OOC - please keep comments and questions to the OOC thread (any who fail to heed this will become fodder for the author's hounds)
3019, III – March 7, Harrowdale
The menhirs marched into the very mountains themselves, marking out the dread Dimholt Road that the Rohirrim so feared. And rightly so, for a darkness dwelt in the heart of Dunharrow that was palpable to man and beast. Still, that was to be their road. No matter how dark, none of their number would forsake him now. Hanasian, Mecarnil and Berendil gathered around one of the stones and peered down the cursed road.
The plain below the plateau bristled with spears and tents and horses but it would not be enough. Not against the combined might Mordor would spew out to lay waste to the White City. Brave these Eorlingas were. Fierce of spirit, steady of eye and hand. No one spoke of the reality they faced. A long ride, a final charge and then oblivion. Assuming Sauron permitted them to reach Minas Tirith.
Berendil pushed out a heartfelt sigh, ”Loathe as I am to say it, I can see no other course.”
Mecarnil grunted agreement at that and the trio stood in silent reflection of the fact that come the dawn, this would be their path.
”Come,” Hanasian said after a long moment, ”I saw Shieldmaidens as we rode in.”
The clear anticipation in Hanasian’s voice prompted Berendil to inquire, ”Why is that of significance?”
Hanasian swept overlong dark hair from his face and answered as if it were obvious, ”Shieldmaidens!”
Berendil, the only one who could claim a strong friendship with both Hanasian and Mecarnil both, shrugged. Mecarnil scratched at his jaw indifferently.
Hanasian shook his head at them, ”You don’t want to miss this.”
Mecarnil shifted his weight, the eldest of the trio by a good margin, and gestured at the Dimholt Road, ”We don’t have time to gawk.”
His response was not unexpected as far as Hanasian was concerned. Mecarnil was a steady, solid Ranger of average height and stature. Damnably good with a weapon, and single minded. A stickler for duty. Berendil, though, had only a few years on Hanasian. He looked upon the world as a new and interesting place still. With his curious nature, Hanasian was certain Berendil “the Fair” would want to see what Hanasian knew to be unfolding on the plain below right now.
Remarkably, though, the tall Ranger shook his head at Hanasian, ”Mecarnil’s right, Han. The more prepared we are for this, the bet-“
Hanasian waved them both aside and turned away for the plain below. If they wanted to miss this, fine by him. He moved through the tents at some speed, dodging ropes and tent pegs with an ease born of youth and skill, and soon reached the switchback trail to the lower encampment. As another fell into step beside him, Hanasian shot a collegial grin at Berendil.
”How did you even notice them?” Berendil asked as they made their way down the trail.
”Their armour is different,” Hanasian explained and gestured to his abdomen, ”Reticulated, for better agility. I make it my business to take note such details.”
”Odd,” Berendil remarked, ”Why would they be in full kit now?”
Hanasian’s grin returned, ”That’s why I want to get down there.”
He accelerated into a jog and Berendil found himself following suit if only to pick through his friend’s newly discovered cache of information, ”What are they like?”
Speaking quietly in Sindarin, the pair had little concern that any of the Rohirrim about would comprehend.
”Insular,” Hanasian replied as they gained the lower plain. As he had suspected, he could hear the testing underway even now.
He made his way towards the press, as he explained further, ”Established by Eorl the Young, I think, to serve as the King’s shield. They’ve been gone from Meduseld for years now, banished to the East Fold by Wormtongue. I am not sure what function they serve now.”
Berendil nodded as he took in those around them, ”I think we can safely conclude it’s not a decorative one..”
Hanasian’s brows quirked at that but he said nothing further until they found a way to the inner edge to view what was unfolding. There were several sets of Shieldmaidens, all in full kit, battling each other with various weapons.
”What is this for?” Berendil asked, having to raise his voice to be heard over the din around them. The crowd was shouting and cheering, the noise as thick as the people around.
”Rank,” Hanasian shouted back.
A sharp whistle cut through the field and the combat ceased. Most were pairs but in two instances, one Shieldmaiden had faced as many as three opponents all at once. The women on the field pulled their helms free and braids came tumbling out. All different kinds and lengths and colours ranging from a warm brown to a fair gold in the firelight.
”Two braids denote novices. Three to five are initiates. Six and seven are Maidens. Eight are masters,” Hanasian explained, pointing out various women now retiring from the field.
”And the torcs? What do they mean?” Berendil inquired and nodded to a woman that stood with her back to them across the field.
Hanasian’s eyes widened as he took in the eight torcs woven into her braids. Her hair was entirely braided. One thick braid fell to her waist from the centre of her head. Smaller braids swung, flanking it, from either side of her head. The colour of her hair, a rich red like that of a deep wine, glowed under the torchlight as she tipped her head back in a full throated laugh. She turned, her helm held under one arm by her hip, to call something out to one of the women returning from the field. A brief exchange ensued and the women met to embrace briefly, the woman with the torcs clearly proud of the woman she embraced.
He glanced sideways to Berendil and saw the man was transfixed, unable to tear his eyes away.
”That is Freja Fireborn, second in command of the Shieldmaidens of Rohan. Youngest to attain full mastery and gain all eight torcs.”
“You know her?” Berendil asked, still watching the tall woman across the field.
Hanasian shook his head, ”I know of her, as do all Rohirrim. The Shieldmaidens occupy an exalted position in Rohan. The people follow their doings closely, or they did whilst they were in Meduseld. As for Freja, she was a fosterling of the King.”
”Hence her rapid ascension,” Berendil speculated but Hanasian shook his head.
”She is uncommonly gifted and she has worked hard. Make no mistake, he countered, ”Rohan has not seen her like in many a generation.”
Berendil broke off his scrutiny of the Shieldmaiden to consider Hanasian a moment, ”You seem… almost enamoured.”
Hanasian sighed at that, ”A woman who can steal a tribute of horses from under Mordor’s nose? That’s…impressive.”
Berendil’s brows shot up at that, ”Foolhardy, you mean. Horse theft in Rohan?”
“That woman does not shy away from anything, Berendil. But be warned. Shieldmaidens are wedded to their spears. They do not abandon them lightly.”
Berendil nodded thoughtfully as another tranche of Shieldmaidens took to the field.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
”Again, Vorda,” Freja called and watched the initiate struggle to stop herself from groaning as she started for the field a second time.
Vorda had five braids now in her sandy hair. Rightfully, though, she could probably claim a sixth. Freja had only fifty or so masters amid the one hundred and thirty spears she had brought with her, but the remaining novices and initiates had experience and skills far beyond their official ranks. Such had been their service along the Eastern fences, beset by Rhûn and Orthânc alike. So hard pressed that there was not enough time to test for advancement, much less recruit and train. But that would not continue. Could not continue.
No, her sisters would ride to battle with their full due, their full honour and rank. And if they should fall, they will greet their sisters in the halls of the dead with their heads held proudly aloft. She owed them that, at least. All of this flickering through Freja’s weary mind prompted her sip at the ale Éowyn had found. It was nothing remarkable, aside from the fact it wasn’t wine. Wine was for pouring on wounds…or pickling things, if that is what you liked. Freja didn’t.
”The spear this time,” Freja added and saw Vorda’s weariness punctuated by a grin.
A bright future lay ahead for Vorda provided Freja could bring them through what waited for them in Gondor. Freja continued to watch Vorda spar with one of her sisters for a moment before she turned back to Éowyn.
”I have missed this,” Éowyn sighed wistfully and transferred her attention to Freja, ”And you. Especially you.”
Freja nodded at her words and rolled her shoulders beneath the weight of her chain and armour. She had almost forgotten what it was like to be without them now.
”Return to us, then,” Freja said, ”We’d have you in a heartbeat. You might have to start at five braids or six but I know you, Éowyn. You’d soon have that sunshine of yours braided entirely.”
“I can’t,” Éowyn replied, surprising Freja.
”After the War you could. Théoden has recovered his strength now that Wormtongue is put out,” Freja turned to spit as if his name fouled her mouth and drank a mouthful of ale down, ”You are free to decide your own fate once more.”
Éowyn shook her head at this but her expression was not one of regret. Rather, a strange smile set her entire face alight. Her eyes, a beautiful blue far more restrained than Freja’s, practically glowed. The Shieldmaiden frowned slightly at her.
”I know how you chafe at being kept back, Éowyn. And now you have a chance, a real chance, at it! What has gotten into you? Where is the Éo that I love so well?”
Éowyn’s smile blossomed as Freja used the childhood name and she leant forward to whisper in Freja’s ear, ”I am remade!”
Freja did not miss the note of exhilaration in Éowyn’s voice but she caught something out of the corner of her eye that drew her attention back to Vorda. Freja growled quietly as she took in that Vorda no longer faced one of her sisters but rather a man. No Rohirrim would dare to intrude like this and indeed none had, though more than a few watched on in patent fascination. Even the other Shieldmaidens stared in open disbelief. Vorda was flummoxed and she looked back to Freja. At that moment, the man swiftly disarmed her.
Incensed, Freja threw down her ale and started forward as a dismayed gasp rippled through the onlookers. She was shocked anew when Éowyn caught her arm to restrain her. Freja came to a halt, anger radiating from her tall, lean frame.
”Vorda, hold your position,” she ordered and then threw her bristling attention to where Éowyn all but hung off her left arm, ”What in seven hells does he think he is doing?!”
Before Éowyn could reply, and it would take quite an explanation indeed, another man ventured onto the field. There were two of them now! He did not have the same a height as the man facing Vorda and his hair was not raven black, but he shared his grey eyes. These were not Rohirrim. That much was evident.
”My apologies,” he said in a hurry, his manner respectful, ”Berendil is unfamiliar with your customs. He means no offence.”
Freja’s eyes narrowed but before she could demand him his name or an explanation of just why this particular stranger presumed to know a Shieldmaiden's customs, the one named Berendil spoke up.
”If you are to fight men, you must test against them,” he said.
Frega growled at the towering arrogance of the statement. Who was he to gainsay the practices of the Shieldmaidens tried and tested over generations?
Her response was enough to prompt Éowyn to warn her, ”These Rangers are our allies.”
”Desperate times indeed, then,” Freja threw back but relaxed her stance so that Éowyn released her.
She hooked her thumbs through her sword belt and considered Berendil for a long moment. Her eyes raked over him, face to boots and back to his face again. That, in itself, was no hardship. Clear eyes, even and strong features and so very tall. Of course she noticed all of that. She was not blind, but right now her attention was on other details. At his height, he had a reach which would make his long sword longer again.
”Vorda,” Freja called and beckoned her over, ”You – Berendil – stay precisely where you are.”
The man that had spoken on his behalf groaned as Vorda came hurrying over. Freja drew her away, followed by Éowyn.
Freja murmured, ”Think of his sword and arm as one long weapon and do what you can with your spear.”
She glanced up to see that while Berendil had not moved, his friend either. They stood together, studying her. Freja offered them a ferocious grin that grew when Berendil’s face started to reveal the first traces of consternation.
She turned back to Vorda, ”No blood, mind, unless he draws first.”
At that Vorda’s eyes lit up, ”And if he does?”
“Turn him over to me.”
Vorda nodded gleefully, reinvigorated. Nothing like the prospect of a proper fight to get a Shieldmaid’s blood flowing. Freja shooed the initiate away and followed in her tracks as Vorda sped back to position. The two men seemed to be discussing something of great import as Vorda arrived.
Freja, rocked back on her heels and addressed them loudly, ”I’m more than happy to dispense with a duel and move straight to the melee proper if that is your desire.”
At that the crowd of Rohirrim watching on cheered with outright anticipation.
”Frega!” Éowyn called with no small amount of chagrin that was matched when Berendil’s companion hissed at him, ”See?!”
Berendil acknowledged him with a nod, ”Hanasian has pointed out my error. I seek your pardon and will retire, with your permission.”
Freja’s brows shot up at that and she crossed her arms against her cuirass, ”None of my business if this is all it takes to send Rangers scurrying from the field, tails between their legs.”
At that laughter rippled through the crowd. Berendil threw his arms up and glared at Hanasian who threw back a glare of his own, ”I told you that would happen.”
“Coming down here was your idea.”
“Pity you didn’t attend me as closely on the other details,” Hanasian rejoined and then turned to Freja, ”Just to first blood?”
Freja inclined a brow but nodded all the same, ”So precious few of you rode in tonight, so I suppose we’ll just have to keep it to first blood.”
Hanasian’s jaw clenched at her words, and of course Freja had no idea at how callous they might sound for she had as much understanding of Arnor as Berendil had of Rohan. Using their genocide as a taunt was unforgiveable but Freja may not even know it was genocide in the first place. When he looked to Berendil, though, he found the man was still as a statue and seething. No stopping this now, then. He nodded to Berendil and then strode away to clear the field. The other Shieldmaidens followed suit until only Berendil and Vorda remained. As soon as Hanasian was out of the way, Vorda began moving. She wove about as Berendil swiftly drew his long sword, mouth pressed into a thin line of displeasure.
”Freja, it was a misunderstanding,” Éowyn chastised as the bout began, ”No dishonor was intended.”
”And yet it was done all the same,” Freja retorted, ”That Ranger disrupted an initiate's testing on the eve of battle. Despite, it would appear, the advice of his companion. That is quite deliberate.”
Freja broke off to catch sight of Hanasian again. How, she wondered, could he know enough to caution Berendil.
”Still, this only makes it worse than it needs must be. Vorda can be tested again tomorrow. There’s time yet. And these Rangers are our allies. You risk imperilling that,” Éowyn returned and Freja gave off her search.
”I risk nothing of the sort. It’s just to first blood and you well know that I am, in fact, holding my hand in no small degree of forebearance for what has been done. For these…allies,” she snarled the last word, ”Such as they are.”
“Thirty Dúnedain Rangers are more advantageous than you can admit. I know well what you think of them,” Éowyn replied and, at Freja's nod, added, ”But the simple truth is that you are wrong.”
Freja did not answer immediately. Instead she was watching the match unfolding. As she had hoped, and perhaps Berendil had not understood, Vorda was very much holding her own with her spear. No shortage of fighting men, particularly Easterlings, on the eastern borders of Rohan.
”They skulk in their forests, flitting from tree to tree. On the open field, what use are they? And such arrogance! To presume a Shieldmaiden does not know how to fight a man!” Freja’s voice was low and she looked away from the contest to glare directly at Éowyn, ”But most galling of all, is that you defend them over your own spearsisters.”
Éowyn swallowed for there was no easy way to say this now. Not to this woman, with her quick temper already roused by the Ranger's transgressions. Nor could she keep it from her. Not this woman, who had grown up with her shoulder to shoulder and loved her like the sister she had never had.
”There is one amongst their number, their leader,” Éowyn began and Freja nodded, her scowl deepened.
”Even Rangers must have leaders, I suppose,” she said, dismissive.
“He’s the heir of Elendil,” Éowyn pointed out and Freja sniffed as she had just remarked upon the weather.
Éowyn drew close, almost in an embrace, to whisper, ”He took from me a cup of mead.”
Freja’s jaw dropped at what she heard but Éowyn cleverly gave her no chance to recover, “At Meduseld, before the King and Éomer and all gathered there. There was a great celebration,”
While Berendil and Vorda pushed on, Freja tried to make sense of what Éowyn had just told her. ”One of these Rangers took a cup. Of mead. Real mead.”
”But that means…it means…” Freja fell silent as her thoughts raced.
It meant Éowyn would no longer be free to race the sun, wind in her hair and the boundless plains of Rohan stretching around her. Instead, she would be trapped, penned in the stone houses of these Men and their politics. And would they ever accept her? Did they not fight civil wars amongst themselves over lineage? Gondor had, of that she was certain. How could even Éowyn, bright and fair and fierce Daughter of the Mark though she was, ever match the lofty bloodlines of these Dunédain?
Her dismay must have been evident in her expression for Éowyn said, ”He is a good man. Can you not be happy for me? Just a little? My heart is full. He has brought me such hope, such light, when there has been only sorrow and darkness.”
Freja closed her eyes and washed a hand over her face. She feared for Éowyn. Little good could come of this and yet, such hope and joy did indeed dwell in Éowyn’s eyes. And who was to know what lay ahead? This might be her last happiness. Freja stepped forward to embrace Éowyn.
”I can see that you are happy,” Freja murmured, ”And that is all I have ever wanted for you."
“And I you,” Éowyn answered, heartfelt relief in her face and voice.
Freja nodded, and despite her deep misgivings, smiled at Éowyn. That was when Vorda gasped, more in surprise than pain, and the crowd murmured. Freja found her initiate on her knees, staring at the back of her hand. A scratch had just begun to bleed. Vorda looked up, past Berendil, to Freja with wide eyes and managed not to grin at her.
”I yield, Freja Fireborn,” Vorda said and at that Freja nodded. About now was a perfect time to give these Rangers a proper lesson in manners.
”Please don’t,” Éowyn asked her.
”I’ll be gentle,” Freja returned as she strode towards Berendil.
Berendil threw Hanasian a worried look for his earlier anger had receded and he had no desire to make an even bigger mess of things. The Shieldmaiden paused to divest herself of her sword belt. She shed her armour swiftly too and rolled out of her mail. She was tall, easily able to meet eyes, and he could see that she was both lean and strong. That much was evident now that she was clad in little more than a tunic and breeches. Though she had set aside both her weapons and her armour, she was no less perilous. He could see that very clearly too.
He said to Freja, ”I have no desire to continue this.”
“Ah, I see how it is now. You’re happy to test yourself against an initiate but when it comes to a master…”
Berendil sighed unhappily at her and then grimaced over to where Hanasian was standing. The two men flickered hand signals at each other, communicating something. Freja took up a spear haft that was unpointed, hefted it a few times and then nodded her satisfaction. To that she added a shield. Heavy it was, round, wood with a dull metal hub. She carried it easily, as if she had been born with it on her arm.
”I have neither shield nor buckler,” Berendil pointed out as Vorda hurried off, clutching her hand and still trying very hard not to grin in anticipation of what was to come.
”And I do not have an edged weapon,” Freja replied, unperturbed, and glanced back to where Éowyn was fretting, ”I have given my word that I will be gentle with you, Ranger. But if that will not suffice then I offer you this: I shall not dint that pretty face of yours.”
Again there was laughter from those watching, particularly the Shieldmaidens and Berendil scowled, ”I suppose it will have to, won’t it.”
“Now we understand each other,” Freja purred and fell into an opening stance that she preferred for such situations. At that she heard those watching murmur appreciatively. Anticipation was electric as it eddied through her. A heady thrill. She gave the Ranger a smile over the edge of her shield. He shook his head at her and raised his longsword.
How hard could it be, he wondered. She’d been drinking ale. And she was fighting his two handed long sword with a shield and a stick. More than like, she was all bark and no bite right at the moment. He feinted but she did not take the bait. Perhaps she was as good as Hanasian thought she was and perhaps she wasn't. She’d been using his pride as a goad. Now it was time to return the favour and trip her on her own vaunted reputation.
Berendil pressed in with a rapid flurry of attacks. To her credit, she yielded ground as required, unhurried and unconcerned. That infuriating smile of hers was still on her face as she adjusted and he ended up doing little aside from battering on her shield. It was unsurprising that she was very good with a shield but defense is but half the struggle and she’d have to do more than that against him.
No sooner did he think that did her unfinished spear set to work. Freja was wickedly fast with it and while he kept it from cracking over his ears, arms and body, she managed to trip his feet. Berendil tumbled and rolled, coming to his feet and expecting to find her there ready to break his arm with her spear shaft. Instead, she had drawn back to wait. That surprised him. She’d struck him as impetuous. Hasty even.
Those watching cooed and then clapped and Berendil reset himself. At that, so did she and they were off again. In time, her smile faded away. He saw she had started to sweat though she was not winded, her breathing still well controlled. He’d gotten a few good whacks on her shield that he knew had to jar her arm. That can be anything from unpleasant to painful. Certainly it would weaken her. For his part, he was reasonably sure that he would painted in bruises by the time this was done. That thought prompted him to speak the first words they had exchanged since their spar commenced.
”To first blood, yes?” he asked, narrowly avoiding being clouted by a spear shaft. Apparently, her comment about his face did not relate to other regions of his head.
They prowled about each other still but at her nod, he asked, ”How do you intend to draw blood without a blade?”
The smile she answered him with was one of almost carnal delight.
”There are ways,” she promised, her wildly blue eyes glittering over her shield.
Berendil blinked, surprised at the way in which he had responded to her statement. She was a striking woman though not classically pretty. She did not bat her lashes or bite her lower lip or wind her hair around her fingers winsomely. For all of that, her long clean lines were strong. Almond eyes, perched atop imperiously high cheekbones, were the stunning blue of a mountain sky and yet they had seen death, blood, gruesome, visceral combat. They were knowing and right now they were trained on him...
Berendil stepped back. He cast his sword to the ground and held his arms out, palms forward towards her.
”A draw,” he proposed, watching her frown at him from behind her shield. She hesitated, smelling a trick or ploy. He stepped back again.
”We are evenly matched,” he told her as she straightened.
Her shield lowered to reveal her face. Cheekbones flared wide, a strong jaw that narrowed to a well defined chin. Freja looked him up and down again at length. Her frustration all but seared wherever her eyes travelled. Then she growled something in Rohirric, a curse by the sound of it, turned her back and stalked away. He watched her throw the spear shaft down, drop the shield, and then shoulder her way through the crowd. Still, Berendil waited, until the crowd itself began to disband.
Once that happened, Mecarnil and Hanasian both approached.
”What was that?” Mecarnil demanded, unimpressed.
Berendil bent to retrieve his sword and sheathed it.
”Common sense,” Hanasian answered for him, ”There was no way she was going to let Berendil off this field without at least one broken bone.”
“Nonsense! A little more persistence and the boot would have been on the other foot,” Mecarnil replied.
”She was softening him up,” Hanasian argued, ”Most of our time is spent fighting orcs, wargs and the like. The Shieldmaidens have spent a good portion of theirs fighting men. She knew what she was about. It’s a special kind of ignorance that downplays the obvious experience of an opponent.”
“Now you listen here. I’ve fought men too, you know, and-“
Berendil walked off on the debate, eyes raking the crowd. Mecarnil turned to watch him leave, as did Hanasian.
”Where’s he off to now? Not more trouble, I hope,” Mecarnil grumbled, as if that would prevent anything.
Finding Freja again proved more difficult than Berendil anticipated. He was routinely stopped by curious Rohirrim and asked what he had been trying to accomplish. Each time he was asked, Berendil found it difficult to answer. Yes, Hanasian had warned him to simply watch, to not interfere in whatever the Shieldmaidens were doing. And yet it had seemed so straightforward the moment he had strode out there. He had been trying to help and while he could admit to himself that perhaps there were other intentions afoot as well but those he kept to himself. In the end, he had only managed to make things worse.
Looking back at it now he should have known it would end this way. No good deed goes unpunished, Mecarnil would say and on this occassion he had been proven correct. Trying to explain that to the puzzled warriors around him seemed futile. All he could do was shrug and ask if they had seen her.
As a result, it was some time before he at last tracked her down. She was seated at a campfire with other Shieldmaidens. All laughed freely with each other, Freja most uproariously of them all. All had their hair completely braided, each in their own preference, and Berendil guessed that meant that they were all master Shieldmaidens. Some even bore silver torcs, none as many as Freja.
Berendil found himself struck by the contrast between the Shieldmaiden that had stalked off, filled with contempt, to the one that roared with lusty laughter now. That wild, utterly free and absolutely improper smile he had seen earlier was back. She was relaxed and the firelight made her hair glow. He shook himself and wondered what he was going to say. Aside from knowing he needed to speak with her, he hadn’t managed to think much further ahead than that.
Then he wondered why it was none of the Shieldmaidens had paid him any heed. As far as he could tell, he was the only man standing there. Shieldmaidens of varying ranks had to divert their paths around him so they had to know he was here. Why were they ignoring him? As he wondered that Freja unfurled her long limbs and stood, still laughing and cheeks flushed with unabashed delight. Hers was a throaty, fulsome laugh. The perfect companion to her improper smile.
Still wiping tears of mirth from sparkling eyes, she stepped over the logs that ringed the fire and headed in his direction. Her eyes were on the ground as she walked, her movements relaxed. She had that loose limbed poise shared by the finest of swordsmen. He almost thought she’d pass him by entirely, her attention diverted by whatever the source of this hilarity was, but she brought her head up and stopped in front of him. Off to one side, she crossed her arms under her chest. No cloak over her shoulders, despite the fact that it was March and the nights were decidedly crisp even this far south. She canted her head to one side and raised a brow at him in silent question.
Before Berendil could answer it, one of her sisters called out from the fire, ”Back for more, eh Ranger?”
There was simmering laughter at that, as if they waited to see what he would do or say next. Freja, though, did not chuckle with them. She merely studied him. Berendil had the distinct sense, for the second time that evening, that no matter what he did it would end up casting him as a fool. He was not an ordinarily proud man but even humble men value their dignity.
”They’re goading you,” Freja quietly informed him.
She shrugged at that and he saw the hint of a smile, ”You amuse them.”
“Is that what I am? A jester to caper for the great Shieldmaidens of Rohan?”
Freja shrugged again, indifferent, and Berendil retorted, ”If so then I’m not the only fool serving the Shieldmaiden’s tonight.”
He spoke with no small degree of heat but for all of that, Freja’s smile was wry and self-deprecatory.
”Like as not,” she agreed without hesitation, ”Particularly if you refer to me. There was no good reason for sparing your face, no matter how pleasing it is.”
While Berendil was trying to work out what do with that, a call came from the fire, ”I think this Ranger may be in need of another lesson in respect.”
”They’ll be at this all night unless we go elsewhere,” Freja advised and nodded past Berendil’s shoulder.
He glared over at the fire as Freja walked past him and then turned to follow her. As she led him through the encampment, the men she walked past called out greetings of some sort or the other. This Freja took in her stride, a friendly lift of the hand or inclination of her head. Sometimes there would be a mystifying exchange that seemed to be insults but left both parties smiling widely. Hanasian had said she was highly regarded but it also seemed she was equally well liked. How a prideful, hot tempered individual had managed that was a mystery.
She shifted her path sharply as he thought that and a short while later he saw Fastred pass by. No greeting or acknowledgement there. Clearly Freja had not befriended the entire encampment. The man swept a cool gaze past Freja as if she was not there at all and settled it on him. Dark blonde brows rose as he took stock of Berendil following along and then he shook his head dismissively. What, Berendil wondered, had that been about? His own black brows drew together in thought until he stumbled across a possible answer. Following Freja of his own accord, particularly after what had unfolded earlier, might be considered unwise.
The woman ahead diverted around another tent. Her braids swayed across her back and the torcs gleaming whenever firelight struck them. She was young, Hanasian said, to have risen to all eight. Second in command. Ordering people about was second nature to her. She didn’t think twice, or hesitate, or even wait to see it those she had ordered had complied. Certainly the Shieldmaidens jumped at her words. She expected others to as well, he guessed.
It did not take long for her to lead him to a quiet place on the edge of camp. At their arrival, the few Rohirrim that had been there bowed their heads to Freja and departed. He hadn’t even seen her make such a request but she did not seem overly surprised by it. She kicked a faggot of wood in their fire as if rearranging it to her liking and nodded.
As she turned about to face him, he said, ”You’re accustomed to getting what you want, aren’t you.”
Surprise showed on her face, ”I’m accustomed for working for what I want.”
Again her arms crossed under her chest as she continued, ”And right now I am working very hard to determine how you intend to fashion a proper apology from that.”
Berendil was flummoxed. She expected him to apologise?! Him? Now? She had already dismissed his earlier attempts. She narrowed her eyes at him and then shook her head. Freja turned to face the fire and stared into it for a moment.
”You didn’t come to apologise, did you Ranger?”
Frankly, he wasn’t entirely sure of his reasons for seeking her out now but apology had certainly not been amongst them.
”I’m not the only one who made a fool of themselves this evening,” he answered and saw her eyes narrow.
”That so,” she challenged and he stepped within the glow of the fire.
”The difference between you and I, Freja Fireborn, is that I have come to learn from my errors.”
Berendil watched her eyes flare at that and she gave a short, incredulous laugh as she met his eyes, ”And you, I presume, are here to educate me?”
“Allies should understand each other.”
She swiftly sat, crossed one long leg over the other and clasped her knee with both hands, ”I am ready to learn, Master Ranger.”
Berendil was certain she mocked him.
”You don’t think much of Rangers, do you?” he asked.
Freja shrugged at that and so he continued, ”In fact, I’d go so far as to say you think you’re better off without us.”
“Thirty of you can’t do too much harm,” she replied.
”Perhaps thirty of us is all you need.”
Her brows quirked at that and he saw a faint smile, ”You talk like a Shieldmaiden.”
Berendil nodded and then said, ”Or maybe there is only thirty of us left.”
Her smile shifted at that and so he continued, ”What do you know of Arnor?”
“Big – north,” she shrugged, ”Not Rohan.”
So, next to nothing Berendil thought and tested that with another question, ”And Cardolan?”
Freja shook her head, ”Something you might eat. A spice, perhaps. Why?”
Berendil sat and pressed a hand to the centre of his chest, ”I am from Cardolan.”
She lifted a brow at him but she did not smile. Her cocky assurance was banked and she was perceptive enough to sense that he was going somewhere with this. And so, he did. The telling took some time, even if he skipped over the intricacies. By the time it was done, he finally looked at Freja. He’d avoided that during the telling, lest he find her smirking and lose his restraint again. She was not smirking though. Nor scowling. Nor glaring. He found himself surprised, in fact, to find tears shone on her cheeks and she had pressed a hand to her mouth.
”All of them,?” she whispered through her fingers and he nodded grimly.
”Man, woman and child. My home, Freja, is a little more than graves and abandoned buildings now and that is but one part of Arnor. Sauron did not spare the others, either. Rohan has not been the only one to suffer under the his malice.”
Her eyes dropped to the fire again. It was in need of more wood and so, to fill the gaping silence and address his growing restlessness, Berendil fed it. He leaned back on his heels and brushed his hands off only to find Freja had set a gentle hand to his shoulder.
”I am sorry, Berendil,” she told him earnestly and he looked, startled by her sudden honesty, into her face, ”I did not know.”
Berendil tensed as Freja drew her arms around him and embraced him.
”I do not desire your pity,” he told her.
For all of that, her warmth was undeniably pleasant. Vital she was, strong. She tightened her embrace a moment and then pulled back so that her face hung before his.
”It is not pity I offer,” she replied solemnly, the firelight flickering over the panes of her face.
”What, then” Berendil asked her through a suddenly dry mouth. His eyes widened as she lifted her fingers to trace the line of his jaw but he did not draw back.
”Is it so surprising that a Shieldmaiden might be capable of compassion,” she returned, voice barely more than a murmur.
She gazed up at him, as if looking at him clearly for the first time. He could feel the warmth of her skin through her tunic. She drew a deep breath into her chest that she pushed out again. As if debating something. Then she stood and walked away from him and the fire both, into the darkness beyond. Slowly, Berendil stood, staring after her. He felt…regret. And the pressure of someone’s study. He turned to see Hanasian standing there. His friend shook his head at him in warning. Despite that, though, Berendil followed the Shieldmaiden’s steps into the darkness.
She was not difficult to locate for she had not gone far and her teeth softly chattered.
He asked, ”Are you cold?”
Freja shook her head, not sure why she denied what was obvious, and crossed her arms against her tunic. Though she could barely make him out in the darkness, she could sense his scrutiny. Did these Rangers see better in the dark? They were said to be the pupils of Elves. She heard clothing rustle and then started as Berendil settled his cloak around her shoulders. Freja held her breath as his fingers gently secured it in place at the base of her throat, barely grazing her skin.
Her mouth was strangely dry. Again. Not the first pretty face, she reminded herself, and this one seemed to have no particular liking for her. Freja allowed her fingers to explore the device Berendil had used to fasten the cloak. It was a star, the metal cool to the touch.
”Seven points,” she murmured.
”An emblem of Elendil’s followers,” Berendil replied, ”For that is what we are.”
“And Aragorn is his heir,” she said, puzzled by why it was these men were so enamoured of a lord, washed up from the ruin of a drowned land.
“Our chieftain too.”
“Éowyn said as much,” Freja replied, her voice thoughtful.
”What do you think of him,” Berendil asked and immediately Freja recalled her exchange with Éowyn. She felt reluctant to comment on Rangers now. Frankly, she wasn’t sure how to describe any of them anymore, particularly the one who stood nearby.
”It hardly matters what I make of him,” Freja replied, neatly evading the entire topic, ”My service is given to another.”
She made no effort to keep her pride from her voice.
”Do you not fear what is to come, then?” Berendil asked.
She was struck, then, by a clear note of dismay. It made no sense to her at all, but how to explain this to a stranger to her land, her customs and their ways? Freja paused for what could she say that was not already known.
Then she pulled Berendil’s cloak and pulled it tighter around her shoulders for warmth, ”Battle is a Shieldmaiden’s lot and I knew this when I chose my path. I will not turn away from it now.”
“Death is what you live for,” Berendil said and Freja shook her head impatiently, irritated anew. How dare he?
”I live for the duty I swore to uphold. Much, I suspect, as do you,” Freja added for good measure.
“Perhaps, then, we are more alike than you think,” Berendil replied quietly, his words cutting across her chagrin. She had no answer for that. She had been on such solid footing only a moment ago and now she was floundering in the dark. Again.
”If we prevail in this war, Freja, have you given thought to what might follow when it is done?”
Berendil’s question was both surprising and dangerous. She answered carefully indeed, ”A Shieldmaiden’s life is brief, even by our measure. Little is served by looking too far ahead.”
Berendil did not answer immediately and she was started by his hand. It cupped her cheek gently and all of sudden he was very close. His fingers trailed along her cheekbone to her hair and then followed one of her braids. He held it in his hand, toying with torc he had discovered. He must have been able to feel the etchings upon it.
”What is it for?” he asked, voice quiet in her ear.
”It is for the spear,” she answered and closed her eyes.
Breathe, Freja. Just breathe. Berendil released her braid but did not draw away. Tension mounted and either she kissed him or she asked him a question.
Freja opted for the latter, ”The long years ahead belong to you and those of your kind. What do you think will happen?”
His answer came easily, ”Gondor and Arnor will be united and we will know peace. Such is our hope. There will be much to rebuild, in Arnor and Rohan alike.”
“I do not think it likely that Cardolan will ever rise again,” he said.
Another question occurred to her, ”What is Arnor like, then?”
“You wish to know?”
Freja shrugged at his question, ”It is unlikely I will ever see it for myself. What business would a Shieldmaiden have in Arnor, Berendil?”
He seemed to pause at that, as if he had ideas on that of his own, and then went on to describe Arnor to her. She heard of Bree and of the best apples to be had in all of Middle Earth. One thing was clearest of all.
”You love it,” she told him, ”I hear it in your voice.”
“I plan to return when this is done. And you?” he asked.
”Aside from battle, I do not know,” she replied.
“Is battle all you think of?”
“Not entirely,” Freja admitted, swallowing in a dry throat, for just at that moment she was not thinking of battle or war at all. She felt her cheeks heat. Damn the man for standing so closely. She almost leapt out of her skin as his fingers returned to her face. He drew them along her jaw on either side and then cupped her face between his hands. They stood like that for a long moment. Then she heard Berendil whisper something in the strange Elvish tongue she had heard in use around the camp. She almost sensed his lips drawing near but he did not kiss her.
”I find the thought of you falling in battle unbearable,” he told her, as if puzzled.
“You answered your King’s call. Why should I not answer mine?”
Berendil’s sigh was heavy and he drew his arms about her, ”I will look for you, Freja, upon that field. What comes after we will face together. All of it.”
The notion was almost startling to her if he meant what she thought he meant. To say such a thing… He lowered his head and buried his face where her neck met her shoulders. Then he drew in a deep breath as he gathered her to him, as if he would inhale her entirely.
Freja asked, ”A Ranger and a Shieldmaiden?”
Her question made Berendil lift his head, “If we may fight and die together, why may we not live…together?”
Berendil pressed a kiss to her brow, her skin soft against his lips, and reluctantly drew away. Now was not a time for undertakings beyond that. He was to take the Paths of the Dead come the dawn and she was riding to battle soon thereafter. He lifted her hand in his and kissed her palm. Then he strode back to camp. It was some time before Freja followed and by the time she had returned, there was no sight of the Ranger. He had vanished.
When Berendil gained the upper plateau, both Hanasian and Mecarnil had retired for what little sleep they could gain. He could hear Mecarnil soundly snoring. Something he should have done, would have done if only…Berendil slipped into the tent he shared with the other two men as quietly as he could.
Despite his stealth, though, Hanasian was clearly awake for he asked, ”What are you up to with that Shieldmaiden, Berendil?”
“Nothing,” Berendil answered even though he knew very well that wasn’t true.
As did Hanasian, apparently “Because I’ve told you Shieldmaidens do not abandon their spears lightly.”
Hanasian yawned, ”So you aren’t the sort for idle dalliances.”
“What makes you think I’m dallying anyone?” Berendil challenged and at that Hanasian fell silent.
Berendil wrapped himself up in his bedroll. As he tried to settle in to sleep he found his mind racing and body thrumming. He closed his eyes and saw a pair of almond shaped eyes gazing back at him, knowing. What was he doing? Had he really said what he thought he had. He could still feel her in his arms. He shifted again, aware of the bruises she had given him.
”I’m not dallying,” Berendil muttered to himself.
Hanasian sleepily murmured, ”Perish the thought.”
Berendil grunted and tried to find a comfortable position yet again. It was going to be a difficult night finding rest.