3. Chapter 3
"There now, pretty baby. Such a pretty little thing, yer are. Pretty as a shiny new penny."
No matter how Sara crooned though, Rin struggled vainly as her brother walked further and further away. She saw him turn, once, and hope surged that he might have changed his mind. Sometimes Loch did that, when he had a better idea. Sometimes. But it was not to be. He did not come back for her. He was going. She screwed her eyes shut and beat her fists on the arms that held her like tree roots. They did not give way.
"Din't 'ave time fer this afore this started and 'ave even less now," the big man growled. Sara plucked Rin up no matter how she struggled and she was so tired and it hurt everywhere. Eventually she just hung there and hoped the woman might think her dead. That worked, sometimes. She stared at the ground that passed by but Sara did not set her down until they had reached a house that smelt very bad. Worse even than the barn. The man stayed outside and for that Rin was relieved though she did not know why. Inside, the woman called Sara started to sing. It was not a pleasant sound. Rin did not like it.
First thing Sara did was put her in a tub with water and bubbles. The water stung her eyes. Rin immediately decided to clamber out, nearly upending the tub. Sara became cross then. She pulled her back and shoved her under the water until Rin thought her lungs would burst. She stopped struggling then and Sara let her up again. Rin sucked in a gasping breath and, when the water cleared her ears, discovered that Sara was singing again. She seized Rin's shoulders and forcibly held Rin there in the stinging water. Soon all the bubbles went away and the water was a nasty brown colour. Sara clucked her tongue, fished Rin out of the tub. Rin thought it was all done, and while Sara was busy she angled towards the door. She might have no clothes and be wet all over like a fish, but it weren't the first time.
"Oh no, pretty baby," the woman sang, plucking her up again just as she reached the door.
"Can't 'ave yer goin' out there. Not yet. Can't have ole Jeb seein' yer. Yer not ready."
There was another tub of stinging water, Rin realised just as she was plunged back into it. By the time this was finished, three tubs later, Rin had learnt something important. Sara's mood changed fast. Sunny one moment, frightening the next and then snapping back. Rin didn't understand why. Only that it happened, and it frightened her. She did not know why. Only that it did. Sara towelled her down so hard that Rin thought all her skin would come right off, like fish scales did, and all her hair would fall out. Sara straightened, damp towel over one arm, and studied her.
"Better, pretty baby…more to do yet, afore yer ready."
Rin did not know what Sara meant by ready, but she sensed it was not something she would like very much.
"No so sad, pretty penny. Smile. Smile for Sara now. SMILE!"
And Rin did, baring her teeth, because she was frightened of what might happen if she did not. Sara smiled back at her, though her eyes remained flat and wrong.
"Better," Sara declared and Rin kept smiling even though her cheeks were now starting to ache.
"Yer know yer words?" she asked and Rin nodded, still smiling.
"But yer don't talk none?" and Rin shook her head. Sara seemed thoughtful at that and so Rin smiled harder. It worked. Sara's mood cleared on the brighter side and she turned away for something she called the next part.
So it went through the day…all manner of strange things, many of them uncomfortable or outright painful till at last Sara placed her in a chair at the table and told her to remain. In those hours, Rin had seen sunny Sara and scary Sara time and again. Frightened near out of her wits and lonely for her brother, Rin didn't want to see scary Sara any more that day. So she sat and stared at the table just like scary Sara had told her to. It's top was crowded with things, more than even the floor was. Rin sat still, just like scary Sara said, no matter how the dress scratched and itched. It smelt funny, pinched her too tight. Sunny Sara had burnt her only other clothes so it was this or nothing, and besides Rin guessed that scary Sara would come if she took it off. When Jeb threw the door open Rin was so started she toppled out of the chair and onto the floor. Realising what she had done, and that Scary Sara would not be far behind, she curled up into a ball as best as she could in the scratchy dress, arms over her head and forehead on her knees.
There was silence, and then Jeb began to laugh. The sound boomed like thunder. At that, Scary Sara became Sunny Sara and she tugged Rin up, tucked her back into her seat and smoothed her hair out.
"There, now…see 'ow shiny she is, Jeb? Like a new penny, init?"
"Reckon so," Jeb replied, his amusement evaporating as the expression of terror faded into normal fear on the girl's face. He settled his bulk into a chair that creaked under his weight and Rin hung onto her chair seat as hard as she could so that she did not fall out again, no matter what happened next.
A simple sweep of his arm sent the things on the table crashing to the floor. The loud sudden sounds make her flinch but she kept her seat this time. She could see him, just over the table.
"Better," he grunted, eyeing her hard, "Kin see 'er, now. Best keep an eye on 'er, Sara. She'll run, she will. I kin tell."
"Bin watchin' 'er, Jeb. All day long, ent I, pretty baby?"
Rin nodded solemnly and Sara continued, sidling up to stroke Rin's hair in a way that made her want to run - "Sides, Jeb, she loves me now, don't yer, pretty baby."
Sara was stroking her hair and pressing her head against her meaty hip so hard that Rin could not have nodded even if she wanted to.
"She don't say much," Jeb said, staring at her still.
"Understands aright, but don't speak no word. Didn't even squeak when she fell outta 'er chair jist then."
Sara released Rin and turned back to the hearth. She soon set down a plate of what smelt like food in front of Jeb, stepped back and crossed her arms. Rin's stomach growled loudly.
"That yer belly, girl?" he grunted at her, tearing bread apart with his large hands, "Well?"
Rin nodded, eyes locked on the bread now. It wasn't even mouldy!
"She bin good fer yer today, Sara? Behaved 'erself proper like?"
"Near enough, I reckon, for 'er first day," Sara replied, watching the way the child's eyes tracked the bread as if it were gold.
"Then here,, girl," the man said and tossed some bread that sailed straight past Rin and onto the floor behind her chair.
Rin was nearly out of her chair before she realised. Only her grip kept her in her seat. She tore her eyes from the floor to Sara, who was watching her like a snake, ready to strike.
"Clever baby!" she said, clapping, smiling brightly.
"Wot yer waitin' fer, girl? Best git that there bread afore the rats do," Jeb shouted and with that, Rin was out of her chair and onto the bread like a jackal.
She stuffed it all into her mouth at once, though it nearly choked her and made her eyes water. Jeb thought this funny and threw her more bread. Rin happily sat on the floor, cramming bread into her mouth as the sun slid from the sky. There were other things on Jeb's plate, things he did not share, but the bread was enough. The bread was perfect. Only a little bit tough. Only better she had was the bread Mama made and that thought made her sad again.
"Smile, pretty baby!" scary Sara commanded and sure enough, the child smiled, crumbs on her chin. Not long, Sara mused, before the girl was tamer than Jeb's favourite dog. Not long at all. Jeb seemed pleased too. So pleased that he left her alone that night. Yes, this were a good idea. It would be better this time. This one was clever and pretty. She learned fast. Sara went to sleep with a smile on her face for the first time in months, Jeb snoring in the other corner and the girl happily curled up under the table like it were a palace.
~ ~ ~
Loch knew that this was a dangerous place, but he was cold. He eyed the mean little cottage. Light gleamed from its window and, from time to time, he could see her inside as she passed the windows. The witch moved about, up to who knew what manner of evil. He had heard the talk in the village below as good as anyone else. Thing was, provided she stayed in there, he might be able to keep warm by this pool here. The air had an acrid stench to it, and the water bubbled and steamed. Out and out evil…but it was warm and he didn't have Rin to worry about or to curl up against for warmth now.
The witch wouldn't eat him anyway. Not enough meat on his bones. The snow was unable to find purchase so close to this veritable cauldron and so Loch slept on stinking, but warm ground. He slipped off to sleep straight away even though his heart ached for his sister. He had done the right thing. He had. The right thing. He would be back as soon as he could, honest. Only twenty gold crowns. Twenty wasn't much, was it? He had no one to ask how many twenty was. Way Jeb and Sara had said, twenty weren't much and adults new their numbers and letters.
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.