Legacy Prequel - The Ranger & The Shieldmaiden

Discussion in 'The Glittering Caves' started by Elora, Jul 25, 2016.

  1. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Khemlal’s young son met Berendil a few paces from Hanasian’s tent but as much as he wanted to go, Berendil forbade it. When Khemlal met with Berendil later the boy again begged to go with Berendil. Such was the burning eagerness in his young face, fierce and strong, but Khemlal agreed with Berendil and forbade it. Instead, he dispatched his eldest daughter to go with them. This made Berendil uneasy and he was reluctant to have Khemra with him but resisting her fathers could well create yet more difficulties and the company had enough of those as it was. He acquiesced finally and limited Khemra’s role to that of a translator. As he praised her fluency with Westron, Khemra remained impassive. As far as she was concerned, she was not there to act as a guide and translator no matter what Berendil’s thoughts on the matter were.

    Aside from his party of six, only Hanasian, Khemlal and his young son knew why they went north. But maintaining that secrecy would prove difficult. Disguising Molguv as anything other than Haradrim was nigh on impossible but Khemlal assured him that Haradian traders would, at times, venture into Khand to ply their wares. Instead, it was Berendil and the other northern men that would stand out. Khemra came to their aid here and provided them with clothing that covered to some degree the strangeness of their garb. By the time their preparations were concluded, the setting sun had finally broken free of the clouds and they set out into the rapidly approaching night.

    The stars guided them through the darkness and by the morning they had come to a village known as the crossroads. There they rested and took time to eat and observe the locals at a small trading post. The men had some hot, bitter, brewed black liquid that Khemra eagerly sought. Berendil didn’t care for the taste himself but it was quite invigorating. Molguv too seemed to know of it and he promptly set about trading with the proprietor for a small bag of the beans it was made of. Judging from the grin on his face, the Haradrim seemed quite pleased with the deal and when they set off again, the sun was once again obscured by clouds.

    It approached midday by the time they reached what Khemra said was the land of the northern clans. A sense of emptiness could be felt in the air. Aside from the old and very young were there, few others remained. Khemra attributed this to the war but even though she had endured this amongst her own people, she seemed troubled. Berendil ordered them to move west along a rocky ridge that afforded a good view of the village below. Once in place, they settled in to await night’s cover for a stealthy approach.

    The day passed, hours turgid, as the sun burned off the lingering clouds. The clear night that followed allowed them to watch for shadows, and there seemed to be a lot of men filing out of a small shelter and heading with speed into the night. Too many Berendil thought. It did answer where everyone was, but what were they doing? Khemra said they have underground dens to protect them from Khand’s harsh heat, and further that there were many such places. She pointed them out now, but none had so many depart at once as this one.

    He took two men with him to explore further and made for the shelter below. They gained the door and paused to listen. There was not a sound now, the strange and urgent procession of men now ended. Berendil stepped inside with one of his men, leaving the third stationed by the door within clear view of the three he had left upon the ridge.

    ”Be vigilant,” he warned, For we know not what we will find.”

    The two men nodded tersely at him and Berendil padded through the door to find a sweeping set of steps carved into the very rock itself. It sunk deeply into a black maw. He stared at it, glanced at the lanky Ithilien Ranger that accompanied him, and began to descend.
     
  2. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Two days later news arrived from the company’s western scout that there was movement on the plain. Videgavia followed the scout to where he had set his watch out to a position where the trail the company had followed in ascended and crossed a rocky ridge. With good sightlines and ample cover, Videgavia studied what seemed to him to be roughly thirty Haradrim. Rogue soldiers, if he had to guess, and anything better than a guess was beyond them all for Molguv wasn’t with them. He swiftly sent confirmation back to Hanasian and as a result the company moved west of the Khe’al camp to set a garrison upon the ridge.

    A tactical decision through and through, Hanasian had gained the most defensible line to the west as well as some separation from the locals. It would soon prove to be a decision wisely made. The dust rose as roughly twenty men came down from the rough mountains to meet the Haradrim and it soon emerged that these soldiers were merely a rogue group wandering afield. Hanasian waved for his archers to get ready but unfortunately he had little time to consider more.

    There came a yell from the high ground. The attackers only had a few archers, but the few arrows flew straight and true, finding targets of his men. Two fell outright and two were wounded though not badly. The attackers came jumping down in a rage with knife and short sword at ready, and the fight was bloody. Just like the Variags upon the Pelennor, these men would not withdraw. They fought savagely to the very last and Hanasian was fortunate to have only lost three men in the bloody melee. Still, three was three too many. He could ill afford to lose men at all, let alone three in a surprise attack.

    There was little time to see to the wounded and examine the dead enemy, for a shout rose from below as the mixed group charged up the track. The company archers could easily pick off these men from their positions so that only a few gained the ridge proper and were met with fell swords wielded by a wroth company. They were soon dispatched, and once he was confident that there were no more attackers, Hanasian had a hard look at their dead.

    Though they were clad in a rough mixture of Haradian armour, he was certain that most were all northern Khandese. Amongst them, though, were a smattering of Haradrim which resolved where it was the Khandese had obtained their gear. Irrespective of their origins and equipment, what united all of them was a symbol. It appeared in different places, sometimes sewn onto clothing and sometimes inked into the skin itself, but always the same symbol.

    Videgavia, who had joined him in inspecting the dead, said in a low voice, ”A cult.”

    Hanasian nodded, ”Aye, but I do not recognize the mark. Who or what do they follow and why have they come now ”

    “A warlord,”
    Videgavia guessed with a shrug, “Or…worse.”

    Everything Hanasian knew about Naiore Dannan spoke of a mighty disdain for the Edain. She’d hardly cultivate mortal adherents, he thought, but then perhaps she was using that which was at her disposal now that she could no longer rely on Sauron’s might. As his thoughts ran his eyes returned to the nearest symbol. It was roughly stitched, as if with haste, into the tattered tunic of a northern Khandese man. Unfamiliar as it was, something about it tugged at him. Hanasian pressed out a weary sigh, washed a hand over his face and then looked up to study the horizon. Khand stretched around them in all directions. If Naiore was raising it against them, they were as good as dead. With that grim thought, his memory finally yielded the realization that Hanasian had seen this symbol before, within the caravan granted sanctuary. His attention swung east, back to the Khe’al encampment and saw smoke had just begun to rise.

    ”If no more are coming here, then we will quit this position. Make for the Khe’al with haste!”

    At that his men abandoned their search for anything of worth from the dead as they hastened to the village but it was already too late. The dead were strewn about amongst the tents already. Yet more northern Khandese lay there, all marked with that symbol, but with them lay the villagers as well. A final stand was made before Khemlal’s tent where most of his daughters and son lay. The number of northern Khandese laying there spoke of a mighty battle that they could not have hoped to win against such overwhelming numbers. Khemlal himself was all but unrecognizable, for he had been burned in his tent after taking many arrows. The stench in the air was sickening as the company fanned out to keep watch around the village.

    Foldine came to Hanasian as he took grim stock of the slaughter, ”I don’t see any of ours here among the dead, so they must not have yet returned.”

    Hanasian nodded grimly at Foldine's choice of words. He admired Foldine’s optimism but if this is what had happened in the south, what chance did the six he had sent into the northern reaches of Khand stand of returning at all?

    Foldine pressed on, ”One of the daughters lives, but I fear not for long. All she will say is ‘morcana’ or something very like it. We don’t know what it means.”

    “Lead on,”
    Hanasian urged him, pressing him forward such was his haste.

    Foldine swiftly led his captain to where the woman lay. Her head was cradled in Gilkis’ lap and the Daleman looked up at Hanasian at his arrival and shook his head. She had spoken her last.

    A rising sense of helplessness and doom saw Hanasian lash out and kick a nearby stone to send it skittering.

    ”What are the customs of these people?” he shouted at the sky,Do they burn? Do they bury? How is that we do we not know this after being here this long?”

    A young archer, a Highlander from Ringlo answered from nearby, ”One of the daughters spoke to me of their mother. She told me that they burn the bodies then bury the ashes in honour.”

    Hanasian looked sharply at the young man. Torn between wanting to rip into him for disobeying his orders to keep his distance from the women of the village and congratulating him for learning something of their hosts, he was silent for a time before he trusted himself to reply.

    ”Very well. We will burn them and then bury them together, as they fell, in honour. The attackers will be left for the carrion to deal with. This must be done swiftly, for it is all but certain another attack will arrive. I want us gone before it does.”

    Was a hard, grim labour that the company set to then yet not a man complained at the task before them. All honour was given to the Khe’al, now reduced to the one woman that had gone north with Berendil. Once it was done, the company set out north into the heart of the land, hoping to find Berendil and his party still somehow alive.
     
  3. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Berendil let his eyes adjust to the darkness before continuing. They moved in silence, the soft sand underfoot greedily swallowing sound, their knives drawn and their ears straining for movement in the darkness. Having gone some distance, Berendil detected a side passage. He sent his companion that way as he continued. In the darkness, time seemed to move differently and he had no idea how long had passed before he glimpsed the faint flicker of light from a turn in the passage. It revealed that he was walking through a great channel carved in the very bedrock of Khand, grains of sand gleaming from within the rock’s edifice.

    He slowed, paused and then crept forward with painstaking care. Peeking around it he saw a cavernous chamber. Dim light flickered about from various fires and the chamber was empty but for a solitary figure that stood towards the front. The size of the cavern dwarfed its occupant. The figure was propped against a pillar of stone that seemed to be reaching for the craggy roof far above. They leaned, head in their hands, as though troubled or injured or fatigued. Berendil squinted and tried to make out more detail and the figure snapped about, turning towards the passage Berendil was tucked into. He held his breath, or rather it stuck in his throat of his own accord for he could see now, that the figure was Elvish. It had to be Naiore Dannan, he was sure of it, though if it was then he did not know how it was that she had not detected his presence with her keen senses.

    She stared hard towards him and then he heard her begin to whisper, the words of a fell, dead tongue creeping out into the cavern and towards him. Then came the sound of a bowstring stretching. The Elf snarled at that, any fatigue now gone as she bristled to full, terrifying life.

    ”You! Surrender Elf!” he shouted at her and she laughed – the sound cold as death itself.

    She lifted her arms just as an arrow pierced her side and then suddenly he was blinded as the fires in the cavern flared to brilliant light. Just as his light blinded vision cleared, Berendil heard a large, ominous crack in the stone overhead. He wavered between rushing into the caverns and retreating down the passage and wisely chose to fall back. No sooner had he done so did the roof of the cavern begin to fall, massive slabs of rock hurtling down.

    Berendil sprinted back as fast as he could in the darkness for the passage he had sent his companion down. He could hear the man’s breathing as he ran through the soft sand underfoot and he thought he caught sight of him just as the passage roof fell on top of him. Urgently, Berendil heaved at rocks in the darkness, rolling whatever he could away until his hands finally found something warm and far softer than the stones he had been heaving. The man was breathing soon but the sound was wet and gurgling, as though his ribs had staved in or worse.

    ”I got her! Know I got her…” he gasped, stirring as Berendil’s fingers brushed against him but there was another rumble over head and there was no time for further discussion.

    Berendil heard the sound of yet more rock dropping. It was drawing closer, as though the rock around them was trying to swallow them whole. The terrible, gurgling breathing of his companion came to an abrupt end and Berendil’s only choice was to either be buried with him or make a run for the stairs to the surface, if they still existed.

    He hurtled through the collapsing passage, lungs burning as he tried to suck in air through the dust and sand. His head was swimming now but through it he could hear the man he’d left to watch shouting for them. Berendil followed that sound, tripping up the stairs at such haste it was a wonder that he did not shatter an ankle to sprawl through the door on the surface as a great plume of dust billowed up to engulf everything. The earth shuddered and rolled beneath them, growling like a great beast, and when the dust cleared Berendil found himself lying on his back staring at the stars. He sat up with a start and drew clear air into his aching, torn lungs. This produced a terrible bout of coughing that brought hard tears to his eyes.

    He shook off the man thumping his back and rose, wobbling, to his feet. Together, the pair scrambled back to where the others watched and by the time they had arrived, Berendil’s breathing had eased.

    ”See anything?” he hoarsely inquired.

    Molguv pointed into the distance, ”Yes, a column of dust shot up into the sky there when the ground shook.”

    Berendil squinted and saw nothing moving. Yet he could not assume that Naiore perished below. He was sure she was responsible for the collapse of the cave but he thought it unlikely she’d set that in motion without having a way out for herself. Then again, if the dying words of the Ranger were true, perhaps she had been too hampered by the arrow to effect an escape. It was too risky to leave to change and so Berendil set them to searching the area.

    They spent the day and the following night scouring the area and yet they found nothing. Berendil fell to wondering how he would report this when the time came. Was the Elf dead, injured or none of these things? They settled into an uneasy watch, and on the third morning a company scout found them with a message: Hanasian was on his way.
     
  4. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Naiore Dannan lay in the shade of a pillar near where she had crawled out. These Khandese lived like rats, countless inlets and outlets to their fetid burrows. She knew others searched for her now, but their numbers were laughably inadequate if they hoped to locate her. She let them scurry about as she worked on the arrow tip still embedded in her flank. That did not bother her overmuch either. Rather, it was the fact that she had been taken unawares by one of the Edain. The arrow she dealt with should never have found her and the man…well she had tasted him before in the thoughts of yet another mortal. A woman…that infernal, wretched Shieldmaiden. Had that foolish Angmar wraith not gone and gotten himself killed in his towering stupidity, none of this would be happening now. Another woman of this upstart realm of barbarians and brigands. Rohan.

    A small land. Weak. A new king, no suitable heirs…and if it should fall, Gondor would surely follow and that other bastion of the Edain, Arnor, was yet too fragile to be anything more than a distraction. And then, with the infantile empire of the Edain reduced to rubble, where would her own people turn to then? She already knew the answer to that: Valinor. And Valinor, ever reluctant to involve themselves, would not bother with another War of Wrath for she was but a gnat to the mighty Ainur. She was not Morgoth, nor even Sauron. She was but an Elf. Besides, if they keep on drowning land, there’d be none of it left. The Elf gritted her teeth as the arrow tip finally slipped out of her flesh and dropped to the barren earth. Slowly, Naiore rose to her feet and considered the eastern horizon. A dust storm would serve nicely indeed.

    The Company had set out to kill anyone who bore the symbol as payment for the slaughter of the Khe’al people and by the time they reached Berendil, they were weary. Khemra took the news that her father, her family and her people had been slain in silence. Tears she refused to let fall welled in her eyes and she turned away.

    ”I am alone,” she softly said as she clutched the hilts of her knives and stared out into northern Khand.

    Yet before Hanasian could offer her any comfort, tidings came of a fresh trail marked in blood not yet a day old. It led eastward and so Hanasan ordered his men to prepare for a fresh pursuit.

    They checked their weapons and provision, and were soon ready. When Hanasian turned about to locate Khemra he found her standing, staring into the east and a murky cloud of dust and sand that seemed to dance on the horizon there.

    "Are there any settlements to the east?" he asked and she nodded as she pointed towards the high dunes.

    ”The warlords gather there. They are strong and numerous.”

    This made it all but certain that Naiore would make for this target. Indeed, Hanasian thought it likely that she would already have these Moricarni seeded amongst them. As clan structures broke down and the warlords divvied up the people and land for their own fiefdoms, the Elf would have rich seam to mine for her own purposes. Indeed, for all he knew, she may well be using the former generals of Sauron in whatever game she was now pursuing.

    Against that, his company of barely more than twenty men would have to be very careful indeed. It was doubtful they would be so fortunate as to catch Naiore unawares a second time. Hanasian thought hard at what his next move should be with the resources he had.
     
  5. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    3019, III – December, Meduseld


    Darhias paused to knock the snow from his boots before he entered Meduseld’s hall. A blistering wind, frigid, blasted from the White Mountains and his beard was thick with crystals of ice. All things considered, winter this far south was decidedly pleasant. Two guards, heavily wrapped against the elements, flanked the thick oaken doors of Meduseld. Frost gathered in the crevices of the carving and iron reinforcements. Beyond these doors, all the firepits would be alight. Well tended, and never permitted to go cold throughout the winter season, there would be a welcome warmth for all who sought shelter within.

    He nodded to the guards as he neared but his passage out of the cold was forestalled as the doors opened to reveal a Gondorian man. He blinked against the sudden sunlight, turned back to raise a hand in farewell to someone waiting within and shouldered his pack. This must be Freja’s pet Gondorian, Darhias concluded. He had the pale cast of a scholar just as Vorda had described when the fellow had first called upon Edoras some months ago when the weather was still benign. He’d made repeated trips north since, his latest some two days ago just as the blizzard had come howling down onto Edoras. It was only now fading.

    The fellow was outfitted in clothing far better suited for the conditions than the garb he had arrived in. That, Darhias guessed, had come from Freja for there was a reason the Shieldmaidens now referred to him as Freja’s pet Gondorian. At a shout from within, he scuttled out of the doors proper and let them close behind him so as to not let all the warm air out. He then nodded amicably at Darhias and made his way down the wide steps of Meduseld.

    Darhias turned to study the man as he departed. He trudged through the snow with a clumsy lumber that spoke of man who did not frequent the outdoors overly much. Just what, he wondered, was a scholar of Gondor doing here in Edoras. Vorda had been muttering, off and on, about him for months now. Newly appointed captain of the Shieldmaidens, it had fallen to Vorda to retrieve the scholar from Edoras’ gates only two scant days ago. She’d then spent a good hour stomping about their home as she cast off her gear, muttering about “southern men and the rocks they keep in their heads”.

    Was a long road from Gondor to Edoras. Not a road to take, back and forth, routinely without reason. And this was hardly the season to be taking it at all. Confined by the weather to their home, Darhias had spent the past two days delicately asking questions he probably should have asked months ago now. Delicate, because it did not do to irritate a Shieldmaiden when you were forced to endure the consequences in close proximity. Vorda had been more than happy to complain about the fellow, however Darhias had discovered all too late that Vorda had been grumbling about him for some time now and was far from impressed that Darhias had not noticed.

    According to Vorda, Freja’s pet Gondorian scholar hailed from the library of Minas Tirith. He arrived semi-regularly, always expected by Freja and always received by her. The purpose of his visits and what they discussed Vorda did not know and Freja had not divulged. Éomer was aware of this, of course, but saw it as a promising indication that Freja was taking up new interests now that her old life was behind her. Yet, was it?

    Darhias knew for himself that Freja trained as diligently and intently as any Shieldmaiden currently in service. That was not the behaviour of woman who had set her spears down, even if she no longer bore the braids and torcs of her sisters. And so, what possible use could Freja Fireborn have for scholars?

    He had heard her declare that nothing of any worth could be found “mouldering within the pages of a book”. Her attitude was entirely consistent with that of her people. The Rohirrim were not known for their scholarly arts. Theirs was a culture of spoken word, each memorable event codified in long sagas, poems and songs that their bards spent years memorising. If anything was set down, it was a map or one of their tapestries. The Shieldmaidens had their own spoken lore to learn, each initiate spending long hours each day in the task.

    On one memorable occasion, so as to fill the hours, he’d started recording this spoken history. Unfortunately, Vorda had found it, taken it to Freja and his transgression had been ruthlessly dealt with. Freja had burnt the book he’d started writing their battle songs into right before his eyes, along with anything else he had set down within the covers, whilst Vorda had riffled through his other papers looking for anything else he might have stashed away. Once both women were satisfied, they’d left him with the ashes of his book and a stern warning. So, why on earth would book burning Freja have any interest in a scholar from Minas Tirith’s libraries, much less the information Vorda said he brought along to show her? Brought along and left, Darhias thought, for the satchel of Freja’s pet had not been bursting with books or scrolls when he had left.

    No two ways about it, this was odd. As he had waited out the blizzard, Darhias had gotten to weighing up all he had observed since arriving in Edoras. He’d been diligent, watching from afar for any sign that Naiore Dannan was afoot. In all that time, though, he’d seen no trace of her malign influence. Yet, the last time Freja’s conduct had been inexplicable, Naiore Dannan had been at the heart of it. He gave off his study of the scholar, who was now attempting to mount his horse in a manner that both surprised and amused the Rohirrim attempting to steady his horse, and shouldered through Meduseld’s heavy doors into the hall proper.
     
  6. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    No sooner had his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light of the hall did he sight Freja. In truth, her hair made her was difficult to miss. The thick waves that tumbled unbound to her hips caught the light from the torches and sconces lit above and all but glowed. Her sable kirtle of finely woven wool suited her handsomely, as did the emerald shawl trimmed with rusty fur that was slung over her arms. The golden belt slung around her hips marked her station as King’s ward. To all outward appearances, nothing looked askew and yet this did little to settle Darhias’ growing concerns.

    He drifted across to one of the wide heavy beams that held Meduseld’s golden roof aloft and skirted around it before she noticed him. Not that he needed to worry overmuch, for she seemed preoccupied with whatever it was a functionary of Éomer’s hall discussed with her. The fellow waved a hand at the doors as he spoke to her and Freja shook her head as she gestured deeper into Meduseld. The two people Darhias watched stood at the corner of the dais that held Éomer’s throne. It sat empty, save for a luxuriant array of furs and a beautifully embroidered cushion said to be the work of Lady Éowyn Dernhelm herself.

    Darhias studied the exchange playing out and debated whether it might be best to double back and see what the scholar might be able to tell him. Judging by his facility with horses, he’d still be trying to climb into his saddle outside if Darhias were fast enough. No sooner had that occurred to him did Freja’s discussion end. She nodded to the functionary and took her leave at such a pace that her skirts flared. No time for doubling back, he decided and set off after her.

    Freja wound through Meduseld’s halls with the familiarity of one who had grown up in them, seemingly unaware of his presence. Despite that, more than once she almost outpaced him for the woman had very long legs and he had a persistent limp. He caught her again as she rounded the final corner and came to her chambers within the royal wing of Meduseld. The tapestries upon the wooden panelled walls here were rich and ornate. He peeked around the corner to see her pass by the two knights at her door with a briefly murmured greeting and disappear within.

    Darhias paused and weighed up what to do now. This could be nothing, a fool’s errand, but his gut told him that it was important. There were too many unanswered questions and if this did have something to do with Naiore, Berendil would never forgive him for allowing it to unfold beneath his very nose. He decided to push on, hoping that the knights at her door would suffer him to pass unremarked. He’d invested considerable time amongst their number to cultivate friendships amongst them and perhaps this might see him through now.

    The two men smiled at his approach, their expressions warm and friendly, and yet both kept to their duty all the same. Darhias’ teeth ground at that but what could he do? Charging in, past two knights, to surprise Freja was likely to end badly. As his name was announced, Darhias heard the sound of a drawer closing and then Freja’s voice as she granted him permission to enter. He found her standing at the corner of her desk, surveying him intently in a room filled with a rosy, warm glow.

    ”A rare honour, Ranger,” she said and he couldn’t be sure if he caught a sardonic note in her voice.

    Just what Freja made of him he did not know and did not want to guess. Instead, he wanted to know where the scholar’s books were. Freja did not own a bookshelf but they had to be in here somewhere. In her parlour she had a wide desk, a locked cupboard and chairs scattered about. Her bedroom was sealed from view, the doors to it closed. His gaze must have wandered to her desk for Freja swept her shawl off and dropped it onto the surface, effectively covering most everything upon it.

    ”Can I interest you in tea?” she inquired, arching a brow at him.

    Though he’d not chased her through Meduseld to take tea, Darhias nodded and watched her smile to herself as she turned to commence preparations.

    ”Sit or stand as you please,” she told him without turning about, ”The reeds are freshly laid and I do not intend to ruin them with your blood.”

    Now he knew she was mocking him for she shot him an openly mischievous grin over her shoulder.

    ”You could try,” he returned in a clumsy display of bravado.

    Freja nodded her approval of his attempt to engage in what passed as humour among these people and he felt his shoulders unknit slightly. Darhias had found that in general terms anything offensive was funny and anything funny was offensive. Until it suddenly wasn’t.

    ”What brings you here?” she asked, back to him still, ”You’ve not asked for Vorda’s hand again, have you?”

    Darhias winced at the question. No one had told him that it was offensive to ask the woman you loved to marry you if she happened to be a serving Shieldmaiden. Apparently, you’re supposed to wait until she sets her spears aside first but at that rate he’d never be able to take her to wife. Vorda had been so insulted she’d not answered him. To that, she had added not speaking or looking at him for a week and never mentioning the matter again once she resumed speaking to him. The fact that Freja knew, however, only confirmed that the two women were thick as thieves. Aside from wondering what else Vorda had confided in Freja about her relationship with himself, Darhias again wondered what it was Freja was hiding from Vorda. From everyone, it would seem, who knew her to any degree.

    ”I’ve learned my lesson,” he replied uncomfortably, determined not to flush right in front of Freja.

    She nodded as she measured tea into a pot, ”Patience, Ranger. Give it time. Until recently, it was inconceivable that a Shieldmaiden could both serve and wed.”

    That was ridiculous, for he and Vorda already shared a roof. What difference did the rest of it make? Darhias wandered over to her desk and saw the corner of a map peeking out. Its title was obscured by the fur trim of Freja’s shawl and all he could make out were the final letters – O and R. Utterly useless.

    ”Taking up cartography, are we?” he tried.

    Freja peered at him over her shoulder, ”Cartography?”

    “Maps,”
    he clarified and saw her lift her eyes.

    ”If you meant maps, why not say so?”

    Darhias sighed and rubbed at his forehead. At this rate, all he’d gain from this endeavour was a headache listening to a master of disassembly take him to task for failing to speak plainly.

    ”Was that your pet scholar I saw setting out?” he asked.

    Freja nodded, attention back on the water that was boiling, ”Aye, up from Minas Tirith.”

    “What brings him here? Vorda says this is not his first visit.”

    “My invitation,”
    Freja simply replied as she poured out steaming water into the small earthen pot she had prepared.

    ”It’s a long road from Minas Tirith.”

    Again Freja nodded agreeably, ”Particularly this time of year. Honey?”

    How was it, he wondered, that she could be so cooperative and yet utterly unforthcoming at the same time? He nodded at her inquiry and so she set both a mug of steaming tea and a small pot of honey on the desk he stood by. Then she settled into a chair of her own, wrapped her hands around her cup and inhaled the steam. Vorda had warned him before setting out that questioning a Shieldmaiden was a fraught endeavour and Darhias was rapidly acquiring appreciation for what Hanasian was able to achieve at the same task months earlier.
     
  7. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Darhias dribbled honey into his own tea and stirred thoughtfully. Pick the right question, he said to himself, and perhaps he’d dislodge something useful. He nodded to himself, lifted his tea to his lips and flinched. Tea in Rohan was so pungent it was almost like licking the floor of a stable and Freja was known amongst her sisters for preferring her tea very strong. Like her ale, they laughed, and her men they laughed even harder still and now he had an image in his mind he certainly did not want.

    He added substantially more honey and tried to discipline his thoughts. As he averted his gaze from Freja he could feel the weight of her scrutiny gaze upon him. Watching, weighing, taking stock.

    ”How does a Ranger settle into Rohan? Can’t be easy,” she observed.

    Darhias sighed, ”Our people are not so different.”

    ”I imagine that optimism serves you well,” Freja dryly replied.

    ”I didn’t come to discuss how I was settling in,” Darhias told her and again her brows lifted.

    “Then why are you here?” Freja asked, voice sharp as the tips of the spears she kept leaning in the corner behind her desk.

    Damn the woman – who was questioning whom? This, he concluded, was hopeless. Freja would talk him in ever changing circles, deflecting and shifting and exploiting whatever opening she could find. Probably best, he thought, to bring this to as tidy a close as she’d let him.

    ”Vorda’s not seen you these past two days with the blizzard and she did not want to let a third pass. She’d be here herself, if her duties permitted.”

    Freja nodded slowly, her attention to her hearth. She said nothing as she curled her legs up beneath her and considered the flames. Though he’d meant it as a deflection, something about what he had said seemed to catch. Freja was very still, as if waiting.

    One last toss of the die, he thought, and so Darhias added, ”She worries, of course.”

    Freja pushed out a heavy sigh of regret, ”Vorda has other concerns to focus on now that she holds the Captaincy.”

    “If you can find a way to stop Vorda worrying after those she cares for, I’d love to know.”


    Freja smiled softly though her expression held a measure of sadness. Adept as Freja was at concealing her thoughts, her emotions were another matter altogether. She sipped at her tea and slid her eyes askance to Darhias.

    ”She’ll want to know if the Elf has returned, I expect.”

    Darhias stilled, surprised that she had voluntarily broached a topic as sensitive as this with him.

    ”Of course,” he replied, careful not to appear too interested, and watched Freja’s attention return to the hearth.

    She watched the flames dance for a moment, he supposed she found it comforting, and then sighed as she nodded.

    ”It is different. She no longer rifles through my thoughts as once she did,” her gaze sharpened and then focused on Darhias, glittering and blue, ”Has Vorda reconsidered my request?”

    “What request?”
    he responded and Freja grimaced.

    ”No, then,” she muttered and shook her head, ”I hope this is not something we all come to regret.”

    Baffled, Darhias grouped about in his recollection until he found something, ”You mean about locking your door – from the outside?”

    “Under the Elf’s gheas, who can say what I might do? How many doors am I from the king and what would befall Rohan if he were taken from us without so much as an heir? How long before the Easterlings flood in, eager to exploit our weakness, and who else will they bring with them?”


    Freja shuddered and shook her head, clearly distressed by these notions. What must it be like, Darhias wondered, to be unable to trust yourself, or your actions? Enough to drive anyone mad, he guessed, but he had to be careful to keep any sympathy or compassion from his face. Freja loathed anything that might be mistaken for pity. Instead of comforting her, he repeated what he was certain Vorda would have already told her.

    ”Vorda took your proposal to the king and he refused it outright.”

    ”Éomer’s judgement in this is unreliable! she exclaimed, ”The Elf will exploit his affection, use it to blind him to the true peril. If she is not, already, doing that. Who amongst us can say? This is a matter that should rest with the Shieldmaidens. To them falls the charge of protecting Rohan’s throne.”

    “Vorda is not about to bind you hand and foot each night either,”
    Darhias said and Freja shook her head again, bitterly disappointed. Her eyes narrowed at the flames and then closed.

    Darhias leaned forward in his chair to address her, ”You have defied the Elf at every opportunity, Freja. Do you truly think you could do Éomer harm?”

    Her head bowed and she remained silent for long enough that Darhias thought she’d not respond. But as he prepared to leave, she lifted her head.

    ”There was a time when I thought I knew what I would and would not do, Darhias,” she told him, her eyes haunted as they came to his, ”That time has passed.”
     

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