1. Best Laid Plans
The wind was biting, gnawing with cruel icy teeth. It was a clear night. The sky was jeweled velvet stretched overhead. The white shards of the mountains glittered like diamonds under star and moon. Below, far below, the plains sprawled beneath a swaying, sighing coverlet of the last grasses of the season. The crops had been brought in, stores laid down for the winter ahead. Its approach clutched at her with gnarled, bony fingers. The two of them stood on the very edge, the foundation stones of Meduseld cold and hard where they pressed against their backs. They peered down into the murk. The northern escarpment had made sense at the time. No one would expect the thieves to escape this way.
"Always easier to get in than out," Loch rumbled beside her. Rin peered at the small bundle she clutched. Ridiculously small, considering the circumstances they now faced.
"Why is it that reason and good sense reassert themselves now?" she asked the night. Hesitation was brought to a close by the shout men and the sound of guard boots. They had to find cover, and quickly. Either that, or try their luck on the escarpment.
"You know where we could lay low?" Loch asked. Rin's mind turned swiftly.
"Ordinarily yes, but the hall is filled with guests for the feast. There's neither nook or cranny to be spared."
"Well then," Loch reluctantly replied, peering down again. "This cheese had better be worth a broken neck," he muttered.
"It's cheese, Loch," Rin replied, as if explaining the concept to an idiot.
"My point exactly. A broken neck for cheese..."
All she heard was a grunt as he levered himself over the edge. The guards were closing fast. Around the corners in both directions, torchlight was getting brighter. She waited as long as her hammering heart permitted, then she slung the sack with the cheese over one arm and followed Loch. Their luck held long enough for Loch to reach the ground and for Rin to get six feet from it. Loch flattened himself against the base of the escarpment as guards held torches out and peered down. Rin froze, like a spider on websilk... A spider carrying cheese. The wind gusted the guard's voices away from him. However, the taut rope went slack and panic galloped through Rin anew. Far above, a guard straightened, sheathing his knife whilst his fellows continued to peer down.
Rin fell like a stone, twisting midair to avoid landing on the cheese. She fell past where Loch stood with his face contorted into a horrified mask and landed face first with a jarring thud on the ground. Loch peered at her unmoving form sprawled in the grass. He peered upwards and saw guards lean back in. Heart racing, he edged out to where Rin lay and crouched by her. Even as he reached to roll her over and see if she was still alive, he hesitated as his panicked mind dredged up some memory of a scolding from Rin about moving people with severe injuries. After several heartbeats thundered by at a gallop, he heard her spit out grass and dirt to moan.
"What should I do, Rin?"
"Are my toes wriggling?"
He peered at her bare feet.
"Yes... That's a good sign, right?"
"How about my fingers?" Loch peered at both hands and started to confirm that they were until he caught a particularly crude gesture that made his cheeks flush with embarrassment.
"That was uncalled for, Rin," he protested as his sister gingerly adjusted the sack and rolled over.
"Yeah? Whose bright idea was this, brother mine?"
"Well, no one forced you to tag along."
"One: there was cheese involved, so what do you imagine I would do? Two: you've never set foot in Meduseld and so you have no idea where the larder would be. Three: it was kept under lock and key and you're the worst lock pick this side of the Misty Mountains," Loch's rumble of injured pride was resoundingly ignored by his sister and she pressed on. "Four: you would have been arrested, empty handed, and we lack sufficient funds for me to get you out. Five: our lack of funds is what prompted you to take this stupid job in the first place."
"I liked you better when your mouth was filled with dirt. Are you quite done lounging around? I do believe I hear the sound of patrolling soldiers approaching..."
Loch was careful to stifle a gleeful grin as his sister leapt to her feet with a startled oath.
"Where?" she asked, turning about to spot the impending threat. Then she slowed and turned a searing blue glare loose on her brother. The effect was hampered by her current state. Her entire front, from head to foot was smeared in dirt and grass stuck out from her ragged, snarled hair. Loch grinned wildly at her, his teeth gleaming under moonlight in the darkness. Rin scowled and clutched the sack tightly to herself.
"What's so damn funny?" Rin snapped. Loch kept grinning at her.
"You look like a raggedy scarecrow that's been dragged forty miles through the mud behind a horse," he replied, ignoring her deepening scowl. Laughter bubbled up from his belly. He clamped a hand over his mouth. Rin crossed her muddy arms, tapped muddy fingers on them and jiggled one bare foot. It only made him laugh harder and he doubled over, trying to swallow it.
"And what do you call that dismount? The Rosmarin Special?" Loch gasped as he struggled to master himself. When he had straightened, Rin was already marching away in disgust. He was forced to jog to catch her up. She ignored him as they slipped into the now quiet streets of Edoras. The passing of a patrol forced them to duck into an alley way. Rin watched the mouth of the alley as Loch scanned for ways to the roof if the patrol followed them in. The patrol didn't even blink sideways and moved past. Of course, Loch and Rin had been slipping past patrols of various sorts since their childhood, so that was unsurprising.
Still, Loch liked to have an escape route and experience had taught that aerial ones were best. Armored men carrying weapons found it hard to clamber to rooftops, whilst the pair of them were virtual squirrels that cold scarper about without hesitation. Well, one squirrel and one muddy scarecrow. Loch's mouth curved into a grin, quieter now that the panic and fear that had fueled his relief at the escarpment had washed from him. They remained hunkered down, patiently waiting for the patrol to round the corner. Rin slid down the wall of a building, fatigue pounding at her.
"You want to finish this tonight, deliver it?" he asked as her eyes fluttered closed.
"No... I just want to wash up and go to sleep. Can't face dickering with Sturn tonight," she replied, voice weak. Adrenalin had soured and left her feeling queasy and shaky.
"Come on then, Rin. Let's go home," Loch said gently. He pulled her to her feet and this time singed pride did not preclude her from accepting his arm as they made the rest of the way home.
In a tiny room, under a sloping roof, Rin barely stayed awake long enough to dislodge the dirt and sweat and most of the grass. She sprawled on one of the two narrow cots, deeply asleep. The room was so small that the two cots precluded the presence any other furnishings or belongings. Still, to Loch and Rin it was home and the best besides since they had been forced away from the farm. It had four mostly weatherproof walls and the roof only leaked when the rain was particularly heavy. Loch lay back; arm stretched beneath his head and studied the timbers of the roof. The rhythmic breathing of his sister soothed him. Had they done it? Had they finally cracked some good fortune? For some bizarre reason, the cheese they had stolen was worth twenty gold marks. Twenty! That meant that they'd get four gold marks if the fence stayed good to his word. And if his sister didn't eat half of it. He had to stay awake to guard their precious haul.
Four gold marks was more money than they had ever seen. One gold mark was. Four gold marks would buy them both apprenticeships. Four gold marks would leave enough left to cover clothing and even shoes. Winter was coming. Of course, the fact the fee was so high had worried them, but then it was only cheese. How bad could a job get when it concerned cheese?
Four gold marks if the fence had to stay true to his word and fences, as a rule, do not. Sturn was worse than most. Loch pondered their next move to freedom, utterly unaware of sleep's ambush. When he woke, sunlight was trying to shoulder its way through the grime on their window and Rin was up and peering at their ill-gotten gains.
"If you eat that, Rosmarin..." Loch rumbled at her. Rin's nose crinkled and she set the cheese down.
"Why would I want to?"
"It's cheese. You're Rin."
"It's moldy cheese... Like spider webs all over it and through it as well from what I can see. And it SMELLS, As a general rule, I try to not eat moldy, smelly food unless we have to, cheese or not. I can't figure why rich people would want to..."
"Great.... you snatched the wrong cheese!"
"I did NOT Lochared. It's the right cheese. It was exactly where it was supposed to be, under lock and key. Why would they keep moldy cheese under lock and key? Why would moldy cheese be worth twenty gold marks? Why would anyone want to steal this cheese this badly as to steal it from beneath Eomer's nose... Aside from me, obviously," Rin amended as her brother leveled a withering stare at her.
Loch heaved a deep, philosophical sigh from his cot."Who knows, Rin. I gave up trying to understand how nobles think years ago."
Rin opened her mouth to say something that was interrupted by a series of loud knocks on their rickety door. Rin shoved the cheese into the sack and under her cot as Loch got to his feet and tugged the door open. In the hall was the owner of the building. She was a large woman, tall with earthy curves that she made no effort to conceal. Her hair was black as ink, with strands of silver gray starting to appear like moonbeams. She wore it loosely braided, for it was too early for customers. Her eyes were a deep, coal brown that scanned Loch's face and then Rin, who peered around her brother's shoulder. Her gaze swung back to Loch and there sizzled. Loch swallowed thickly. He ran his hand through his mop of sandy hair in the self-conscious way all young men do around confident, self assured and sensuous creatures such as the woman in the hall.
"Good morning manling," she purred, contented it his reaction and ignoring the roll of his sister's eyes behind him.
"G-Goo-Good morning," Loch stammered, cursing his suddenly thick tongue and dry mouth. Indulgent amusement flickered in her eyes. She was toying with him.
"Goo? Hardly seems pleasant," she drawled, winking at Rin who just remained impassive as a statue. Too serious by half, for one so young, the woman returned her attention to the older brother.
"What can we do for you Mistress Brianne?" Loch inquired, recovering his equilibrium. Brianne straightened from her lean against the doorframe, suddenly all business.
"Word is that some bold fool robbed Meduseld last night. Anyone fool enough to toss Meduseld will surely come sniffing after the next richest business in town. See to our security, manling.... And you'll need to stand watch tonight... Wouldn't put it past the cunning sot to make his way in as a client. Any strange faces come calling on my girls, you let me know immediately."
Loch nodded solemnly and then something dawned upon him. All of the warmth that he had been basking in vanished.
"Problem manling?" Brianne inquired, noting Loch's change in demeanour. Loch cleared his throat and spoke up.
"Tonight? Rin and I have an appointment to make tonight."
"Now you listen close. Tonight is the biggest business day of the year. Tonight is feast night. They'll be here making merry from across Gondor and Rohan. All those soldiers in town with nothing to do but eat, drink and make merry. Tonight is when that thief will strike, if he'll strike. If you can't earn your keep tonight, then I'll find another way to recover the expense of your room and board..." Brianne's calculating gaze slid to Rin in a way that sent a chill skating down Loch's spine.
"She'd fetch a handsome price, manling, moreso if she's... "
"Fine... Tonight," Loch tersely said, the matter decided. The cheese will have to wait. He'd sooner hand Rin over to orcs than Brianne. Rin was tugging on his shirt. It meant his clever sister had an idea. Mollified, Brianne sheathed her claws and she was all spiced honey again. It was truly terrifying to watch the woman switch masks as rapidly as she did.
"Shame..." she sighed and smiled. She showed too many teeth, and her eyes remained cold as ice. Brianne turned to go and then paused.
"It will be a busy night. I'll expect innocent Rosmarin will be able to keep my girls in working order to see it through?" Rin shuddered. "Of course, Mistress Brianne," Loch obediently replied. Loch waited until she was well down the hall, studying her swaying back before he closed the door again. When he turned to face Rin, he discovered her expression was distraught.
"What? I thought you had an idea?"
"I was going to take it to the fence tonight, but I can't now.... I hate this place, Loch! Hate it! What her 'clients' do to her 'girls'.... She doesn't care one flying damn about those women!" Rin turned away, wrapping her arms around her slight frame and muttering to herself. Loch scratched at his beard, his optimism now crumbling.
"The deal was that we get it to the fence tonight," he ruminated out loud, prompting the idea from his sister.
"We're both working tonight... But I could see if I could negotiate an extension," Rin suggested.
"Don't push past tomorrow morning. Depending on business tonight, we could slip away before dawn and finish the deal. We'd want to in any case. If Brianne already knows, then it won't be long before Meduseld officially knows and the feast is tonight. By dawn tomorrow, Edoras will be crawling with guards and the roads will be under watch."
"You think so? It's moldy cheese!"
"Moldy cheese worth twenty gold marks, Rin..." Loch replied, tapping the side of his nose in a manner that he imagined made him look devious and cunning even if Rin wouldn't have a bar of it. She though it made him look like an idiot.
Breakfast consisted of whatever was leftover from the night before, split between the staff at Mistress Brianne's establishment. Her 'girls' emerged, twenty weary women hailing from lands all across the re-united Realms, excepting Harad. They aged from a scandalous fourteen to their late forties and each in their own right was eye catching. Brianne's reputation catered to refined palates. Brianne's girls gathered around a long, heavy oak table in the kitchen along with the cook, ostler, Loch and Rin. Mistress Brianne was nowhere in sight. She took her meals privately, and never leftovers from the night before. Typically, little was discussed at breakfast.
Rin noted a black eye on one woman from Rhun, Khadre, and resolved to look in on the woman a little later. Given her descent and the origins of Mistress Brianne's clients, Khadre frequently arrived at breakfast injured one way or the other. Rin could mend the physical injuries... Somehow that never seemed enough. The clients last night had been hungry men, so there was little food to spare the next morning. What food there was went to Brianne's girls first. The cook and ostler drew a wage, so they could afford to buy in their meals. Loch and Rin usually managed to snag something, but never enough to feed the hunger of a twenty-one year man and an eighteen year old woman. Still, neither begrudged the food that went to the girls.
They left breakfast still hungry, as per usual, and set off on their respective days. It would take most of the day to see to Brianne's security arrangements in a manner that met with Brianne's satisfaction. It would take most of the day to locate the fence and negotiate an extension on delivery. Fences didn't stay in business being easily found. Loch and Rin took their leave of each other, and Loch sent a warning to Rin to be careful. She could look after herself, he knew, but the fence had a reputation. Rin stowed the makeshift knife Loch had fashioned from broken glass in one pocket of her slightly dirt and grass stained dress, gave him a wave and trotted off into the morning. Rin returned by midday, wearing a decidedly worried expression. By that time, Loch was tipping a bucket of water over his head out the front of the stables. Upon sight of his sister, he called out to her and waved the empty bucket in her general direction.
"You could do with a wash yourself, Rin. Come here and hold still!" he shouted at her. The ostler chortled as he went inside the stables to have his lunch in the cool.
"Loch, we're in trouble...don't you dare horse about! Put that bucket down and put your shirt on!"
Loch grounded the bucket and ducked into what passed for his shirt.
"No.... Do you not understand the word trouble?"
"No? What are you doing here, Rin? Get back out there and find him."
"I know where he is, Loch, and I'm not going to find him no matter how you snap at me. He's been rounded up with the morning patrol. They want the streets tidy for the feast tonight. I nearly got picked up myself! But that's not the worst of it."
"No? We have a sack of illegal smelly cheese and our buyer is in prison and that's not the worst of it?"
"No, we need to get that cheese back quick before anyone realizes it has been stolen or we're good as dead."
"Over cheese? You want us to un-steal cheese?"
"That cheese is worth between 100 and 200 gold marks, Loch, on count of its rarity. Something to do with sheep... And then there's the humiliation factor. The king has others kings and lords coming tonight on account of that cheese alone. What do you think they'll do to two thieves who stole something worth that much and publicly humiliated the King of Rohan?"
"How on earth are we going to put it back?"
"I haven't figured that out yet...
Loch threw his arms up at his sides. "This just gets better and better..." he growled.
"Don't snap at me, Lochared. It was your idea to take the job, a job we were going to get shorted on I might add. Four marks for something worth that much... We should have been up for twenty at least... It's not worth our necks, Loch. Next time, I do the talking when it comes to jobs, right? You going to stand there all day? By my guess, we have maybe two hours before they realize what was taken last night."
It took them half an hour to retrieve the cheese and make their way to Meduseld's front entrance. They squatted in the shade of an empty wagon and sized it up. Guards wearing the usual green and gold livery of Rohan moved about. It made Rin shiver just watching them. Their numbers were added by guarded in black and silver, with shining helms gleaming in the sun. Over the golden hall, several pennants caught the breeze. Two of them meant nothing to Loch or Rin. One was a silver swan on a black field and the other was a golden tree on a green field. Nobles of some sort, the pair presumed. What made Rin's stomach sink was a black flag with a white tree and seven glittering silver stars.
"Stones!" she swore, "See that?"
"High King... That means Knights..." Loch said quietly. Further study revealed Meduseld was a veritable ant hill of serving staff bustling about with final preparations. Rin had one idea and only one idea. She glanced at Loch.
"Do you think you could comb your hair?" she asked, weighing up her opening line and their odds of getting out of this in one piece... Knights!
"You're a fine one to talk," he muttered as he raked his fingers through it.
"You try finger combing hair this long," Rin retorted. She protectively clutched her rapidly unravelling braid of pale gold. Even tangled and unkempt, it caught the light like spun gold. It just wasn't fair, Loch ruminated as he considered his own sandy hair and then halted himself as he realised he was wanting hair like his sister... a girl.... decidedly unmanly.
"Can fix that easily, like I said before," he offered.
"You cut my hair off and I'll cut something equally precious off you, you hear?"
"So what's the plan?" Loch said, redirecting his sister.
"They're bound to be short handed. I'll just get my job back and we'll be back inside."
Loch snorted within laughter until he realized she was serious.
"Just how do you propose to do that? You pretty much burnt that bridge last time."
"Well, I didn't steal her bracelet... And I could have if I wanted to... And I did not burn that bridge..." Loch made a quiet exploding noise and added hand gestures to match. Rin's denial came to a halt, but she was still frowning at him.
"And here you are, having stolen something infinitely worse," he said, glancing meaningfully at the sack.
"Well, I just won't ask Aranne for my job back. You got a better idea? Then quit chipping at me. Let's get this over with."
Getting her job back was not nearly as difficult as Loch feared it would be. Rin was not known for her tact or discretion when riled, and Aranne's false accusations had certainly wriggled under his sister's skin. As Rin thought, they were woefully short handed with so many extra guests in residence and a feast to prepare for. Rich and Loch were hurried inside and hustled straight to the laundries where they were left in the care of a red faced, sweating woman who surveyed each of them with a skeptical eye.
"You, lad, can head over there and lift the wet things up and into the rinsing tank. Don't touch them, mind you, or I'll scrub your hide." The woman squinted at Rin a moment. "You could do with a scrubbing, lassie, so you ain't handling none of my washed work. Fetch that cart and go collect the things that what want washing and bring 'em back here. Understand?"
Loch and Rin nodded as yet more steam was added to the air. The woman clapped two massive hands together, making both jump. "Then set to it!" she commanded and turned back to her work secure in the knowledge that everyone did what she told them to do.
"I'll find the kitchen and drop it off, then I'll come back here and fetch you," Rin whispered to Loch. One of the nearby workers hissed a warning. "Don't let her catch you dawdling," she said. That sent both scurrying. Rin flung the sack in the cart and pushed it back out the doors. She had a reasonable sense of confidence now. There was no reason why this couldn't work. All she needed to do was find the kitchen, drop the cheese there, collect Loch and leave again. As she walked, fellow workers nodded amiably and she kept her eyes suitably lowered whenever someone well dressed happened past. It was as she was watching her bare feet that a voice shouted from the doorway she was passing.
"Hie, it's about time!" a woman shouted crossly. Rin had two choices, run or play along. She opted to play along and pushed her cart into the large room. It was strewn with sleeping pallets, fur and dirty clothing. The owner of the voice was a young woman, perhaps a year or two older than Rin. She took in Rin's disheveled state and clucked her tongue.
"They must really be short handed... Are your feet bare?" she asked, scandalised as her gaze travelled down to Rin's feet.
"Since I'm not washing the laundry with my feet, does it matter? Do you want my help or not?" Rin replied more sharply than she had intended. The woman flushed.
"Oh, I do beg your pardon your majesty. Yes, I do humbly crave your assistance. You should have been here half an hour ago. If we don't have this room cleared out by the time they get back, we'll both have our backs switched. Is that cart empty?"
Rin nodded under the ferocity of the woman's sarcastic barrage and the prospect of being switched. "Then hand it here and go take those to the laundry."
"Give the damn cart to me, you simpleton, and take the full cart back to the laundry... What is that smell? Oh... Half an hour of dawdling about and you've collected one smelly old rag. When this is done, I'm going to have a word to the Steward about you. What's your name?"
Rin grabbed the full cart and pushed it out of the door at speed. She needed to get the cart back to the laundry and then back to this room to collect the one with the cheese on it, without handing over her name to the short tempered woman. The cart was piled so high that it was hard to stop once at speed and Rin was pushing it as fast as she could, skating around corners as she retraced her path to the laundry. The sound of the cart colliding with a person jolted both cart and Rin to a sudden standstill. Laundry toppled over onto her victim, adding insult to injury.
"Oh!" Rin squeaked and peered around the base of the cart to find a set of polished boots poking out from a pile of laundry.
"Now, that's charming, just charming," a male voice wheezed from beneath the pile. Eyes wide, Rin fell to her knees and started madly throwing laundry aside.
"Oh... Oh no.... Are you hurt? I am so very sorry.... I didn't know you were there! Are you-" The man's hand wrapped around her wrist as she plucked a piece of laundry up from his face. He was wincing, more from the smell of dirty laundry than anything else she hoped. He opened eyes as clear as a summer sky.
"Well met," he murmured and then winced again.
"Are you hurt?" Rin asked again.
"Pride, dignity mayhaps... And my sense of smell... But everything else seems to be in working order, including my eyes. Who, may I ask, are you?"
With his question, he smiled faintly and released her wrist. Rin sat back on her heels and took in the gravity of the situation. She had knocked some lordling off his feet with a cart full of laundry... and she was running out of time.
"No one," she replied cautiously, eyes darting away, and started to gather up the laundry that was now strewn about. The young man cautiously sat up, shook his head.
"No one... I come here fairly regularly and I've never seen you before... I'm sure I would remember if I had seen you before..."
"I'm sorry, Sir," Rin said, inwardly cringing as the man's gaze settled on her.
"Now, this is entirely my fault. I can see you're troubled by it, so I'll tell you what... How about I explain to the laundry mistress what happened. I couldn't bear to know that lovely back of yours got striped on account of my clumsiness. What do you say, young mistress No One?"
"Oh, that's not necessary, Sir. I wouldn't wish to trouble you further and I really must be off if you're sure you're not injured."
"Nonsense.... The matter is settled. I'll even push that cart of yours for the trouble I've caused. Which way to the laundry?"
Rin opened her mouth and closed it again, unaware that she was twirling the end of her tangled braid around her fingers. Despite his noble origins, he was a decidedly charming young man... Rin pointed in the direction of the laundry and they set off together. The young man carried most of the conversation at first. He said nothing of her bare feet or her stained and threadbare dress. Once he had his first shy smile from the nameless young woman at his side, he knew he was making progress. They made a curious pair and they were certainly noted by other guests familiar with the young man.
"I thought he declared himself above tumbling the household staff," one man said once the pair passed.
"Oh, you know how it is... He'll be married off before this time next year if his father has any say and she's certainly a pleasing distraction for all of the dirt and grass stains," the other replied with a chortle. "Let him pursue his wild hunt for this untamed waif."
As it turned out, Rin was not the only lady charmed. Upon reaching the laundry, he had Rin and the laundry mistress eating out of his hand. On the hoist, Loch scowled as the young man bent over Rin's hand extravagantly, all courtly flourish and a grin that meant only one thing. Laundry mistress and thief alike watched the young man leave, each with a wistful sigh. Still slightly dazed, Rin turned to sight Loch. The thunderous look on his face was a bucket of cold water. Rin grabbed the nearest empty cart and raced back, carefully, for the room. She skidded to a halt as a full cart was pushed out and had to back up to let the cart pass.
"Took your sweet time again. Go on to the next room," the woman snapped at her. Rin studied the crest of the laundry pile. There was a queue...hopefully she could ditch the cart and double back, locate the cart and retrieve the cheese. This time, she had to get it back to the kitchen, no distractions. Rin darted into the next room and threw whatever was immediately to hand into the cart. By the time she got back to the laundry, her stomach sank like a stone. In the steamy murk, it would take her hours to locate the right cart. As another one was added to the growing queue, Rin darted to the far side of them and started as best she could.
The cheese was at the bottom of one of them. She dove head first into the first cart and found nothing but laundry. Rin wriggled her way out again, took a deep breathe and re-evaluated something. Best to start at the front of the queue and work her way back. She virtually crawled to the head of the queue, one cart back from the big steaming tanks and dove in. It was at this point that Loch spotted her by the waving of her bare feet.
"I'm going to swing for this for certain," he moaned and heaved another heavy steaming pile of laundry up and out of the tanks. His arms and back were screaming. Wet laundry was brutally heavy and he had to clear the tank at a demanding pace to keep the entire washing process going smoothly. By the time he turned back for another lift, Rin was diving into the next cart. It only confirmed that she'd lost the cheese. He swore as he hoisted the next batch of steaming laundry clear of the washing tanks and pivoted for the cooler rinse tanks. He was going to hang because she had gotten all tangled over some pretty boy lording and lost the damn cheese.
Diving into carts filled with dirty washing was vastly unpleasant. Doing so in the close, humid environment of the laundry whilst attempting to evade detection only made it more miserable. From cart to cart, with rising panic, Rin took a deep breath and dove to search for cheese. She'd never hated cheese before now. Another fruitless search had her wriggling back out again. The heat was terrible and it made her head spin. Suddenly, quite unbidden, came the vision of summery eyes and a charming smile to her mind. Rin slapped her forehead to clear her thoughts and dove into the next cart. She was a third of the way down the line.... No, by the time she had re-emerged more carts had been added and she was only a quarter of the way down the line. Each time she moved onto the next cart, she peered at the crest of the pile. She wasn't sure if she knew what she was looking for after all this time. Another deep breathe and in she went.
Rin was seeing double by the time she found the thrice blighted round of cheese. Loch heard her hoot with joy and caught her dancing through the steam, sack held high overhead. He dropped his pole and ignored the oaths as hot water gushed. He marched over to where his sister capered as though she was drunk. She was giggling when he reached her, something that she rarely did.
"FOUND IT," she all but shouted. Loch clapped a water logged hand across her mouth.
"Right, let's go return the wretched thing and get out of here," he growled, dragging her arm down, "Quietly and without any fuss. Got it?"
Rin nodded behind his hand, eyes twinkling in the poor light. She clutched the sack close and let Loch escort her from the laundry.
"Which way is the kitchen?" he asked. Rin pointed and he headed off towing her behind him. He attempted to release Rin but soon found she was prone to wandering off untended, giggling. He had to retrieve her on several occasions, one of which he was horrified to discover her waving coquettishly at a cluster of young Gondorian nobles. They were studying her with open, undisguised interest. His sister was the sort of women men noticed, much to his consternation over the past three years.
"Are you drunk?" Loch snarled and then paused. He leaned closer and caught the unmistakeable scent of ale and wine... All that laundry... She'd gotten drunk on fumes diving into the carts. Rin giggled and Loch cast his eyes upwards, beseeching the heavens for aid. As per usual, they weren't listening and he was in this mess with his drunk sister and an appallingly smelly, expensive piece of cheese. Not much to work with.
"Come on then, let's get this disaster over and done with," he sighed "You sure the kitchens are this way?" Rin nodded earnestly and he continued on hoping she was not so drunk as to be beyond all reasoning and recall. At the next pause, Rin threw her arms around Loch's neck and hugged him fiercely.
"S'arright Loch," she slurred in a way that was supposed to be reassuring, immediately followed by "The hall is spinning." Loch's last vestiges of hope faded.
Another few twists and turns, Rin becoming increasingly inebriated as the fumes permeated her blood stream, and they found the kitchen. If the laundry had been busy, kitchen was a hive of frenetic activity. Loch deposited Rin in an alcove and left her there with strict instructions to stay there. He wasn't sure if she heard him, humming that barroom tune like she was. He snatched up the sack for the first time and edged into the kitchen cautiously.
Loch sighted a corner of a table and made for that, thrusting his hand into the sack as he went. He fished out an old shoe and the entire world came to a sudden, crashing halt as he realized what he was brandishing in the air. A strangled cry of abject misery and frustration tore free of him he realized the whole of the kitchen stared at him as he clutched a shoe.
"Get this out of here at once, you fool," a chef cried. Loch stumbed back over his heels, the shoe still aloft. A sea of amazed faces surrounded him. He turned and fled, throwing Rin over his shoulder on his way. How he got out of Meduseld in one piece was a blur, but he did. He got them both back to their tiny room and dropped Rin onto her cot. She was soundly, blissfully asleep. Loch knelt and reached under her cot to find the other sack, the one with the cheese. Were he in a rational frame of mind he would have noted how similar the two sacks smelled. He sank onto the edge of his cot, anger and despair lapping at him.
By dawn the next day, the uproar was all through Meduseld. King Eomer had been publicly humiliated at his own feast, in front of his vassals and friends. Rumor was already rife that a rival faction of his own court that had been agitating for occupation of Rhun was responsible for this oh so subtle slap to the king's face. Rin, for her part, kept wisely silent as she walked west with Loch, towards the southern cusp of the Misty Mountains and away from Edoras. The cheese was a millstone Loch insisted she carry. He had been disturbingly quiet since they set out, brooding. That evening, sheltering behind some boulders to gain respite from the wind, Loch demanded that she bring forth the cheese.
"Eat it," he said flatly.
"It's smelly and moldy," she protested.
"Eat. It. Rosmarin. Now."
Her stomach had been far from easy all day as a result of her unwitting inebriation from the day before. It twisted within her. Still, there was something dangerous about Loch's demeanor. She gouged out a small morsel, closed her eyes and placed it on her tongue. She nearly spat it back out again.
"More," Loch ground out. Rin repeated the process.
"You know, this whole job was not my idea Loch," she said after the second mouthful.
"How was I to know you had your smelly old shoe in a sack under my bed anyway? Who keeps one shoe? In a sack? Under his sister's bed?" she asked after the fourth. Her questions were falling on deaf ears.
By the time she reached the sixth mouthful, Rin started to appreciate a certain earthy complexity to the cheese Loch was forcing her to eat. She was careful to keep her face blank. It would take Rin four days to consume all their ill-gotten gains. Not once did she let a hint that she had come to rather enjoy the smelly, moldy cheese... Just like she carefully guarded the recollections of a pair of summer blue eyes. She rather enjoyed those too…