2. Chapter 2
Loch knew, before he woke, that they had slept too long. The sun was too high and they had a way to go today while the sunlight remained. It was hard to wake, though. So hard to open his eyes. His body ached, muscles and joints, as he pushed himself to his feet and tottered there. They needed food, and proper water. It was why they were so tired all the time. He shook Rin so hard that her teeth rattled before her eyes opened.
"Up, Rin. Have to leave."
He pulled her until she was, at least sitting instead of lying down. She was frowning at him.
"Up, Rin! We have to go now."
Her head shook slowly, overly large on her scrawny neck, wisps of hair so pale as to be nearly white in the uncertain light floating around her face lankly. They were both filthy with dirt, detritus, blood – some of it theirs and some of it belonging to the chickens they had eaten.
"Yes," Loch shouted, losing his patience and just like a storm broke within him. He railed at her, shouting and kicking rotting hay bales, until he was dizzy and the world started to go black. He stopped, gasping like a grounded fish, felt a little hand slip into his own.
She wasn't happy, but she was on her feet at least. Loch nodded and they set off, hand in hand, slowly as Loch's dizziness receded. He angled for the narrow little brook they had forded yesterday to throw the hounds. Perhaps there may be fish he could catch, tickle from the water before his feet and hands froze.
~ ~ ~
The man from Gondor strode out of the baliff's small lean to before he lost his temper outright. He breathed deep, mountain air so cold as to sear his lungs and purge the anger from him. Waste of time. The man refused to do anything that might assist this children. He all but denounced them as mixed bloods. It was all up to them, he said, and if they ventured back to try it again the baliff said he'd deal with it his way. The man from Gondor knew what that meant. With a flick of his hand his men gathered.
"We're on our own," he started and the men scowled at the baliff's door, well aware why this was so, "We'll use the dogs, but keep them on the leash. These are children, young. Little more than babies. For all of that, they led us a merry chase. Seemed to know what they were about. For that reason, we will not rely on the dogs alone. Easy enough to throw their scent, as we well know."
"We'll break into pairs, tackle each farm and barn and shack we can find in this valley. Won't get through it all in a day, and we'll need to be thorough. Boy and girl, both fair haired for what that is worth. We'll also need to be as swift as we can. Weather's closing in and it ain't nothing to be caught out in."
"Really think these young ones are out in it?"
"Stealing food is one thing, a lark. Cracking open an egg to eat it raw is quite another. What do you think?"
There was murmuring at that, not a one of them happy about the picture painted. Good men, these ones, the man from Gondor thought.
"Fast as we are, though, we won't cover the valley in one day. We should have two before the weather closes in. If we don't find them by then, Winter will. They'll not survive without proper shelter, food. Questions?"
There was silence and so he pressed on, eager to do the most they could with the light they had, "And don't forget to ask about that girl what they told us about."
There was groaning at that, "How many o' these phantom blonde children are we chasing, Cap?"
"One is too many by my count. Orders are orders. You've memorised her description, and the reward the crown is willing to pay if she is located. If you're asking about one set, won't do no harm to ask about her. And before you complain further, consider what you might make of all this grumbling if she were your kin."
From there out they swiftly paired up and set off, a hound with each pair held carefully on the leash.
~ ~ ~
If he hadn't of been so tired and hungry and gnawing on a fish, he might have heard them coming. Both of them had been sitting on the bank, backs to the way they had come like fools, chewing each on a fish. The first he knew that he had company was a heavy hand that landed like a boulder on his shoulder and plucked him up. Loch shouted, fish dropped, and this alerted Rin. She rolled down the bank and into the icy stream but there was another adult, a woman this one, who soon fetched her and brought her back, writhing like some demented, mute animal in her grip. The man who had captured him held him easily. Beyond the reach of Loch's swings, the man studied him like a dog did a bone.
"That yer sister, boy?" the man asked, eyeing her the same way. Loch didn't say a word.
"He's scared, Jeb. Won't get nuthin' from 'im like that," the woman said.
"Don't want nothin'…unless it's me chickens what he ate. Can you pay fer them, boy?"
Loch's throat had constricted and all he could do was stare at how the man glowered at him. This was really bad, he knew.
"Ere, boy…don't pay Jeb no mind…just 'is way, like. Tell yer sister what to settle down. I ain't gonna hurt her…but she might hurt herself if she keeps this up."
The woman's voice was kind and Loch thought she might be right about Rin.
"Set her down," Loch asked and, carefully, the woman did that just as soon as Jeb had let him go. No sooner did she reach the ground did Rin make a break for it.
Loch knew that she would. She was only doing what he had told her to do last time this happened. He pounced on his sister's back and held her tight, one eye on the man and woman who watched all of this.
"Rin…Rin… stop. You're making it worse, Rin. You hear me? Stop that!"
He wasn't sure if she did or if she simply ran out of strength. She deflated under him and Loch sprang up again and shook her shoulder. Had he killed her dead, he fearfully wondered. When she pushed his hand away, he knew she was alright.
"Right sorry about your chickens. We…we was real hungry," Loch said, turning back to the two adults that had looked on.
"Where're yer parents, boy?' the woman asked, the man simply watching with his arms crossed. There was no answer Loch knew how to give to that question but the woman read his expression. Rage, despair, grief. The girl was sitting now, arm wrapped around her brother's leg, staring at them. So quiet. With those large eyes of blue and silver and that pale hair. The woman glanced to the man at her side, nodded. The man took a deep breath and sighed.
"Don't expect yer 'ave nuthin' to pay me with fer me chickens…" he rumbled and the boy's head dropped, shame writ clearly on his half-cast face.
"Don't expect them chickens were worth much anyway, Jeb," the woman said and then crouched to better consider the girl. The boy was too old. The girl though. Yes, the girl.
"Must be hard, living out 'ere in the cold, with yer sister to care fer all on yer own," she said, dragging her eyes up to the boy's.
He nodded and the man puffed his cheeks like he was making this up as he went along for the first time.
"Reckon I see a way clear o' this, Sara," he said and, right on cue, the woman beamed hopefully up at him.
The man nodded and the woman turned back to consider Loch. He was watching them, wrapt attention. The girl started tugging on the boy's ragged tunic - made from some sort of chaff bag it seemed.
"Wanna know how, boy?" Sara asked and the boy nodded while his sister tugged harder and harder. He knocked her hand away.
"Yes," he said.
"Yes what?" Jeb growled like a thunderhead.
"Yes please…sir?" the boy amended fast, eyes darting from the woman to the man. This, Loch was relieved to see, seemed to rectify the situation.
"Reckon we might be able to look after yer sister 'ere, till you ken work up the coin me chickens is worth. Strong lad like you, plantin' season is about ready to start. Plenty o work…and she'll be safe with us."
Loch frowned as he tried to keep up. Seemed to him like they were asking him to give them Rin till he could get work and pay back his debt. Only this weren't no goat or sow…this was his sister. He looked down at her and saw she was frightened. She shook her head at him. The man and woman watching sensed that this just might not work at all.
"Don't know as I can do that, sir," the boy said.
"WHY NOT?" Jeb roared. Though the boy cowered, he did not capitulate.
"She's my sister!" he pleaded and hoped the man could see that he couldn't trade away his own family like that. She was all he had left.
The boy looked down at the girl again and Jeb glanced at Sara. She shrugged and tried one last throw. If fear would not work, the heart strings just might.
"Yer love yer sister, don't ya boy" she said softly and he nodded, "Had me a brother wot loved me like that once. Rare…rare, it is. What's yer name?"
"Loch," the boy mumbled.
"And yer sister's?"
"This winter's been hard on the both of yer. Can see it, I can. Don't doubt yer tried to do what was right by Rin. Tried yer best. Didn't yer?"
"Yes," the boy replied, bottom lip quivering as he stared at his sister.
"There, see Jeb. Wot did I tell yer? Does 'his best, he does," the woman said to the man and turned back to Loch, "It's cos yer love Rin like what brothers should, don't ya, Loch. Yes yer do. Thing is, Loch, it's only gonna get worse. Harder…Summer's a ways away yet...and now there's this debt wot you owe Jeb. Musta bin starvin'. Eatin' chickens raw… fish too."
She could see the tears start down his face, relatively cleaner tracks through the dirt there. Beside her, Jeb was getting impatient.
"Way I see it, Loch, yer have two choices. There's always choices, right?"
The boy nodded, unable to talk.
"Yer kin continue on like yer 'ave bin. Who knows, yer might make it, if yer lucky, if yer can stand Jeb takin' his debt from yer hide - wot is Jeb's due, now. Or yer kin do what's best fer Rin there. She's just a baby, Loch, too much fer you to care fer on yer own. Let Jeb and me look after her for a bit, just a bit…Be easier for yer both that way...safer too. Easier for you to find what work you might, easier on 'er too. Safe, warm, fed…clean clothes."
When the boy lifted his wet brown eyes to hers, Sara knew she had won. It was all a matter of promises now and Jeb and her were real good at promises. Promises don't cost nothing but words.
Leaving Rin there, on the bank of that stream was close to the hardest thing he had ever done. Almost as hard as carrying her past Ma and all that blood. She had clung to him, eyes bright with tears that she could not shed, mutely frantic. Loch thought Rin just might pull his arm right off, she held on that tight. In the end, Sara had to pull Rin off him. He swore an oath, another one, that he'd come back for her just as soon as he had the coin. It wasn't forever, he told her. He would be back. And then he turned and walked away.
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.