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.”
     
  8. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    III 3021 – February, Khand


    The trail of blood the Company had taken up led them eastward to a large, well-fortified town but there they had stalled, unable to push forward or draw back as civil war steadily engulfed Khand. Tidings of the massacre of the Khe’al peoples had proved to be the final straw for many. Southwest tribes banded together against those of the southeast and neither cabal was inclined to focus their animosity on the true culprits: Naiore Dannan and her Moricarni.

    Caught up in this, the Company had little choice but to watch days stretch into months. Tempers wore thin amongst the Company, stalled and frustrated and frying beneath the merciless Khandese sun. Yet if they quit this place they risked providing their quarry with unfettered freedom to wreak what terror she may see fit and that was simply untenable.

    Khemra came and went as she pleased. She was not part of the Company and so owed no explanation for her movements. No stauncher ally could the Company have in these desperate straits. Her absences grew longer and the inherent shifting nature of Khand’s sands and politics led Hanasian to wonder at why this was. Did treachery build under their very noses. Had Khemra somehow been swayed, turned against them. Little was certain and should their only ally turn, help was a long way off. They were on their own.

    Fortunate, then, that in all her activity Khemra had not forgotten about the Company. It was at her advice that they located a spring of water that sustained them through the driest weeks of the Khandese summer. This was a brutal place and were it not for the counsel of Khemra, when she was about, and that of the Haradian they’d recruited, Hanasian was certain attrition alone would have whittled down his Company to a bare, useless nub. But even that spring was not to linger on indefinitely.

    As autumn crept closer the spring dwindled until Berendil discovered that it was all but spent for the season. He covered the springhead from sight and returned with all haste to report to Hanasian that if they did not move out soon to find fresh water, they’d perish waiting for Naiore to emerge from the fortified town or otherwise show her hand.

    Berendil went into Hanasian’s tent that evening only to find Hansian agitated. His boyhood friend paced about his tent restlessly. Berendil slipped aside as soon as he was into the tent and let Hanasian pace in silence.

    Was some time before Hanasian finally spoke, ”I want the men well rested tonight. Make sure they know they must be ready to pack up and move out come early morning. Third hour after midnight. I’ll take the watch.”

    Hanasian swept out of his tent, leaving Berendil to puzzle through what was afoot. All he could do was inform the men and by the midnight hour all was ready, and the men rested as best they could. This seen to, Berendil sought Hanasian out again. He found him on the edge of the ridge, but something caught his eye before he could speak his mind.

    ”Movement,” Berendil said as he pointed through the darkness to the fortress of the town, ”There, on the plain.”

    Hanasian slapped Berendil on the shoulder, ”Time to go.”

    The camp was not difficult to wake. Most only napped, the sense of something impending chasing away deeper sleep. Just as hoped, they were ready to move out by the third hour past midnight and progressed with stealth along the ridgeline on their way northeast. Once they had gained the hilly dunes the ridge surrendered to, they could see an army moving ahead upon the fortified town. A place filled with warlords, and likely Naiore Dannan too. Yet short of joining that unknown army or launching siege themselves, the Company’s options were scarce.

    No one knew that Khema had discovered a way to infiltrate the town. Still, as Hanasian watched this unknown mass of people stream towards the town, he believed he was looking at why Khemra had been gone for so long. That she’d make a move on the fortress without word to him was troubling. She had no obligation to the Company, certainly, but even so he would have appreciated fair warning.

    In what followed, Hanasian’s decision to hold back proved wise indeed, for what the Company was watching was the outbreak of civil war proper in Khand. Hanasian pulled his Company quietly north and skirted east along the Ephel Dúath until they reached the highlands at its eastern reach. For the most part they avoided the trouble, a few quick skirmishes only. They stayed in the crevices for a day to rest and they kept watch, and Hanasian was silent as he tried to decide what to do.
     
  9. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    He didn’t have long to decide. Having considered themselves lucky to get out of the impending chaos of Khand, that chaos now pursued them. They had a fairly good defensive position, but they had no route to supply. As a result, what they had with them was all they would likely get for some time. Once dawn had arrived the Company discovered that they were caught between the retreating remnants of the attacking army, a hodge podge of tribes, and the warlords that had holed themselves up in the fortress.

    This loose tribal alliance succeeded at first but that victory had been won at a steep price. There were not enough left to hold that which they had claimed. Initially surprised, the Warlords had replied with stunning ferocity. Nothing, Hanasian mused to himself, like the fear of answering to Naiore Dannan as why her safehold in Khand had been lost in one night to loosely allied tribes. If indeed the Elf was even there. He was no longer sure she was but could not rule it out. But the Warlord’s attack faltered by mid afternoon and a rumour reached even Company ears that the Elf had fled, abandoning her mortal vassals during the mayhem of the attack.

    This was but the prelude to what would be a cruel and bitter civil war. Attack and counter attack now spent, yet the town was afire. The sky above was aglow the following night with the ruin of the fortress and town. Both sides retreated, waiting to see who would be driven to open the second wave. That answer was not long in coming for the Warlords gathered to them reserves from beyond the town walls to bolster their numbers. By the following morning the second battle had begun. Rumours again swirled and this time Naiore Dannan had returned. That she herself led the Warlords in their bid to take back control over the ruined town and lands about it.

    As for the tribes that had united to attack, they suffered from the fact that they were not trained soldiers. Not like the Warlord army they faced. This time, their opponents prevailed and any thought of a counter attack soon turned to consideration of how to avoid a rout. Their path back west and south had been cut off, so their only escape was to run north. Only few yet remained by the time they reached the Company’s position in the highlands to the north.

    ”Look out!” Berendil shouted as an arrow narrowly missed him.

    The Company responded with a freeing of weapons. Swords were drawn and arrows set to the string for any who came over the ridge. The first was a man who fell across the ridge, arrows a bristling thicket buried in his back. The second man staggered, but was similarly laden with deadly arrows. It soon emerged that the tribesmen were being picked off even as they fled the battle. This Hanasian could not bear and so he sent the Company’s archers forward. They unleashed their arrows into the advancing line of troops. Many fell but they did not break. A second volley caused them to waver and pull back to regroup in a defensive line. This break was all the invitation Hanasian required. He signaled the Company to withdraw further into the north with haste, but another problem had developed for the Company.

    The reasonably well ordered troops of the Warlords of Khand marching north had drawn the attention of the Easterlings defending their southern reaches. Rhûn had recently extended into the Nûrn with the ambition of claiming the recently liberated arable lands there. Already they had reaped a return on this gamble and were ill inclined to surrender this new territory to any one: Black Company or Khandese of any description. Bolstering their claim was none other than King Elessar himself. The opportunity to soothe Gondor’s puissant foe with such an offering had enabled him to sue for peace after generations of blood shed across Gondor and Rohan both.

    A proud peoples already experienced in the loss of valuable territory, the Easterlings were not inclined to tolerate any incursion into their new lands. To this end, Rhûn had installed garrisons along defensive positions. Despite their recent arrival in Nûrn, they had moved swiftly and these garrisons already sported fair fortifications.

    As a consequence, the Company moved north between the forces of Rhûn and Khand. Their only advantage in this was the plateau’s rough terrain. For all of that, the Easterlings had already anchored that plateau for their defensive purposes and it was a position the Khandese forces of the Warlords coveted. If the Company did not find a way out, they’d be caught once again between two warring factions and Hanasian was eager to avoid that. And so an alliance was required and despite the vocal objections of every Daleman in the Company and all three Rohirrim, Hanasian decided it was best to try their fortune with the Easterlings over the vassals of the Khandese Warlords.

    ”Berendil, you will move the Company down the slope to the north. Conceal yourselves well in the crevices you will find there. The swift waters in these parts will likely gouge out suitable places,” Hanasian said, I’ll take Molguv, Videgavia, Beregon, Foldine, and Macvil with me. We’re going to go talk with the Easterlings.”

    “Is that wise,”
    Berendil inquired, his concern clear in his expression.

    Hanasian looked out over the land they found themselves in, ”If you have another idea, let’s hear it.”

    Berendil sighed unhappily and shook his head. Between the two of them, Hanasian had always been better at making these sorts of decisions.

    ”I’ll keep things in order here. May all go well with you, my friend,” Berendil replied and Hanasian felt a swell of dismay. He had been hoping for another alternative.

    He took a deep breath, and with his hand on Berendil’s shoulder as he passed he said, ”It will be what it is. I just hope we’re convincing and in time. Fare you well.”
     
  10. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    The six men set out as soon as soon as they were ready. Hanasian had them only carry knives, for the mission was one of peace. He hoped they would not have cause to regret this decision. He left orders with Berendil that those who remained should remain alert and wary. It would not do to be discovered by the Easterlings now, so to avoid detection, they were to detain any who crossed their position. As for the troops of Khand’s warlords, no mercy was to be meted out to them for none would be received.

    The tactic worked. As the two armies clashed on their eastern flank on the lower plains, a few more desperate rebels of the southwest tribes made a break and ran toward the Company’s position. Two were killed by the warlords’ archers, but one ran desperately one way, then the other.

    Watching the man zig zag across the ground, Berendil ordered, ”Don’t shoot. Let him come! Target those who pursue!”

    Once the fleeing man closed, it was clear to Berendil that he was wounded. The man staggered and his limp grew increasingly pronounced. Soliders popped up from the rocks around him, arrows at the string, and yet none found their mark. The rebel’s fortune would not last indefinitely and so Berendil ordered the Company’s archers to target those who harried the rebel. The Company claimed two in this fashion but even so, the rebel’s stamina was fading. The man slowed, his pace flagging with his strength.

    It was at this point Hilferin declared, ”Cover me, I’m going out to help him!”

    Before Berendil could intercede, Maclon was on Hilferin’s heels with the words, ”We would have perished but for these people. It is the least we can do!”

    Hilferin reached the rebel just as he fell. He threw the rebel over his shoulder and turned to retreat with all haste to the Company’s position. An archer popped up, ready to shoot, only to have his neck pierced by the arrow Maclon set loose. A fraction slower and the rebel, possibly Hilferin too, would have been lost. Maclon fell in behind Hilferin, covering their retreat until Hilferin finally tumbled into the Company’s position. He dropped the rebel as soon as he could and Berendil knelt at the rebel’s side to pull the cloth that covered the fellow’s face aside. It was only then that they realized the rebel still lived and was not a man at all.

    ”Its Khemra! She lives!” Berendil exclaimed, astonished.

    Bereck, one of the Dunedain and the closest the Company had to a healer, knelt to tend to Khemra’s injuries.

    Berendil left him to it and stood to address Hilferin, ” You could have gotten yourself and Maclon killed with that stunt! Would you have done that if Hanasian were here?”

    “Aye”
    Hilferin replied, unbowed, ”Our debt to the Khe’al is vast. For all we know, she may be all that yet remains of her people. I think we owe them a life or two.”

    Such sentimentality was noble and yet they were not here to intercede in Khand’s civil war. The Company had other business to see to and it was business they could not forget. Not for an instant. Certainly he couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

    Berendil pushed forward towards Hilferin, his grey eyes locked hard on the other man’s, ”Four we lost in Khand, along with the trail. Don’t you forget that!”

    Hilferin’s jaw bunched, ”I’m here, Berendil, to aid you. Don’t for an instant think I do not know why we are here.”

    Berendil’s eyes flared at the statement and he drew in a sharp, sudden breath at the implications, ”I did not ask that of you!”

    “You didn’t have to,”
    Hilferin quietly muttered and then shook his head, ”And nor do I regret it. Don’t give me cause to now.”

    Berendil raked his fingers through his dark hair, ”Long have we shared service, in the north and then in the war. For that, I will let this pass.”

    Hilferin nodded and walked away to leave Berendil standing with Maclon. Maclon had heard everything and Berendil eyed him hard, wondering if this man too had been caught up in friendship’s web. Maclon shrugged at Berendil and left him standing on his own.

    He glanced down to Bereck tended Khemra still and crouched, ”Will she live?”

    “Perhaps,”
    Bereck answered, his attention still directed at Khemra, ”Her wounds are many, some older but all recent. Like as not, she was in the first assault on the town. She’s taken three arrows and endured two sword slashes. The worst, though, is a deep knife wound just above her hip.”

    The man shook his head, How she managed to survive, much less run as far and fast as she did, is beyond my understanding. The wounds are infected and I suspect there is bleeding within. I’ve used the last of my Athelas and I have neither the skill nor the materials to close her wounds. All I can recommend is that she remains still and rests. Further movement will only make things worse for her.”

    “I’m not sure we’ll have that luxury,”
    Berendil replied, Our position here is tenuous. If Hanasian does not succeed, we may have to move – swiftly at that. I fear we will not be able to carry her.”

    Bereck sighed unhappily at that and asked, ”Do you have any Athelas you can spare?”

    “Of course,”
    Berendil answered and pulled a small pouch of dried leaves out from his tunic. This he passed to Bereck and left the Ranger to his task.

    The rest of the day was quieter than Berendil had dared hope for after the morning’s events. Only scouts, rebels and warlords both, approached near the Company’s position. Any curious Easterlings were captured. Their only other skirmish for the day focused on an Easterling unit but even that was aborted when a contingent of Khandese troops sent by the warlords closed on them all. The Company was forced to divert their attention to this new threat and soon the Easterlings they had been pushing back against joined in throwing back the encroaching Khandese troops.

    The enemy of my enemy was my friend as far as Berendil was concerned. Through all of this, he sought for any hint of the Elf’s presence. If she was behind this as rumoured, they would likely fall even with the unexpected assistance of the Easterlings. As the fight unfolded, there was no trace of Naiore Dannan. In fact, Berendil thought it likely she had quit the town as soon as the rebels made a move on its walls. Such an event would provide the sort of chaos to cover her passage. She’d exploit it, he thought, rather than throw her lot in with these warlords. The likes of Naiore Dannan incited wars. She rarely stayed around to fight in them.

    But where she would go he could not guess. If Khand was unravelling as he suspected, she’d likely quit the land and pulled east and north for Rhûn. Then again, perhaps she would draw deeper in the Khand and use the civil war as barrier between her and the Company. With Easterlings’ aid, the warlords’ forces were stalled first in a stalemate and then pushed inexorably back. The highland plateau at the eastern end of the Ephel Dúath was mostly held by the Easterlings, a fact the Easterling’s commander recognized was due to the Company’s presence there.

    As the fighting wore down, the Easterling officer remarked to Berendil, ”This is done now, largely, and I will have to report your presence. But there is no cause for you and your men to hasten away. I will report also that you fought well. What will happen, I cannot say, but my counsel will be that you are given leave to remain.”
     
  11. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Upon leaving Company lines, Hanasian and his five men made their way down to a large camp. They arrived midday and were halted by a young guard. They were not left to wait long for a ranking officer, older, limped towards them. As the officer approached, Hanasian noted the lack of Easterlings visible in this encampment.

    Upon arrival, the officer demanded, ”Where are you from?”

    Hanasian stepped forward at that and the guards all tensed, hafts of axes gripped all the tighter until Hanasian stretched out his hands in what he hoped would be understood as a gesture of peace.

    ”We’re here to discuss terms of passage with your commander.”

    Unimpressed, the officer grunted and turned to point towards the rise to the southeast, ”He is off fighting Khand, up there.”

    Following the officer’s extended arm, Hanasian could see dust rising and the occasional flash of sunlight caught on drawn steel. It was close, he estimated, to the position he had left Berendil and the rest of the Company to occupy. Was it a mistake not to bring them all with him, he wondered. If it was, it was a question asked too late.

    The officer standing with them continued, ”You’ll remain here until he returns. As you came in peace, we’ll allow you to remain provided you abide in peace.”

    Hanasian nodded, as did the men he had brought with him, and they were led to tent that offered shelter from the sun. Guests though they were, they were not left unwatched. After a time, they were permitted to leave the tent but never to wander far and never alone. And as they idled there, Hanasian knew that Naiore Dannan was moving. He knew it.

    At evening’s approach Molguv proposed a possible way forward. But would it lead them out of the frying pan, so to speak, and into the fire? No way to know and so Hanasian decided to use it as a last resort even as the unit’s commander entered the tent and called him outside.

    ”Walk with me,” the commander said, not pausing despite the clear sign of battle upon his garb.

    “Very well,” Hanasian acquiesced and fell into step beside the Easterling commander.

    Together they made for a watchfire and the commander led him past it to the tent nearby. Once within it, the man finally permitted some of his weariness to show. He poured out two tin mugs of water and passed one to Hanasian

    ”I’ve had a long day, as I’m sure you have too. I am Khule and I have temporary command of the Nûrn settlement brigade. You are?”

    “Hanasian, Captain of the Black Company,”
    he replied, studying the water he had been given.

    Khule nodded brusquely and wet his throat, My commander will want to know what a band of mercenaries working for King Elessar is doing in Nûrn.”

    ”We pursue Naiore Dannan,”
    Hanasian replied bluntly and watched the Easterling’s expression shift. Fear, just for an instant, and then it was gone.

    ”I see.”

    “Do you know her?”
    Hanasian pressed.

    Khule’s demeanour remained unreadable, ”I know of her.”

    It was impossible to know if this man was allied with the Elf witch or not and Hanasian was keenly aware of this. That fear he had glimpsed could be found in her allies and her foes. Still, something about the Easterling hinted at the fact that he was not part of the overall Easterling command. Temporary, he had said, and despite his talk of Gondorian mercenaries he had been courteous. Hanasian decided to risk it.

    ”She has caused much mayhem, most recently in Khand. I suspect she has now made her way into Rhun.”

    Khule drained his mug at this and his eyes dropped to the ground for a moment, ”If some of the old spirit still abided in my own people, we’d be marching even now.”

    The intensity of his voice belied the carefully cultivated expression on the Easterling’s face and then he lowered his voice to the barest whisper, ”Ware the Elf’s adherants!”

    Hanasian nodded, ”We know the Moricarni.”

    ”Then you must know they are here.”

    “Amongst your own men?”


    Khule scowled at the question and fell silent, clearly debating with himself what to do next. Hanasian watched him closely as he pretended to drink the water Khule had given him. The Easterling turned away, paced to and fro the once and then turned back to Hanasian.

    ”I think I can get you and your men to the Sea of Rhûn, and from there arrange passage for you up the river,” [/I]Khule paused for a heartbeat, I understand your number includes Dalemen and Rohirrim both?”

    “Aye,”
    Hanasian confirmed and noted to himself that Khule could only have known this if he had sighted the Black Company in the highlands.

    ”This could pose a problem, but I think I have a way around it.”

    Hanasian eyed him suspiciously, ”How will you do that?”

    “We will discuss that in the morning. Be ready at first light to move. As for your Company, you’ll find them to the west of our camp. They came down with us.”


    Hanasian left Khule’s tent and headed back to where he had left his men. The guards were gone and he was unsurprised to find the tent was empty. Hanasian made next for where Khule had said his Company would be found. The Easterling had spoken honestly and he found his men gathered around a fire in deep discussion. Though voices were kept low, the tension was so thick it was difficult to breathe. Already he could see the Dalemen and Rohirrim were openly angry. No sooner had Videgavia spotted Hanasian did he leap to his feet and advance on him. His black eyes flashed with open menace as he seized Hanasian’s arm and pulled him aside.

    ”I know who that commander is,” he snarled through his teeth, ”Our paths have crossed before! That man held the command of the forces that attacked Dale!”

    “He also happens to be our way out of here.”
    Hanasian growled in return but Videgavia was not prepared to let it go.

    ”But the Eastfold…”

    “Is a very long way from here!”
    Hanasian snapped at him and Videgavia grasped the peril of pushing his captain further.

    He swallowed the rest of what he had been about to say and stalked back to the nest of malcontent that was the Company men from Dale and Rohan. There was to be no rest to be had that night but when morning came the Company was ready to move as Khule and a dozen of his men trotted towards him. It was time to move, but into what no one could know, save the man that half Hanasian’s Company wanted dead.

    As they readied to move out, Hanasian saw that Bareck tended to someone that had been secured to a rough travois.

    ”Who’s this?” he asked as he approached.

    ”Khemra,” Bareck answered, ”She alone of her people made it to our lines.”

    “The rest of the rebels?”
    Hanasian asked and Bareck shook his head.

    Grim tidings indeed but still, Khemra’s survival of yet another conflagration was welcome news.

    ”We cannot bring her with us into Rhûn,” Hanasian said and Bareck nodded.

    Khule and his rag tag gathering of men set out north with the Company and though their pace was deliberately unhurried so as to avoid raising undue notice and alarm, they somehow made it to the Sea of Rhûn without sighting Naiore Dannan. Was she ahead of them or behind them? They could not know, then, that they had prevented her from meeting General Khurg and that once again, they would be caught in the resultant storm.
     
  12. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    3021, III April – Edoras



    ”M’Lady! Lady Éowyn!”


    Éowyn paused, swaying as she turned back to find one of her ladies in waiting pursuing her down the hall. The woman had a letter in hand. She waved it high in the air at Éowyn as she closed and the White Lady of Rohan’s brow furrowed. Letters arrived each day and so why, she wandered, was this so urgent. The woman rushing towards her was not given to outbursts such as this.


    Her answer was not long delayed. No sooner was the letter pressed into Éowyn’s hand did she recognise the hand in which her name was written.


    ”So soon?” Éowyn murmured as her eyes ran over her brother’s hand. Haste was in each letter of her name.


    Lady Tarwyn nodded and glanced back the way she had come, ”The rider awaits your reply, my Lady.”


    Éowyn’s brows lifted at that and she nodded at Lady Tarwyn resolutely, ”Very well, then.”


    Drawing a deep breath, Éowyn cracked the wax of her brother’s seal and unfolded his missive. Sure enough, his hand continued to race across the parchment, words and letters crowded and leaning as if drunk, in his haste.


    My dearest sister,​


    I wrote to you only a week ago and you must be concerned to receive another so soon. I will not tarry with the reason for it: Freja quit Edoras yesterday and I believe she means to leave Rohan entirely.​


    To be clear, she was not set upon again. While I still do not know the identity of her assailant, she has remained safe within my halls since that day. Indeed, I had thought her finally settled. I followed your advice and kept her busy. Renewing the order of the Shieldmaiden is no small task and her counsel has proved invaluable. She had her training and I am aware that she had taken to corresponding regularly with the library in Minas Tirith.​


    I ascribed it to a new interest that she had found to fill the breach and I encouraged it. Now, I fear we will come to regret it.​


    Freja did not divulge her intended destination but my maps of Eriador and Arnor have vanished from my collection. In addition to a considerable supply of rations, she has taken her weapons and armour. In short, Freja has equipped herself for a campaign: a long and arduous one at that.​


    Difficult as this is to credit, I fear Freja has gone in pursuit of the Elf. Even now, I find it hard to believe she could be so foolish. She is bold, yes. Ambitious even, yet her risks have always been calculated and measured. But what other reason can there be? What could draw her from her home and the country she so loves? What could pull her away from her Shieldmaidens?​


    There is a Ranger that has settled in Edoras by the name of Darhias. He has urged me send a pursuit after her but I have forbidden it. I will not have Freja hunted. Hounding her will only harden her resolve. And in any case, what hope is there of forcing her back to Edoras. I will not make of her a fugitive, nor a prisoner. Nor will I remain idle and leave Freja to so futile a course.​


    I have sent word to those likely to encounter her in Arnor in the hope they might intercede in some way. Darhias informs me that there is a Ranger in Bree by the name of Massuil. A stern man of hard resolve, perhaps he might find a way to delay Freja long enough for her to set this madness aside of her own accord. Somehow.​


    I have also sent inquiries to Minas Tirith’s library in hopes of discovering the nature of her studies for I think this will shed light on her intentions. I hope it may set my concerns to rest.​


    I know you two are as close as sisters. I hope that she may have divulged something to you.​


    I beg of you Éowyn, I ask that you set any vow of secrecy aside, for Freja’s sake. I do not ask this of you lightly. I fear for her. If you know anything of this matter, tell me. Please.​


    I remain, as ever, your loving brother.​


    Éomer​


    Éowyn released a troubled sigh, foreboding overflowing, and Lady Tarwyn set a hand to her forearm in concern.


    ”Oh Freja,” Éowyn whispered, ”What have you done?”
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2017
  13. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    3021, III – April, Rhûn


    Khule guided the Black Company up from Nûrn, smoothing the way ahead, until they gained the Sea of Rhûn. Here the Company was permitted to establish a camp upon the shore, well clear of the city that lay in woods stretching from the northern shore towards the horizon. Hanasian took Berendil aside once their camp was established.

    ”I need you to keep a journal of the Company. I have begun, but it needs the perspective of others if it is to be a complete record,” Hanasian told him.

    Berendil asked, What sort of record?”

    ”The deeds of the Company and those who served,”
    Hanasian answered, Those that aid us and those that oppose us. Never before has there been such a Company and I want it’s history preserved.”

    “Why me, though?”
    Berendil pushed.

    ”Because I have known you since we were but lads. I know you to be insightful, my friend, and you have a fair hand in Sindarin. Would be useful if our history legible, at least in part,” Hanasian offered Berendil a self-deprecatory grin but his friend was oddly sober.

    Berendil nodded at him and turned to consider those still busy establishing the Company’s camp, ”Very well. But I advise you to trust this task to more than just I.”

    Did that mean Berendil feared that he would survive or was he planning to leave, Hanasian wondered to himself. Fears for the future or second thoughts? He couldn’t blame the man for either.

    But rather than broach what was surely a painful subject, Hanasian restrained himself to more practical matters, ”Who else can write?”

    Berendil’s answer came after a brief pause, ”Videgavia of Dale knows how to write. Not Sindarin, of course, but a runic Westron of sorts. I do not know where he picked it up from, but it is readable.”

    “I’ll speak with him as well,”
    Hanasian replied, surprised that Berendil would commend Videgavia of all the men of the Company.

    He studied his friend closely and found that Berendil seemed strangely distant. Elsewhere. Disinclined to explain his surprising recommendation, Berendil nodded at Hanasian and returned to the men of the camp.

    Once the camp was set, and a watch established, the men of the Company were swift to make use of the nearby sea. A practice had emerged in Khand that saw Drakius deposited, fully clothed, into any body of water close to hand and this was no exception. For all of his protests, Drakius knew it was coming and still the men of the Company succeeded in capturing the Daleman and tossing him into the sea. Swearing, spluttering and swinging at any unwise enough to remain within reach, the Daleman sloshed his way back to shore to strip off before returning to the sea. That he did so put paid to his displays of outrage at being hauled into it in the first place.

    After a long march up from the Nûrn, deeper into lands unfriendly to them, the men were strangely relaxed as they floated about in Rhûn’s sea. The water was unusually buoyant and many soaked for a long time. Some washed their linens, others fashioned fishing lines and all tended their gear. Armour and weapons to be cleaned and repaired after a long period of sustained use and wear.
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2017
  14. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    That day stretched into a week for the Easterlings were indifferent to their presence; neither hostile nor friendly. Yet despite the lull in raids and attacks, the Dalemen and Rohirrim remained uneasy. Each time Khule visited the Company camp, almost every night, almost half of the Company visibly fumed. The Rangers of Ithilien and Arnor, along with men of Gondor were ambivalent. Against this, however, Hanasian and Molguv developed a rapport with the Easterling commander that had managed to bring them north.

    A week proved to be as long a sojourn as the Company could hope for. Tidings reached them of a local general named Khurg who was moving to seize control of Rhûn through a program of targeted assassinations and raids. Whilst it was unclear whether Naiore Dannan was implicated in this rising unrest, it placed the Company in a difficult position that drew closer and closer to the Company’s position.

    So it was that Videgavia was driven to seek Berendil out to speak to him, one sergeant to another.

    You get a bad feeling about our new friend?” he asked as he sidled up to Berendil.

    ”I have a bad feeling in general,” Berendil replied, eyes narrowing as he gazed out at the northern forest and city within, “Something is happening here, but what I do not yet know. Though we’ve seen no sign of her, I suspect the Elf is involved.”

    Videgavia nodded, “I’m sure the witch is pulling strings from somewhere too, but I’m more concerned about the here and now. What do you make of Khule? Hanasian seems to trust him.”

    ”He’s proved useful to us,”
    Berendil shrugged and then pulled out one of Hanasian’s bound books, ”But if you have other thoughts on the matter, record them here.”

    As well as the book, Berendil passed along a packet of quills and some ink. Videgavia stared at what he held, perplexed.

    ”Our Captain has tasked each of us to keep a journal to record the Company’s history. I know you can write, even if your script is nearly illegible. Try to keep it readable and use clean Westron if you can.”

    Nonplussed, Videgavia shrugged at the utensils he held, ”I’ll do what I can… I’ll start with the roster the Captain made before we set out and fate each of us meets.”

    “A Roll of Honour,”
    Berendil said, nodding, I think Hanasian may have had that in mind.”

    His attention wandered to a pair of Easterlings that strolled along the edge of the camp. Easterlings had been passing by all week but these two had different devices upon their chests.

    Berendil peered at them hard, ”Alert the men. Something is amiss.”

    “That Sagath cur double-crossed us?”
    Videgavia growled suspiciously, already starting to move.

    ”Not sure…but something doesn’t feel right,”
    Berendil replied as he scanned the area.

    “Hanasian better get back soon, then.”
    Videgavia muttered as he headed off.

    The Daleman’s wishes were granted for it was not long before Hanasian and Molguv slipped back into camp. The Captain of the Black Company waved both his officers into his tent without delay.

    ”You’ve noticed already that we’re in it deep again,”
    Hanasian said and both his sergeants nodded.

    “Naiore?”
    Berendil asked and Hanasian shook his head at the question.

    “Not this time, I think, but it’s possible that her Moricarni are somehow involved. Molguv and I just met with the Prefect of Rhûn and his provisional government. They’ve had word that most of Rhûn’s tribes are allied or considering defecting to this rogue General Khurg.”

    ”Where’s Khule in this,”
    Videgavia demanded, ”I don’t trust him, or any of his Sagath. You cannot trust an Easterling. Everyone knows this!”

    Hanasian features hardened, “The Sagath, Khule in particular, may well be our only way through this. The Sagath are all that stands, presently, between us and Khurg. The Prefect and provisional government established by King Elessar is about to topple. We have to move, mobilise to support the Prefect and the peace King Elessar seeks to restore to this land. As the Sagath are the only reliable support we have here, we will be joining them.”

    Hanasian ran his fingers through his hair as the two men stared at him. Videgavia openly scowled, black eyes flashing ominously. Berendil, however, snapped about in silence to exit the tent and order that the camp be struck come the morning. The men grumbled at this somewhat but Berendil left them to it and returned to the tent to find Videgavia stalking back and forth, snarling.

    ”I’m stuck here defending Easterlings I don’t like from other Easterlings I don’t like, and it looks like we’re on the short end of it again!”

    ”The Prefect has request aid from Gondor. Whether that is answered and how long it will take, no one can know. However, I think the King wants stability here and so, for now, we’re it. We will do what we can until that aid shows up – hopefully in the form of a sizeable army. Once that arrives, we will resume our hunt for Naiore.”


    Berendil shook his head at Hanasian's statement, clearly dismayed, ”And where will she be then? She’ll use this to her advantage just as she did in Khand. We can’t let this happen again. We must continue to pursue her. Perhaps a few of us could-“

    “No!”
    barked Hanasian, “I need every man we have here. The sooner we finish this, the sooner we can resume our search.“

    Berendil opened his mouth to argue further but reconsidered as Hanasian stared at him pointedly. Friendship or no, he could not brook open insubordination. Berendil’s argument escaped him in a profound sigh, his expression troubled. Between Berendil’s misgivings and Videgavia’s anger, Hanasian saw that the Company could founder in this task.

    If we move early, decisive and united and fast, we could finish sooner than we expect,”
    Hanasian said.

    Berendil looked away, distant again, and Hanasian considered Videgavia’s open glare for a moment and pushed out a weary sigh.

    We’ll discuss this further tomorrow night, with Khule,”
    Hanasian scowled as Videgavia issued a strangled protest, ”Now go. The both of you. Get what rest you can. It may be the last we get for some time.”
     
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2017
  15. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Berendil and Videgavia left the tent one after the other, silent as they walked across camp. Neither man wanted to know what the other was thinking. Videgavia did not want to admit that he liked Berendil better than Khule of the Sagath Clan and Berendil was not about to ask what Videgavia knew of the man. They retired to their respective tents without further word in the hope of resting.

    But while Videgavia somehow managed to drop off asleep without trouble despite his simmering anger, Berendil found himself staring up at the roof of his tent. It lazily moved with the breeze and the longer he watched it from his bedroll, the more certain he was that he’d not sleep.

    He sat up and pulled his satchel to him to go through it. He thought of writing a letter to Freja, but already had six letters already he had written since leaving Minas Tirith. He looked at one of the earliest ones he’d written in Pelargir, then he pulled out the letter Freja had written to him. The only one. Berendil opened it and read it again…


    My love,​

    Presumptuous, I know, to name you as such. You must wonder, scoff even, that I do so. I’ve given you little cause to believe I bear you anything beyond contempt. After all I have done, you must despise me yet love you I assuredly do. I always will.​

    In time you may come to understand that all I have done has been for love of you. I know it is a poor excuse, but it is no less true. There is no crueller master than love.​

    I do not know how I can forgive myself for what I have done. And yet, it is as nothing when set it against the harm and pain I would bring you if you joined your path to mine. I would sooner die than let that happen.​

    I know of but one way to stop it. I beg of you, forget me.​

    Seek a path that leads far away from me and takes you to the hope and the new life we spoke of that precious night, before the fire, at Dunharrow.​


    Another may be so fortunate as to win your heart. When that time comes, as it surely will, go to her with my blessing.​

    Ever yours,​

    Freja​


    As ever, Berendil pondered her words. While his path certainly had led him far away from her, he had not forgotten her.He knew, now, that that would never happen, just as he knew that he would dare any harm or pain to join his life with hers. Fear would not change his course. Not then and not now and not ever. He washed a hand over his face and read her letter again. This time his eyes were caught by her first two words and an idea formed. Berendil drew out his writing equipment and a fresh sheet of paper and began to pen the words his attention fell on. A very different letter emerged.

    My Love, love you I assuredly do. I always will. All I have done has been for love of you. Seek a path that leads you to the hope and the new life we spoke of that precious night, before the fire, at Dunharrow. Ever yours. Freja​


    These were all the words he needed from her letter. The only ones he would heed. He placed this sheet atop her letter, folded them both and tucked them away. He then looked at the letters he had written and had not sent. Torn between burning them and opening them to read what he had written, he did neither. Instead, Berendil decided to write another letter.

    My Lady Freja,


    I read your letter again, and I hold to what you say in it, well some of it. For there will never be a time that I do not think of you, or dream of looking at you as we sit on the shore of Lake Evendum at sunset on a summer evening. I think of us almost all the time. Even when I give full concentration on the task at hand, I think of you.​

    When we were fighting the warlords of Khand, I made a move that I saw you do in training at Dunharrow. I have memorized your every moment that I have seen. I have loved you since first I saw you, strange as that must sound. I do not understand it myself, yet it is true.​

    Yes…your refusal to see me struck hard. I remember the day you left Minas Tirith. I resented Videgavia for he was able to speak to you. I held it against him for some time but now, well I think we have found a way to abide each other. We must if we are to serve together.​

    Still…. I think of sitting with you and talking and laughing and walking through the trees without a care. Do I dream? Yes. I dream. Until the day you are before me, I dream of you, and of us…​


    Berendil paused, his thoughts tumbling, then he turned the sheet he had been writing on over. He began to slowly draw Freja and by the early morning hours he had drawn her in all the different stances he remembered on that first night at Dunharrow. From the way she threw her head back to laugh, or tilt her head to one side when curious. From the peering over her shield at him to the way she had studied him later by the fire, expression wrapt. And then there was the way she stood, arms wrapped around herself in the darkness, confident that the night would conceal her thoughts. He finally let the paper slip to the floor as he fell into a deep slumber.

    Dreams, when they came to Berendil, were also of Freja. She stood on the field facing Vorda as she had at Dunharrow when he’d first seen her. But this was no test. Rather, the two women battled in truth. Swords clashed, sparks flew and both were bloodied. He did not know what had set them at each other but the steely determination in their faces was implacable. A crashing sound woke Berendil at first light. A thunderstorm. He sat up and put away all his writing utensils and looked at his artwork and unfinished letter. He had no time now to finish. He stowed them in his pack and went outside into the dark rumbling morning.
     
  16. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    The breakdown of the camp had commenced early and the men were nearly done when the first of the rain came. They set out for the Sagath camp and arrived before midday as it was only a bit farther into the wood to the east. The Easterling sentries had been expecting them, but they seemed cautious and not entirely pleased to see the Black Company. Hanasian set his men to establishing a fresh camp at the edge of a clearing, having gone ahead to meet with Khule in advance of the Company.

    Berendil and Videgavia stood shoulder to shoulder, united in their opposition for this course of action though for different reasons. Hanasian approached them with Khule in tow. Videgavia seethed, although quietly for now, and Berendil folded his arms over his chest.

    ”Videgavia, select three of our stealthiest,” Hanasian ordered, Berendil, set camp to order and establish our defences. Attack could come at any direction and any time.”

    Videgavia shot a dark glare at in the direction of the Sagath clan but Khule remained impassive, as if he did not see or did not care about the implication of treachery raised by the Daleman. Tempted to grind his teeth, Hanasian pressed on.

    ”Anyone loyal to the Prefect should be here in this wood. If any approach, challenge them with the word ‘Apple’. If they do not reply with the word ‘Green’, then take them down. Khule, you gather the men you need. Vid and I will assemble our own. We meet here again at sunset.”

    Khule nodded brusquely and set off without so much as a word spoken. Hanasian watched the Easterling draw away and then turned back to his two officers.

    ”In case there is any spies or informers, our reserve challenge is ‘Demarcation’ to be answered by ‘Red’. Let’s hope we don’t need to use it.”

    Videgavia stalked off, clearly fuming, to select two of the Company’s stealthiest: Hilferin and Beregon. They spent the day preparing for the night ahead and at sunset Khule arrived with his two men. The Easterlings bore only short swords, throwing axes and daggers by way of arms, yet the information they bore was more powerful still. When the last of the twilight faded into night, Hanasian and Khule set off into the woods with their men.

    Khule sent one of his men out on point and they moved quietly. Hanasian was impressed by the skills of the Easterlings in wooded land. The still air on the moonless night was their friend and so they came to where General Khurg’s army had gathered. It was a sizable force that they were to penetrate.

    Khule gave the signal and the first sentry fell silently. The second looked around and was face to face with another of the Sagath. He too crumpled with nary a sound. The rest followed Khule past the pickets. Coming to a large tent, they each took position at a corner, with Videgavia staying back to keep watch. Inside, voices talked unaware of those outside, and with a nod, Khule, Hanasian, Hilferin, and Belegost cut through a tent wall.

    The two Easterlings charged in and threw knives and axes, the others on their heels for surprise and speed were their only allies in this place. It was over in moments. With the last burning candle, Hanasian examined one of the dead and soon found the mark of the Moricarni. This confirmed the integrity of the information supplied by the Sagath. This mark was found on all but two bodies in the tent. Twelve Moricarni in all, found at exactly the time and place they had been told of.

    As for the source of this information, she too was there amongst the fallen. The men of the Sagath set her carefully aside, their expressions filled with sorrow, regret and a flat anger. Impossible to know whose blade had felled the serving girl and Hanasian hoped that it would not emerge that it was one of his own men. With that comforting thought, they set off for the next tent. This was where the serving girl had said Khurg would be and again their stealth proved their success. But whilst they managed to kill most of Khurg’s officers, the general himself was not to be found.

    There was no time to investigate further for there was a third tent that they needed to see to and it was at this third tent that they had to sacrifice their stealth. Videgavia was forced to kill a sentry curious about the slash in the first tent’s walls. Belegost and one of the Sagath were hit by knives. Belegost deflected it mostly, but his arm was bleeding. The Easterling wasn’t so lucky. Hanasian set fire to the third tent and then they pulled back to their intended exit points. It was here that the party split, Hanasian taking his men by one route and Khule the other, to return to the Sagath camp with all haste.

    ”Apple!

    “Green!”


    In turn the raiding parties filtered into the Sagath camp from the night.

    ”Be ready, they’re coming!” Khule said, convinced that they would be pursued.

    But the night wore on and they did not come until first light. Khurg had paused to gather his strength, choosing to attack in force rather than haste. The loss of his commanders had proved inconvenient to the general’s forces but not catastrophic. New commanders readily stepped into place and so Khurg’s big push occurred exactly as he had planned all along.
     
  17. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Pitched battle forced the Company to withdraw, eager to keep a route open for escape should it be required. Fortunately, Khurg had not sent out a flanking wing to encircle them and so the Company was able with the Sagath to secure the woods and the shore of the ocean. They were diligent in taking any boats found so that they would be ready should their path out prove to be one taken over water.

    The Company pushed headed north and west with a screening front of the Sagath to the east. This line of defense held, but it was anyone’s guess how long that would remain the case for Khurg’s forces were far superior in number. The Sagath’s advantage lay in the fact that they were defending land they knew well: their homes. Khurg’s forces pushed at their lines repeatedly and eventually rolled far enough north to discover where the Sagath line ended. With this, the only chance remaining to the Company and the Sagath was withdrawal.

    It took a week of pitched fighting and raids to work their way to the mouth of the River Celduin. The Company’s casualties were constrained mostly to injuries rather than deaths, but even this took its toll for the Company lacked a healer. Bereck, their only healer, was capable enough in a rudimentary fashion but he was only one man.

    They met the Prefect when he came in by boat. He had evacuated the week before and stayed offshore while his guard prepared this camp. The base camp was well laid out and was where the remaining boats that could travel the river could be readied. They would retreat no further. The Company, with the Prefect’s guard and remaining Sagath soldiers made a defense perimeter and would have to hold out there until the rumoured expeditionary army of Gondor arrived. The Prefect had sent requests to Gondor informing King Elessar of the dire reality of Rhûn. Hanasian hoped that Elessar’s foresight had led him to take action before the arrival of his Prefect’s tidings.

    As it turned out they would have to wait a week for Gondor’s aid to arrive and Khurg, of course, would not be so accommodating.

    So it was that Berendil sat one morning staring at the torc Freja had given him. He turned it about in his hand, its strange weight and markings rolling in his palm. He wondered what she was doing. Was she still in Meduseld? Was she well or did the Elf torment her still? His thoughts were cut short with the sound of alert. The first battle of Celduin Field was beginning as the rain started to fall…
     
  18. Elora

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    3021, III – May, Rhûn

    The battle was all but done and with it the day. and so was the day. Spears of ruddy light jabbed at them from the west. Videgavia walked the churned ground, looking for anything that might have been dropped by these latest raiders. Hanasian and the Easterling they’d recruited were questioning those captured. Bereck was busy with the injured. Berendil was establishing pickets that would see them through the night. Another day, another raid, each one slowing their progress down.

    Vid wondered if the Elf was behind this. According to their pet Easterling, the Elf didn’t much care for using Easterlings. But then, the treacherous man would say that, wouldn’t he? And besides, everything they had seen in Khand suggested the Elf was not above anything now. She had not the luxury for her contempt of mortals now her lord and master was gone.

    Vid kicked at ground he inspected and then squinted. A shaft of bloody light caught something wedged in the earth. It gleamed at him, winking, and he knelt. It looked to have been trodden into the ground. Videgavia pried it free, dusted it off, and then promptly swore. Unfortunately, Foldine was close at hand and his head bounced up. He trotted over to Videgavia as the Daleman stood, his jaw knotted.

    ”What? What’d you find?” the man of Rohan inquired.

    ”Nothing!” Videgavia snapped at him and jerked his head at the battleground search as he sought to pull rank, ”Back to it!”

    Foldine’s eyes narrowed suspiciously but he turned away all the same. Videgavia scowled at his back. Once he was certain the Rohirrim had returned to his task, he uncurled his hand again. Sure enough, there it was. The Daleman’s expression became haunted as he stared at it. There but one person this could belong to. He’d returned the other himself to its proper keeper. Then his expression took on a bitter cant and his fingers locked around his prize anew. Curse the woman! What had she been thinking to do this? He shoved the item into his pocket and did his best to forget it was there.

    His best, though, was not enough. As the day wound down and pickets for the night were set, the item in his pocket seemed to grow heavier. It held no special qualities, not like one of the famed and doomed magic rings. He knew it to be a trick of his mind and yet, Videgavia could not ignore it. As night closed around them he found his gaze turning to the west time and again. He swore at himself for it once he realised he was looking in the general direction of Edoras.

    What would it accomplish if he returned it to her? Or Éomer? Nothing good. But how could he bring himself to send it to the man that had surely dropped it? Videgavia shook his head. It was too much to ask. Snapping and snarling at anyone that ventured too near, he took himself out to second watch where he could brood. Second watch stretched into third and by its end his mind was still clouded.

    The Daleman padded into camp to find most were asleep for the night. The command tent, though, was still alight. His intention was to make a report – no raiders had been sighted for two whole watches and this could be significant. Either they had abandoned harrying the Company or had fallen back to await something big. Hanasian had to know, he figured, and he shouldered into the tent to discover that his Captain was not alone.

    ”- what then? Rhuadar?” Berendil asked, leaning forward to jab a finger at the map spread out.

    Both Rangers paused at Videgavia’s arrival. Of all the people he did not want to encounter, it was Berendil of Cardolan. His hand fell into his pocket to close about the item as Hanasian waved him forward.

    ”The trail, such that it is, leads to Rhuadar. So Berendil thinks. What are your thoughts?”

    Videgavia rocked on his heels as his eyes met with Berendil’s. Then he grimaced, grit his teeth and stepped forward to jab a finger at their approximate current position.

    ”She could be brewing something right here for all I know. The past two watches, there have been no incursions across our forward positions. Nary a sound in the darkness. Who can guess at what the witch is up to? Anything else, everything else…” Videgavia shrugged, ”If I thought I knew, I was mistaken.”

    Berendil frowned at this and Hanasian’s brows climbed. Something was clearly amiss.

    ”Perhaps they’ve given up the chase,” Hanasian suggested.

    ”Perhaps,” Videgavia muttered and then realised that his fist had closed over the item in his pocket.

    Without thinking he jerked his hand free but by some quirk his thumb caught the rim of his pocket and from there it all went awry. He could feel his dismay surge as his fingers splayed. The sight of the torc gleaming in the torchlight only added to his unhappiness. It spun, a tumbling arc of silver, up and up and then landed on the map itself. Round it rolled on its edge until finally it was still. And then Berendil was on the move, his hand plunging to retrieve that which he should never have had. Unable to stop himself, Videgavia’s hand darted out to catch Berendil’s wrist even as the Ranger’s hand slapped over Freja’s torc. He had no idea that one of his long knives was in his other hand until he saw its sharp tip dig into Berendil’s jaw.

    ”That is not yours!” Videgavia snarled.

    ”It’s owner thought otherwise!” Berendil returned, naked anger gleaming in his grey eyes.

    ”Fool! She does not own it! No Shieldmaiden does!” Videgavia returned, blistering contempt dripping from his words.

    Steel scraped and Berendil’s lip curled, ”Thief!”

    But for Hanasian’s intercession, a strong grip on Berendil’s free arm, Berendil would have drawn a dagger of his own.

    ”ENOUGH!” Hanasian roared, his voice jarring both men, ”Videgavia, release him!”
     
  19. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    There was no mistaking the crack of command in Hanasian’s voice. Never had Videgavia disobeyed a direct order but the strain of compliance was almost too much to bear. His knuckles cracked as they tightened on his knife and Berendil’s straining against his hold on his wrist almost made him ignore their Captain. And then he heard an unmistakeable voice cut across the seething turmoil within. He could almost see her. Firelight bathed her face and she was relaxed, at her ease. A playful smile flickered on her lips as she tipped her head to one side and her braids tumbled, heavy ropes of glowing fire.

    ”Taking a leaf out of my book now, are we?”

    Damn the woman! With a snarl, Videgavia pulled his knife back as Berendil broke his grip on his wrist. The torc was gone again, tucked away by the Ranger as Videgavia’s breathing came in great heaving bursts. He’d never see it again now. His sight held a bloody tinge around the edges still as he slammed his knife back into its sheath. Finally, Hanasian judged it safe to release his hold on Berendil’s free arm.

    ”Explain yourself. Now!” Hanasian demanded.

    Videgavia twitched, ”I am no thief.”

    Berendil growled deep in his throat and Hanasian shifted as precautionary measure, ”Then how did you come by it?”

    “The fool dropped it! It’s too valuable to leave lying on the ground, especially that of Rhûn!”

    “You’ve returned it then and that’s an end to it,”
    Hanasian said through his teeth.

    ”An end to it? An end to it!” Videgavia incredulously explained and then swore in a thick stream of Rohirric.

    He turned on his heel and was almost out of the tent when Berendil growled, ”Wait!”

    Videgavia spun back with a snarl, ”What more could you possibly demand?”

    His hands opened and closed at his sides. Another moment in this tent and he’d throw himself at Berendil. He knew it, just as he knew Hanasian would not be able to intercede in time.

    ”Who is the true owner of her torc?” Berendil asked, the question astonishing enough to slice through the Daleman’s rage.

    Shock registered on his face, ”You don’t know?”

    At this the two Rangers exchanged glances before Berendil quietly admitted, ”She did not say.”

    Videgavia’s jaw dropped at that. How could he not know? Freja should have made the import of her action clear. That she had not defied everything he knew of her. It was mystifying, if it could be believed.
     
  20. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    The Daleman’s attention swung to Hanasian, ”Is this true?”

    The Captain of the Black Company nodded and just like that the fight fell out of Videgavia. His shoulders slumped and he washed a hand over his face. None of this made any sense whatsoever to him. He knew Freja was a masterful dissembler when the circumstances called for it, wily and cunning as a fox. What possible reason could she have for being so obtuse about this? Come to think of it, there were a good many other questions that crowded his mind and he had to wonder if he knew Freja at all.

    For Freja to set her spears aside, to have her head turned away from her path, was astonishing enough. She lived and breathed her order, her duty, and she was devoted to her realm with a singular dedication that was almost unsettling. It was rare enough for Shieldmaidens to set down their spears for a man. Not a single Shieldmaiden had done as Freja had. And then, if this was not mystifying enough, he had seen her ride out of Minas Tirith with his own eyes. She had turned her back and quit the city, abandoning her torc and the man she had given it to.

    The Freja he knew honoured her word. She was steadfast. As unmoveable at times as a damned mountain. She never turned her back on a vow. If she’d kept the truth from Berendil she’d have a reason. She’d ridden out for a reason too. Whatever that was, he was left with a conundrum. Could he countenance leaving that torc in Berendil’s ignorant hands?

    Videgavia shook his head in disbelief and he let the tent flap fall back into place, ”I can’t believe this falls to me.”

    He stared at the ground, wondering not only how to explain the torc’s significance but also whether he could do so. She’d given her spear torc to the Ranger to bear and if he was to do so, then he needed to know the truth. One way or the other. Irrespective of her reasons, whatever they might be. Videgavia squinted at the ground as he screwed up his resolve into a tight, jagged, bitter ball.

    ”That torc is why Shieldmaidens are said to be wedded to their spears,” he finally said, ”Most prized, most precious, rarest of all the torcs. More than a signifier of rank. Or mastery of skill, like the others. They vie for it all their lives and most never attain it.”

    Videgavia paused, aware that he was stalling, but there was no way he was ever going to possess the strength to say what needed to be said. Still, it had to be said.

    His voice grew strained, ”Until you, Ranger, it passed from Rohan’s king to the one Shieldmaiden he deemed worthy of it. It is a vow of immutable fidelity, one that they hold extends beyond death.”

    “Freja has bound herself to me?” Berendil repeated, astonished.

    Videgavia hoarsely clarified, ”You hold an oath of a like never before exchanged with any save Éorl the Young and his line.”

    An oath he would have gladly returned in kind, if ever he had the chance. Videgavia knew, now, such opportunity would not come. All the years, all the time, so many points at which he could have said something. And now…it was enough to make a man howl.

    Berendil stared at him, dumbfounded, and then to Hanasian. Equally astonished, Hanasian shook his head at Berendil and then both men flinched as an anguished growl tore free of Videgavia’s throat. With that he was gone, pushing back out of the tent and into the cooler night beyond. Within the tent, Hanasian placed a hand on Berendil’s shoulder to prevent the man from following the Daleman outside.

    He shook his head at his friend and counselled, ”Let him go.”

    Berendil shook him off, ”Why bind herself to me only to push me away?”

    Again Hanasian shook his head and kept his counsel to himself. He recalled Vorda’s words by the barrow of Snowmane that night. Vorda had warned that there was little Freja would not countenance when it came to protecting what she loved. Rohan, he had thought at the time, and her king. But now he wondered if instead she was protecting someone else.

    Berendil’s next question cut across Hanasian’s thoughts, ”Did you know?”

    “What I knew I told you as soon as you told me you had it. That it was precious, a rare gift.”


    Berendil retrieved the torc to turn it over in his hand, staring at it as if he had never before seen it, ”Rarest of all, I should think.”

    “What will you do now?”
    Hanasian asked and Berendil pushed a breath out through his nose.

    ”I will give her no cause to regret this,” he murmured as he closed his hand around the torc again, ”More than that, I cannot yet say.”
     

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