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Postby elora » Mon Apr 17, 2017 2:56 pm

Prologue: Edholland III 1437

How was this possible, Amarwen wondered. She stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair had been brushed until its ebony lengths glowed and set into a high braid that fell over one shoulder to her waist. She had donned Edholland's colours too in a dress of rich gold velvet but Amarwen did not see any of this.

Osgiliath had burned. The Dome of Stars cracked and charred. The Master Stone lost in the Anduin. The city itself sacked, its people fleeing for their lives. And all of this by their own people.

And where was father? Alive? Dead? Prisoner and if so for how long? A chill ran through her blood and she shivered as a tap sounded at her door. In the mirror, Amarwen saw her mother slip through and she took her fears and her sorrow into a firm grip. For her mother's sake. Since the tidings had reached them in Edholland, her mother had not slept nor ate. She was pale as a ghost and dreadfully afraid. Amarwen rose to her feet and crossed her bedroom to take her mother into her arms. This woman had always been Amarwen's haven in a storm. Now, it fell to her to be the same.

Her mother leaned into her daughter's embrace for a long moment and then collected herself up. She was quivering like a leaf but her jaw was clenched. She, too, had dressed formally to receive the men below. She had added her circlet, a clear symbol that she too was descended from a line of kings. Perhaps it would be enough to give those waiting below pause for thought. Perhaps.

"They are waiting," she said through it, voice strained.

Amarwen's first response was to let them wait longer still but that would not serve them well. They needed to secure her father's release.

She gathered her mother's hands in her own, "Then let us greet our guests."

Down to the great hall they went, arm in arm. The household staff were silent, fearful. For the men waiting within were hardly guests. Guests did not arrive swathed in armour and gripping their weapons, the stink of a sacked city still thick in their charred cloaks. Guests did not pound on the doors and demand entry.

Their chamberlain met them at the doors to the great hall with pleading eyes, almost as if he was begging them to run. Amarwen would have, all the way to Osgiliath to demand justice and the return of her father.

"These...these men, they are-"

"I know who they are,"
her mother answered the Chamberlain, somehow finding a store of steely resolve within even now.

The chamberlain nodded and, with a sigh, pushed open the doors to admit them into their hall.

The first thing Amarwen noticed was their number. There had to be at least ten of them all gathered. All wore mail, some plate and no few weapons. Hard travel stained their gear, and that was not all. She did indeed see smoke and blood and a fresh wave of anger began to bubble.

Osgiliath sacked by their own people.

At their arrival, the men swung about and aside from two, Amarwen did not recognise them. The Master of the Mariner's Guild spread his stance as they approached and had the decency to incline his head, barely. As well he might, given the many times he had been greeted in this hall as a guest and indeed a friend by her father. At his shoulder stood his son, Halvarin. His expression was taut, carefully held blank, and she could not tell what he was thinking as his eyes flickered over her and her mother.

"My Lady," his father intoned as they closed.

Amarwen's mother did not say a word. Instead, she stared at the Guild Master as if she somehow already sensed his tidings. The tension mounted rapidly until Amarwen broke the silence.

"The Lord of Edholland, what is his fate?"

A blunt question to be sure, but Amarwen saw little to be gained with diplomacy now. These men had come from war, for war. Of that she was all but certain.

"Alive," Halvarin answered and at that her mother sagged on her arm.

Halvarin's father stepped in to support her and Amarwen had no choice but to surrender her mother so that she could be assisted to a chair. The others followed to gather around her even as Halvarin drew her back and away.

"Why did he ride out for Eldacar?" Halvarin hissed in her ear.

Amarwen's gaze did not shift from the knot of men crowding her mother but her tone was ice, "Because the alternative was treason."

"I am not a traitor!"

"Tell me Halvarin, were the women and children of Osgiliath traitors?"

"Osgiliath chose to fight, even though they had no hope of prevailing. It was foolish. Reckless. Unnecessary"

"And so you burned it. Yes, it all makes sense now."

"Edholland will be next. Open the harbour for pity's sake. It need not come to this. Not here."

"You want that harbour open, return my father to Edholland. It is as simple as that."

Beside her, Halvarin pushed out a sorrowful sigh, "Nothing is simple any more, Amarwen."

The plaintive note in his voice pulled her eyes to his and she was struck, as she had been in the past, by their colour. Like the storm tossed sea, they were, blue and grey both depending on how the light hit them. There had been a night not so long ago that she had gazed into them and they had been laughing. Filled with joy and no small degree of mischief as they danced in this very hall. She still remembered the feel of his hand around hers, sure and steady.

"Perhaps you are right," she sighed, for that merriment was gone now and she wondered if ever it would return.

In a way, this was no more Halvarin's fault than it was hers. Their fathers had declared for different kings and one had prevailed over the other. Amarwen washed a hand over her face but before anything more could be said, her mother rose to her feet.

Amarwen's eyes widened at the terrible wrath upon her mother's face. She made to step forward but Halvarin caught her elbow as the men around her mother closed.

"Never. This house, nor Edholland, will never support the Usurper of Pelargir!"

A single word, ringing and clear.

"A terrible mistake, Lady," Halvarin's father declared ominously, "Edholland is even more vulnerable than Osgiliath. It is indefensible."

"And you, sir, are unforgivable."

"You fail to comprehend, though I do not know how, that you are alone in your opposition to the King. All the others are dead, or have fled into north."

"Castamir is no more King than I."

"And that is why your husband will rot and your people will starve."

Again Amarwen tried to go to her mother but Halvarin held her fast.

"Do not," he warned and at that the doors opened, pushed in by the men of the household.

From the chamberlain to those that tended the kitchen and stables, some of them armed with no more than their fists, all with a frenzied, desperate light in their eyes.

"Unhand the Lady of Edholland and leave this place," the chamberlain said, lifting his silvered chin.

Amarwen had never seen him so wroth before. This was a man that had tossed her on his knee.

"Have them stand down," Halvarin pleaded in a low voice, "It need not end like this."

But already it was too late for one of the men by Amarwen's mother seized her roughly and threw her to his fellows as he cleared his sword. The great hall filled with the terrible scrape of steel clearing scabbards and this sent those in the doorway flying forwards, intent on casting these men out. But, valiant as they were, they were no match for the men they sought to drive out. Horrified, Amarwen was momentarily transfixed until Halvarin pulled her away.

"Hide," he hissed at her, urgent, even as he drew his weapon.

She heard her mother cry out, "RUN AMARWEN! RU-"

A strangled sound and then nothing as Halvarin's father turned to where she stood on the other side of his son. Throught his legs she could see her mother's form, prone on the flagstone floor. An outstretched hand, limp, and blood. Blood pooling.

"Bring the lass here, lad," his father bade him and at that Amarwen ran.

Running was something she had always been good at, skirts or not. She had won every footrace she had been in as a child, fleet as fox she was and so she was out of the great hall ahead of those now pounding after her. Weighed down by their weapons and armour, she had no small advantage in that. Also, unlike them, she could get to the harbour and get a ship onto the water. No matter how fast their horses were, if the wind was with her she leave them in her wake like dust.

Whilst she slipped through the halls and streets of her childhood home like the wind, those pursuing her were not so fortunate. The fate of her mother uncertain now, indeed all of Edholland, Amarwen knew she had to do one thing and one thing alone: unseat the Usurper as quickly as she could. As fortune would have it, she was on the water with the tide before Castamir's men gained the docks. Unlike her, they had been stalled and waylaid at every pass. And if they thought they'd appropriate a ship to pursue her, the actions of the harbour master at Edholland had put paid to that.

Amarwen whipped through the headlands and towards the sea with the ships of Edholland all aflame. Back on the docks, Halvarin pressed his arm to his mouth and nose to keep the smoke at bay.

"Every last bloody ship, boat and dinghy," his father raged, appalled as any mariner would be, "These people are mad!"

Halvarin said nothing, his eyes tracking the small sail of the one ship that had slipped away. Doomed, she was. He knew it. She'd be a fugitive now, a traitor to be hunted down. Castamir would show no mercy. Assuming she somehow managed to land the tiny boat safely. It was not made to withstand the sea and she could not risk hugging the coast.

He pushed out a sigh and then returned his attention to their immediate surrounds. The smoke was thickening and the people of Edholland were not their supporters. No telling how emboldened they would be once the smoke gave them cover. Word would reach them soon of what had unfolded at the hall.

"We should be away, father," he said, "Nothing to be gained here now."

his father growled as he turned on his heels.

As they strode back to where they had left their horses, Halvarin asked what was probably an unwise question, "Was it necessary to kill the Lady of Edholland?"

His father rolled his shoulders, "I did not come here seeking it. I had hoped that she might see reason in her. For Edholland, for their daughter.

"And what fate the Lord of Edholland now?"
he asked as his father grimaced.

"For the King to decide," his father answered, "But I doubt it will be a merciful one."

"And Amarwen?"
he pressed, at which his father turned about to study him.

He lifted a hand to set upon Halvarin's shoulder, "The kindest thing, lad, is to hope the sea claims the lass before Castamir does."

By the time they had ridden back to Minas Tirith, his father's words proved true. The new King had swept through the court of Gondor like a bloody scythe. The dead included the Lord of Edholland and Eldacar's eldest son. Their deaths had not been easy and an uneasy pall hung over the city that Halvarin rode through.
Last edited by elora on Fri May 26, 2017 5:21 am, edited 6 times in total.
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Re: Kin-Strife

Postby elora » Mon Apr 17, 2017 2:59 pm

Minas Tirith May 1437

Halvarin maintained his silence as they wended their way through the White City’s tiers. With the truth so clouded, and so many dead at the hand or order of their new King, he had pondered his position at length after what he had witnessed in Edholland. Amarwen’s words to him about the events of Osgiliath hung particularly stubborn in his mind.

Their arrival at the chambers the Mariner’s Guild maintained in Minas Tirith revealed many grim, if not outright displeased faces at the aftermath of Castamir’s rise to the kingship. Instead of mercy and wisdom, Castamir had responded with a show of force and merciless. Unsullied as his descent from mighty Numénor might be, he seemed set to rule from fear instead of love.

No sooner had their party dismounted did Guild members press in, demanding to know the outcome of Edholland. A heated discussion sprang up and as it unfolded, Halvarin noted that a number of Guild stalwarts were absent. He stood back, listening closely as his father and other senior mariners traded terse words in hushed tones. Almost as if they feared they would be overheard.

When the words were spent, the criticisms set free, little had changed. The Guild remained steadfast in their t determination to support Castamir. These men, who had stared down the might and power of the raging oceans had balked. His stomach twisted at the thought, and later that night as the fine wines began to flow, Halvarin found himself unable to take part. He shook his head at the offer of a glass and that would have been that if his father had not interceded.

He watched his elder swoop up a glass of dark wine and hold to him with the admonishment, ”The King is victorious! We all should celebrate!”

Were it not for the flat note of his father’s voice, Halvarin would have missed the sarcasm altogether. Still, for all of that, he appreciated the wisdom of his father’s counsel. The absences in those gathered that night spoke volumes. Dissent was no longer a luxury any could afford in Gondor. Halvarin accepted the wine from his father and followed those present to lift his glass to salute the new King. Yet, he lagged in sipping at his wine, his thoughts again drifting to Edholland. Amarwen’s pale, stricken face as she witnessed her mother’s death rose in his mind, her dismay and fear palable even now. Inwardly, Halvarin mused, ‘To Lady Amarwen, now Lady of Edholland. May you find your way through this storm to safe harbour.’

As the others were finishing their drink, Halvarin tipped his glass and took it all down in one gulp. There was a silence in the guild room which was only broken by someone speaking in a low tone. At that, those present in the hall resumed their usual chatter. Halvarin studied the bass of his glass, swirled what remained and raised it to his mouth to drain the final drops. With that seen to, he set his glass aside and turned for the door as his father seemed set to speak further. Halvarin hesitated at that but in that moment his father seemed to think better of it.

He watched him turn to one of the Guild’s senior officers. Never any shortage of men seeking his father’s ear as Guild Master. Aware that his father would likely be preoccupied by such matters for the remainder of the evening and unable to find his peers present in the hall, Halvarin considered his departure anew, determined to find time for his own thoughts before his sour disposition was noted.

Too late, as it turned out, for the captain of the Foamcutter pounced on Halvarin and father, ”Impolitic to doubt our King now, even no one could possibly have anticipated this state of affairs.”

Halvarin’s father nodded, ”The Mariners Guild have no role in determining the King’s course.”

Masterful, Halvarin thought, for such a statement could be seen in more than one light. The Foamcutter’s captain nodded in agreement and with that Halvarin made his break from the Guild hall. It was not long before he found himself at the White Tree Inn where he ordered a glass of the strongest port wine they had.

It was no match for the Dorwinion wine they had been supping at the Guild Hall, he thought as he sampled his drink. Ironic, he realized, that the Mariner’s Guild even now were enjoying the fruits of the Northmen they had repudiated to such an extent that they had overthrown their King. Halvarin drank deeply from the rough wooden mug, his mind careening about. Drinking and thinking, he thought, a dangerous combination in these times. Still, for all of that, he could not pretend that he did not fear. What was happening to his beloved Gondor?

A few days and nights passed in this fashion before Halvarin received fresh orders. He was assigned to a large ship that would be leaving from Pelargir south to the rumoured woodlands of Far Harad. With these orders in hand, Halvarin felt a sense of profound relief. This he could do. Far better, far preferable, than the orders that had sent him with his father to Edholland. As he set to readying himself for the river voyage to Pelargir, Halvarin found himself reviewing just how he had come to find himself in this predicament.

It could all be traced back to the disillusionment he recalled several years earlier as he studied the art of navigation whilst an Ensign. Trouble with the Northmen of Rhovanion had flared then and Halvarin had agreed with a great many others with the Mariner’s Guild that Valacar should not have taken a Rhovanion princess to wife. It had emboldened these middle men. Still, when that disapproval had developed into open, rumbling dischord within the maritime provinces of Gondor, Halvarin had subscribed to the view that come what may, the Line of Kings was to be adhered to.

Yet, he was part of a diminishing minority within his Guild as the Master of Ships rose in prominence and position. One by one, Halvarin watched senior Guild offiers fall under Castamir’s sway. Opposition to Valacar had waxed, and it seemed almost inevitable now that he looked back on it that this had grown to outright rejection of Eldacar. And now he was, about to take ship and guide them south to the woodlands that would enable Castamir to expand his fleet. Amarwen’s bold actions at Edholland had meant that the King had no other means to strength his dominance over the waves. He must build, for there were no more ships to appropriate by one means or another.

Setting out from Pelargir, their ships made good time south in favourable winds. They carried Marine soldiers and engineers mostly. Once a landing was secured, the soldiers were to move inland and find where to set fortifications in case of possible attacks on the camps the engineers planned. Halvarin’s duty lay in getting them south and returning them home safely. Whilst in Harad, though, Halvarin had little to do there once they arrived. He spent his time tending to his ship and studying the stars at night so as to make notes and update his charts. This was not, on the whole, unpleasant but Halvarin’s mind was not easy even though he had managed to escape the suffocating city. He slept through the day, or tried to at least. Time and again he woke, swathed in a cold sweat as the events of Edholland rolled through his mind. Bloodied. Night, then, was his only comfort for in gazing at the night sky he found it easiest to recall Amarwen. Her hair was dark as the night and her eyes glimmered like the stars. Remote though it was, Halvarin clung to the hope that somehow Amarwen had survived her flight from Edholland. Somehow, despite the flimsy dinghy she had taken to the sea.

When his ruminations locked on her dingy failing her, Halvarin tried instead to recall happier times. He had visited Edholland with his father often over the years. The first time he had encountered Amarwen, they had both been scarcely more than children. Still, even then, he had found her captivating. Shy as he had been, Halvarin recalled the gradual way in which she had carved out her own little notch in his heart. Whether or not she knew that she occupied that place or not he could not guess. But, he liked to think that they had been friends. They had danced in her father’s hall, her eyes sparkling and her laughter curling in his ears as she filled his arms. Vibrant, lively, glorious with her midnight hair and starlit eyes.

Yet, for all of his attempts to recall brighter, happier times, Halvarin found it all but impossible not to dwell on the unkind twist of fate that had seen him sent to Edholland as her foe. He had done what he could, as he could, but for all of that it seemed to him that any friendship between them had died that day with her mother. If she had survived her escape, the only desire Lady Armarwen was likely to have with regard to him would be to plant a good five spans of steel in his belly. And he could not fault her for that, even if his sword had not been the one to claim her mother.

For a month they stayed there at anchor and in that Halvarin began to sicken. Still, he remained at his duties as they set out for Gondor again. By the time they reached the shipyards in Pelargir, Halvarin had lost weight and could barely walk off the ship. He immediately went in search of a healer. He avoided the usual ones that the Guild retained and instead sought an unconventional herbal sorceress. Some might even call her a witch. Whatever she was, she cured his body but could not set his mind to rest and Halvarin returned to ship in time to sail up the river to Minas Tirith.

Would that he had not, he thought, as he gained the Guildhouse and with it the tidings that Lady Amarwen had been lost at sea. The evidence was conclusive. A shattered dinghy washed ashore, scraps of sodden golden velvet caught in the shattered timbers. Robbed now of even his faint hope, Halvarin withdrew into himself. He became silent and distant as he threw himself into finalizing his star charts of the south for his Guild.

Time drifted by, turgid and bloated, and in that time the news of Castamir’s purges faded. Halvarin found himself longing to return south, away from Gondor where he might study the night sky closer. It was there he felt closest to Amarwen, as if she watched him from far away. Wherever it was their people went when their lives were spent. However this was not to be for Halvarin was given a very different command. One which would test his faltering loyalty.

Summonsed to the Guild chambers, Halvarin found himself facing three senior captains. His father, nor any he knew, were amongst them.

”These have been trying times for us all,” said the one in the middle, ”But you have acquitted yourself very well. You have shown yourself worthy of advancement, Halvarin.”

The flanking captains nodded at this and Halvarin struggled to keep his expression suitably neutral.

”You are to take ship up the river, to Osgiliath. There you will assume command of the Eastern Watch from Beregon of Anorien. He seems to be missing,” the man let that last dangle in the air, bait.

Missing. Was he killed or had he deserted? Halvarin nodded, understanding that part of his commission would involve sorting out whatever had happened to Beregon. With little more to say, Halvarin took his leave to prepare for his post at what was now a ruined, crumbling ghost of a city.
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Re: Kin-Strife

Postby elora » Wed May 24, 2017 4:52 am

Dol Amroth – 1437

Amarwen paused in the hall before the door that led to the study of the Prince of Dol Amroth. He had been a steady and true friend of her father, their bond extend well beyond her birth. He had welcomed her into his hall without hesitancy, despite the fact that she had arrived unannounced and expecting Castamir’s fleet to descend upon her any moment now. And yet, that had not come to pass. Indeed, within the Prince’s halls one could be forgiven for not knowing what had come to pass within Gondor.

Despite that her father and the Prince had been united in their opposition to Castamir’s ascension to the throne, King’s gauntleted fist had not fallen so heavily upon Dol Amroth as it had on Edholland. For all his proclivities and failings, Castamir was not so reckless as that. His emissaries had come to Dol Amroth armed to the teeth with proclamations of good faith but the Prince had not been gulled. Or so she hoped.

Were she mistaken, these last few steps would be the last she would take of her own choosing. Of that she was sure. She was aware that she had been declared a traitor for the burning of Edholland’s fleet. Never mind that it had been a precaution against a force of armed, violent men sent by the King to disturb Edholland’s peace. And so here she was, delaying before the Prince’s door wondering whether friend could remain friend in this tumult.

She smoothed her palms over her borrowed garb and knocked on the thick oak door. When bidden, she entered to find the Prince at his desk. It was late afternoon and the hearth was well alight, intent on defeating the rapidly approaching dusk. As she closed the door behind her, Amarwen saw the Prince’s dark head lift. His line was woven with the Eldar and it showed in his features and character, or so she thought. She could not know him as her father had. Indeed, he had such an advantage of years that he could have been her father.

As if he somehow guessed the thrust of her thoughts, the Prince smiled at her fondly.

”Like yesterday it seems,” he remarked, ”When your mother set you in my arms.”

This came as she offered him the courtesy he was owed. Amarwen smiled as she rose from her curtsy and the Prince pushed aside whatever he had been reading to select a fresh sheet of parchment.

He folded his hands over it as she approached his desk, ”Our ruse, it would appear, has succeeded.”

Amarwen nodded, grateful, for she had arrived without so much as the nearest crumb of a coherent plan. The Prince, however, had not been nearly so tardy. No sooner had her sorry tale tumbled out of her had he swung into action. Before she knew it, he was issuing orders to his most trusted men to take her battered dinghy back out and beach it with shreds of her sodden yellow velvet caught in the ruined timbers.

If she was honest, Amarwen had been skeptical that the ploy would work. The Prince had proved wiser, as might be expected of a man that had been dealing with the White City since before she had been born.

”I am dead, then?” she asked for good measure and the Prince nodded.

”Quite. Lost at sea…and stripped of your titles for good measure,” he replied and she sighed.

Still, what had she expected given the turn of events at court?

”I am most grateful for your assistance, your Grace,” she answered and the Prince gestured at a nearby seat.

”And so, now we arrive at what is to follow. You are most welcome to remain here.”

If Castamir found she was alive and being sheltered in Dol Amroth, his restraint would end and Dol Amroth’s fate would be far worse than that of Edholland. Amarwen shook her head from side to side, her hair shifting with her movement.

”I could not imperil your people in such a fashion, your Grace.”

His eyes glinted as he studied her for a long moment and then he reached for a fresh quill, ”Very well, safe passage to Rhovanion it is. I will provide the necessary bone fides to assure you are received by Eldacar’s people.”

Rumor had it that Castamir had already begun to send his spies north, seeking to infiltrate his foe’s people. Stragglers, those that had waited before setting out, were now met with steel until they could vouch for themselves. Even Amarwen, the daughter of the man who had been executed by Castamir with Eldacar’s own son, would not be assured of a welcome amongst the rightful King’s people now. That, she very much thought, had been one of the Usurper’s objectives. Even if he obtained no information of any use out of Rhovanion, what better than to have his opponents supporters picked off in this fashion.

”It is not to Rhovanion I would go,” Amarwen said and the Prince’s head lifted.

He hoisted a dark brow at her and she pressed on, ”Minas Tirith.”

“To what end?”
he asked and, when she did not answer, set his quill down again and sat back in his chair, his expression now grave and stern.

”Surely you understand that my first thoughts cannot be for my safety, your Grace.”

The Prince grimaced at that, ”Your fate, should you be discovered, will be grim indeed.”

“How fortunate that Amarwen of Edholland is already dead,”
she answered, lifting her chin as she did so.

At that the Prince shook his head at her, ”I had wondered why you had cut your hair.”

His comment made her reach for her shortened lengths. It fell past her shoulders still, but only to the middle of her back. As was proper, as was necessary for what she intended to do. Only noble born ladies could afford to wear their hair as long as he had and Amarwen of Edholland rested in a cold, watery grave.

“I will not be able to protect you in Minas Tirith,” he warned and Amarwen’s gaze did not waver.

”I doubt there is any who might shelter us from what is to come, your Grace.”

“Again, Amarwen, I ask for the sake of your dear parents who cannot, what is your purpose in this?”

Her eyes shifted then, dropped to the Prince’s wide desk of dark polished wood and the blank parchment upon it for a moment. Her parents would be appalled at what she was enterprising. And yet it had been them to raise her with the firm belief that her people always came first. Always. Amarwen drew in a deep breath, clasped her hands in her lap and returned her attention to the Prince.

”I seek to serve my people, your Grace.”

The Prince’s mouth pressed into a straight, thin line as he shook his head slowly. She thought he would refuse her then and there and wondered what might follow if he did. Instead, though, he straightened in his chair again.

”What would you have of me, Lady Amarwen.”

“A letter of recommendation…for a scullery maid.”

He considered her for a moment, pressed out a long breath and then inked his quill. Amarwen didn’t dare move an inch nor make a sound as the Prince wrote. Nothing that might cause him to reconsider.

”What is this scullery maid’s name,” he inquired, head bowed.

”Marece,” Amarwen replied, thinking of the wife of Edholland’s head cook.

Strong, unflinching and brave Marece had been. Indomitable. Assured, right up until the moment the wasting sickness had claimed her three years ago now. Marece had known she as going to die but she had faced it on her own terms all the same. Amarwen hoped she could live up to Marece’s legacy of fierce, enduring valour.

Soon enough, Amarwen found herself sitting in the back of an empty cart bound for Minas Tirith with scarcely more than her recommendation letter tucked into her worn, humble clothing. She would have to shed everything she had become accustomed to in order to succeed. Her hair and name, the fine clothing of a noblewoman were just the beginning.

Behind her, the driver of the cart set it in motion. It rocked back and forth briefly before it started off proper. Watching from a window, she saw the Prince. His misgivings had not abated but she could say nothing for to assure him would give him information that might bring Dol Amroth into peril and she could not do that. Would not do that. There must be one safe haven yet in Gondor and the Prince had ever been a friend and ally to Edholland.

Amarwen lifted her arm to bid him farewell, uncertain if she would ever see him again. She glimpsed him raise a hand to her just before the cart rolled out of his courtyard proper. Beyond the walls, a stiff breeze held dominion. It made her pull her thin shawl tighter around her shoulders to little effect. Shivering, she set her teeth and made no comment on it. Being cold, hungry, tired were simple facts of life now. Unremarkable and mundane. And there were other things to consider…such as how best to begin once she gained the White City. She shifted closer to hang her arms over the back of the bench the driver sat upon and set to asking him all he knew of Minas Tirith. Had to start somewhere.
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Re: Kin-Strife

Postby elora » Wed May 24, 2017 1:50 pm

Osgiliath – III 1437

Halvarin spent what was left of the day he arrived in Osgiliath finding the former Commander‘s office. Once he had, it was clear that it was well ordered despite the damage the overall building had sustained in the recent fighting. Halvarin settled in to examine the Osgiliath garrison assignments. It soon emerged that the Eastern Watch was comprised, in the main, of units drawn from Anorien and Ithilien. This was leavened with an elite guard out of Minas Tirith.

He reviewed the list of officers and recognised one name immediately – Michas of Ithilien. Michas had served with him as they completed the initial training of the Mariner’s Guild. They had become fast friends over the course of that five years but their paths had separated upon completion. Halvarin had pursued further study in navigation. Michas, however, lacked the patience for such pursuits. In truth, his talents lay elsewhere. He had proven himself a very able soldier during training and when he had pursued that path, no one had been surprised. Halvarin had not heard from Michas since his friend had deployed.

And now, years later, the tumult and chaos of the realm had thrown them together. Beregon’s journal listed Michas as second-in-command. Given Beregon was missing, Michas had held the command of the garrison…Yet where was he? Halvarin had not sighted him nor heard from him since his arrival hours ago in Osgiliath. There was only one thing to do, he thought. Halvarin issued an immediate summons to all garrison officers. It was time they reported to him and learned that they would be ordering a review of all the men assigned to Osgiliath.

When the unit officers gathered Michas was still missing yet Halvarin was surprised to find yet another classmate stationed at Osgiliath. Belas held the command of the Anorien Guard and when asked who commanded the garrison in Michas’ absence, reluctantly admitted that it fell to him. As to where Michas was, all Halvarin could glean was that his friend was “away in the east”. Belas remained distant, offering as little as possible to Halvarin, and the rest of the officers followed his lead. Thus, after short and desultory conversation, there was little Halvarin could do but direct the officers to assemble their men for review.

The garrison assembled in the training grounds which were, for the most part, intact. This was unusual in the inner, older quarters of Osgiliath. It was here that the fighting had been particularly intense. Eldacar’s men had held out here under his eldest son for quite some time. Halvarin arrived early and concealed himself. So much the better to observe his new command. He had already formed an initial assessment of his officers after their brief meeting. Now it was time to assess the men they commanded.

Once the officers had asserted order to the ranks, he strode out to commence the review proper. The urge to sigh at what he saw was strong. These men were a rough sort. That, in itself, raised issues around discipline within the ranks. Their morale and more pressing yet, their loyalties, remained to be seen.

He had the officers bring their men to attention and Halvarin walked down the first line men. He saw young men, mostly. Recently graduated from their training. Five years, at a guess, experience. But what a five years. Halvarin met the eye of each man he slowly walked past and saw something he recognised in each face. He had been spared the battle here at Osgiliath. The Guild was jealously protective of their navigators. Still, Halvarin recognised what he saw in the faces of these men as something he had seen for himself. In Edholland. By all means a brief, small affair, Edholland had been. Yet…brutal.

Many of these soldiers had taken up arms in battle against their own countrymen. Against neighbour, friend and kin as well as the Northmen. The toll such a dreadful act exacts was clear now in the men Halvarin reviewed. Yet for all this, they still appeared strong. It was impossible to assess each man’s loyalities, but Halvarin was certain that as a group they would be mixed. Unlikely, he thought, that he’d find devout adherants to Castamir here, serving in the terrible ruin of what had one of Gondor’s most beautiful cities. It was, he thought, all but impossible to feel anything but sorrow at what had befallen here.

Halvarin reviewed each and every rank of men, pausing to exchange brief words with some. Once finished, he ordered his officers to him as their seconds dismissed the men. He could delay no longer the thorny issue of loyalties. He needed to know, with certainty, just where Michas was and why he was there. He needed to know what had occurred under his predecessor, Belegon. These men would know if he had deserted. They would have some sense of his friend’s fate. Dispensing with any pretence at friendliness, Halvarin coldly demanded answers of his officers. And for that, he had to assert his will as their commander.

Once it was clear that there was no option but to answer, Halvarin was finally informed of something around Belegond’s fate. He discovered that Belegond had tacitly backed the principal that Gondor’s king should have unsullied Numenorean blood but soon grew disillusioned after the battle was over and the purges started. Halvarin could appreciate Belegond’s predicament. No one, he thought, had sensed just how dreadful Castamir’s vengeance would be once he came to a throne. When Halvarin did not denounce Belegond to his men the officers gave him still more. It emerged that many of the small unit leaders and sergeants without families or with mixed Northman families had also left the garrison. Belegond was not the only one to have done as he had. Desertion, then. A steady stream of men.

Halvarin returned to his office with a heavy heart and crowded mind. The men and officers remaining at the garrison had done so by choice. They had not deserted. That said, though, they were pragmatic. They served Gondor. Not, he thought, Castamir. That sat well enough with Halvarin yet he was well aware that the eyes of the Guild, and that of the King, would be watching Osgiliath closely indeed. Care, great care, was needed here to ensure the garrison held and the few remaining citizens of Osgiliath were not put through a second bloody pogrom. And meanwhile, where was Michas? Had Osgiliath claimed not one friend but two?

Halvarin drew up a list of his unit captains and scheduled an interview with each one. The order of this required careful consideration. Once he met with one, word would spread to the others rapidly. They would confer. It was inevitable, no matter how he might insist on confidentiality. Thus, his plan hinged on the first officer Halvarin spoke with. What the others would say, or not say, in their turn would tell him a great deal.

Ithilien, east of Osgiliath – III 1437

As Halvarin drew up his list of interviews, Michas poured water over his head and considered the westering sun. His sortie east had proved fruitful, if only to demonstrate that the overall defence of Gondor was intact. The Easterlings had yet to recover in full from their devastating defeat under Eldacar’s grandfather years ago, but stray orcs moving down from the Shadow Mountains had to be dealt with. They had been slain completely and Michas was keenly aware that had he not set off on this sortie, the beasts would have been able to run freely in Ithilien.

It had been a risk to leave Osgiliath so soon after things came to a head there, but it had proven wise. Hopefully, once he returned, Belegond would have put matters to bed. They could ill afford to be squabbling between themselves at Osgiliath over things such as a man’s preferred king yet squabble they did. Now, Michas had to draw up a report to provide to Belegond on his return. It should be an ordinary task but nothing was ordinary anymore. He’d have to answer a great many questions that had nothing to do with this sortie.

Michas settled in at camp to assemble his report. Everything had to be explained in such a way as would satisfy anyone who might read it, irrespective of their loyalties. His men, those around him, deserved at least that from him. Once that was done, he ordered camp struck. The sooner they were back to give an account for themselves, the better.

Osgiliath – III 1437

The next day Halvarin inspected the garrison’s positions. It offered him the opportunity to examine the state of the once spectacular city. Widely considered a shining example of gracious Numenorean architecture, little remained of its splendour now that Numenorean pride and ambition had been unloosed in its beautiful avenues. The city had housed the famed Library of Varda where the studies and records of the stars were kept. All navigators, be they Guild or otherwise, revered this place yet it had not escaped the conflagration.

The great observatory, the Dome of Stars, had been destroyed in the fighting. This was a grievous loss indeed, but Halvarin was relieved to find that the Records Chamber had sustained only light damage. It had not been sacked or burned –likely protected by Guild navigators along with the rubble blocking entrance to all. It would be important to open it up again, for amongst the records might much be restored. As Halvarin studied the rubble, a call went up from the men.

”Men coming in! It’s Michas!”

Halvarin turned from his path towards the river in hope of meeting his old friend. Perhaps he would learn that which the officers here refused to divulge to a member of the Guild. That, Halvarin, was where the difficulty lay in chief. He could not command this garrison if his officers mistrusted him. He arrived at a makeshift dock that had been constructed from rubble and timbers just as the first of three fair sized boats came ashore. The men in the first boat saw Halvarin raise his hand, but they stared back at him in open suspicion.

It wasn’t until a tall man toward the rear of the first boat called out, ”Halvarin my friend! It is well you are here!”

Suspicion shifted to bafflement at Michas’ greeting, just as Michas had hoped such a public statement might achieve. As for Michas, he knew as soon as he saw Halvarin that Belegond had been replaced. Just how that vacancy had arisen, though. That was less certain. He made his way to the prow of the boat and was the first to alight. He greeted Halvarin as a friend, keenly aware that the men would be studying this closely. His, of course, but also those ashore with Halvarin.

”It is well that you have come my old friend. I have been here three days, and I have learned little beyond the watch points are in this city. There is much to discuss,” Halvarin said as they embraced.

Michas’ reply was warm as he drew back, “I will report as soon as my men are settled in. We can talk then.”

Studying Halvarin closely, Michas was relieved that his mixed feeling about seeing Halvarin here were not perceived. This damnable strife had tainted everything, it seemed.

”No need to hurry,” Halvarin smiled, ”Come for dinner at the library.”

Michas nodded at that and Halvarin turned away to leave him to order his men.

As agreed, Michas reported at the library that evening. He paused in the door to salute Halvarin as commanding officer.

”I was worried about you when I found you weren’t here,” Halvarin said from behind his desk and Michas stepped into the room.

This would be difficult for them both, Halvarin guess. They were friends but that could not interfere with the structure of command at the garrison. He set aside the papers he had been reading as Michas settled just within the door.

”I thought it best to continue the assigned patrols of the kingdom, for the sake of stability,” Michas replied and Halvarin nodded his agreement.

He stood and walked forward to clasp his friend’s forearm, ”Most wise. I take it all is looking well east of the river then?”

“Not entirely,”
Michas replied and saw the other man’s brows lift in concern.

Michas clarified, ”The Easterlings remain subdued and the dark lands are quiet. Which is why I thought a long range patrol was needed. I discovered that the Easterlings are not a quiet as they would like us to believe. They are patrolling deep into their own western and southern lands. That is to be expected, for their lands are vast and some order must be maintained. As for Gondor, they’re aware of our troubles here but do not yet have the requisite strength to exploit that. For now. I think it likely that will change, if they can manage it.”

Halvarin nodded at this sobering assessment, ”And your men – casualties?”

Michas rolled a shoulder at the question, ”An ambush claimed five. We retreated to a hillock to regroup but they did not pursue. I suspect their tactics favour a sudden, moving engagement. Cause as many casualties as possible and then retreat. Devilish difficult to deal with unless you have cavalry or Rohirrim available.”

This was grim indeed, for Halvarin had neither at Osgiliath. The Horselords were busy in their own lands now and Castamir had Gondor’s own cavalry in use elsewhere. Infantry could, of course, defeat a mounted foe but he hardly had the strength of numbers here that would be required should the Easterling’s amass and push.

Halvarin pushed out a heavy sigh, ”We must maintain a presence there so they don’t encroach even further. I think you were right to conduct that patrol, Michas, yet we can ill afford to lose five men on each sortie. We, the both of us, need to assess this garrison’s strength for dealing with such a foe. Once we have established that, I can look into how much aid I can obtain for us here in Osgiliath.”

Michas nodded at this and delved into his thoughts. An uncomfortable, unfamiliar silence arose between the two friends that Michas broke warily.

”You are my commanding officer, Halvarin…but…might I speak freely?”

“I would expect nothing less from my second,”
Halvarin returned and Michas drew a deep breath before plunging into the unknown.

”I suppose the question of loyalties will come up, for this is what Gondor has fallen to now. I was involved in the battle for Osgiligath. I…I stood with Gondor that day and I battled Eldacar’s Northmen. But that does not mean I supported Castamir and I am not alone. There are men here and in Ithilien who now find a bitter draught.”

Michas wiped a hand over his face and shook his head, ”A tangled mess is what it is, Halvarin, when a man’s heart takes one path and his head another. I say this to you now as my friend. If I have misjudged you, then I will be arrested like so many others and I will meet a traitor’s end. Such is the fate of men like me now, men who have only ever loyally served Gondor. This is why you have been met with such coldness, Halvarin, for you are the representative of the Mariner’s Guild. There are those who assert that the Mariner’s Guild serve but one master: themselves.”

Halvarin took a deep breath at this but remained otherwise silent as Michas laid himself bare before him. His friend could not possibly know that his own loyalties were hopelessly divided. He was a prominent member of the Navigators, a powerful faction within the Mariner’s Guild. Ever since he had been a boy he had wanted to join the Guild and rise through its ranks just as his father had. His father had risen right to the very top. Castamir’s ascendancy, supported by the Mariner’s Guild, had carried his father right into the position of Guild Master. And he loved his father. He was a good man, a fine captain and seaman…yet…Edholland.

Ever since the dreadful events of Edholland, Havarin had been carrying seeds of doubt and misgivings when it came to the Guild. He knew that the Guild, his father in particular, would watch his command in Osgiliath most closely. Perhaps he had been given this post to test his loyalties. Perhaps that’s what this was right now. Halvarin recognised that he had to tread carefully indeed.

”My friend, I cannot be hearing any of what you have said and so I did not hear it. Consider that, if you will, an act of friendship. If you are a loyal servant of Gondor, then you will follow my orders. That is all I require and so, in that, this is indeed a matter of loyalties. Serve Gondor faithfully and diligently, Michas, and I will not have to arrest you. Nor any man, for that matter. Conspire against Gondor, or me, then I will not hesitate to have you arrested.”

Michas swallowed at Halvarin’s response for it was not as fulsome as he had hoped. He was only involved on the edges of the resistance in Osgiliath, his activities limited in range to the troops stationed here. Belas, though, was another matter. He was an active covert agent for Eldacar. Michas had urged Belas to flee north when it had become clear that Osgiliath would indeed fall but the man had remained, determined to bring about change from within Gondor.

He would do his best to protect Belas…but not at a serious cost to himself and the men that relied upon him. Hence, Michas’ response was carefully neutral.

”I understand sir,” he answered as he realised that his friendship with Halvarin may not have carried well enough down the years.

For his part, Halvarin returned to his desk to sort through a stack of parchments.

He continued without looking up at Michas, ”You will be a very able second. I want you to review the whole garrison and pick those you know to be unquestionably loyal Gondorians. Once you have selected one hundred men, I will review them.”

The sound of dinner arriving made both men look to the door.

Halvarin waved the kitchen boy in before he continued, ”I want it done swiftly, Michas.”

”I’ll start after dinner, commander,”
Michas replied and with that their talk fell to other, kinder things.

There was much for the two men to catch up on. Events and recollections eased the tension that had arisen until both men were laughing. Not quite as they once had, but still, it was something.

By the time both men had finished their simple meal, something of their old camaraderie had returned. Only time would tell whether it was merely a ghost that would haunt both men. Halvarin leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs out. He considered his boots for a long while, reluctant to return to the business before them.

”I want loyal Gondorians, Michas. Not creatures of Castamir, nor Eldacar.”

“Are there any now who are not one or the other?”
Michas inquired quietly as he rose from his chair.

He nodded to Halvarin, expression unreadable, and took his leave. Halvarin sighed in Michas’ wake, keenly aware of Michas’ meaning. The longer Castamir ruled, the more polarised his nation became. The rift was getting wider as time went by. This was going to be a tough command.

Osgiliath – III 1439, Winter

Halvarin sat back as he read the parchment that had come from Minas Tirith. Then he rolled it up and let it fall to his desk. Thinking for a moment, he summoned his adjutant and dispatched him to fetch Michas.

After what had been a rough beginning in Osgiliath, Halvarin had managed to ascertain the particular landscape of his officer’s loyalties. Once he had that, he had been able to use that knowledge to his advantage. Michas had proven invaluable. In his position as Halvarin’s second, he could supply Halvarin with information that he could share with the officers known to be loyal to Castamir whenever there were arrests to be made.

Insurgency posed a significant threat to Gondor’s strength and stability and Osgiliath was particularly vulnerable. Where possible, Halvarin ensured those arrested were spared anything beyond time in the cells. There would be no torture nor summary executions under his command. On occasion though, Halvarin was unable to keep the insurgents from the excesses of Castamir’s realm. Some he had no choice but to send to Minas Tirith, aware that they would almost certainly meet their end there. The cruelty of Castamir’s justice meant that it was all but possible to eliminate insurgency.

At times, Halvarin would be questioned about the lack of arrests in Osgiliath. These were the least of his concerns for Osgiliath had very few residents beyond his own troops and his soldiers had sworn their loyalty to Gondor. For good measure, Halvarin was careful to keep the ambitious Castamirian officers busy watching the northern and eastern lands for any incursion or sortie out of Rhun. This approach managed to keep overt scrutiny away from Osgiliath to other, more fractious regions within Gondor, and though he knew that there was an active Eldacarian underground there, he managed to keep them in check and out of sight.

As for himself, Halvarin continued to weigh his options and loyalties. As his command in Osgiliath stretched from the first year into the second, he saw that he was being left behind in the promotions. This was a direct consequence of his refusal to steep himself in the Guild’s politics. Any and every member of the Guild sought the position of a Ship’s command. Yet as that possibility became every more remote, Halvarin found himself curiously lacking in regret. When his father was given the Haradian command by Castamir himself, Halvarin was quietly relieved that the Guild did not request him to go.

And now, it had come to this…Halvarin considered the rolled parchment he’d dropped onto his desk. He did not recognize the names within.

Michas came in to the old library where Halvarin had moved his office a few months after he had taken command to find his friend packing up his belongings.

”Called to Harad after all,” Michas inquired, for he had been surprised that Halvarin had not been summonsed forth.

Such a talented navigator for such a treacherous coast, with experience in Harad, Michas had remarked more than once. Through it all, Halvarin had said nothing further on it until now.

He shook his head as he packed, ”It is to Minas Tirith that I have been summonsed. You will have the command here in my absence…and should I not return you will continue in command until you are notified otherwise.”

Michas said nothing at this and Halvarin did not pause his activities, ” While there, should I be asked, I will name you as my recommended replacement. But only if you wish me to, and should you accept my doing so. If my words mean anything to them, they will heed me on this.”

”If command of Osgiliath is given to me, I will serve Gondor to the best of my ability. Stll, I will hope for your swift return,” Michas said quietly.

Halvarin nodded at his words, ”I perceive that the Guild has reconsidered many things since I left Minas Tirith. To what end I will not know until I return. My fate, therefore, is unclear.”

At that Michas drew closer and the two men considered each other for a time before Halvarin resumed his preparations to leave. On his way out the door he paused to read the parchment a final time. Then, with a heavy sigh, he set it down and quit Osgiliath for Minas Tirith.

His return to Osgiliath was sooner than he expected, for he was only away a month. With most of the senior Guild officer drawn away to the south, Halvarin returned to Osgiliath with high honours that he felt he did not deserve. Still, he took what the Guild offered to him. In his time there, he discovered that Guild had assessed him as ably commanding Osgiliath. His summons was not, as he had feared, to strip him of this office but rather to provide him with highly sensitive information that could not be entrusted to a rider. Halvarin returned to Osgiliath with the names of suspected Eldacar supporters believed to be active recently in Minas Tirith.

Just how the Guild had come by this information was unclear to Halvarin, troublesome to say the least, and aside from one the names listed were unfamiliar to him. He had not seen nor spoken with Belas for some time, but Halvarin was initially taken aback. Michas, he had thought, had been keeping Belas occupied out beyond Osgiliath. To discover he had been in Minas Tirith and actively engaged in insurrection was no small concern. If the list was reliable, it raised a host of unwelcome questions for which Halvarin had no answers.

He had suspected for some time that Michas had been protecting Eldacar supporters within the ranks but the man had been careful about it. None had come to the attention of Minas Tirith, until now. Why they had not been arrested seemed odd. And then there was the list. How had it been made and why. Why had it been given to him? Minas Tirith did not need him to apprehend Belas nor observe him. They were capable of both themselves.

All this made for a restless night upon his return to Osgiliath and Halvarin had barely slept when one of his officers woke him.

Calan, a young officer, reported, ”Sir, we found suspicious movement by the river. We thought it was the eastern patrol returning, but instead found two people leaving a small river boat. We remained hidden to discover their identity and purpose. When they were met by several people from Osgiliath, I grew alarmed.”

Halvarin rolled to his feet with a groan and stifled a yawn as Calan continued, ”I had them surrounded and only then did I discover Belas was with them. He discovered our presence and so we moved in to apprehend them.”

Any momentary fogginess fell away at that and Halvarin turned about, still buckling on his sword belt. Belas, one of their own officers, had been apprehended? It made no sense at all, that. Why would he risk his own apprehension when he could simply detain whoever these water-borne rebels were as an officer in his own right?

”I was looking for Michas, but when I heard you had returned, I came straight here,” Calan finished in a rush.

Halvarin rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. They hadn’t been arrested in Minas Tirith because they were being tracked. And now they have come to him. He sighed at this.

”How many did you arrest, Calan?”

“Three sir, including Belas. With him was a woman and two other men, but one fled and jumped into the river. He was not found.”

”I will see them, one at a time,”
Halvarin announced just as Michas hurried in.

He looked first to Calas, then Halvarin, and then lowered his head to think for a moment. Halvarin hoped, vehemently, that Michas would not take flight. After a while, his friend moved to the doorway and looked up.

At this, Halvarin acknowledged him with a nod and said to Calas, ”There will be no insurrection under my command. Bring Belas to me now. It is high time that he, Michas, and I have a reunion. When we are done, bring the woman to my office.”

Calas nodded and left but had soon returned, ”Sir, Belas is dead. I am told he attempted to free the other prisoners and escape. He was shot with arrows. The captured man was with him, unharmed still I am told. They were on their way to free the woman.”

Michas audibly swallowed at this and Halvarin’s eyes narrowed, “Arrows? I will not tolerate any killings in custody! Where is the freed prisoner now?”

“Returned to a new cell, sir. Alive. I swear it.”

Halvarin swung about to glare at Michas. Belas was not the sort of man to take unnecessary risks. Twice this night he had done so. First to elude capture and then to free those captured. Whoever these prisoners were, they were clearly of significance to the insurgency. And meanwhile, Halvarin was certain the Guild was watching to see what he would do with high value rebels in his hands.

Michas refused to say anything but Halvarin could see the man had broken out into a cold sweat. He was genuinely worried, but for what? Or who? The man, the woman or both? There was no one to trust in this beyond himself, Halvarin realised. He raked his hair back into a low queue.

”You had best hope so, Calan,” Halvarin growled and the young officer swallowed, ”Bring the woman to me… alive and unharmed!”

Calas turned to go and Halvarin swiftly dismissed Michas as well. He rubbed at his face and then slowly set out for his office, debating how to approach the questioning of a woman who was, most likely, a highly ranked rebel. She’d be dangerous. He’d be a fool not to realise that. For all of that, could he stomach turning a woman over to those waiting in Minas Tirith? His father had not gone to Edholland to slaughter a woman in her own hall. Not just any woman but the wife of a friend. After that dark day, something in his father had changed. And this, Halvarin mused, bore all the signs of being his own Edholland.
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Re: Kin-Strife

Postby elora » Sat Jul 22, 2017 9:49 pm

Osgiliath – 1439

Marece stared at the wall of the small room she had been locked into. It still bore the residue of charring from the sack of this once fine city. A gem within Gondor’s crown, cracked and sullied by overweening ambition and greed. Hours had passed since she had been placed here, the sacking over her head removed. The door, new timber and clearly replaced since Osgiliath’s fall, was sturdy and locked. She could not hear movement beyond it but earlier she had heard a disturbance. Men shouting, boots on stone running and the sound of arrows. Since then, quiet.

The walls were stone and there was a window, well over her head. Long and narrow. Once it had been filled with glass but that too had failed to withstand the onslaught of this strife. Now, it admitted a thin stream of cold light. Dawn had come and gone. Had to be longer than an hour, therefore. The floor was stone as well and there was not a stick of furniture. Nothing that she might use for warmth or comfort. Or for a weapon.

Come nightfall the temperature would plunge. At least they had left her with her cloak. Her teeth chattered all the same as she pulled it tight and cursed the circumstances that had forced her to select a cloak that was battered, worn and altogether not up to the challenge of the night ahead. Marece ran her hands over her clothing underneath. Simple garb, lower merchant class. Well repaired, but worn. The tightly bound brown bodice, grey apron and modest skirts had served her well in the past for merchants were generally invisible. The poorer they were the harder they were to distinguish. Minas Tirith was awash in struggling merchants now that Castamir had effectively strangled all trade with prohibitive tarrifs and taxes.

In fact, everything about this had gone exactly as planned until suddenly it had not. She had done this countless times before and she had not missed a single detail this time. This meeting was too important to be careless. She knew that her network had not turned on her or betrayed her. The man she had extracted from Minas Tirith was hardly a prized prisoner. Not nearly significant nor valuable enough to warrant a Castamirian agent embedded in their network revealing his or her presence amongst their small number.

Yet how else to explain it? Marece had achieved particular success in extracting Castamir’s prisoners out from under his nose over the past two years. There had not been a single error or oversight this time. She was thorough and diligent. Not one misstep, and yet here she was. If it had not been an error or miscalculation on her part, then how had Castamir caught up with them? Belas had been adamant when she had seen him last that this would work as it had before. He’d been difficult to pin down in Minas Tirith. Up to something, she thought. Was that what had brought it all crashing down on their heads now or was it mere misfortune? Poor timing. Wrong place at the wrong time.

Seemed a bitter truth, that.

Marece ran her hand over her face and pushed out a weary sigh. What had she left now? Hope that the lad, if alive still, held up under questioning. Their cover was all they had left now - siblings, travelling to visit their grandparents. The appearance of the patrol had rattled him. Her last good look at her charge had left Marece with the distinct impression that he was twitchy. Liable to crack. Another sigh, for she supposed she couldn’t blame him. She’d pulled him out of Castamir’s prison after a number weeks in captivity – one of which she had spent debating whether to risk helping him at all. In that time there was no telling what had been done to the lad. Lad…she shouldn’t consider him as such. He was only a few years younger than she.

A fluttering of wings echoed in the small stone room she stood in and Marece looked up to the high window. A kestrel stared back at her, bold and unafraid. It squawked at her and Marece shrugged for its observation was correct. This room would, like as not, be the last place she visited. The other they had travelled with was probably drowned. Sheer idiocy jumping into that river. In any case, even if he did survive, what was one men against the assembled garrison of Osgiliath.

As for the lad, perhaps he would crack under questioning or perhaps they’d send him back to his cell in Minas Tirith. Certainly, Marece knew she’d never see Minas Tirith again. There were ranking members of the Mariner’s Guild here. An officer, she knew that much, held the command. Odds were that she’d be recognized and once that occurred, she’d not live long enough to be sent back to Castamir for her traitor’s sentence. The Guild had its own business with ship burners like her.

The kestrel cocked its head this way and that and then squawked a second time as the lock rattled behind her. It took to wing as the door groaned open on its stiff hinges and Marece turned about to stare at the man that filled it. He had led the patrol that had intercepted them. He looked like he was trying very hard not to appear nervous. It might have succeeded if his eyes didn’t bounce about. They flittered around the room and then back to her, over and over again. Marece was used to men looking at her but this one couldn’t make up his mind what to look at.

Unwise though it was, she found herself smiling which only seemed to deepen his chagrin.

”Hood,” he finally said, scowling at her.

”Are we going outside? Is it raining? I can’t hear any rain. What’s your name?” she tried for a conversational, friendly tone, thankful for the years of tutelage she had received in the fine art of talking pleasantly to people you’d rather not to.

Mother would be proud but the man in the doorway was not in the least impressed. The patrol leader strode forward to yank her hood up and over her eyes roughly. Then he pulled a sack over her head. This one smelt of onions. The last one held the earthy tang of potatoes. She felt his hand seize her upper arm and haul her forward. Caught between being dragged and walking, Marece opted for dignity. Still, it was difficult to remain on her feet and keep up with his rapid clip.

The hood was disorientating, which was entirely its purpose, and her balance was thrown. Try as she might to count steps and memorise the turns, by the time she had arrived at what she presumed would be her final destination, Marece had no confidence that she could retrace her path. She was trapped in a labyrinth.

”Wait here,” her escort muttered and then, as she lifted her hands to pull the sack from her head, ”Don’t touch it.”

There was the promise of something in his voice. It did not bode well and so her hands returned to their position by her side. Her escort’s boots had rung out on the flagstones on the way here but now they were muffled as he withdrew. She felt rather than heard him pull away from her. Carpet, she presumed. It was distinctly warmer here. That was no small relief.

Marece held her breath and tried to ascertain who else was in this place. She heard little past the crackling of a hearth and her own heartbeat. It was altogether too fast and she needed to steady herself.

She heard a door open. It sounded heavy, like the one of her stone cell.

”This is her, then?”

replied her escort from nearby.

Again Marece could not hear footfall but the new voice had moved to a different part of the room when she heard it next.

”Quite the collection here,” he said and she heard the sound of heavy objects being moved over wood.

“Hers. The other was unarmed.”

Expression hidden by the sack, Marece grimaced with disgust. Unarmed? The boy was unarmed?! Belas had convinced her that he was worth the risk but the foolish lad had ditched the very weapons she had provided him with. Weapons that were expensive and difficult to come by! Her new pride faded as swiftly as it had emerged and meanwhile, the newcomer continued to inspect her confiscated, mismatched, weapons. It had taken her quite some time to acquire them. Longer still to learn how to use them. Longest of all, the stomach to do so.

“Very good,” the man said, thoughtfully, "That will be all, for now.”

Marece heard relief in her escort’s voice and then a second new voice, ”Sir?”

“Michas, I believe I dismissed you earlier!”

Marece’s brows shot up behind the sack. Michas! The fool! What was he thinking? First Belas and now Michas. Had madness gripped the assets of Osgiliath?

”Aye, Sir,” Michas answered, chastened, another swing of the door and then silence.

What was the officer doing, she wondered. She could not hear him moving about over the carpet. The silence expanded, gathering weight but she refused to fidget under its yoke.

Then he spoke, ”You may remove the sack. Slowly. No rash moves, if you please.”

Marece paused at this, trying to place his location and distance from her. Then she acquiesced, pushing the sack off but leaving her hood up. This man, she guessed, was likely the ranking Guild officer stationed here in Osgiliath. She was in no rush to hasten her identification.

She stared at the hearth she faced and watched the flames dance as her surroundings came into view. Some effort, she could see, had gone into restoring this room into something of its previous glory. All the charcoal had been scrubbed from the stone. Shelves and books. Carpets on the floor. Some chairs by the fire, a table by one stacked with rolled parchment. Thick. Maps, if she had to guess. Charts.

”What have you done with my brother?” she asked, pleased to discover that her voice trembled satisfactorily all on its own.

No need for artifice on her part to sound like a worried sister. Behind her, the Guild officer chuckled to himself.

Brother, is he? Well now, show me a familial resemblance and I will deem the matter closed. You and your brother will be free to resume your journey. Where was it that you were off to?”

Marece closed her eyes briefly at his sceptical tone. She bore no resemblance whatsoever to her charge and well did he know it.

”Heredoth,” she muttered, persisting, ”To visit our grandparents. They are unwell.”

”I’m very sorry to hear that,”
the officer replied, unstintingly polite.

Marece had the strong sense he was only giving her enough rope to hang herself but at this point, her options were slim to none.

”The man that met you here…you knew him?”

“He agreed to offer us passage,"
she replied, "His name is Belas, I think. I can’t be sure, though.”

There, that all sounded plausible. Reasonable, even.

“You did not know him well, then.”

Marece shook her head for that was the truth. No one knew anyone overly well amongst the insurgency. It was better that way.

”Then you will not be overly dismayed to learn that Belas is dead,” the officer stated.

It took all of her discipline not to react to that. A chill washed over her as she lowered her head.

”I am sorry to hear it. Belas…was kind to my brother and I. His price was a third that demanded by the others.”

The officer said nothing to that and so Maree had no way to gauge whether her response had the desired effect. Belas was dead. Explained Michas’ panic, she thought. Belas was the chief operative here in Osgiliath. With him gone, the entire network was vulnerable. This was very bad indeed and not just for her and the lad she’d pulled out of Minas Tirith. Everything screamed to Marece that all they had built over the past two years was about to come crashing down. Catastrophe loomed before her. How had it all unravelled so swiftly?

Her only slender hope lay in this officer not recognizing her. He sounded young. That boded well. The elder Guild officers had known her father and hence her. The younger ones, though, were another matter. She had much better odds at never having crossed paths with them before. If he did not recognise her and Gendin kept to their story, then they just might make it out alive.

The officer continued, ”Rather heavily armed for a family visit.”

Marece lifted a shoulder at the observation.

”Depends on the family,” she replied and then, ”And the road between Minas Tirith and Heredoth has grown uncertain of late.”

the officer agreed, ”What of your parents? Unusual, I would think, to send you off on such a dangerous road by yourselves.”

“I’m sure they’d accompany us, were they alive,”
she retorted, stinging bitterness in her reply.

That seemed to give the officer pause and when he replied, it was without mockery, ”Convince me you speak the truth and we can put this unfortunate chapter behind us where it belongs. Why, I’ll even provide an escort for you and your brother.”

Her fingers curled at her sides as she calculated her options. Then she started as the officer came into view around the edges of her hood. He stopped ahead of Marece, just off to one side.

For a long while, the officer stared at the hearth with his hands clasped at his back. Dark hair was swept back into a low officer’s queue and his feet were spread, as if they stood upon a deck of a ship. He was armed, of course. She eyed a dagger she could see peeking from the top of one boot. It was closer than the poker by the fire if things went as badly as she feared they might. Guild officers were not known for their mercy when it came to traitors. Then she jerked her eyes up as he swung about to face her.

Her hair stood on end as gooseflesh washed over her body. Marece took an involuntary step backwards and her breath caught in her chest. Colour washed from his face and his eyes widened in shocked recognition.

”You are remarkably hale for a drowned woman,” Halvarin observed quietly, his voice strained, and then he spoke a name she had not heard nor answered to for over two years, ”Amarwen.”
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