sister Rin likely to be looking quite womanly in short order with Anis, we should not be gone long." Videgavia said as they walked.
Hanasian shrugged, saying, "Well there are too few of us originals, and even old veterans of the west remain. We have to trust in the abilities of Khule in this. He may not know it, but he has the making of being a good leader. He obviously held his own while in his Easterling army legion. Besides, I'm hoping I won't need to be gone long."
They came to the blacksmith, and though hard at work he sensed their arrival.
"What... you again?" he said as he worked the rings of the mail he was making.
"Its been years Jarod, and I paid you in full, so why the attitude? Any word of Frea? I heard he was in town." Hanasian traded jibes with the blacksmith.
"You're mistaken. Haven't seen him since you left with that exotic eastern girl some twenty years ago... or more."
Hanasian hesitated for a bit, remembering Simra. He then said, "Long ago through days that were much darker than they should have been so long after the war. But this is ill news... I will return in three days. If Frea should arrive, send him immediately to the Pony."
A nod was all he got before the hammer started tapping out another ring. Hanasian turned to Videgavia, and said, "Ride east. You will arrive at the Forsaken well after dark but if Frea is there, it will be worth the trouble."
Videgavia nodded and was off. He was quiet enough and stayed in the background enough that few of the company would notice his absence. Hanasian headed back to the Pony. As Hanasian saw to his business, the innkeeper's wife saw to hers.
"Oh dear," a woman said. Rin glanced up to see an older woman, wider than she was tall, shake her head and cluck her tongue. Her eyes seemed kind, but Rin would have preferred it if they didn't travel over her from head to foot to head again.
"Well, come along. We can't have you standing there and scaring off decent customers," the woman said. She latched a hand onto the cloak Rin had pulled taut around her and towed her away.
Rin found herself abducted by the innkeeper's wife, a woman named Anis. Anis missed her own daughters, Rin was told, all women grown settled with families of their own. Rin soon grasped that all she need do is comply with Anis' instructions, smile and nod at key junctures. Anis was perfectly content to chatter away under such arrangements and she did so amiably. Anis' talked to Rin about this, that and the other until finally, Anis was done. Rin rubbed steam away from the mirror and stared at a complete stranger. Hot water and soap could do a lot of things, but this? Behind her, Anis looked particularly pleased with herself.
"Well no sense hiding in here all day, lassie. Let's get you back out to that common room before they come a-looking for you." Rin obediently followed Anis back to where she had left the company. In this time they had convened around a long table that was bedecked with food and ale. Most had washed up. Even Loch looked a little less rumpled than was his usual wont. Rin fingered the soft cotton of her dress skirt. It wasn't an ornate dress, but to Rin it was simply the most wonderful thing.
What was more, Anis had said she had another one which she would get to Rin now that she knew the dresses would fit. Well made, unpatched, soft cotton. Unable to resist, Rin turned about so that the skirt flared. She'd not had something to wear this whole, this clean and as well fitted since home. Distracted, Rin failed to notice that she twirled just as she re-entered the common room. The buzz of masculine voices stilled as Rin looked up. Anis grinned with open victory at the reaction she saw. Rin, however, found the sudden silence unsettling.
What the company saw was a woman dressed in a deep shade of blue that turned her skin translucent perfection and set her eyes alight. The fact that her hair hung in an artfully smooth fall down her back, an arrangement that was all Anis' handiwork, only added to the over image. It was a far cry from the muddied, bedraggled and thieving waif they'd encountered at Tharbad.
"Well now," someone said thoughtfully. It was Khule that got to his feet first, followed by the others and last of all Loch who wanted to know why they were standing. Rin wanted to know too, but beside her Anis clapped her hands. She winked at Rin and bustled on with matters to see to.
"I'm sorry to have intruded," Rin said into the silence. "I'll go," mistaking the fact that they stood as an indication that they were leaving. She dropped her eyes and tried to determine which was the faster route for escape: stairs or front door.
"Hey Rin, who'd you rob," Loch called as she started for the front door, breaking the sudden tension. Her eyes narrowed and she turned back to fix them on her brother.
"Why you, brother dear. I know how much you favour women's clothing," she retorted. Wulgof snorted.
"Why is she leaving?" Berlas whispered to her brother. It was then that Loch realised that they'd both misunderstood. Rin was nearly to the door when he seized on the one thing to retrieve her.
"What? You're going to leave us alone... with all this cheese?"
Loch knew his sister well. Rin halted and turned back to study the table. A glorious golden wedge beckoned from atop it. She couldn't count the number of times they'd been chased out of somewhere on account of cheese. Edoras, for example, took a particularly dim view of cheese thieves. The cheese was irresistable and it drew her back, towards the table. The men still stood. Her eyes moved from them to the cheese and back again. Khule moved to one side to create a space for her. She drew closer still.
"Will you just sit down already, woman," Wulgof growled. His ale was getting warm. Rin sat, wide eyed, and the men followed. Their healer had most definitely arrived.
Hanasian reached the door of the Prancing Pony without anyone noticing, and surprise of all surprises, they weren't fighting with each other or the locals. Most were at a table with Khule walking back with fists of tankards of a rather aromatic ale. A quick count had all accounted for, except... wait, who was the woman at the table? Rosmarin? ... he seemed lost for a moment, and as if his eyes touched her, she looked over toward the door. Hanasian, still road weary, leaned against the doorframe and their eyes locked for a brief moment... a moment that seemed to stretch out. A smile graced her face, and she turned back to pick another piece of cheese and bread. He made his way over to the table and grabbed one of the tankards from Khule. Silent talk asked how Loch was holding up with it all, and if they were keeping out of trouble. Maybe it was the long road, but nobody seemed determined to get themselves kicked out their first night in town.
Rin resolved that she would, if it was the last thing she did, determine what all those finger signals actually meant. As for what happened to her when she saw the Ranger, there was nothing she could do about that aside from hope that no one else noticed. She glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. If they had, they schooled their expressions well. Loch was utterly oblivious to it, having secured himself another tankard of ale. She'd have to keep an eye on him. Loch and ale made for an interesting combination. Hanasian settled at the table nearby. He flicked another glance her way which made her smile again. Damn, she had to stop doing that, she remonstrated with herself. Across the table, Molguv was demonstrating his dexterity by making a copper coin dance across his fingers. He slapped the coin down and set her a challenge that she utterly missed, distracted by a certain Ranger.
"You want me to better that," she asked, confused. She knew by now that the Haradian would wager on anything.
"I think you just got lucky back there at Tharbad and caught me unawares," he challenged. Rin raised one eyebrow.
"Is that so?" she replied mildly, goading him on. Molguv nodded, knowing he was being baited and playing along nonetheless.
"I think if you're as nimble fingered as your brother claims you are, you can best me." Loch raised his tankard and grinned at her. Rin considered the copper coin on the table.
"Why would I want to best you, Molguv?"
"Because I was the best cut purse Umbar had ever seen and Umbar is the capital of thieves, the professional kind that is."
"I see… so if I'm to prove myself better, professionally, I'll have to surpass that pretty little finger trick of yours. I'll need more than one coin to prove that."
Men slapped coins down, telling her just who else was in on the wager. Rin collected them up, six in all, and set them on the back of her hand. Molguv saw a faint smile flicker. She flexed her fingers to toss the coins up, turned over her hand so that they fell into her palm and closed her fingers around them.
"Why, thank you gentlemen. I believe we're out of cheese."
Rin stood and sauntered to the kitchen, enjoying how it made her skirts sway.
"I think we've been robbed… again," Molguv said as five frowning men stared hard at him.
"Don't blame me, the wager was all his idea!" Loch's grin remained in place as Molguv pointed the blame in his direction.
"I keep telling you not to underestimate her," Loch said. Rin returned with another board of cheese and bread that she set down on the table, along with five coppers of change. Everyone aside from Molguv retrieved their coins back. Having drained a tankard of ale, Hanasian rose to wash the road from him. He left them once more in Khule's hands, and again silent finger signals conveyed some sort of message between the Ranger and the Easterling. Rin watched Hanasian leave for a long moment, her attention only dragged back when she heard Loch ask what sort of drink Dwarven spirits were. A troubling development, that.
More and more people filtered into the common room as evening approached. Rin found herself watching them, particularly the small ones that some of the men called Halflings. She'd never seen their like before. In the far corner, one group was particularly merry. Someone pulled out a fiddle and soon there was frenetic stomping on table and floor boards alike as his fellows took to dancing. Rin was utterly entranced. Khule had to tug on her sleeve to get her attention.
"Hanasian will want to see you, Rin. He needs to know what you have decided," the Easterling said. He gave her directions as to where to find him.
Rin had to carefully navigate the common room to avoid puddles of ale and darting hobbits. Behind her, men were finalising their wagers about whether she'd accept or not and who'd get to train her. Loch was in it up to his neck, using the coin of the usual chores associated with company life as his wager. The way things were going, Loch would be pulling all night watches for the rest of his natural life if he lost half of the wagers he'd ventured into.
Rin located the room Khule had indicated, the hubbub of the common room only distantly heard from where she stood. She stared at the door for a moment, pulse thundering in her ears. This was it. Rin took a deep breath, raised her hand and knocked. She heard Hanasian's voice bid her enter. Rin cracked the door and peeked around with some trepidation. The Ranger was seated by a window with a quill, ink and paper. He'd washed up and changed. It was quite a sight, she had to admit, and her mouth was suddenly quite dry. At least there was no one to witness this lapse in composure.
It was well into the night when Frea reached the old inn east of Bree. He watered his horse at the trough out front, and was going to enter when he heard a rider approach from the west. He waited outside to see who it was.
"Videgavia! Well met on this night! But I have to ask how it is you are here?"
"I came seeking you my friend. But I am tired. hungry, and thirsty. Let us go inside and we will share news over an ale."
Videgavia thought a tankard was well overdue, being the rest of the company has probably done some serious damage to a keg at the Pony by this time.
"Yes... I myself am on point from the rest of my men. My brother follows and will likely arrive here tomorrow. Let us go see what this place is about..."
"I would hope you knew by now that I don't bite," Hanasian said to her. Rin permitted the rest of herself to enter the room, fingers locked before her.
Hanasian waved her to another chair at the table. She crossed the room and seated herself. Silence bloomed between them for a moment and then they both started talking at once. Rin leant back in the chair and smiled out the window. The sky was painted with the blush of sunset, a riot of oranges, reds and deep indigos. The light caught in Hanasian's hair, which he'd not fully tied back. Brown and gold strands gleamed under sunset's touch.
"Rosmarin, I sense that you've decided something. I simply need to know what it is," he said to her. Rin dragged her attention back to the matter of hand.
"Are you sure about your offer, Hanasian," she asked. No matter how one looked at it, she would be the odd one out in the company. The persistent exception to a number of rules made for and by military men. She could appreciate how valuable cohesion was in a group such as this one. Unlike Loch, she'd not exactly fit right in and had, in fact, taken pains to keep certain safe distances. Women in her station in life did not survive long if they failed to do this. It was a slippery slope for a woman to be caught on, and she'd rather slit her own wrists than be caught in the trap that had forced so many before her to earn their living on their backs.
"I have become more certain of it with each day, Rin," he replied steadily. Rin nodded, closed her eyes and looked deeply within one more time. There it was. The same mad answer. She took a deep breath and opened her eyes.
"As have I, Hanasian," she replied and shifted her eyes back to his face. "If there's a place for the likes of me, then I will gladly take it." Her voice was quiet, solemn. He could see she meant every word. It was not something she did lightly. Hanasian passed her a piece of paper, very official looking to her eye. He had no idea if she could read, given her circumstances. He watched her study the paper, eyes scanning through the text.
"A commission," she murmured as she read. The language was highly formal, like some of the texts she had "borrowed" on the practice of surgery a few years ago. It set out her obligations to the crown in no uncertain words and in return, what would occur if she served faithfully. It even had heraldry, a tree with stars over the top. She could only presume that meant Minas Tirith and their king... the one called.... oh yes, there it was written down. The one called Elessar.
"Do you understand it," he asked. Rin nodded, yet re-read it to be certain.
"I do. I presume you want me to sign it?" Hanasian passed her the quill and ink, and watched her sign. Her hand was flowing, movements precise.
"Do we all sign these?"
"Yes. Loch signed his earlier in the week," Hanasian replied. She set down the quill and looked at the paper identical to the one she had just set her name to that sat under Hanasian's elbow. She could see Loch's name scrawled at the bottom and it made her smile. She knew Loch's attitude to trivialities such as reading and writing, had battled them for many years as she tried to drum the basics into him. Loch would signed anything to get into this company, including a bill of sale on his own soul. Hanasian retrieved the commission she had just signed and blew on the ink to dry it.
"Now what happens to them," she asked, curious about this particular custom.
"They'll go south on the next horse to Minas Tirith," he replied, matter-of-factly. The sound of a heavy crash reached them and brought them both to their feet.
"That didn't sound good," Rin observed. Hanasian shook his head.
Welcome to the Black Company of Arnor, Rosmarin. There's always something," he replied, a wry quirk to his lips. Rin turned for the door, feeling curiously light headed. Her instincts, always unusually strong, told her that this moment was momentous in more ways than the could know. Rin left, looking back over her shoulder once at the door at the smile on his face, before rushing to the common room. She really liked that smile.
Loch was sprawled on the floor, men were laughing and Molguv was standing over him. The Haradian sighted her as soon as she emerged. It wasn't difficult, there were few women in the common room of the Prancing Pony.
"Ah… My next victim," the Haradian declared. Loch staggered to his feet and shook his head. The common room spun a little before he realised his sister was steaming towards him.
"Hey, Rin! You should try that, it's fun," he called to her, overly loud. It took some wrestling and ultimately the assistance of Hanasian, who had followed her out, to get Loch seated again. Hanasian let his fingers signal to the rest of the company that there was business to attend to. Rin had to lean against her brother's back to stop him from toppling backwards to the floor again. She shot a questioning look across to Khule, who shrugged and mouthed Dwarves at her. Hanasian took up position at the end of the table.
"Men, we've ridden hard and have earned ourselves a night of reprieve. I shall not burden you with formalities overly long.
"It will come as no surprise to learn that we have acquired a new recruit in the form of Lochared." Hanasian was forced to pause as a cheer went around the table, aided and abetted by Wulgof. Rin leant against Loch to stop him from upending himself as he heartily joined in.
"Shorry," Loch said, peering up at her. She rolled her eyes and Hanasian pressed on.
"It may, however, come as a surprise to learn that we have also acquired a healer," Hanasian was again interrupted, this time by Molguv.
"And professional thief," the Haradian shouted. That earned Rin a number of hard glances from neighbouring tables. She found herself wondering again why the floor refused to swallow her whole.
"A healer," Hanasian continued, "Rosmarin has also agreed to join our number."
"Valar protect us," Wulgof drawled. Rin didn't have the chance to respond. Loch somehow managed to sieze his sister and succeeded in wrestling both of them to the floor boards.
"Get off me, Loch!"
"Ha! I GOT THIS ONE RIGHT!" he crowed, squeezing the breath out of her and doing his best to recrack her ribs. Molguv slapped the table in victory.
"Told you!" Wulgof and Berlas both grumbled about the whimsical nature of a woman's mind as they handed over their wagers. Molguv swept up his winnings, stood and collected Rin by the waist. He hoisted her up under one arm, strode around the table and plonked her in the space she had earlier occupied next to Khule. The Haradian patted her on the top of her head and returned to his own position. Loch had managed to crawl back into place himself. Rin sat still a moment, her face obscured by pale golden hair. She pushed it back. A table full of men held their breath.
"Soldiers," said, expelling her breath like it was a foul word. She shook her head, collected up Loch's tankard and drained it. It was going to be a wild night.
The food arrived shortly and the Prancing Pony proved that it had not lost its reputation of skill in the kitchen. Night drew on and with it more people arrived. After the initial excitement, the table had returned to its business for the evening. Rin was convinced her brother would pickle himself by the time the night was done. She found herself studying the dancing in the corner. She'd never seen it's like before. With so few women in the room, even a phalanx of soldiers didn't stop some of the braver souls from venturing to their table. She turned each of them away.
"That was the eighth one," Khule exclaimed. "What was wrong with him?" Rin shrugged her shoulders.
"Nothing. I just don't know how to dance that way," she replied.
"She dances all the time, when she thinks I ain't watching," Loch slurred from across the table. Rin threw an ale soaked heel of bread at her brother and got to her feet. The air of the common room felt soupy. She needed to get out
The moon had risen and the streets at this hour were largely empty. Behind her, the rumour of laughter and music curled around her. Rin took a deep breath into her lungs to clear her head. It was as cool outside as it was warm inside. Her cheeks felt flushed and she pressed her cooler fingers to them in a bid to claw back some composure. Inside, the fiddler wove melody in and out and around. Rin peered up both ends of the street to be certain she was alone and then tried her hand at the steps she had seen them do inside.
"Running away so soon," Hanasian asked, as she was half way around a turn. Rin dropped her skirts and blushed. The Ranger walked the rest of the way out.
"I just needed some air," she dissembled. He could see the thread of her pulse at the base of her throat. Rin saw him smile faintly and then step forward. He held out his hands.
"Do you want to learn," he asked. Rin set her hands in his, by way of answer. Together, slowly, they marked a few turns. It took only three for Rin to grasp it. Hanasian increased the tempo to match that of the music within and heard her laugh in sheer delight.
"What is it called" she asked, voice close and soft in his ear.
"It's name is long forgotten," he replied. It had been danced here in the northern realm for at least an Age, but the woman he danced with clearly had no grasp of the history of the people she so closely resembled. The reel sped faster and faster and they danced under moon and star matching time with it.
Hanasian didn't think any of the company would have any objection to Loch, but he wasn't so sure about Rin. Possibly his judgement could have been clouded had it been this moment he had considered it. But it was at Tharbad that he decided he wanted Rin in their company, for skill in healing such that she had shown there in that fight was skill highly prized in the field. He was glad she decided to stay with them. He would have to keep his feelings in check though, for he couldn't afford to allow any sort of favoritism be shown to her. Yet he could not deny that strange, light, almost queasy feeling in his gut as they danced. She picked it up easy... almost too easy it seemed, and it was then looking at her face in the moonlight that he had a thought pass through him. A memory of the words of the brothers Elladan and Elrohir had said years ago about a girl they had seen. Spinning her away as they ended the dance, Hanasian was smiling as they finished in the customary bow and curtsy. Could it be...? The moment stretched until they both realised that they still held the other's hand.
Inside, a familiar face was pressed to a pane of glass. He pulled back from the window as the couple ceased dancing and returned to the table.
"Men, I have a new wager," Wulgof announced. There was nothing dearer to soldiers than ale, coin and gossip.
"We have an audience it seems," Hanasian said as they both turned to the light of the window. He knew they were wagering, and he could guess at what they were wagering on. He would have to watch himself in this. A breeze came up from the north, chill with ill-words. Both Rin and Hanasian shivered at it's icy breath.
Rin let Hanasian's hand drop, and said, "Let's go back inside…"
Hanasian agreed and with a step toward the door, his hand gently set against Rin's back as he looked about in the darkness. Something didn't feel right.
Coming inside, the revelry at their table didn't seem to have abated but for everyone stumbling over each other to try and take the places they had at the table as if none had gone to the window to watch. It was well late into the evening pushing the midnight hour, and the common room had emptied of most locals and guests. The few that remained he deemed harmless, and they were well away from where they loitered at the bar. Hanasian finished his tankard, set it on another table, and took to being captain of the company again. Standing up on the table, he said,
"Men… and lady, make it a last call, finish up the bread and cheese, and I call your attention for this impromptu meeting of the Black Company of the East. A couple things I have to say and now is the best time to say it. While in Minas Tirith, our King Elessar had granted me some freedoms to allow me to commission members into the company without his specific approval. At the time of our founding, it had worried many in his court about granting this to me outright.
"So it was always held that he himself would personally approve any and all members who joined. Also, our specific commission was to man the realm's frontiers well to the south and east, and to uh.. deal… with insurrections in the realms that swore fealty to the King. This we have done, and we returned rather victorious in this quest. Yet, in my talks with my old friend, Chieftain, and King, it seems things closer to home are not without their challenges. This we have seen first hand south of Tharbad. Anyway… what I want to say to you all who have signed on since Rhun is this.
"You are officially no longer prospects and are now full members of this company. Your names, and the names of all why had joined with us but have since fallen, have been recorded in the records of the King. So for you who are not original members, but have been with us for many years, like you Khule, it is now official. So too is it official for Loch, and Rosmarin too. For I have been granted the title of 'Scribe of the King', so it is official as penned by me. Much trust our King has put in me, and I hope to be worthy of its honour."
Everyone was silent as they realized Hanasian was all together serious in what he had to say, and he went on after a pause. Most everyone had taken the offer of a last round and were quietly sipping away, and Hanasian went on…
"So as of now we are to be known as the Black Company of Arnor, and we will adopt a form of the banner of Elessar, seven silver stars on a black field, surrounding one rayed silver star based on the Rangers brooch as our standard. The smith here in town is working on them and I'll hand them out when they are ready."
Rin had noticed that that Hanasian wore a rayed star brooch on his cloak.
"I hoped we would find the rest of our company here before us, those who left from Osgiliath north when we went to Minas Tirith, but it seems we had made better time than they. You may have noted that Videgavia is not with us. He has ridden east to seek word of our brethren. I am hopeful he has found them, and will return to us here shortly.
"Now, the ride here this day was long and the evening I hope was relaxing. But too much of a good thing can cause much disruption to mind and body. We will retire to sleep on the finest of straw beds this night. What lies in store for us tomorrow will keep itself until the morning light. Sleep as long as you wish. We will all gather here the next day at the noon hour."
Hanasian stepped down, and taking a bit of cheese and bread, he ate it and waited for everyone to retire for the night.
Videgavia and Frea stood at the bar of the Forsaken talking and drinking and eating. It was soon clear to Videgavia that Frea had word for Hanasian from the King. Aragorn had sent runners both north and west to find both parties. The one who went north had managed to catch the party on their slow trek up the east side of the Mistys. He now rode with the rest of Frea's company. The other sent west to find Hanasian had not yet arrived, and may have fallen to the same renegade orcs they had run across.
Apparently there was trouble in the south, but all that the King had gotten word of remained with the two riders. One would be arriving here at the Forsaken the next day. The other it remained unknown. The two stayed up late, and slept only until breakfast. They were up and awaiting the arrival of Folca and the company. They were ready to ride west to Bree as soon as they had a moment to rest and were ready to go. They should arrive back at Bree by nightfall of the next day.
Hanasian slept little that night. Too much on his mind. Feelings for Rin, and the possibility that her lineage was of that suspected by the sons of Elrond, the chill feeling of the night before, and wondering of Videgavia had found the rest of the men. Nothing he could do about that except wait, and he grew restless. He arose and went out to the courtyard to look at the stars and spoke Sindarin to them. He always found it soothing, as if Varda herself listened to him.
A shooting star streaked from the northern sky and disappeared south, a hissing sound followed by a pop when it broke apart. Hanasian had the gut feeling he and the company would be again venturing south. But that would remain to be seen. Right now, Bree was where they were, and there they would stay until word called them elsewhere. He sat and watched the sky to the east slowly turn to deep blue, extinguishing the fainter stars before it.
"The King's emblem, Rin," Loch mumbled from where he was to sleep, across the room between them. He was snoring soon afterwards. Rin pulled the covers up and stared into the blackness. Beds were supposed to be comfortable things, but she could only gather that was so if you had practice using them. She tried, she really did, and met only with limited success in sleeping. Much of her difficulty she placed at the feet of the moon and that Ranger. If they were seen, then what would the others think of her? It was only dancing, she told herself as Loch's snoring deepened. Rin placed a pillow over her head.
Only dancing, and he was soon all business afterwards. Best not to get carried away with herself. When all was said and done she was nothing more than a penniless thief and he was friends with a King! He had said so himself. Hanasian had shown her charity and kindness and that was all there was to it. Rin sighed heavily into the pillow and closed her eyes. All she could see was him. She tossed, irritable with herself. This way only lay sorrow, and she'd look a fool too, she remonstrated with her wilful self. It took an hour for sleep to come and when it did it was a half starved, flimsy thing. She dreamt of Hanasian, she dreamt of Kings and stars… and then she Dreamt.
She stared at the ash she stood on. Drifts of it rose in a surly, warm wind. It coated everything, shattered rocks and a desolate landscape that drifted resentfully as far as she could see. She was coated in it too, a thick layer that seeped into every pore of her skin. She was leaning against something with all her might. Every muscle in her body strained at the exertion she was applying. She did not want to look at what she had her back against, but nor could she bear not to. She glanced to her left and saw a towering wall of bones. They clacked against each other, as if they were laughing at her attempt to hold them back. Skulls mocked her, some human and others not. Some new and others ancient. A desperate sob was torn from a dried, ash choked throat. Her own throat, she realised and she leant back against the wall with the sick certainty that it would drown her no matter what she did.
She heard a crack and felt the barren ground beneath her booted feet rumble. The wall moved behind her. A skeletal hand crawled over her outstretched arm. The wall was moving, and she couldn't stop it! She wasn't enough! Rin sat up with a broken wail on her lips. She bit down on it before she woke anyone. Dawn had not yet come, but it was not far off. She covered in a thin layer of cold sweat that made her shift stick to her skin. Across the way, Loch snored. Rin climbed out of bed and stood in the chill pre-dawn half light, shivering. Her skin crawled. What did it mean? She considered waking Loch. He was often able to intuit meaning from these Dreams. Odds were, however, that he would still be intoxicated when she woke him. Rin's eyes adjusted to the murky light. Stars were overhead. Her mind was a jumble, swimming. She'd never determine anything meaningful from her Dream at this rate. She needed to clear her mind and she knew only one way to do that.
Rin threw on the other dress. It took her a while to figure out how it was supposed to be worn. Eventually, she figured out that the fitted cream dress with the flared skirt went under the ruby hued tunic. The tunic was heavier, better suited for the early chill, even if the sides of it were open. She laced them as tightly as she could, collected her shoes and picked her way carefully out to the kitchen on bare feet. To her surprise, Anis was already awake and working on breakfast. She clapped one eye on Rin's rumpled appearance and smiled knowingly.
"Can't sleep, lassie?" she asked. Anis had raised and married off three daughters. She knew what she saw when she looked at Rin.
"No," Rin admitted, sat and put on her shoes. "I thought I would go for a walk, clear my mind," she added.
Anis nodded, knowing better than to tell Rin that no amount of walking would cure what ailed her. Instead, she passed Rin a shawl, gave her strict instructions to wear it and closed the kitchen door after her. Outside, Rin shivered and pulled the shawl tight around her shoulders. She stared at the ground she stood on. Not ash, she noted with relief, missing the fact that another sat in the inn's courtyard.
Rin recalled from yesterday that the Prancing Pony was not too far from the gate. She needed open ground to stretch herself on. It was in this direction she walked, sleep tousled hair spreading in her wake as she walked. She walked fast, to throw off the chill of the air and her dream. As she warmed, her traitorous mind drifted back to the warmth she had felt beneath the moon. Curse that moon! That way lay pain. She had seen the questions, the hesitation in his face as he had come to the same realisation last night.
Hanasian found that she was utterly wrapped in her own world. He drifted along behind her, cautiously at first. Bree sat next to the Chetwood, and it was one of the few remaining wild places in the North. He told himself that it was not safe for a woman to wander alone and unarmed and it was for this very proper reason that he followed her now.
With dawn so close, the gate was not watched. Rin was able to slip through it without delay. She stood on the other side and drew in a deep breath. Her thoughts were still tangled. She cursed herself under her breath and headed for the trees. Dew covered everything, like a jewelled web that glittered in the half light. She gained the trees and passed between them, pressing deeper. She did not know where she was going. Her mind was elsewhere as her feet wandered on. As she walked deeper into the woods, she let her thoughts take voice. There was no one to hear her here.
"What does it mean? What does it all mean? I know it means something… Literal or symbolic… Damn it all, I can't think of him now!" Rin paused to press her hand and then forehead against the bole of a tree. She needed to focus on that dream, the other dream, not Hanasian. Rin heaved a sigh and then jumped back as the tree literally shuddered beneath her touch. Her heart skidded in her chest and her eyes were wide. She backed away, cautious now. Did the tree move?
"I must be losing my mind," she said out loud.
"I couldn't agree more," said a man behind her. Rin whirled around to find Hanasian standing in the steadily lifting dawn. The sight of him only made her heart threaten to launch itself right out of her chest for entirely different reasons.
"This is not a safe place, Rosmarin," he chided her, advancing the final distance. Focus, Rin told herself.
"That tree moved, Hanasian!" Yes, excellent start, confirm you're insane her traitorous self observed. She waited for him to laugh, scoff or run screaming from the mad woman. He did none of these things. He nodded, taking her at her word. Damn the confounding man! Rin took a deep breath and tried to gather herself. What was that word? Oh yes, professional.
"I take it you could not sleep either," she said. The concerned healer. Yes, professional. Hanasian shook his head, glanced about warily and then settled his eyes on her again.
"Perhaps we should talk," he suggested to her. Rin closed her eyes and braced herself.
"No need, Hanasian. I understand, I truly do," she replied as steadily as she could. She uncurled her fingers from their grip in her skirts.
"Really? What is it that you understand, Rosmarin," he said, head cocked to one side.
"We each have our places in life. You're my commanding officer and a friend to a monarch of two realms, no less. I know," Rin's composure broke a little. She had not anticipated this to be so difficult! "I know that you have a duty and a reputation to uphold. I will not dishonour it." Ah, there is the pain… damn… she'd let herself get too far down that road to avoid it now.
Rin dropped her head lest he see it and doubt her ability to do what was the right thing. He had closed the distance between them. She had but to reach out and she would be able to touch him. She wanted to. The effort to keep her arms by her side made them tremble.
"And what is your place in life, Rin? You seem to know so much about mine, what of yours?"
Rin swallowed. Yes, he had to ask, had to be certain, she told herself.
"I'm nothing… a thief you took pity on and gave the chance to redeem herself," she whispered as dawn's early rays pierced the trees. "I will not throw that in your face. I'll not give you reason to regret it."
The fierce resolution, a quiet pride, and the unmistakable note of a yearning heart being reined in all turned in her voice. He watched her wrap her arms around herself. Hanasian recalled hesitating before, many years ago. In that decision, he had lost any chance to find out what might have been. Ancient malice in the form of Naiore Dannan had taken Simra from him all too soon. And now, here, would he make the same decision again? The dawn painted her pale hair a delicate rose. It tangled around a face she was hiding from him. He reached and lifted her chin, lifting her face to his.
"Rosmarin, open your eyes, please?" He could feel her tremble. He could see that her heart was racing. When she opened her eyes, he could see a formidable determination and a piercing pain and there, a flash of hope that endured despite all of this. Rin had that sensation again of his gazing searching right into her, as they had that very first day. She felt as helpless now, as revealed and vulnerable now, as she had on that rain soaked day.
"Rosmarin, this will not be easy. We will need to be careful. You are, at least, right in that we both have our duties to uphold and we cannot shirk them. But," Hanasian hesitated, uncertain of how to say this. Ultimately, it was the fading light of hope in her eyes that decided that matter. He said nothing, and instead brought his lips to hers. She stiffened in surprise at first, but did not pull away. Rather, she melted softly, sweetly against him. He felt her hands; those sure, gentle hands of hers tighten against his chest. When he pulled back a long moment later, his heart too was pounding. Rin felt his hands cradle her face.
"But you will never be nothing to me, Rosmarin," Hanasian said to her. "I want to do this correctly, for us and for the Company. Do you understand?" Her eyes searched his face intently. He could her mind dancing behind them. He could see hope steadily grow.
"Yes, Hanasian," Rin replied. Then she stood on her toes to kiss him in her own turn. By midday they needed to resume their duty, but that was then and this? This was now. He remembered what his friend had said of meeting the woman that would become his wife. Like straying into a waking dream, his friend had said. Hanasian understood. Yes, he understood.
Amongst the quiet of the early morn, the dawn ate the stars and the air grew ever colder, but Hanasian and Rin seemed to share an inner warmth.
"Come, let us go back. We can't let this get the better of our senses."
He took her hand and led her back to the inn. Returning the the common room, Anis paused and said,
"Didn't see you leave sir, but its good to have early risers. Here is some fresh tea for you."
A steaming pot of fragrant tea was set on the bar, and two cups followed. Hanasian noted the only other in the common room was the innkeeper tending the fire to help stave off the morning chill.
Hanasian was silent, his mind delving into the feeling he had outside the night before. No such feeling was there this morning. Yet, his senses told him this time in the north would be short-lived.
"I think we will be leaving Bree soon."
He said to Rin, "I think news and orders ride the winds of the south and east, approaching as we rest here for a time. Later today we will work on securing provision for our ride. If Videgavia finds Frea and his men, I suspect they will be here in a day's time, if not a little more. They will have to rest and re-fit as we must, and depending on the news that arrives with them, I am willing to guess we will set out by this day next week, if not earlier."
Rin gulped some tea and it seemed she was not used to it as it may have burned a bit going down. Hanasian smiled at her as she tried to hold back a cough.
"Try it in tiny sips when it's hot, Rin. Gulping it is best saved for the last in the cup."
She blushed a bit and let out a couple muted coughs and whispered,
"I'm sorry, I'm just... *cough* not ..."
"Not used to having much food and drink available? Worry not about that any more. There may be times when in the field and rations get short and we scavenge what we can to eat, but here we will be well nourished. You will be paid a sum worthy of a healer, which is a bit more than men-in-arms. However, I am keeping most of your first pay so we can get you outfitted properly.
"The fine dresses that Anis gave you will be worth much, but we will have to get you something a bit more practical for the road. I know a tanner who can set you with a few changes of leathers, both light and heavy. We will go see her today so she can get on to making them. Also, some other clothes that will be both comfortable and concealing. No more old cloaks for you."
So much had unfolded in mere hours, Rin's mind was hard pressed to keep up. The warmth of time spent with Hanasian held the cold chill of her earlier dream at bay. It was not forgotten, only held back for another time. She was fast learning that opportunities such as the one they had shared in the woods and then back at the inn, were fleeting and rare. She'd not let her dreams steal them from her.
As Hanasian turned to the more practical matters that faced them, Rin started to make a mental list of things she would need if she was going to do this Company justice as its healer. Fine gut, hook needles, antiseptic, bandages that had been bleached and then boiled, bottles she could decant various things into, bags for drying herbs in, a book to keep proper notes in, pencils to write with, a small very sharp knife, perhaps several as those but hopefully not a saw. Doing an amputation in the field was a horror she hoped to never to have to enterprise. She could gather the rest on the road. She'd just need to keep her eyes peeled for the usual plants that could be gathered, and a supply of various splints. Oh yes, she'd want some of those plaster imbued bandages that go hard once they dry.
The idea that anyone would get paid was a novelty to her. Rin had presumed that service was in return for things like food, horses and the like. But once she started tallying a list of healing supplies in her head, she started to wonder just how far that pay would stretch. Rin had a strong sense that stealing, no matter the reason in this instance, would not be a good idea. How many items of clothing did one person required, she wondered. Perhaps she could negotiate less clothing and more supplies. Rin had to admit that she would feel a great deal more comfortable if she were decently clothed. None of the men had said or done anything inappropriate, but she would need their respect and regard if they were to trust her and let her truly be effective.
Properly sipping the hot tea, some bread and fresh fruit was set out, and Rin eased herself into some. Hanasian buttered a slice and ate it, dipping it in his tea now and again. Hanasian asked her as they ate,
"What do you know of the history of Arnor, the Northern Kingdom?"
He was guessing not all that much considering, but what sort of education she had gotten as a child he did not rightly know. Unconvential, he guessed, at best.
"I know a little, just tales I've heard but very little of the past," she said, seeming to be interested. "Do tell me of yourself Ranger Hanasian... if you wish to."
She looked at him while munching some buttered bread.
"Maybe a little, since I opened this jar." He finished his bread and took a sip of tea, then said, "I was curious of what you knew, for it was well ingrained in my teaching, both by my mother, and by the elves of Rivendell. Of me, I was born north of here in the abandoned city of Annuminas (pronounced anoo'minnas) many years ago. My father was a Ranger of the Grey Company, and I know he rode with the company when Arathorn, our King Aragorn's father, was slain by an orc arrow in the rough lands of the Weather Hills. Little else has been told to me of him, and all that I have learned of him on my own until recently only has added to the mystery."
He gulped down his tea, and poured more from the pot.
"My father took my mother and I to Rivendell to dwell there. My mother was with child, my sister Halcwyn, and for reasons unknown to me, my father was not permitted to enter. There he said goodbye to my mother and me, and bowed down to whisper to my unborn sister, and the only memory of him I had was him walking away, turning one last time to gaze at us before disappearing around the bend in the track.
"After a few months in the company of the elves, he was only a distant memory. It was there I grew up learning the history of Arnor, the great Numenorean kingdom in exile that Elendil founded. His sons founded the great southern Numenorean kingdom in Exile, which we know as Gondor. But the years were not kind to my ancestors of the north. Never many, the great war of the Last Alliance brought death and suffering, and the people declined slowly until Annuminas, the city of Elendil was abandoned. The kingdom then ruled from Fornost, a fortress city on the edge of the North Downs.
"There they held their own for awhile until disagreements between the sons of Arnor's tenth king, King Eärendur fractured the kingdom into three. Of the eastern part, Rhuadur, little was recorded, except the Dunedain soon fled or were killed fighting for their homes against the wild hillmen of the mountains north. Of the southern part, Cardolan, more is known but its end came in a shroud of mystery. It is said the last Prince of Cardolan was slain in a war with Angmar and Rhuadur near Amon Sul, Weathertop as its ruins have come to be known. The remaining people were scattered and lived mostly to the west and the south, but plague soon wiped them out and they became only memory to most."
He paused and watched Rin's face. There seemed to be a stir at the mention of this part, but it was obvious that she had no clue about the tales of the elves. Still... the likeness of features, the difference between she and her brother Loch, and her untaught natural abilities in healing and herbal knowledge pointed at the possibility that she was, at least in part, royal and of Dunedain lineage, though not of the same line as that of his chief. Cardolan, he wondered? The mysteries of the words of the sons of Elrond back some years came to mind. He would keep it in mind, and would watch carefully. Sipping more tea and noticing that Rin was listening to him carry on and not growing bored, thought he should continue...
"The other part, Arthedain remained long and strove against Angmar and the Hillmen for centuries in a long and slow defeat. The end came quickly though when Fornost was overrun and sacked, and though Gondor came with a great army in ships to the north, it was too late for the last king. Though the witch king was defeated, his work was done, destroying for the most part the northern kingdom. Only the sons of Arvedui, the last king carry on in the shadows, waging war against the evil that wrought destruction on the west. It is amongst them the line of Elendil survived, and I, Hanasian of mixed blood, had the privilege to ride far on dark roads to battle beside him when he was our Chieftain."
He paused and fell into thought. it was interrupted by Rin asking,
"You mention an unborn sister. What happened to her? And what of mixed blood?"
Hanasian looked at her and said,
"My sister is alive and well, living in the west of Rohan where my mother's people had dwelt for many years. So much like our mother Halcwyn is, with a touch of our father Halasian. It is said I am so much like my father, with enough of my mother to keep me sane and steady. We had an older brother too, Hayna. I didn't know him until we met at last during the war in Lebennin. Too short was our time together, for he was slain in Pelargir by an arrow from a Corsair ship when we attacked with the dead."
She seemed saddened by it, but knew much more of the man who had kissed her. Rin was more than content to listen to Hanasian. She soaked him up, still tingling with surprise and then thrumming of her heart that had awoken with the dawn. Hanasian was generous with her, she knew. He told her so much of himself, unfolding his life piece by piece. It was a handsome gift and she had such little to offer in her own turn. She learnt of his family and genuinely felt his sorrow for the loss of his loved ones.
She could not begin to imagine not knowing Loch, or of losing him. She learned of the northern realm, a sweeping history that staggered the mind. So much war, so much sorrow, that her own trials seemed so very small against. Entire realms lost and only one remained, one that Hanasian was so deeply part of. And yes, he spent time with Elves. Elves! She'd never seen one, but the tales she had heard! It occurred to her that she must seem so terribly rustic, unschooled and wild in comparison to all he had seen, met and done. She couldn't even handle tea properly.
"I think you will make a fine Annalist," she told Hanasian when he stopped speaking of his family and his history. She wanted to ask him more, but the company had started to emerge. No time to ask of his own doings in a war so cataclysmic that it had ended an Age. She needed to get to a library, she concluded. Yes, a library where she could better inform herself on such matters and one day hold an intelligent conversation on these topics with the man who sat with her.
Voices came in with some banter, it was Wulgof, Molguv, and Khule. They started making remarks about some wager, and Hanasian raised his voice at them, Rin didn't hear clearly what they were talking about. However, upon sighting Hanasian and Rin sitting in the common room, Wulgof seemed particularly interested. Molguv and Khule looked positively devious. She'd wasn't sure she wanted to know why that was. Loch was the last to materialise and he looked distinctly green around the gills when he did. However that did not stop him from making the most of a hot, cooked breakfast.
"Knock it off. Is everyone coming down? I have some serious news to tell, and it will not wait."
They quieted quickly for they knew when Hanasian was serious into company business.
"Listen up! As it turns out, we don't have that much time to rest and relax here. We will get ready to ride a long road, and so I need everyone to secure provision for such. We will have a fresh horse for packing, and once we're set, we'll then relax and wait for our comrades. I'm suspecting they will be here within a day, and they will have to rest and provision, so any extras you happen to get a deal on, get for their sake.
"Loch, you and Rin will accompany me and we'll get you fitted proper. Now, Anis has been working hard to get some hearty breakfast to serve, and I believe it's ready, so have a seat in the private dining room, and you will be served as much as you like."
Anis had been busy, as had the innkeeper. The company staying there represented a fair sum of money fr them, and they worked to please and hoped too much wouldn't get broken up. As they entered the room, the table was set out with a feast of braised pig, bacon, sausages, Anis's own Cat-tail flour pancakes, honey, bread, fruit, jam, .... there was plenty to eat. They all set in. Rin hoped Loch could keep it down once the afternoon's work began. The innkeeper stuck his head in and waved to Hanasian in desperation. Hanasian took some sausages and went toward the door.
"You not joining us Cap?"
Wulgof said with his mouth full.
"In a moment, I have to see what Butterbar wants.
He left the room and Mr Butterbar said,
"A bedraggled rider from foreign lands just arrived at the city west-gate. Says he's from Gondor with urgent messages for you. He then fell off his horse. So the gatekeeper carried him in and lay him in the guardhouse, and sent word here. Not sure what is wrong with him, but the hobbit Goatleaf, who is on morning watch, thinks he's just exhausted"
Hanasian wasted no time, munching a sausage, he headed out the door. It was at that point that Loch turned to his sister with a question.
"You were up early this morning, Rin. Couldn't sleep?" Wulgof, Khule and Molguv all seemed to lean in a bit closer. Rin shot them a queer look before she answered.
"No, what with your snoring and all. I gave up and went for a walk instead," she replied.
"I bet," Wulgof said.
"What's that supposed to mean," she demanded. Molguv's grin widened at that and he switched allegiances.
"Yeah, tell her what it means," the Haradian said.
"I don't think that is a good idea," Berlas said and earned himself a long, steadily heating blue glare that threatened to penetrate several of the upper layers of his skin by way of thanks.
"Just leave it, Wulgof," Khule said.
"You better not be picking on my sister," Loch rumbled around a piece of pork large enough to shelter a hobbit family. "That's my privilege."
"Leave it Loch," Rin said, letting the matter drop. Talk around the table turned down a different road and Rin was content to let it go. Her mind was busy with other things.
Hanasian was at the gate quickly. The man was well worn from the road, and his horse was the same. They had put on some hard miles quickly with little rest. He was awake and sitting up, drinking water like it was mead. He asked, "You are Hanasian?"
"Yes, I am. I'm told you have word from the King?"
He flashed his brooch to show the man he was who he says he was, and he dug in a satchel for some parchments with the King's seal.
"I had hoped to catch you sooner, but the road was hard, and I was held up in Tharbad for a day or so. I am to give you word that your men are healing and will be going to Minas Tirith on the next wagon. They are likely en-route by now."
Hanasian looked somewhat surprised,
"Minas Tirith? Why? I thought they would come north once able."
"It will make more sense after you read this..."
He handed Hanasian one of the parchments. Opening it, he read it and not a sign was given away by his face. Finishing, he rolled it up and put it inside his vest.
"So my gut feeling was not too far off," he said more to himself. "So what else do you have for me?"
He handed over the other parchments. Hanasian would wait to read them. He told the gatekeeper and the watch halfling,
"This man is a messenger of the King. See to it that he and his horse get the utmost care. You sir..."
He looked at the messenger...
"Darian of Befalas," he broke in.
"... Darian of Befalas, try and rest here a bit and when you are able, join our company at the Prancing Pony. I think some of this news will be better received coming from you."
Darian called out, Hanasian turned outside the guardhouse and looked back in.
"Another of my brethren, my little brother actually, is also a King's messenger. He set out earlier with messages to catch Frea and Folca's party. Has there been any word from them?"
Hanasian only shook his head, saying, "We will talk more of that when you join us."
Hanasian walked back to the Prancing Pony, letting the early morning sun warm him. It was going to be a warm sunny day weather-wise, if it isn't with the news he had. He stowed the other parchments in his vest with the first one and vane strolling back in to the Inn and to their dining room.
Seeing Loch sneakily stashing a slab of pork in a cloth, Hanasian said, "Whoa boy! This is for eating, not provisioning. Eat what you have taken, and there will be more for us, properly cured, to take."
Loch blushed at being spotted. Sometime old habits are hard to break when one has been going so long with little. Hanasian picked at some bacon and lay some on some buttered bread. Slices of tomato and lettuce and cheese accompanied it, and he stood and ate it. Breakfast this morning was good. It was toward the end when Darian arrived, and he too set into cleaning up what was left.
After all were filled to their satisfaction, Hanasian called them all to the parlour where they could talk privately. Loch didn't entirely abandon the pork he was planning on setting aside for later. Rather, he followed the Company to the parlour still gnawing on it. Rin shook her head and sat. She'd still not untangled her hair and it was only then that the earlier innuendo dawned upon her. Rin started to furiously pull her fingers through the pale lengths of her hair. She was relieved to find she hadn't brought back any leaves with her.
"You'll have to be more careful," Berlas said quietly and her cheeks heated.
"But I really did go for a walk," she replied, fingers moving fast as she untangled her hair. Hanasian called for quiet and she complied. Berlas shot her a sympathetic smile and turned his attention to the forthcoming announcement. They all gathered in there, and after getting everyone quiet, he introduced Darian the King's Messenger, handing the first parchment back to him to read...
~ ~ ~
The morning was well lighted when Videgavia and Frea awoke at the Forsaken. They had managed to find some food there and were eating when the sound of horse footfall could be heard. The two went out into the early sun to see a party of five ride up.
"Hail and well met brethren!" Videgavia called out, and they stopped, dismounted and led their horses to the water trough. Stretching to work the muscles some, they looked tired.
But Folca said,"We rested little in the wild, and one of our horses has come up lame. Yet we should make our way to Bree with the utmost speed. We will rest here until that shadow of the inn has retreated across the road."
"I agree brother, for Hanasian and the rest of the company await us there, and we have news that must get through. Our messenger Darlios tells us his brother set out in pursuit of Hanasian's party, but we have no way of knowing if they have met. Come inside, there is warm tea and some bread to be had."
They quickly ate and drank, and after giving the horses some grazing time in the tall spring grass by the road, they set out for Bree. Hoping to make it by nightfall, it would be another day of hard riding.
~ ~ ~
Hanasian took a moment to read a small scroll while the messenger got ready to read.
To my old friend Hanasian,
It is with greatest sorrow that I again call your service and the service of your company in an hour of need. I only got word of developments in the far south shortly after you left, and hoped Darian would catch you before too long. Nonetheless, I trust you will join us as soon as time permits.
Your friend, Aragorn
Even after becoming High King he still talks as though a common Ranger. Hanasian shook his head as Darian began to read.
"To The Black Company of the East, you should no doubt be renamed as the Company of Arnor by now, and it is my hope to meet each of you when we come together. Your service has been exemplary and I have no doubt you will be here as quick as you can.
"The situation is such that Harad has been attacked in force by renegade tribes of the far south. I know you had been there in recent years and had subdued their raids, but it seems they only reserved themselves for a massive attack. Old tribal hatreds combined with evil leadership from some who served in the army of Mordor has brought us to a crisis. The Haradian frontier guards have been overrun, and what men we have there are fighing a valiant rear guard delaying action. We don't know how long they will be able to hold back the onslaught.
"So with your service, you will join all who I muster to ride south to put an end to the troubles once and for all. Even now as I write, armies of Gondor are setting sail to Umbar to reinforce our line. Prince Elfwine is riding forth with his mounted forces, and our mounted army is readying to ride. I think it will be sufficient to hold, and maybe gain back the initiative. We just have to get there first. Your mission is such…"
Darian paused to clear his throat. Hanasian looked out the door to make sure nobody was nearby, and he continued…
"Your mission is such. You are to proceed west with speed to the old Elven Havens. I have provided a writ of passage that will allow you to cross the Shire, for any other way would cost much valuable time. A ship will be waiting there to take you, your horses, and any provisions you will need, and will be well provisioned for the journey. You will make your way south directly toward Umbar, or if the seas and winds are favourable, to Pelargir to meet us. I am hoping this will be the case, for details of your specific mission will be given to you then. Should you not have favourable conditions, then open the parchment with the blue seal when you are three days out from Umbar. May the Valar be with you."
Hanasian looked at the blue seal on one of the parchments and wondered what it was. He guessed the gold seal was the writ of passage and will be given to the Thain of the Shire. Menfolk had been forbidden to enter the Shire since the war, when some of the renegade men of the wizard Saruman had made a good deal of trouble. We would be allowed to enter, and we will have to make haste through to the Tower Hills while there. He said,
"I thank thee Darian for your service. You are welcome to stay with us until we return to Gondor. As for the rest of you, its best we be ready when our friends arrive, for we will have to make haste west"
Everyone knew what to do. Loch and Rin waited as the others scattered. Hanasian interrupted Molguv as he was leaving.
"My friend, you will have to recall all knowledge of the south again. And it looks like you wont freeze up here in the north this coming winter."
Molguv grunted and left, clearly perturbed by new violence in his home. Hanasian waved Loch and Rin out and they too left the Inn.
"We'll get you two fitted for a decent Black Company uniform, which is black leathers. An extra pair of boots and some cloaks. In your cases, two pair of boots since you two have none. We will go have the clothes fitted first, then I want you Rin to acquire whatever you need for matters of healing, sickness, and battle wounds. Also, later, Molguv will fill you in on some of the illnesses that had beset us when we were in the far south the last time. There are things we can take that will help alleviate symptoms, but we couldn't get when we were already down there. As for weapons, I think I can resolve that easily enough."
Coming to the tannery, Mrs Bea took Rin aside and started measuring. Hanasian gave her instruction to make one set heavy, and one set light. Loch did the same with Mr Bea. Hanasian collected the boots he had made the last time he was there, but left before they were finished. Gladly, they still fit perfectly.
Khule and Wulgof were buying up all the dried meats and fruits they could find. It wasn't the right time of year for the fruits, but they knew they had to have it to compliment the meats when on the road. They would of course pack fresh but they would not last. Wulgof was hoping they would be able to buy some beer from the Shirefolk, remembering how good it was when Saruman was procuring it. By the time the shadows stretched out from the westering sun, a fair stock was gathered, and they started to filter back to the Inn.
Loch was an owner of a fair blade, said to have been freed from one of the Barrows to the west. An ornate Arnorian vintage, it was well made and would serve well. Rin had procured a collection of things, and a leather bag to carry most of it in from the tanner just by merely smiling prettily. Hanasian thought the day went well, and hoped that their comrades would arrive from the east soon.
~ ~ ~
The company detachment set out from the Forsaken before noon, and with the speed their tired horses could safely make, knew they would arrive near the midnight hour. Hopefully Hanasian will have set word at the South Gate to expect their arrival.
~ ~ ~
"Hey, Rin, what're you doing?"
Rin glanced up at her brother's question. She set down her pencil and closed the book. She had set up a page for each member, re-organised supplies and re-wrapped bandages so that it all fit properly into the bag she had obtained. She'd also jotted down several notes from her discussion with Molguv. Different conditions, most of then related to insects, moisture and heat, his suggestions for remedies and descriptions of several plants known to be effective filled pages already.
"Preparations, Loch. How about you?" she asked. He sat beside her and grinned at her.
"I was just thinking how we've never seen the sea before Rin, and soon we'll be sailing on it. And Elves too…. There's Elves at the Havens. And the king wants to meet us! Imagine that!"
Rin couldn't help but share some of his excitement, but she was inwardly checking to see that she had what she needed should anyone experience sea sickness. Dehydration could kill a man, a strong man in the prime of his health.
"Mmmmm, imagine, Loch. Do you think we'll be ready when we get there? It sounds big, this thing. Bigger than Tharbad and this time against men, not orcs." Her question was serious, and it certainly sobered Loch.
"I'm not sure how someone gets ready for something like that, Rin. I think that there'll be more training and all we can do is our best," he replied, voice thoughtful and then he glanced at her.
"How come you really couldn't sleep," he asked her. Rin glanced around the parlour. Everyone was off somewhere else.
"I had a Dream, Loch," she said. Loch's eyes widened. He lowered his head towards hers and she told quietly him what she had seen.
"Hmmmm, you think it's about this, don't you," he asked a moment later. Rin nodded and sighed.
"I think it was Loch. I can find no other way to make sense of it," she replied heavily. Loch clasped his hands atop the table and thought about it for a while longer.
"Well, there's no knowing for certain. But it could just be something simpler. Rin, Company Healer. You're standing face to face with death. If you fail, people will blame you. You have to know that you will fail to win sometimes. Maybe the dream was about understanding that." Rin breathed a measure of some relief. That was far better tidings than certain doom and disaster. Loch was good at these things. She hadn't even considered that.
"You're probably right. Thanks, Loch," she said, grateful. Loch got to his feet.
"You think too much, Rin. You always do. I'm going to get some training in before dark."
"Don't forget to move your feet," she called after him.
"Yeah, I know! Dancing!" Loch didn't let the gentle jibe slow him down. He headed out of the parlour, nodding at Hanasian as they passed in the hall. Hanasian watched the man head out and then looked down at what he was carrying. He'd not yet unwrapped it. He had the argument in his head again.
The sword was not cursed. The one it had been made for was another matter, but the sword was one the finest works of one of the finest Elven Smiths known in mortal lands: Celebrimbor. Hanasian resumed his path and located Rin in the parlour. She was staring off into nowhere, clearly thinking about something with that ever busy mind of hers. Hanasian cleared his throat and her smile warmed her eyes in response.
Rin got to her feet as Hanasian lifted out the wrapped bundle he was carrying. She stepped forward, curious, and took it from his hands at his bidding. She unwrapped it to reveal a sword. It was, in a word, extraordinary. It was very different to the blades that the other's carried. It was finer, smaller, and slightly and ever so delicately curved. Even the pommel seemed perfectly fitted to the smaller hands of a woman. It still did sit any easier with Hanasian to see Rin lift that sword.
"We'll unlikely have enough time to have a sword properly weighted for you made, Rosmarin, and they are not in ready supply," he said.
"I never thought I would say this about a sword, but it is beautiful," she said. Rin looked from the sword back to Hanasian. He seemed quite torn.
"Who did it belong to," she asked.
"An Elven woman," Hanasian replied, unwilling to invoke that particular name.
"What happened to her," Rin asked, curiosity roused.
"She died," he said tersely. That brought her questions to an end.
"It's a fate I would like you to avoid for as long as possible. We will need to commence your training as soon as we can, Rin."
Rin blinked, looking down at the sword in her hands and back to Hanasian.
"Now?" she asked. Hanasian nodded and together they walked out of the inn and around to the side of the building. Loch was there already, working with Khule. At a safe distance, Molguv and Wulgof were watching and calling out correction. All of that activity ceased as they noted the arrival of Hanasian and Rin. Hanasian paid them no heed and instead issued Rin with a stream of rapid instructions about stance and how best to grip the pommel. When Hanasian turned to face Rin, she was in the position he'd told her to adopt and she was holding the sword correctly. However, she'd not been able to unsheathe the sword. She stared at it, and then at him. Hanasian raised a single brow at her.
"Hey, healer! The pointy end only works if you take the cover off!" Molguv's chortle was the chorus to Wulgof's comment. Rin sighed heavily and unsheathed the sword. Hanasian drew his own, a fine blade of Westernesse with a blue stone embedded in it's pommel.
"I'll look past that, Rin. How much of Loch's training have you been watching?"
"Some of it," she said. Loch and Khule had ceased training and had joined the other two audience members.
"We'll start slow then, defensive blocks. I want two low, three hight, then four low. Understand?" Rin nodded uncertainly.
"This should be good," Khule said, settling back against the side of the inn. As he had said, they did start slow. However, as per the previous night, tempo picked up. Rin did not have Loch's height, strength or reach. Nor did she have his desire to become a warrior. However, she once again proved that she was agile. More than that, remarkably fleet footed. She was also a rapid learner.
"You know something," Molguv said. Wulgof shook his head.
"Yeah, I know, I know. She's not that bad, and the cap ain't exactly taking it easy on her," said Wulgof.
Hanasian called out another combination. Rin clenched her jaw against the ache of her ribs and set to it with bloody minded determination. She was not going to ask for quarter. She'd get none on the field and she had an audience here just waiting for her to pull some sort of stunt. She knew it by force of sheer instinct. The weight of the sword she carried dragged at her ribs and she had to watch her skirts too, but she was not going to give up.
"You know what else? I think we should cancel that wager," Khule said.
"But it's a sure thing," Wulgof protested.
"What is," Loch asked, looking at each in turn for an answer.
"If you can't tell him, then it's not right," Molguv observed. Wulgof grunted at that observation. It really was a sure thing. He'd seen them under the moon… and Hanasian's hand had rested so familiarly on her back when they'd come back in. Not to mention the past week. It had been written all over the both of them. Hanasian's reaction to her when she had been injured spoke volumes. Still, the Haradian had a point. It wasn't right if they had to keep it from a member of their company and it was likely at the expense of another. Nor would the captain be happy about it. They were headed to war. They didn't need division.
"I'll let it go, hand back the money tonight," Wulgof said.
Wulgof had a point, Hanasian realised. She would need time to work on most of this. Still, she would likely find a need in times coming, so he didn't relent even when she seemed frustrated or concerned with other things. She was a healer after all, not a killer. But in the heat of battle, those you are fighting usually don't take the time to see if you are a serious threat. Hanasian hoped she would do well and hold her own when the steel was pushed to the grindstone.
The old hands... well, what he considered old hands these days. Men who had been in more than a few scrapes with him in the past several years... were talking over soldier secrets and Loch was doing his best to try and figure out what was on with them, to no avail. Spirits were high, even though they all knew that they were to be soon off on a company adventure.
The evening came and they had gathered at their table in the Prancing Pony, and the food was prime and little was left. Loch and Rin seemed to have that hungry gut that still wondered if the meal in front of them would be their last for some time, and so made the most of it. Hanasian was glad to see that since talking about the upcoming mission, the consumption of ale had lessened and the eating increased. Even the old hands knew that food of this quality would be hard to come by for the most part. Not on the road, or a ship, and who knows what will be found in Gondor's southern reaches. Yes, it was a good thing to see everyone working well together and getting their fill. This time will too soon be a fond memory that happened once in their lives in a far away place from where they are remembering it.
Hanasian didn't join them this night. Instead, he found a quiet place in his room and wrote in his journal. He also penned a letter that he would leave with the innkeeper to be sent to his sister in Rohan.
I write to you in the comfort of the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. It has been too many years since I have been able to visit you. Events conspired in recent days that had me ride direct to Tharbad, then to the north. Though my hope was that I would be able to see you on my return, it will not be. So until I am able, I hope this finds you well.
I am as good as can be. I stay busy doing the King's deeds of which I will not speak of until I see you. Know that though we have spent little time of our lives together, the innocent days of our youth playing in Rivendell remain the fondest of memories for me. That magical feeling we had among the elves then seemed so fleeting. Yet I have to tell you that I have felt it again. Yes, I have met a girl. I'm not sure what our relationship is outside if the fact I am her commanding officer, but we have shared some moments that to me seemed magical, even if they too were fleeting. Her name is Rosmarin, and I have to say I haven't met anyone quite like her. I walk the thread from tree to tree with this, and do not want to ruin lives or cause any grief, but I cannot deny my gut. I hope to tell more the next time I write. May the Vala be watching over you, and you have a blessed life.
Love, your brother Hanasian
He set down his quill, let the inks dry, and carefully rolled the parchment before going out to join the others.
"Hey Cap! Good to see you come down to join us grunts!"
Khule called out, followed by agreeing murmurs and laughs.
"I had to come see if you were staying in line. Didn't have to worry about any serious arguments between you and Videgavia this night. Darian, good to see you settling in with our company banter."
He smiled and Rin smiled back. She got up and went to the bar, and Hanasian said,
"We hope the rest of the company arrives soon. Don't get too hammered, for we'll be having a company moot as soon as they get here. They will be tired."
He turned and started for the door, saying, "I'm going to head out and see if there has been any activity at the gates."
Most knew that Rin would join him, and surely, not long after he went out the door, she did also. A few coins exchanged hands, but it seemed the odds weren't running as high as earlier.
Outside, the cool breeze of the night felt good after the warm day. Rin came out the door to find Hanasian leaning against the post watching a dog walk down the other side of the street. He turned to her as the door closed, "Hello Rin. Would you like to accompany me on a walk to the South Gate? That will be where our company will be coming in, and I would rather meet them there."
"You know I would love to," she said as she took his hand and they set out. The walk was not quite a mile, and it seemed to be the shabbier side of town, but it was well worth the walk, for as they arrived at the guardhouse, the gatekeeper was just them letting in the company.
"Hail and well met!" Hanasian said to Videgavia, Frea, and Folca. The latter two, along with the other men, looked worse for wear from too many hard miles on the road.
"Ride through to the Prancing Pony and rest. We'll walk back, and buy the time we arrive you should be well into your first ale."
Greetings were quiet, and everyone who set out was there. But Hanasian noticed that Mecarnil watched Rin from the side of his eye. He only saw her by the flickering light of the gate torches. He was tired, hungry, thirsty and aching. It had been a long road. Still the sight of the woman's face had Mecarnil convinced that a ghost from twenty seven years ago had returned to haunt him. It was Verawyn, and though she had died to a Dunlending arrow in the southern reaches of that land, she stood as vibrant as ever beside Mecarnil's captain. The sight of her raised the hair on the back of his neck and forearms. His hand went of its own bidding to a well worn pouch he had carried since the unmitigated disaster brought on by Verawyn's proud and ambitious husband, Bereth. Through the leather, Mecarnil could feel the outline of vellum and a mithril ring. The ring was beautiful, shaped into Cardolan's rose with a sapphire at its heart. The feel of it steadied Menarnil and he gathered enough of his wits to flash Hanasian an urgent request.
A few finger movements told Hanasian that he was curious about the woman at his side. That would have to wait for a moment when the two could talk. Right now, Hanasian hoped to have a relaxing walk with Rin back to the inn.
Frea kicked his mount forward at Hanasian's instruction and Menarnil had to content himself to wait. What would a few more hours or days be when compared to twenty seven years, he mused. He turned once to study the woman again. The very image of Verawyn. Another name, this one belonging to an infant he had last seen as her mother carried her into a barn on a desperate night. Not a ghost, but rather Verawyn's daughter Erían, now the uncrowned queen Cardolan and owner of the items he had carried all these years.
"Yet more men," Rin mused as she watched them ride towards the Pony.
"That's all of them," Hanasian replied. This time, it was his hand that sought her own. He laced his fingers through hers and they fell into step on the walk back to the inn. Neither was in any hurry. Hanasian used the opportunity to query Rin on her own past. He trod lightly around the events that had forced her from her home and rather asked of what she recalled of her parents.
"Sensations rather than memories for the most part," she replied. A chill in the night made her shiver slightly. Hanasian's arm rose to wrap around her shoulders and pull her closer for warmth. It certainly made her warm. Her arm settled around his waist.
"Tell me of them, if you will," he prompted her. Rin looked up at him. The moon lit his face and played havoc with her heart once again. She had expected to see patience and tolerance. Instead, she saw genuine interest. That surprised her.
"I remember the sound of my mother's laughter… and songs. She liked to sing. My father told stories. It would make the nights warmer in winter. I remember how my father would smell after he came in from the harvest: earth and hay and of the sun. He was always chasing me out of the barn. I loved that place. So much to explore."
Rin fell silent again, caught in the recollections. Hanasian felt her rest her head against his shoulder a moment, thinking before she pressed on. The scent of her hair drifted past him.
"Sometimes I worry that I will lose even that. I have already forgotten their faces. I know they are simple things, these memories. Nothing glorious, no battles or Elves. But they are all I have, aside from Loch."
Hanasian could hear the wistful note in her voice. He stopped walking and turned to press a soft kiss to her forehead.
"You cannot lose what is part of you," he assured her, before he kissed her lips. She studied him by light of moon and then nodded. They resumed their slow walk towards the Prancing Pony, slowing inexorably as they neared their destination. Hanasian asked Rin next of her discovery of her healing skills. She unfolded the frightening experience she had as a nine year old girl with Loch during a particularly harsh winter in northern Rohan.
"I was convinced he was going to die. I have never seen him so ill. He was on his last legs. I don't how I knew, but I knew that he'd not survive the day if I did not do something. It…was as though a door I did not know was there opened. I was clumsy, but somehow we made it through. Once I taught myself how to read and write, I was able to learn the various techniques along the way. Loch gave me plenty of practical opportunities, as did those unable to afford to pay a healer. There are many such people, and Loch's adventurous reckless spirit provided well for a healer learning her trade."
The buzz of the inn was clearly discernible now.
"We're here," Hanasian observed. Rin thought it gone entirely too rapidly. She glanced up at him and found herself quickly whisked to the privacy afforded by the wall of the stables. The warmth that unfurled earlier in the day under dawn's embrace reignited.
While Hanasian and Rin made the most of available time, Mecarnil and his companions were soon at the Prancing Pony. They'd thrown down in whatever spare room was left, avoiding the dining room because as a general rule it was not a good idea to sleep where you ate. Loch was more than happy to bunk with his fellow soldiers. He was not so sure about his sister though. Khule elected to deposit her belongings and bedding in the only room left in the original wing of the inn: Hanasian's. That took all of five minutes and soon the reunited company settled in to catch up on the gossip.
"Who's the greenie," Frea asked, indicating Loch with a toss of his head.
"One of the new recruits. Scout, hunter" Khule replied, "And shaping up to be a passable swordsman."
Loch snorted at the damning faint praise of Khule's assessment.
"I'm better than my sister," he objected.
"Is that the woman we saw at the gate with the Cap?" Folca asked. Wulgof nodded confirmation.
"Aye, and the only reason you're better is that you've had a week's more practice," the Dunlending baited Loch with a provocative grin.
"A woman soldier…" Mecarnil observed, "But not unheard of."
"Healer… natural born, and don't let her catch you calling her a soldier," Videgavia clarified. Frea and Folca nodded their understanding. So this was the woman Videgavia had mentioned back at the Forsaken.
"How'd we pick up these two," Mecarnil asked. Wulgof was only too happy to outline the tale of the robbery at Tharbad and all that had unfolded since. He brought the tale to a speedy close as Hanasian and Rin walked into the common room. Both seemed… lively and once again, Hanasian had that familiar hand against her back, steering the woman through the tables and ensuring no reaching hands helped themselves on their way through.
"… and under no circumstances give her your knife," Wulgof finished. Rin opened her mouth to inquire further but Hanasian forestalled the inevitable argument by intervening first.
"Lodgings," he began.
"Arranged, cap… though we weren't sure what to do about Rin here," Khule advised, nodding his head politely in her direction. After his comment of a few days ago, he had been the very soul of decorum with respect to the company healer particularly whilst in the hearing of her brother.
"I can sleep anywhere really," Rin replied and Folca choked on his ale.
"I bet," Wulgof quipped. Rin's eyes dangerously narrowed, which produced and anticipatory chuckle from Molguv.
"This should be good," the Haradian announced, rubbing his hands together. Loch leant back to ensure he stayed out of the way of his sister's response.
"I see now why you wouldn't want to give her a knife," Frea observed.
"Appropriate arrangements will be made," Hanasian said, intervening for a second time. He steered the company to the private dining room and quickly had the recently returned members of the group brought up to speed on their new mission and deployment.
Mecarnil found his attention dragged to this new duty but soon returned his thoughts to the one that had been his nearly thirty years prior. Mecarnil watched carefully indeed for the remainder of the night. Verawyn's daughter, with her father's strong will moderated by her mother's temperance. Bereth had been a strong man, but not a likeable one. His daughter was every inch as stubborn as Bereth. However she lacked his proud and imperious inclination and she was certainly not as cold as her father had been. As it turned out, the suitable arrangements made it exceptionally difficult for Mecarnil to obtain private time with Hanasian. The lack of space resulted in Rin bunking in the captain's room, with the door open - mostly.
The tension was unbearable and it had been mounting throughout the day. Since dawn at Chetwood, through the day and even through the afternoon's training session. Rin was utterly uncertain what to do about it. Hanasian's earlier words echoed through her head. The right way, he had said. What did that really mean and how could she discover it without seeming like the utter fool she feared she was?
The more she had discovered of Hanasian, from the feel of his fingers on her skin, his mouth against her own, to what he had divulged of himself, she knew a bitter-sweet truth. She wanted more of him. But the more she discovered, the more she realised that their respective stations in life would prove an impediment. Was this what they meant by love? The thud of her pulse in her ears, that fluttering of her stomach. The sense of utter optimism and pervasive doom?
Rin had no idea what to do with herself. What was the right way? She put on a brave face. That she could do well. She kept herself to herself, never daring to cross any line in front of the others, Loch included. Hanasian's words stayed with her. 'We should return before we take leave of our senses,' had been his words. He had groaned them against her, as if struggling with himself. She confessed she felt a thrill at the very idea that she presented such a lure. But that was then, and now she wasn't sure quite what to do with herself.
It was past midnight and she could hear men moving about in the hall. Rin stood in the centre of the room: his room...the only one left. The right way... the right way was the cautious way, she could only conclude. Rin drew the curtains on the window that overlooked the now dark garden. Her bedding had been dropped off earlier. Rin spread the bedding on the floor beneath the window. She settled atop them, trying to steady her thoughts at the idea of sharing a room with Hanasian. No sense getting ahead of herself, she reasoned.
Rin stepped out of her tunic and pulled the fitted cream underdress over her head. It took her a while to free her hair from it. A log on the fire popped in the hearth. That innocuous sound startled her. She was so tightly wound. Rin laid the clothing out over the back of a chair. A shift was the only thing between her and the room. She shook her hair down her back and collected up a blanket to wind around her self against the chill of the night. Rin looked over her shoulder to the door as the sound of booted feet neared and the door opened.
She turned as Hanasian entered, a thin strap of her shift tumbling down a shoulder as she pulled the blanket tighter against her breasts. He closed the door swiftly behind him, leaned against it and studied her in intent silence. She returned his long gaze with her own blue depths as she tried to find something to say to break the heating tension. Hanasian swallowed deeply.
"I can sleep somewhere else," she said, eager to avoid doing the wrong thing. The right thing.
"Not like that," Hanasian said at length. There was no way he was sending the woman in his room out into the common room looking like that. Lamb to the slaughter, she would be. He managed to drag his attention away from how the blanket draped her curves and how the firelight lit her silhoutte to the bedding she had spread against the wall beneath the window.
The air crackled with tension barely banked from the dawn encounter. Hanasian took a deep breath and walked further into the room. He unhitched his cloak, throwing it over the other chair. Rin remained where she was. He could see she was thinking at a furious rate. She was studying him over one bared shoulder. When she realised he was looking at her, she turned away.
"This is intolerable," Hanasian said, taking another deep breath.
"I... I'll go..." she said, moving fast. She almost opened the door before he reached past her to close it. She turned, leaning against it herself now. So very close, he was. She closed her eyes.
"I am not made of stone, woman," Hanasian growled in her ear. She shivered, her lips grazing his cheek.
"Please stay..." he whispered, taking her hand and pulling her close. He knew that it would be hard to explain, but right now there was nobody else in the world. No brother, no company to command, nothing but this moment. Many years passed, and Hanasian let the days roll past him in the thought that there would be a day to have for themselves. But it wasn't so, and Simra was killed. Though much good came from the events that transpired from that, it left him with an empty hole that he had buried in the depths of all that he had been through, before then and since. But this time.
He drew her close and pressed into her, kissing her long and slow. A brush of his hand and she jumped and shuddered, pushing ever harder to him. Breaths exploded, and they entangled and bounced about in intensity that would have likely awakened a sleeping wight. Time lost in her, feeling so close and wanting it to never end.
But it was morning too soon. They were both silent as they arose and uncertain. Neither knew what to say or do. They dressed and exited the room one at a time, to a typical company breakfast at the Prancing Pony in Bree.
Rin walked down the hall towards the common room. She could hear the quiet buzz of men talking ahead. It sounded like just another morning, perhaps a few more men owing to the arrivals from the night before. Yet, it certainly was not just another morning. She was still awash with the night before and was uncertain what to make of the silence between them and this morning. What they had shared last night was… indescribable. Rin's memory flashed sensations at her that made it difficult to walk in a straight line. Hanasian had already left ahead of her. The very thought of him sent a flush of warmth surging through her.
She was steeled for some sort of comment, jibe, innuendo upon reaching the common room. She was relieved and surprised to find she encountered nothing of the sort. Conversation barely hitched. Hanasian sat up one end calmly pouring tea. He seemed preoccupied. His words from last night curled through her. Please stay, as if she needed to be asked. Did he now regret what they shared? Rin seated herself and reached for an apple.
"Busy mind," Loch said as soon as he glanced at her. Rin studied him around the apple. He really had no idea. Could it be none of them knew? Perhaps that was for the best if Hanasian now thought better of their night. Could she just forget it? Forget that? Sensation and memory thundered through her and she nearly forgot where she was instead. Not a chance.
"Never seen someone like apples so much," Molguv said. Rin's eyes flared open. He wasn't leering at her.
"We should get some more apples, Khule. Well fed pets are easier to manage," the Haradian said.
"What are you up to today," Berlas asked her from beside Khule.
"Training, I suppose, and I have some more materials to gather." By that, Rin meant that she needed to get away before she utterly embarrassed herself. The apple incident had been a close call.
"Like what?" Wulgof asked.
"Well, splints for one thing, and several plants that are readily available here. No need to pay an apothecary for what can be freely got," she replied. Wulgof nodded approval. Less money spent on provisioning meant more money for food and ale. Rin tried to discipline her thoughts through the remainder of breakfast. The problem was that she kept glancing to Hanasian and when their eyes met, sparks flew and scattered her thoughts anew. Rin ate breakfast quickly.
"So soon," Loch said as she stood. Rin nodded at him.
"Yes, the plants are best harvested before the day gets too long," she replied. That too wasn't a lie. She threw down the last of her tea and glanced at Hanasian. Then she was off, skin tingling and that warmth flowing through her… and down the inside of one leg! Rin's pace increased and her cheeks flushed. She needed certain plants anyway, but after last night she needed some in particular. The sun was well up this morning. She moved through trees, searching out kingsfoil and splints and bitterbark, especially the bitterbark if she was going to stop things really going pear shaped. They could get away with a night of passion, but it would be very difficult to hide a pregnancy.
Rin found a sun dappled clearing and started her search. Kingsfoil was everywhere and she soon had a healthy stock of the leaves to start drying. She wanted splints of a particular wood and she really, really needed that bitterbark. Rin's search became focussed on that. It took her a little deeper still before she found it. Relief bubbled out in the form of laughter. She needed a handful for last night. It was then the thought struck her.
"Will I need more or not?" she wondered aloud. If she was right, then Hanasian would not repeat what he considered an error of judgement and she would not need more bitterbark. But what if he didn't consider it a mistake? Rin sighed heavily.
"I do not believe the tree will answer you, no matter how long you stand there and wait," Hanasian observed. Rin stood in the sun, a pile of harvested athelas to one side and some sort of bark in one hand. She stared at him, clearly perplexed, and then looked at the bark. Damn but she wanted more of him. Her hand tightened around the bark she held.
"Perhaps you might, then," she said to him. "Will I need more of this or not?"
"What is it used for," he replied, crossing arms that had pulled her close over a chest she had run her fingers and lips over last night.
"Women who don't wish to fall pregnant," she replied, squaring her shoulders in such a way that pushed her breasts forward. "One handful is usually enough for one… encounter," she finished. Hanasian cocked his head to one side and walked closer. She could not tell if he was playing with her or not. She studied his eyes and then his mouth and then decided it was best to study the bark. Yes, the bark, not those lips or those quicksilver eyes.
"What do you want," he asked, closer now. His question made her breathing shallower. She wanted his skin against her own, now. She wanted to feel him moving against her, within her. She wanted to taste him. She wanted to explore him. She wanted to know the answer to her damn question.
"You," she blurted, eyes widening at her boldness.
Well, you should gather some more, just in case."
Hanasian said, not too sure he could restrain from taking Rin again. Still, he had to be careful, and he wanted his healer to remain focused. It would be a tough road ahead.
Rin's gaze lingered on Hanasian a long moment, tracing his face. Her tongue darted to moisten her lips, then she took a deep breath and turned back to her task. She gathered exactly what she had come for: athelas, bitterbark and suitable splints. It then, and only then, that they succumbed to the building heat. It was Rin this time, unable to stop herself from brushing by him as she reached for the last athelas.
This was slower, but no less intense, than the night before. They entwined beneath the sun and trees, exploring each other anew. This time, she cried his name out as they crested together. She lay atop him, panting, knowing that she was losing her heart to a Ranger with each beat of it. She felt his hands trace over her back and she quivered with the aftershocks.
They lay that way, dozing and revelling in each other until midday. Slowly, they gathered their clothing. It was flung carelessly about. Hanasian had to fetch Rin's tunic from a tree branch. Again, there was silence between them. That did not last. Rin combed out her hair and gathered herself. Hanasian collected the splints. She carried the bark and leaves in her tunic.
The walk back to Bree gave them time to think and they spoke quietly of how this must be managed. No promises were spoken, no vows made, but it was clear that something was growing between them with each moment, something that had sparked that first day in Tharbad's woods. Whatever it was, they agreed it was not to be flaunted and it was not to come before their respective duties. On that they were of one mind.
They continued with those duties as soon as they returned to Bree. The preparations associated with their deployment along with the training required of both recruits kept people busy. The final provisions, repairs, maintenance, weaponry and outfitting all occurred from dawn to dusk. Most free time, what little there was of it, saw Hanasian and Rin in each other's company and the bond between the two flourished as those around them had expected.
The woods, the inn late at night, even by the side of the stable in one heated flash of desperate passion. Though they made no promises, spoke no vows, each knew what was happening within them. By the time they departed Bree, Hanasian and Rosmarin were caught fast in love. What to do about it, however, was not so clear to either of them.
On the occasions Mecarnil managed to get Hanasian on his own, Mecarnil was only able to discover snippets of information regarding the backgrounds of their two newest recruits. He tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain details from Loch. The man proved highly intractable when it came to talking of his home. Rin, his supposed sister, seemed cautious of him. She was polite, but reserved in her answers.
Mecarnil was an observant, perceptive man and it was open knowledge that the relationship between his captain and their healer was deeper than a professional one. Nothing improper occurred and neither were negligent in their duties. It was simply there in how they were with each other. Mecarnil was reasonably certain that somehow, beyond all odds, his captain had at last located the uncrowned queen of Cardolan and recruited her. How he was going to tell his captain that he was courting a queen was a matter Mecarnil had yet to resolve.
Blades sharpened, supplies stored, attire repaired and new aquired, meat smoked and wrapped, fruit dried and wrapped, fresh fruit stored away. They were putting a burden on the local supply and prices showed that. Still the men and halflings that ran businesses there appreciated the commerce. Khule and Molgov seemed to have some venture they were planning on, trying to profit on the locals, but usually it turned out it backfired. They thought the Bree Hill dark was a fine drop, but they would be sorry to discover the keg they stowed away would bring less in Hobbiton than what they were charged for it. Hanasian removed it and gave it to some hobbit hands that helped them, and used the space to stow more dried meat. They would thank him soon enough.
It wasn't until the night before they were to leave Bree that they again sat and celebrated some, having prepared as best as they could for their months ahead. The brother messengers got a bit more comfortable with the company, and the other company members bought them both several hop-strong ales to try and squeeze any further news from them. All they gleaned was bits about the goings on in Minas Tirith, some King's palace gossip that was likely mostly half-truths, and the complete description of a certain woman bar maid at the White Tree Inn just inside the gates of Minas Tirith. It seemed the two brothers both fancied her at different times, and and hinted that they may have shared her on more than one occasion. This of course got the attention of Wulgof, Mulgov, and Khule. Frea & Folca chuckled but remained silent, eyeing each other with a knowing glance of something similar taking place at the Meduseld Mead Hall. They knew to keep their mouths shut with this crowd though. The King's messengers did not. Loch grinned and chuckled to fit in, but was puzzling out what it all meant.
he evening grew late, and Hanasian finally banged a tankard on the table to get everyone quiet.
"Ok men... and lady. If you got em, smoke em. Its come to my attention that some of you from the south and east have discovered the joys of the local ale and smoking pipeweed. You have also taken up much space with kegs of the stuff. I suggest you smoke some of the good stuff, and get rid of the average stuff. We'll be getting a good supply from the Halflings to carry us through into our journey to the south. Word has gotten out there in the Shire that we were coming so some are looking to supply us. Their pipeweed, and beer, is leagues better than what you get here in Bree, so I myself will be stocking up there.
"Now, we have some business to tend to that has gone unaddressed since our arrival in Bree. With our losses in Tharbad, it has come to my attention that we have no stendardbearer. Both our standardbearer and his 2nd fell. Videgavia took it from Tharbad, and agreed to take it on, but I need a volunteer to be his second...."
"I'll do it."
Loch called out. Obviously nobody had told him about volunteering. Hanasian hesitated and looked at him. He finally said,
"Good Loch. Now the rest of you know we have a couple new folk with us, and it seems Loch is eager to move up in the ranks. However, I will have to consider this request at this time. Is there anybody who has any objection to me assigning Loch this task?"
Nobody said a word, and Loch looked around, confused at being proud to have put his hand up, and wondering what it is he stepped into. It was Wulgof that spoke up...
"I object. He's our new recruit. Weeks. Now I like the kid, but if he gets assigned, then who will be taking care of our animals and all. I think Berlas would be more in line for it."
"Or maybe you Wulgof. Thanks for volunteering. The kid will be your understudy, and should you or Videgavia bite it, he'll have the position."
He looked around and saw no further objections. Wulgof realized he stepped into it by opening his mouth, and accepted his lot as second bearer. Loch was still unsure of what just happened.
"Now, drink up and hit the hay. Tomorrow we're on the road early. I want to make the Barrows the first day, Well be camping on the brass south of the road. Mecarnil knows the lands quite well there."
A nod was all that could be seen from Mercarnil. They all quietly took to finishing up the fine dinner and drink before heading to their respective quarters. It was shortly after dawn on the fourth day in Bree that Rin pulled open the door of the room she had shared with Hanasian.
"Is this right," she asked the Ranger outside. Hanasian studied her a moment and considered his options. She wore the company uniform, black leathers, emblem, cloak and boots, but she certainly didn't look like any of the men.
"I think so," he replied after a long pause. "Ready?"
Rin turned to collect her kit. She slung it over her right shoulder, sword already hung at her left hip and nodded.
"Giddy up," she dryly replied to the man that now had a thorough grasp on her heart, whether he knew it or not. Evidently he did, for he stepped forward and kissed her soundly. It broke the tension and brought a genuine smile that lit her eyes. Anis had prepared a breakfast that they could eat in the saddle and that is what they would do. In the early morning, the Company of Arnor rode out of Bree for the Grey Havens to deploy to Harad. Mecarnil positioned himself carefully. He'd lost Erían once before. He was not about to do so again.
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.