60. Chapter 60
Loch sat at a large desk and fumbled with paper. He wasn't the best reader or writer, yet this task he had been given seemed to mostly entail with dealing with the grievances of those who had something against their former lord. Voromir did not cut a sympathetic figure. Loch did what he could to settle things fairly and so far there had been few significant issues to place in a report of some variety. But, then, there was the local commander he had met here. The man was a regular in Gondor's army and had been high in Voromir's favour. Loch could not get past the sense that he remained an outsider here, even with the men that had once reported to Rowdy. Rowdy's allegiance to his sister had been unswerving, but Loch was not nearly so confident in this commander.
It would be some time before men he could trust arrived for they were coming on foot. Months, he thought, at an outside guess. He knew they wouldn't really fit in with the locals and would become his de-facto personal guards when they arrived. That suited him well for the Easterlings were some of the best men he had served with. Still, he needed someone he could trust here and now until they arrived. He had spoken with the sergeant about this, and requested someone he trusted to come work for him that was not involved with Voromir in the past and the sergeant had agreed to look into it for him. Noone had been produced. It probably needed to all go in a report. But who to send it to? His sister? His Captian? What about the King? And how would he get it there, reliably and unaltered? Loch scowled at the papers before him when no answers emerged and decided he needed some air.
Counting on the fact that there'd be no one wanting his ear about some ill Voromir had done to them waiting out the back, Loch slipped out the rear of the manse and found himself almost immediately accosted by a young soldier. He was younger than himself, even, and Loch had never seen him before.
"What is your name, soldier?"
The guard swallowed, "Dorne"
"Who is your commanding officer?"
The guard hesitated before offering up a name.
Loch nodded to himself, "You didn't know his name?"
"I am new here. Recently assigned," Dorne replied.
Loch persisted with his questions, "Have you reported yet?"
Dorne replied nervously, "No sir… just to the Sergeant. He said I needed to take this watch so I came immediately here."
Loch ran his fingers through his hair. Rowdy had spoken highly of the sergeant. By Loch's estimation the man was quite old for soldiering now, but it would not have been that way always. Like as not the man had signed on during the War. He was of that vintage. Loch eyed the young soldier before him. Perhaps the sergeant had been doing as he had said he would. Perhaps he didn't need to worry about the sergeant… which meant no report,
"I see," Loch said, turning his thoughts back to the younger man in front of him, "From which unit have you come from, and who did you replace?"
Dorne was clearly unsettled by so many question, yet he swallowed thickly and answered, "I'm from Minas Tirith. My uncle is commander in the City Guard. I was sent here to gain some field experience. I don't know who I replaced."
Loch squinted at him a moment, "Remove your helmet."
Dorne hesitated, "Sir? I'm on guard…"
"Just do as I say. Even the local commander has to report to me whether he thinks of the matter." Loch replied, under no illusions that the commander would have removed him already had the man not been loyal to a certain High King. Perhaps his reports should go to Aragorn, now that he thought on it. Dorne removed his helmet an revealed sandy brown hair, matted with sweat.
Loch nodded, "You look like Videgavia… well, as a child, if he ever was one."
"Sir? Who is Videgavia?"
Loch grinned at Dorne, "Oh he was my… is my… never mind, I'm not sure myself anymore. How old are you?"
"Twenty as of last month."
Loch nodded slightly, "Well, I think I've just seen the face of my new, lone aft guard. Now, about your assignment here. Field experience here? Not sure I like the sound of that, unless they mean 'outside of Minas Tirith' experience. You are probably being groomed to be in the Palace Guard."
Dorne shuffled uncomfortably, "I doubt it, Sir."
Loch scratched his beard. There is more to Dorne's recent assignment to here, judging by the tone of that statement and the look on his face. He would have to talk with this man further but right of this moment there were other things that needed to be understood between this Dorne and himself.
"No telling what the future holds. Take today, for example. You arrived here and were posted to my back door. I needed some air so I come out here. Because we had this talk and now you have new orders."
Loch directed his gaze right into Dorne's dark eyes, just the way Hanasian and Videgavia did when they wanted to drive a point home. Or his sister, though when she did it the results could be a little unpredictable. Some sweated, some fidgeted, some legged it and some seemed to become unsteady on their feet. Except for Rowdy. Rowdy was the only one Loch had ever seen unaffected by his sister's direct gaze. He missed the man sorely.
"Orders, sir?" Dorne asked, "I'm on gua-
"Not any more. Instead of reporting directly to your local commander, you'll report to me. I need eyes and ears close to me that are not bought and paid for by Voromir. I'll give you your amended orders when you are relieved of duty. It will have a promotion written in.
"You'll take them to the sergeant, not your former commander. He will sort it out from there. You'll find the sergeant in my office when you've been relieved from your post here. Now, put that helm back where it belongs. You're on guard duty."
Loch reached out and pumped his hand vigorously. Dorne replaced his helm and Loch slapped the man on his shoulder.
"As for your uncle's wish for your field experience, I'll see to it that you get it. You should be relieved around about dinner time. Report to me after the Sergeant for dinner. You'll be our guest tonight. No sense waiting about, eh?"
Loch disappeared back into the house, Dorne standing a touch taller than before. He wasn't sure what had just happened and his smile revealed his lingering confusion. Perhaps things would be clearer after dinner.
In his place before his desk once more, Loch set himself to testing out his writing skills. He was glad then to have studied what he did from the more experienced Company hands. He had orders to write up for Dorne.
'Hereby upon assignment to Sergeant Algor's command, it was recommended by Sergeant Algor that I take Dorne of Minas Tirith as my adjutant, reporting directly to me. The rank of corporal will accompany this appointment, with its pay grade. Signed Lochared, in the name of Lady Rosmarin, Lady of Cardolan and her liege–lord, High King Elessar of the United Realm'
He rolled it and then sealed it with some satisfaction. One problem dealt with, he poured himself some water. So far the day has proven interesting.
Dorne was relieved an hour before dinner and went immediately to report to the sergeant. Why the sergeant would be in Lochared's office was a little confusing until Dorne arrived and found them both there. He stood at attention as both men stood.
"The sergeant has recommended that you serve as my adjutant," Loch said without preamble, [I]"I had asked him for a suitable candidate some time ago."
Loch held up a scroll with the sergeant's army seal on it and handed it to Dorne. He then held up another with the King's seal on it and handed it also to Dorne, "And this is my approval. Also, the sergeant and I agreed that the rank of corporal will accompany such appointment, effective immediately.
"Your belongings have been placed in the room at the foot of the stairs. Go clean yourself up and make yourself presentable for dinner."
Dorne gave a salute that would make his uncle proud and was off.
"Many thanks, sergeant. You're welcome to join us, of course."
"My thanks, but no. Perhaps another time. I'm due to dine with the commander. After today, he'll need some careful managing."
Sergeant Algor gave Loch a hurried salute and departed with his copies of Dorne's papers.
Rose had the small table set for three in a side room off the main dining room. Dorne arrived promptly on time in his dress uniform and found the dining room deserted. There was no one there. Had he made a mistake or was there another dining room. It was a large manse. Just as he was considering leaving, Rose stepped into the room. She wore a flowing gown, a warm caramel colour and she curtsied to him.
"Welcome to our table, Dorne of Minas Tirith!"
Dorne was stunned for a brief moment by her exotic beauty. She was quite unlike any woman he had ever seen before, and he had seen women from Harad on the streets of Minas Tirith from time to time. Still, it didn't show as he bowed in return.
"M'lady. I am honoured to dine with you and my commander this evening."
Loch wandered in casually, hands thrust into his pockets and looking pleased with himself, "Welcome Dorne. I see you've already met my wife, Rose, the love of my life."
Rose smiled indulgently and kissed Loch on the cheek as he strolled past. They sat down at the table and the evening meal was served shortly thereafter.
Loch asked, "Do you have anyone waiting for you back in Minas Tirith, love Dorne?"
Dorne sighed as he looked down at his plate, "I do and she loves me in return. But her father sees things differently."
"I would think being a young soldier would impress many a daughter's father."
"It was not because of what I was, but who I was. Too much of the North in my blood," Dorne answered, pushing peas around his plate.
Loch frowned, "Didn't Gondor set to killing each other over that very same thing many many years ago? Kin-strife I think they called it?"
"Aye. You know your history well," Dorne said.
Loch replied, "The Dunedain really need to grow up both north and south. It's been a source of trouble for up there too. In any case, you will do your girl proud here and then you'll return and be appointed to the Palace Guard…"
"No, that is not likely to happen. Her father is a lieutenant commander of the Palace Guard, in temporary command while the commander is with the King in the north. He wanted to send me to the frontier, but it was only my uncle's intervention that got me sent here instead," Dorne answered glumly.
Loch glanced at Rose and his wife nodded at him before she said, "So it was fate that brought you here, no?"
"And it was fate that put you on guard duty upon arriving, and sarge being where he was to order it, and so on," Loch said between mouthfuls, waving his fork for emphasis in a way that seemed to irritate his wife and his sister both. Rose frowned at the waving silverware and Dorne finally resumed eating his meal before she continued on smoothly.
"Serve my husband well and he will look out for you in turn. He cares for his people. I should know."
They fell to silence at that and continued to eat in that fashion until one of the guards ventured into the dining room.
"Pardon my disruption, Sir, but there's a woman here who insists on speaking to the lady of the house. She says it is important."
"What? Now? Can't it wait until morning?" Loch replied.
The guard shook his head, "She refused to leave to return tomorrow. She insists it is important and she insists that she must speak with the Lady Rose."
Rose smiled at Loch as she stood, "I am finished eating anyway. I will see what this important matter is."
"I didn't agree to be Rin's Steward for a day filled with writer's cramp and nights with interrupted meals," Loch grumbled but he stood anyway, as did Dorne, as Rose departed.
"Does this happen often?" Dorne asked once the men were seated again.
Loch said, "More often than I care for. Anyway, Dorne, being that I gave you the job as my adjutant, I forgot to ask, can you write?"
"Of course sir," Dorne answered.
"Good," Loch stated happily, "I'm not very good at it. Never really saw the point of it in the rocks of Dunland, for all of my sister's efforts. I've come to realise that perhaps she may have been right, but I've only recently started to make any effort at it and in the field, at that. So I'll have you do much of my writing, and maybe I'll work on bettering my own under your direction. But first things first. Write that girl of yours!"
"I have no place to send it to without her father knowing," Dorne said.
Loch lifted his brows at him, "Surely you have some place, a mutual friend, or such you could send it to?"
Dorne shook his head, saying, "I was ordered out the day after we were caught together."
"I see…I'll not ask the details. All the same, write her, even if you keep them and give them all to her when you do see her again," Loch told him and tapped his nose,"It's what all the Company men do when they're in the field. The ones that can write…and have someone to write too. Part of the field experience."
Dorne smiled slightly and said, "I will sir. Thank you sir."
They quietly finished the last few scraps on their plates and drank down their water.
When Rose returned, she said, "I think you, Lochared, will need to hear what this woman named Katela has to say."
Loch sighed, "Dorne, you may want to come too. You can see what this job is all about."
The three walked into the small room by the door where visitors calling on the Steward were seated. There sat a lean woman with auburn hair peppered with grey. Her face was fair and while the years had overtaken it one could still see the beauty of her youth showing through. She wore a dress that once had been quite fine, as far as Loch could tell of such matters. It still fitted her well but it was worn and stained in places and the hem was frayed, as if she had travelled far in it. Rose sat next to her as she seemed frightened by Loch and Dorne.
Loch leaned to Dorne and whispered, "Observe, take notes in your head. Write it all down later."
Meanwhile Rose looked to the woman and nodded encouragingly, "Please tell my husband what you told me."
She shuddered and finally said, "Please, I come to you because I heard you are representative of the King in charge of all that Voromir had."
Well, strictly speaking his sister was, but now was not the time to split hairs so Loch said, "Yes, go on."
Katela then said, "Voromir had taken my daughter, my only child."
"She was abducted?" Loch asked.
"No…" Katela said followed by, "Well yes, sort of."
"What's that mean? Was your daughter abducted or not?"
Katela swallowed hard, "Voromir stoler her away with his ideas. I warned her about him, but she wouldn't listen!"
Loch sighed and stood, "Look, seems to me that you're saying your daughter wandered off chasing after an idea. Happens all the time. She'll be home one day, unless the idea is a really stupid one."
"No, that is my gut feeling. She won't be back. That is why I have come to you. Will you not search for her?"
This sounded like nothing he should really have any involvement in. He was a Steward, not a marshal. However, one glance at Rose told him that he was involved whether he wanted to be or not.
"Very well, this is what I will do. Clearly you've come a long way with very little. Tonight you will lodge for us, plenty of room. We'll talk more of this in the morning, after you've rested. My adjutant Dorne will get a detailed description of her from you then and we'll ask around to see if she has been observed hereabouts. That is the best I can offer right now."
"Thank you kind sir… thank you,"[/I] Katela said, rising to take Loch's hand and kiss it.
As Loch's cheeks flamed, his wife said, "I will see Katela settled in tonight."
Loch nodded as he extricated his hand and strode out with Dorne on his heels.
Loch said to him, "A lost daughter is a new one. Pretty sure we would have found a daughter by now if she were here. Still, my wife seems to have taken interest in this one. Try and get as much detail as you can tomorrow. I have a feeling we've a long day ahead of us."
The next day Dorne was up early and Katela obliged him with a most vivid description. He was bent over his paper, sketching with charcoal when Loch arrived for breakfast.
"Good Morning Mistress Katela. I take it you slept well?"
Katela looked up and Loch could see she must have been quite lovely in her younger days. She had cleaned up well and a decent bed had thrown off the heavy weariness of the night before to some degree. Loch studied Dorne's work from over his shoulder.
"I see you have been giving my adjutant details?"
"Yes" she said, brushing her long hair back over her shoulder so it wasn't hiding her face. Loch studied the sketch taking shape intently.
"I should have asked this last night. What is your daughter's name?" Loch asked and Katela pushed back sudden tears.
"I named her Ciara, but she went by the name of Karlina."
Loch tried not to show any emotion. He nodded and looked again at the sketch.
He said, "I think we have enough to go on, but if you wish to give any other details to Dorne here, please do so. Your dress is being laundered and tailored, and should be ready for you by this evening. I hope it will not be too burdensome to guest with us another night?"
Katela murmurmed that it wasn't, distracted by the need to make small adjustments to the sketch of her daughter. Loch strode away then, went up to his office and closed the door behind him. He leant against it and stared at the opposite wall before he uttered one word. Translated loosely from Dunlendic, it meant rancid crushed goat oysters.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"But your sister-"
"Rosmarin, I beg of you. Please, please, just let it be. Please!"
She stared into her husband's face and wondered just what she was supposed to say to that. His imploring, solemn grey eyes gazed deep into her own.
"It isn't right," Rin said softly, brow furrowed, and Hanasian gathered her hands between his own.
"For my sake, can you please leave this alone. Let tonight pass peacefully," Hanasian persisted.
"I don't set out to cause trouble," Rin muttered and, when Hanasian hesitated, she stridently objected, "I don't! I didn't want any of this! I didn't want to come here! I never wanted any of this!"
She jerked her hands from Hanasian's and pulled away, agitated now. Her decision, years ago now, was to let sleeping dogs lie. To leave her birthright untouched and lost. Instead, she listened to others and now...now she had responsibilities she barely understood and she was to just ignore them?
"Nothing you can say or do will assist Halcwyn now. In fact, whether you intend to or not, you could very easily make Halcwyn's lot even worse."
"If I'm such a liability, then why not place me under house arrest also?"
Tempting as that offer was, Hanasian decided to let it pass by. His decision proved wise. She could be reckless when it concerned her personal safety, and insanely stubborn when she thought she was being pushed in a direction she did not want to go, but mostly she was perceptive and clever and had a good heart that had endured far too much sorrow to be foolish.
Rin paced restlessly, mind leaping down several paths at once. In all likelihood, she thought, Hanasian was correct. She well knew that diplomacy was not her sharpest tool. Offending a foreign monarch was not a constructive way to secure Halcwyn's release. Even if she was correct about a point of law, Eomer may not be able to release Eowyn to her given the circumstances of the case. Moreover, Halcwyn may not wish to be released. Everything Hanasian had relayed to her suggested that his sister was tormented by guilt. Rin had her own firm opinion about Karlina.
Karlina was party to treason, murder and abduction. She had escaped lawful custody following arrest. Any idiot knew that if you escaped lawful custody, you'd best not get caught again, especially by a relative of someone you had wronged. And, if you were such an amateur in these matters, you had no business getting involved in treason, murder and abductions in the first place. Karlina had elected to become tangled up in something that was far more than she could manage and the inherent and obvious risks entailed had gotten the better of her. In Rin's opinion, it was no one's fault but Karlina's.
Still, Rin knew what it was to feel accountable for another's death. A healer soon discovered that it was simply impossible to fend death off all the time.In the early years she had carried each instance with her, millstones around her neck that had almost broken her. The children were the worst. She still carried their faces with her to this day. She dreamt of them. Rin knew that Halcwyn would be suffering greatly. The last thing she wanted to do was make her sister's road harder than it already was. Sometimes, the best thing a healer could do was nothing at all.
"I will be on my best behaviour," Rin finally said.
"No arguments, no attempts to intercede, no…trouble?"
"I'll not make any and if any is given then…I will let it pass. Is that what you want to hear?"
"Only if it is the truth," Hanasian replied cautiously and Rin nodded.
"Then consider me a relieved husband."
True to her word, Rin did everything she could to ensure the evening passed smoothly. Those around her did not take their eyes off her for a moment all the same. The contest was judged, the winner declared, all celebrated. Not a single word or action out of place. Not even when a cartel of merchants cornered her and tried to move in on her venture concerning the sourcing and importation of cinnamon from Harad. That finely balanced, complex arrangement had taken her over a year to assemble and it simply had to succeed. She had plans for the resultant profit that involved several related projects around Cardolan and a good portion of the annual payroll for the Company, not to mention the requirements of a growing number of Rangers, depended on it. The way things had been shaping up prior to setting out, it had become increasingly apparent that they'd need to retain a blacksmith just for the equipment of the Rangers and Company. Blacksmiths were expensive!
As they walked back to their rooms later Hanasian leaned in and said with considerable feeling, "Thank you!"
Somehow, it seemed wrong to pat his hand and tell him that he was welcome. Rin glanced over at Farbarad. The Ranger had been distant and quiet all night. She'd barely seen him during the evening.
"I'd like to see Halcwyn tomorrow. Do you think that would be possible?" Rin inquired of Hanasian.
"I imagine so, provided you honour the agreement you gave to Eomer tonight," he said and saw a shadow flicker across his wife's expression.
"I'm not sure it is a good idea," she admitted.
"Rin," Hanasian wearily began but Farbarad interjected.
"It's a very good idea and you will do it. I'll see to it myself."
"Oh? And just how do you think you'll accomplish that?" Rin threw back, disgruntled.
"I really do not have a preference. You can call upon Eomer at the appointed hour to discuss Treagon of your own volition or I can drop you in his office trussed up like a feastday boar. Apple in your mouth if one is to hand."
Rin's eyes widened at him and Farbarad growled, "Don't you look at me like that, girl. Not after the stunts you've pulled of late."
Rin spent the rest of night wondering just how deep the hole she suspected she was in really was. Her ruminations kept her awake into the early hours and would have continued to do so had Hanasian not sternly demanded that she sleep.
Rin woke to the soft morning light in an otherwise empty room. An open window let a breeze in to brush against her cheek, still cool. She studied the ceiling and reviewed plans for the day ahead. Interview with Eomer, unwise as that was, then Halcwyn and then she had bridges to rebuild with Farbarad, Hanasian and who knew how many other people. She craved time with her children badly. Dim recall suggested that Hanavia had climbed into bed with them earlier that morning but that was not nearly enough. She unfolded herself from the bed and set about preparing for the day.
A short while later Rin her son in the parlour with his father and Farbarad. The men had fashioned an obstacle course from chairs and Hanavia was chasing a small ball through them while the men quietly spoke with each other. Both men glanced up as she walked in, the discussion fell off, and Hanavia abandoned his game entirely to fling himself at his mother, chattering rapidly about far too many things at once to keep track off.
"You managed to sleep?" Hanasian inquired and she nodded, "Are you hungry?"
"A little," she admitted because to say that she wasn't was as good as picking an argument and today things were going to be different.
"A little will do, for a start. Come," Hanasian replied.
"Where is Elian?" Rin asked as she was beckoned to a table and one of the few chairs not pulled out.
"Sleeping," he replied and set a small cob of fresh bread before her.
He added a wedge of bright yellow, sharp cheese, an apple and a strange fruit that looked like an orange but was an odd shape. She frowned at it.
"It's a mandarin," he told her, "They grow in Rhun. You'll like it."
He selected a cup and poured fragrant, steaming tea into it. That was pushed in front of her as well.
"Every. Last. Morsel," was her firm instruction followed by, "You'll need it."
"Why? It's just an interview. It's just talking."
He returned to his seat by Farbarad and left her to it. Puzzled, Rin tore the bread into smaller morsels while Hanavia leaned against her leg. She passed him some of the bread and then some cheese.
"Hanavia has already had his breakfast," Hanasian observed.
"He's a growing boy. A little more won't hurt him," she replied as she passed a segment of the strange fruit to her son.
"It's not him I'm concerned about. Hanavia, leave Amme to her breakfast for a change and come over here," Hanasian sternly said.
Mother and son exchanged a soulful glance and then Rin nodded. It would not do to encourage the boy to disobey his father. Hanavia scampered towards his ball, sat himself on the floor, and proceeded to make a surprisingly large mess with a relatively small piece of sticky fruit. Once Hanasian was satisfied that Rin was actually eating her breakfast herself, his quiet discussion with Farbarad resumed.
"You really mean to go through with it?" Farbarad asked.
"Yes. For everyone's sake, including her own. It's for the best."
"Are you sure we can trust him?"
Hanasian considered Farbarad a moment, "Just what else, I imagine, would you have him do to prove himself? He satisfied Massuil's requirements and training. He satisfied our own and he's better than Khule."
Farbarad grunted at that and said, "It just seems a little…extreme."
"Desperate times," Hanasian replied and then, "And did you not offer to truss her up like a boar, complete with an apple."
"I was tired. But I meant it then and I still do now!"
What Rin very much wanted to know was what they were whispering about on the far side of the parlour. Every time she glanced at them, Hanasian fixed her with such a look that she had no choice but to turn back to breakfast. As soon as she had washed the strange mandarin thing down with the last of her tea did Hanasian pounce.
"I'd like you to accompany me, Rosmarin," he said.
"Now?" Rin inquired, "Where?"
"Sooner we start, sooner you'll find out. On your feet."
She looked at him levelly. He was already standing.
"I think I've had enough surprises," she said dryly, "In fact, I'm confident that we all have."
"Now, Rosmarin," he told her and started out of the room.
Something was different, she thought. Hanasian seemed as brusque and businesslike as the day they first met. Rin looked over to Farbarad, still seated on the other side of the room. The Ranger shrugged at her, absolutely no help whatsoever.
From out in the hall, Hanasian called, "I am waiting."
Rin got to her feet reluctantly, muttering in Dunlendic, and ventured out into the hall.
"Where are we going?" she demanded.
"You'll see," he answered and was off at such a rate that she had to trot to keep up with him.
While Rin was keen to try to turn things around, Hanasian was clearly in what she would term 'a mood'. That meant she'd get precisely nowhere, not even if she spun gold from straw. It was entirely unfair to her mind. She'd done as he had asked last night and today she was going to be voluntarily interrogated by a foreign monarch regarding an assassin's activity in Edoras. Hardly pleasant and yet she was going to go through with it. She'd even eaten breakfast! He led her out the front of Meduseld and down the wide stone steps. The festival was still in motion in Edoras but he did not lead her there. Instead, and at an unreasonably brisk rate, Hanasian led her onto a track that snaked around the base of the great hall and away from the main thoroughfare. Eventually they reached an empty training ground.
It was formed from packed earth that had been covered with sawdust. The dark loamy soil of the area peeked through in patches where the sawdust had been disturbed and not yet raked over. Rin scanned the surrounds for onlookers. Rangers, for instance, had a knack for lurking. The only Ranger she saw, however, was her husband. Hanasian had climbed through the wooden fence that ringed the area and was walking towards his sword. Hers lay next to it. Rin blinked in momentary confusion. She didn't remember packing her sword. He stooped to collect both swords and turned to face her. Rin remained on the outside, arms obstinately crossed against her chest.
Hanasian held her sword out to her, "We haven't all day. You have an appointment you can not be late for."
Rin remained where she was and looked him up and down, "I know how to make this really fast."
As she turned to leave Hanasian called, "You haven't trained properly for over a year now."
"And whose fault is that?" she called back irritably, "Our children did not magically appear under a tree one fine morning!"
Muttering and scowling openly now, Rin turned back to face him, "WHAT?!"
"Can't you…humour me?"
Right at that moment of all the things she was thinking of doing to him, humouring him was not on the list. She planted her fists on her hips.
"Things have to be different," he started and waved her sword at her again.
"They are different. We retired," she returned.
"This can and will save your life."
"We have Rangers now," she pointed out.
"We had Rangers a few days ago. You were determined to do without them."
"And I survived."
"You cannot have it both ways. If you will not accept the protection of those around you, if you insist on placing yourself in harm's way, then the very least you can do is ensure you have the necessary skills to survive. If not for yourself, then for your son and daughter…and me. "
Rin heaved a heavy sigh. She'd survived forty years without a sword. She'd only picked one up because she had signed on as healer to a military company and it went with the job. But she was not Black Company healer any longer.
"Fine…I'll humour you, just this once," she promised ominously.
Rin slid between the rails of the fence and stalked towards Hanasian to to take her sword from him. She gave the weapon an experimental swish through the air. Hanasian could tell from the way she held it that it felt unfamiliar and awkward to her.
"You might want to tuck your skirts up," he suggested and Rin directed a sizzling scowl at him.
"You might want to look after yourself," she snapped back.
Hanasian shrugged, "When you're ready, then."
Oh, Rin thought, she'd show him ready and a good many other things besides. At least, that was her plan. While things had not gone quite so smoothly as she had hoped, Rin thought she had given a good account of herself all the same. He didn't disarm her or leave her sprawled on the ground. She was breathing a little hard, but sparring in a skirt was not easy. Hanasian stepped back from her, lowered his sword and turned toward the fence.
"Well?" he called and, to Rin's vast annoyance, she realised that another Ranger had materialised.
The man crossed the grounds with a smooth, rolling gait and a smug grin in place. Caeros! Rin's eyes narrowed.
"I thought you said she had been trained," he said to Hanasian and Rin's jaw dropped. What was this?
"She has. Nearly two years of active campaign service under her belt."
"As a healer," Caeros dismissed and, to make matters worse, Hanasian nodded!
"Aye, that is true in the main. While fought one battle, mostly our campaigns were of the running kind: surveillance, extractions, skirmishes, ambushes and attacks. I kept her away from point, for obvious reasons, as much as possible," he agreed.
What obvious reasons, she wondered. Rin could feel her anger build heat but neither man appeared to notice. They spoke as though she was not even there.
Caeros declared, "Her form is atrocious. Her footwork is better. By a slender margin. She fights on instinct and emotion alone: unacceptable. Still, for all of that, she has learnt how you fight and selects her blocks and attacks, using those terms loosely, accordingly. That, at least, demonstrates some capacity to think tactically if not strategically."
"You'll work with her, then?"
"WHAT!" Rin exclaimed.
"I'll try, Caeros said, "Though I can't promise anything."
"I understand," Hanasian replied as if Rin had not said a word.
Hanasian rubbed his chin as he considered Caeros' question, "Come to think of it, no. Not a one. You'll have a free hand to do whatever is necessary."
"I AM NOT-" Rin started but Caeros continued on as if neither man could hear her.
"Then we will see what we will see," Caeros replied and Hanasian nodded amicably.
Then, just like that, Hanasian walked away, assiduously avoiding looking at his wife expression. There was no telling what she might do if she caught him smirking. Rin glared after her husband, as furious as she was apparently impotent.
"Is that one of Celebrimbor's," Caeros asked and Rin's head whipped about. She bared her teeth at him but this did not seem to bother him at all. He shook his head, as if disappointed.
"To carry a sword such as that and yet never have studied its proper use…"
"I know how to use it," Rin growled.
"Indeed? Well show me my error, my Lady. I await your instruction."
He started it. That's what she was going say when it was all over. Then, she'd find that husband of hers. Shortly after such thoughts Rin lost track of what happened next. She tried to recall as she peered up at the sky through blurry eyes. At least, she consoled herself, she hadn't been disarmed. Rin wriggled her fingers around the hilt of her sword to reassure herself and found that they grasped nothing but empty air. A groan wheezed from her at this final humiliation. The too bright sky darkened as Caeros peered down at her from a great height. It was at that point Rin decided that she rather loathed his smile and detested nearly everything else about this Ranger.
Her ears were ringing and it made his voice seem very far away, "I see we need to start at the very beginning. I don't think you're even ready for practice sticks. Tonight, and I mean tonight, you will begin your study. I will obtain the appropriate volumes to get you started, my lady. The king maintains an excellent selection."
Books about swords? Who was this idiot, she thought. Caeros bent to collect her sword and returned it to its hilt.
"I'll be keeping this too," he declared, "Until it is safe to hand it back to you."
Rin's jaw swung has strode off with her sword without so much as a backward's glance. That Ranger had just stolen her sword. From her!
The first thing Rin did upon her return is report the theft of her sword. Hanasian nodded slowly and Farbarad grinned.
"Think I'll buy him a drink," the Wolf said and then to Rin, "You'd better make yourself presentable. You can't be interviewed looking like you've been dragged through a briar patch."
Farbarad selected up an apple from the bowl and slowly turned it about, studying it, to emphasise his earlier point. It was not the response Rin had been hoping for. She stomped off to prepare herself for her interview with Eomer. As soon as that was done, and it was done quickly and candidly to Eomer's great surprise, she set off for the hall that the Company and the Rangers had been provided the use of whilst in Edoras. It wasn't particularly difficult to get into but it wasn't unoccupied either. She had no choice but to tell the Dirty Three what she was there to do. In turn, they outright refused to help her paw through the Ranger's gear.
She had no choice but to search herself and so she set the Dirty Three to keep a watch and slipped into the area the Rangers had taken. She found twenty sets of nearly identical gear all neatly arranged. There was no way to know which was Caeros' and so Rin started with the nearest and began to work her way along in a methodical fashion. She was half way through when she heard a faint sound. Rin whirled and discovered Caeros standing there, with her sword, watching her rifle through the belongings of his colleagues. He tilted his head at her.
"Don't you have study to do," he inquired and Rin had no choice but to stalk out of the hall empty handed.
Upon Rin's return to Meduseld she found a small pile of books waited for her in the parlour. She to not read them on principal and instead went to call upon Halcwyn. After weeks of being surrounded by infuriating, high handed, irrational men, Rin found the company of her husband's sister a welcome relief even if Halcwyn was distressed and worried. Both women were in need of a comforting shoulder. Eventually, though, Rin had to leave. She had a son and daughter who needed her and she left with a promise to bring both by the next day.
The afternoon with her children proved a powerful balm to Rin's fractious frame of mind. She had almost managed to calm down entirely by dinner. Unfortunately, during the quiet meal, Eomer himself looked in with additional books to add to the pile already perched on the table. He rapped his knuckles on the uppermost cover, nodded his approval, and strolled out with a grin that reminded her of Caeros. After dinner, Hanasian and Farbarad both insisted she study and so Rin had no choice but to transfer what was now a small tower of books to the relative quiet of the bedroom. There, at least, she could pretend to study them. Who knew there were so many books about swords, she thought. How complex could they be? As complex as surgery? As difficult as balancing the active properties of various plants and powders? Surely not. Curiosity, ever the bane of her existence, started to itch at her. She reached for the uppermost book.
Rin flipped open the first book. It smelt of dust and her nose crinkled as she flicked through the pages. They were almost entirely filled with diagrams and Rin opened out one to study closer. Bizarre, incomprehensible, stupid diagrams, she quickly decided. This had to be some sort of trick. In that instant, Rin decided that she was definitely not going to play whatever game the men were up to. She closed the book with a resounding thud and promptly took herself to bed.
Hanasian did not at all seem perturbed that she had not a word to say to him that night or the following morning. He simply carried on as if everything was normal. He set off for a hunt that Eomer and Elfwine had arranged early that day with little more than a polite nod for her. Fuming, Rin resolved she would not, under any circumstances, go to that training ground. Instead, she would lurk in her bedroom, confident that Caeros would not intrude. Not there. Farbarad wouldn't let. Rin's confidence took a battering that morning. When Caeros discovered that she had locked him out, he had the door removed from its hinges and stood in the hall, staring fixedly at her until Rin eventually trudged out to the training ground after him.
"Better late than never, but I expect timeliness henceforth. This is no game. Now, which of the books did you read last night?"
Rin crossed her arms, lifted her chin and remained stubbornly silent.
"I see…well then…perhaps you will discover the error of your decision today and inspiration to remedy it for the morrow."
If by inspiration Caeros meant aching joints and muscles, then he was correct. She had a great deal of inspiration by the time their time that morning was done.
So passed the days. If it wasn't the festival and formal engagements, she was training. Caeros trained her harder than the Company ever had and, what is more, in the midst of it all she negotiated a fresh trade deal with Rohan. As for her plans to attempt to reconcile things between herself and her husband, nothing seemed to work. She scarcely had a moment to herself and when she did was she so tired that she could barely keep her eyes open. Hanasian became increasingly distant.
On their final night in Edoras, Rin was seated at the high table in the main hall. Eomer had called a feast, officially in farewell of them, but Rin was under no illusions. Eomer was celebrating the relative calm and peace that had descended despite her continued presence and he was not alone. Eomer was away from the high table, down at one of the many benches below with Hanasian, reliving their War days over as many flagons of ale as humanly possible. Meanwhile, Rin had yet to find a way to sit comfortably with her various bruises. Caeros had decided to risk practice sticks that morning and she felt like she had been thoroughly beaten by a forest of Huons.
If that wasn't bad enough, Caeros had forbidden her ale, wine or anything that wasn't water. Rin glowered at the cup-bearer hovering with yet more of it nearby. Water! All because her husband had set a Ranger to torment her. Caeros, the architect of her bruises, sauntered by the high table. He even nodded at her pleasantly. The urge to throw her water on him was strong but her desire to avoid his reprisal in the next training session was stronger. He winked at her, as if he guessed the thrust of her thoughts and she heard her teeth grind.
Caeros turned his attention away from his pupil. Had Hanasian not confided that her temper was best gauged from the colour of her eyes, he'd not know that he had gotten so very far under her skin. When he'd caught her rifling through his gear some days ago, they had been silver grey, calculating. Right now, her eyes were brilliant, searing blue and those high cheekbones of hers were delicately flushed. He could see her husband sitting at a nearby table, observing the interaction.
"How goes it," Hanasian asked as Caeros neared.
He shrugged calmly, "She loathes me, of course. Each session she tries something new to bring me down a peg. Because of that, she progresses despite herself. Of course, if I tell her that, she will stop trying at all."
"Assuredly," Hanasian agreed.
"Your wife is …"
"Obstinate, intractable, confounding?" Eomer supplied from the other side of Hanasian and Caeros smiled ruefully.
Caeros observed, "I have a hard time seeing her while away her hours with needlepoint, or whatever it is princesses are to do with their time."
"If you find you need to motivate her, call her princess and see what happens," Hanasian said and all three men laughed heartily.
"The symbol of Cardolan is a rose, and for good reason, methinks," Eomer said, "Proud, fair, thorny if mishandled. She is cold steel. Difficult to forge and shape-"
"But a man could wish for no better at his side," Hanasian replied, and looked for her just in time to catch the billow of her skirts as she stalked towards the doors.
Enough, Rin seethed, was enough. From the high table she could see all three of them below, laughing uproariously and she knew what it was about. Who it was about. She was not going to sit there and abide another moment of it. She might not be a Ranger, she might just be a thief, but she still had her pride. Rin pushed back from the table and collected her skirts. Just like the orange dress, the lavender silk chased with silver that she wore was utterly foreign to her. There were yards and yards of it, trailing after her uselessly and yet barely enough of it to cover the sweep of her shoulders.
It was an ostentatious waste of obviously expensive silk, she inwardly fumed, as she made for the closest doors. Outside, the cooler, quieter air came as a blessed relief although the doors nearly closed on her ridiculous skirt. A nearby guardsman was attentive enough to prevent disaster. With his helm on, Rin couldn't see if he was smirking at her or not. He efficiently released her from the door, nodded and returned to his post. When the agitated crown princess headed away, following the balcony along, he and his fellow unashamedly breathed a little easier.
As Rin walked, her thoughts and emotions tumbling haphazardly, she took in the night around her. To the south, the white shards of the mountains glittered under starlight. It was a beautiful sight against the velvet sky. She drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. Every muscle seemed to ache but it was still a beautiful night. She needed composure. She needed to calm down. She needed to not let them see just how much they - a faint sound in the darkness behind her broke through her thoughts and peeled her eyes open again. Her temper flared wildly again, slipping free of her tentative hold on it.
"I just want some clean air. Is even that too much to ask?" she hissed.
Hanasian watched as his wife turned about. The night painted her in silver and grey and her skirt floated with her hair on the gentle breeze. Bewitching.
"What do you want," she asked him warily.
He loved this woman desperately. She infuriated him, terrified him, drove him to despair. He considered the mountains visible behind her, as proud as she was. Then looked back at her.
"Will you dance," he asked her and she hesitated and so he added, "Please?"
She set a hand lightly in his and he felt her long fingers curl around his own. The last time they had danced by starlight, he had fought the urge to pull her closer. This time his arm curved around her and held her tightly against him. Then, slowly, they began to move together.
"Hanasian," she said after a while, "Are you leaving me?"
Her question startled him, "Why would you think that?"
"You are angry with me."
"Not for the first time," he cautiously answered.
"It is different this time."
She fell silent and he stopped their dancing entirely to tilt her chin up. Rin had a habit of hiding her face at times like this.
"How?" he asked again. In the darkness he could not make out the colour of her eyes but he saw her long lashes fall to her cheeks and he felt a tremor eddy through her, like wind through the grasses of the plains below.
"You hardly look at me or speak to me. The only time you have touched me is to offer an arm for formal appearances. It's been that way for days now."
While he had known he was angry with her, Hanasian had not realised just how distant he had become. He would have argued the point, told her that she was mistaken if he could have. Instead released her chin and Rin stepped back from him.
"I know that I have not been a very good wife. I love you, but I bring only woe and trouble. I disappoint you. I worry you. You deserve better, Hanasian."
"What are you saying?"
He could see her hands were clutched tightly before her. Her fingers wound anxiously together.
"I do not want you to leave…but I understand if you must," she whispered.
Hanasian recalled his father's words in the moment he had left. One day son, he had been told, you will understand. Had that time come, he wondered now, and would he choose as his father had? The silence that followed her words was unbearable for Rin. She turned from him in the moment Hanasian reached his decision. In the darkness he could hear the rustle of her silk as she moved away. He reached and caught a slender wrist. He pulled her back to him and kissed her in way he had not done for months.
"What are you doing?" she demanded once he released her, confused.
He kissed Rin again, softly this time, gently.
"Isn't it obvious," he murmured against her lips, nibbling, "I'm staying."
He caught her mouth again. Naturally, they were not seen again at the feast.
Instead, Hanasian pulled her further along the balcony. It stretched most of the way around Meduseld. He towed her around the corner and along, turning to kiss her and tangling their limbs. Satisfied with their location, Hanasian pulled her to his hungry mouth. He felt her hesitation melt away and soon she was as ravenous as he. Such fire and yearning, her tongue probed his mouth and her hands clenched in his shirt at his chest. Hanasian pulled back, pulse thundering and breathing fast.
Rin growled something in Dunlendic. He had no idea what it was but it sounded so primal and raw that it made his already hard cock almost painful. She dove back in and kissed him passionately and somehow, he managed to step backwards and towards the wall behind them. He raided her mouth this time, hands snaking up her back to hold her to him. His fingers tangled in her hair at her neck and gave him control that he used to devastating effect. He could feel the heat radiating from her and Rin moaned deep in her throat. Unable to resist any longer, he removed a hand from her hair and stroked the bountiful swell of a breast. Her hands raked down his chest, hooked in his belt at his hips and pulled him hard against her.
When he released her mouth again she panted, "Now, damn you!"
Here, Hanasian wondered. The balcony here was empty, but for how long? The idea intrigued him. He turned and propelled his wife against the wall.
"Are you certain?"
Her response was in Sindarin this time and absolutely obscene. Their limbs entwined anew and they almost lost their balance. Rin's thudded back against the wall and he pinned her to it, tore her bodice open and raided the soft, sweet skin beneath. Rin's fingers were frantic, tugging his shirt out, struggling with his belt. He grunted against her and unbuckled it himself and untangled his laces with his mouth firmly pressed to valley between her breasts.
Unable to bear it any longer, Hanasian pulled back and spun Rin about so that the wall would not bruise her spine. He pulled at her skirts, lifting them to get at her. Not far, just enough. He set one hand to explore wet, silken folds while he freed himself. He could hear her fingers scrabble over the wall as he stroked. But he was in no mind to dally. He needed her, now, and he plunged into her in a smooth thrust that drove a guttural moan from them both. It had been so very long. She shuddered around him and against him and he began to move.
It was fast and desperate, needed, urgent. He slammed into her, hands locked on her hips to hold her steady. Faster and faster, colours swirling behind his eyelids until sweet release found him at last. Once his mind cleared he realised that he now kneeled on the balcony with Rin still impaled upon his lap. Her skirts pooled around them both and they panted raggedly. Her opened bodice had slid down one shoulder and he cupped an exposed breast tenderly now. He let his lips brush softly over her bared shoulder and she leant back against him for a moment. A silent moment that was theirs. Only theirs. And then they heard footsteps from around the corner.
Rin and Hanasian fell through the door to their room in a tangle of dishevelled clothing and hair and barely stifled laughter later that night. It felt so good to laugh with him, Rin thought and she turned to stroke his face. She had missed this, missed him. He brought her fingers to his mouth.
"I love you, Hanasian," she softly said as their laughter faded.
Hanasian lowered her fingers and pressed his mouth to hers.
Against her lips, brow pressed to hers, he said, "And I you, always. Now to bed. We have a long day and you will have an early start."
Rin drifted to sleep in her husband's arms smiling. The next morning, as he ruthlessly prodded her awake, Rin's smile vanished as she discovered he wasn't joking about her early start.
"Good news," Caeros told her in the morning fog.
She stared at him flatly as he tossed the wooden sticks they had been using to beat her senseless to one side.
"Today you get to use a proper sword. Better late, than never, eh?"
"Late? I've only been at this for what, five days?"
"Most lads move from wood to steel by the time they are eight or ten. You, my Lady, must be sixty? Fifty perhaps."
Her eyes, he saw, were blue now and Caeros cleared his throat to complete his morning's motivation with a flourish, "Now, give me a basic stance. We start off nice and easy, this time, very slowly."
"I've seen stone less stiff than you. A late night, I take it," Caeros replied with an insufferable, knowing wink.
"I loathe you," Rin said emphatically and he bowed grandly.
Despite the fact that they were travelling again, Caeros showed no inclination to vary their training routine. In fact, he increased it as soon as they were free of the city. There was a session at dawn, a session at midday and another in the evening. His only concession to human decency, in Rin's opinion, is that the sessions were shorter. By a fraction. If Elian or Hanavia were up all night and she with them, the sessions still happened. If it was hot or raining, the sessions happened. If she volunteered to do all of the other duties around the camp, from picketing horses to watching through the night (no one wanted her cooking), the sessions happened.
Molguv squatted at breakfast on a clear morning and rubbed at his head. The Haradian was Company sergeant for good reason. He was merciless in his training of new recruits. Still it was Molguv who was the first to remark that Caeros' training regime seemed a little "unkind". The comment came as Caeros flattened Rin's tent on top of her and then dragged her out by the feet for the morning session. Naturally, Rin did not go quietly. In fact, she used the nearest and recently unoccupied tent pole to take several swings at her tormenter. Had anyone else been on the Great West Road, it would have made for an interesting sight. None of it succeeded in sparing Rin from the morning session. The Dirty Three watched on as an incensed former Company Healer attempt to murder Caeros, repeatedly and unsuccessfully.
"I like him," Wulgof said, "Reminds me of Rowdy. Only meaner."
"His methods are proving effective," Khule pointed out as Rin launched another futile deadly assault upon her trainer.
Frustrated, Rin cast her sword aside and then threw herself bodily at the Ranger in a move everyone on the Company was quite familiar with. It was known as the Throw of Last Resort.
"Then again," Khule amended as Caeros rolled out from beneath her easily and knocked her onto the ground with sufficient force to leave her ears ringing for a week.
"Again!" he shouted at his stunned pupil, "And if you EVER throw your SWORD away again I WILL make you carry it over your head all day for a MONTH!"
"Stay down," Molguv murmured, as if praying, "Stay down, stay down, stay down, stay-"
Rin painfully climbed to her hands and knees and then managed to stand, weaving a moment, and then made for where she had left her sword.
"Can't keep a good woman down," Wulgof said with a shake of his head, "Or a stubborn one. Not sure which she is."
"Do you suppose training such as this is why Rangers so many of them are so adept at swordcraft," Khule inquired.
No one answered that, but Wulgof's lips started to twitch with amusement.
"Can I tell her its 'just like dancing'? Please?" he asked.