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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    3021 III – Rhûn, May


    Expecting Videgavia to confront him at any moment, Berendil’s walk to his tent was a slow one. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if this eventuated. He’d found the Daleman intolerable from the outset but over time a grudging respect for his abilities had arisen. And now…


    He shoved any disdain and enmity aside and stretched out on his bedroll. And now what? After a long pause, Berendil recalled the letter he had begun to write. He rose to retrieve it and after a quick scan, resolved that there was indeed now more to say.


    Beloved, this morning saw another skirmish with Khurg’s Easterlings. Somehow, my possession of your torc became known to Videgavia. Through him I have discovered yet more of the torc’s significance. It was knowledge that came at a heavy price, for Videgavia and I both.



    There is much I do not understand still but your heart is known to me now. And so, all I will say in finishing is that I yearn for the day our paths cross again. There is much to discuss between us. When that comes to pass, for I have always known that it will, know this: you need not be afraid dear heart.​


    Ever yours my Love,​

    Berendil​



    He folded it and sealed it, considering how to ensure that this reached her. She had returned to Rohan. Surely, the incoming forces from Gondor would be regularly reporting back. Perhaps they might take his letter with them. In time, in the communication between Rohan and Gondor, his letter would reach Freja in Meduseld. Would she read it? He shook his head at that and then smiled wryly. She certainly could not return it to him in Rhûn, so there was that he supposed. He tucked the letter away and returned to his bedroll. Once again it was some time before he found sleep.

    In the early morning, Berendil emerged from his tent haunted by a piercing set of blue eyes he had come to know very well over the years to discover a barge was coming in. He squinted at those upon it and then broke into a relieved smile. The Expeditionary army from Gondor had at last arrived. Whilst the bulk of the force would be travelling on foot, Berendil went out onto the dock to greet those that had been sent ahead. In the faint light of dawn, it was difficult to make out the faces of individuals upon the barge until they were disembarking.

    ”Lord Faramir!” Berendil exclaimed as the man alighted onto the dock.

    The two men grasped forearms briefly and Berendil continued, ”You are a welcome sight, my Lord. The Prefect and Captain will already be preparing for the day ahead. I will take you to them now.”

    Tidings of Faramir’s arrival travelled faster and Hanasian emerged from the tent before Berendil could reach it.

    ”Lord Faramir! Welcome!” Hanasian exclaimed, genuinely pleased, ”If you are here, then it is clear how serious this situation is. Come, walk with me and I will explain the mess as best I can.”

    Berendil hung back as the two men fell into step and after a moment’s thought, turned back for his own tasks. It seemed clear to him that they’d be moving now that Gondor’s forces had arrived.

    Faramir said little as he walked beside Hanasian, clearly aware that whatever was to be said was to be where it could not be overheard. It took some time for the two men to clear camp and in that time, Hanasian assembled his thoughts.

    ”How bad is it?” Faramir asked once they were far enough away.

    Hanasian paused a heartbeat before he answered, ” Events have pinned us to the northwestern region of Rhûn. Khurg has strong support from the east. Support also from Nûrn and south of the lake, though that is reluctant at best. Our early gambit caused Khurg grief. He struggles with leadership across his armies and their communication is weak. What they lack in coordination they more than compensate for in ferocity.”

    Faramir nodded and turned to consider the Easterlings that were moving about within the camp.

    ”I was hoping to avoid a frontal assault,” he murmured as he crossed his arms and sighed, ”What of the Prefect?”

    “He seems to be holding up well. He’s maintained the support of the Easterlings in camp, principally Sagath clan,”
    Hanasian replied and then lowered his voice, ”If it’s a frontal assault you wish to avoid, m’Lord, there may be a way to accomplish that.”

    Fararmir’s attention sharpened and Hanasian pushed on, ”The Company could move against Khurg tonight.”

    “Assasination?”


    Hanasian drew a deep breath, ”A raid. One of the Sagath commanders in camp, a man named Khule, has access to information from within Khurg’s camp. Information that I am inclined to put to use.”

    Faramir nodded and turned aside for a moment, weighing up what he knew and what he guessed at.

    He turned back to Hanasian, ”Come the morrow your role in this will end. What you do before then…”

    Faramir paused and the morning light made his grey gaze glint. He inclined his head to Hanasian and then set off to locate the Prefect.

    The Captain of the Black Company stared at the ground, turning Faramir’s words over in his thoughts. Was that tacit approval or a warning that come what may, the Company would be alone in this. Either, he supposed, depending on the outcome. The cynicism of that thought widened his eyes momentarily and then he closed them. The Company had always been on its own, come what may. This was no different. He resolved that the planned raid would proceed. This time, only the three of them would infiltrate Khurg’s encampment.

    Unlike the previous raid, the three Black Company men slipped by Khurg’s sentries without having to kill them. Their luck continued, for Khurg was actually in his tent when they found it and he was not alone. Cornered without a stich of clothing and thoroughly engrossed in a delicate activity, the General had little recourse available to him. They bundled him and his serving maid out of camp and promptly turned both over to the Gondorian army in the early morning hours.

    Faramir didn’t question the report he received some hours later concerning the ‘surrender’ of General Khurg during the night. As for the General, he had very little to say though his serving maid was proving quite helpful. And so, armed with a wealth of sudden information, Faramir had his hands full with arranging negotiations with Rhûn’s many and varied clans.

    The Black Company broke camp during all of this and prepared to move out. Entangled as they were with the Sagath encampment, it took most of the day to organize despite Berendil’s efforts to expedite matters. The trail of Naiore was long cold and he fretted at any unnecessary delay. But come evening they had only just managed to ready themselves to take up the hunt again.

    Frustrated, Berendil sought Hanasian out, ”Have you ever had a hunch so strong you’re absolutely sure of it despite lacking any evidence to support it?”

    Hanasian grinned at his friend, ”Most days. I call it instinct. Why?”

    ”I’ve been wondering where Naiore might go to regroup and regain strength. I’ve considered all the places I know. Each has a distinct drawback for her…until I considered the dread fortress of Carn Dûm.”


    Hanasian nodded at the conjecture for it made implicit sense. This business in Rhûn had given Naiore three weeks, he estimated.

    ”We will make for Dale, see if she has been sighted there. We’ll commandeer river boats to take us upstream.”

    Berendil shot him a determined look nodded and then spun on his heel to exit Hanasian’s tent. Come the morning, their river boats were waiting for them, watched over by a hawkish Daleman and a grim Ranger of Cardolan.
     
  2. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    The Company set out up the River Celduin, and after two hundred miles, the Carnen river met the Celduin. A couple of their Rohirrim took the west bank of the river, horses tethered to the boats to move it against the strong currents. The same was done on the eastern bank. leading horses and having a tether to the boat to move it against the strong current. The same was done on the east side of the river.

    Berendil spent his time on the boat pouring over maps and routes and possible routes Naiore could have taken. He knew she had been was east of Rhûn when the Company had arrived and so it was likely, he thought, that she would have circled north around Rhûn and south of the Iron Hills. With summer’s approach, she could have taken a northerly route straight up this very river. It was unlikely she’d cross Mirkwood for the High Pass. Too close to Rivendell. Would she, then, go north to the Ered Mithrim and make for Carn Dûm? Berendil’s instinct, as Hanasian called it, suggested that she was making her way west although he did not know why. Perhaps instead of Carn Dûm, she would make for Rhuadar itself. There were many roads the Elf could have chosen.

    The Company set camp by the confluence of the River Carnen to rest and Berendil sought Hanasian out once more. He found him stretched out on his bedroll, staring up at the stars for they had decided against tents this night.

    ”I’ve mapped the possible routes the Elf may have taken. There are a few,” Berendil said, standing back.

    Hanasian’s eyes closed and he pushed out a breath before he sat up and gestured at his bedroll. Berendil crouched to spread out his maps and notes upon the bedroll and then seated himself beside his friend.

    ”Most likely she threaded her way between the the dwarf kingdom of the Iron Hills and the men of Dale, for the Grey Mountains and then westward for Carn Dûm. The place has been abandoned for over a thousand years. Our people do not go there save for utmost need.”

    Hanasian considered the route Berendil had marked and then looked to his friend to plainly ask a question, ”And?”

    Berendil tapped his finger on Carn Dûm a couple times before it back-tracked the path. He stopped north of Dale and there withdrew his finger, ”Not ‘and’, Hanasian. The question is ‘but’. That this is so obviously the right route to take suggests to me that she would not take it. The Elf would not make it so easy for us. Instead, I think she will skirt the strongholds of her own kind and make directly for Rhuadur.”

    Berendil looked at Hanasian as he examined the route. He nodded at Berendil’s statement, absorbed in his own thoughts.

    Berendil then said, ”I think the key will be in Rhuadur, and the way in will be the old Forsaken Inn.”

    Hanasian let his finger drop on the Forsaken Inn on Berendil’s sketched map. He then reached for his satchel he was using for a pillow, and pulled out a full map of the north. He put his fingers on the scale of leagues and then started crudely measuring from where they were at the river confluence. In his head Hanasian was calculating time and the seasons.

    Berendil went on, ”I think she will not go to Dale, but will traverse Mirkwood and make for the High Pass. It’s the most direct route to Rhuadur and adds much cover.”

    “But why Rhuadur?”
    Hanasian asked, studying his map and making calculations.

    ”Difficult to recruit in an empty land, Han. Rhuadar is near enough to populated lands and rough enough to offer good cover. It is not as remote as Carn Dûm. And she will know the power of her people wanes.”

    Hanasian finished his calculations and put away his map, ”Seventy leagues lie between us and the fords of the Old Forest Road. We will decide then which route we take.”

    Berendil nodded at this and took his leave, for there was little more to say about it for now. Hanasian considered his friend as he departed, notes and maps gathered under one arm and dark head bowed. He rubbed at his jaw and then returned to consider the stars. Difficult to recruit in an empty land, Berendil had said. Difficult to recruit men of the caliber of Berendil too, and Hanasian had a sense he’d be grappling with that conundrum. What he couldn’t know, though, was when.

    The journey upriver was uneventful, and Berendil spent his time either considering his thoughts, looking over his maps, or drawing Freja. He had dozens of them now, each one different, and as he went, the perspective was closer. His last one was of her face and it had every detail. From the way she held her mouth, to the shape of her nose, to her intense eyes. He looked at it for a time and put it with the others. He wondered where that letter he sent with Faramir’s messenger back to Minas Tirith was, and if it would find Freja.

    After a week, they came to the fens where the Old Forest Road forded the river. Here the grass was green and lush near the fens and so the Company camped an additional day to allow their horses rest.

    In this time, Hanasian sought Berendil out and found him standing by the road, staring along it.

    ”Has your conclusion changed?” he asked his friend and Berendil shook his head, eyes still on the road.

    ”“No, she went down that road there,” he pointed west to where the track was swallowed by a dark, dense looking forest.

    Hanasian looked that way,”About that…. I think we make for Esgoroth.”

    “It is miles out of the way!”
    Berendil objected.

    Hanasian nodded in agreement, ”Nearly two hundred, in fact, likely a couple weeks there and back. We need a break, Berendil. The Company has not re-fitted since we set out. The field repairs we accomplished with the Sagath is not a refit. The horses desperately need extended rest. You want to argue that, take it up with Foldine and see how you fare. Lastly, the boats we have are the property of the King. We must leave them in good hands. What would you have us do, abandon them here to rot?”

    “And all the while, the cursed Elf gains even more of a lead on us,”
    Berendil answered, his frustration apparent.

    ”Aye, but this is different to Rhûn. If you can find four others willing to accompany you, then you can set off west with what you need from our remaining provisions. There are likely some who would want to forego Esgoroth, but the Dalemen are all looking forward to it, as are most of the others. It has been a long road since we left Minas Tirith.”

    Berendil looked west and then to the horses who were grazing the grasses, ”Very well Captain, I’ll ask some I think are of like mind as me.”
     

  3. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    The next day, Hanasian was set to continue up river to Esgoroth and Berendil was set to make west with the five youngest and freshest horses. With him was Macvil, Maclon, Foldine, and Hilferin. They had stowed the provision they would need to get over the Misty Mountains, and as the boat was readied, they said their farewells, and vowed to meet later at the Forsaken Inn.

    It didn’t take long before Berendil’s band of men were under the eaves of the Old Forest. Even though it had been two years since the war, the Mirkwood had lost little of its darkness. The air was heavy under the forest canopy but now bird song could be heard during the day. It was close to seventy leagues across the forest and though they made good speed, they spent three nights in Mirkwood.

    When they finally emerged from the forest on the west side, they basked in the warmth of the sun. It was good to leave the heavy dankness of those woods. They did not rest long, but kept a steady pace to gain the Old Ford where they camped. The remainder of the journey would be a hard climb up into grassless areas, so Berendil made the decision to stay there an extra day so the horses could graze.

    The rest of the Company made their way to Esgoroth and arrived after six days. There they rested horses were rested and they worked on re-supplying for the journey over the High Pass. Hanasian kept his men busy, for idle hands meant trouble as he well knew, but at night they enjoyed the luxury of an inn. The Dalemen knew where to go and the food, drink, and music was re-invigorating.

    Most of the Company’s time was spent procuring supply and provision from those the Dalemen of their number knew. Videgavia obtained for them dried meat and fruit, and this was good for the Company’s trail rations had dwindled to nothing. They lingered in Esgaraoth three days. The boat was left with the city guard, and should the King of Gondor or any of his agents should require its use, it was to be signed over to them.

    On the fourth day, the Company was ferried to the east side of the lake and they rode south along the river, allowed their horses to graze and drink as they went. When they gained the Carrock the Company was a fortnight behind Berendil’s band. The next day it was they who set out under the canopy of the Greenwood and it was here that Barek posed a question to Hanasian.

    ”What do you think Berendil will do, should he locate the Elf?”

    Despite their orders to the contrary and despite Berendil’s steadfast nature and the fact that such an undertaking was fraught with unacceptable peril, Hanasian knew very well that Berendil would attempt to kill Naiore Dannan if he found her. And so, it seemed to him, did Barek for why else pose the question.

    He was silent for span of heartbeats before he answered, ”Truth be told, I will be content to have a forward position established by the time we get there.”

    Barek nodded at this and as they silently made their way west, Hanasian wondered what he would find at the Forsaken Inn. He very much did not wish to venture south to Meduseld to deliver dark tidings to one Shieldmaiden of Rohan and that, he feared, was the very likely outcome should Berendil encounter Naiore Dannan.

    Berendil and his men gained the High Pass and there rested for a couple days for the air was warm and the melting snow refreshing. Once they were rested, they made their way down the west side of the Misty Moutains and allowed themselves a day’s sojourn at Imladris before continuing on west for the Forsaken Inn. In all, it took them just under three weeks to gain their final position and though Berendil had pushed them hard his men did not complain.

    And so, Berendil found himself laying on the edge of a grassy hill south of the inn. The stables appeared empty and he didn’t see anyone moving about while he was there. He withdrew and that evening he called his men together.

    ”Two need to go in. Appearances are ever deceiving. The Inn may well be abandoned but then again, perhaps not."

    Macvil who had watch at sunset said the lamps were lit inside, so someone had to be there. Foldine and Hilferen volunteered to go. They stripped off anything that could identify them as military or Black Company, so that they resembled little more than highway ruffians. Once night fell proper the two men set out, the remaining three following along to take up perimeter positions around the inn.

    Foldine pulled the door open to find a dimly lit common room with a sparse scattering of patrons studiously avoiding their arrival. They ordered hot tea and settled in at one of the tables, talking as though they had travelled far together and so it began. Over the course of the coming days, all five of Berendil’s band established themselves at the Inn. Foldine had been so successful as to strike up a rapport with the Inn’s proprietor.

    A dour fellow, the man had no inclination to run the Forsaken Inn and so when Foldine offered to assist, he readily accepted and set off for Bree the very next day. Foldine became by default the proprietor of the Forsaken Inn, a role he took to with gusto. Berendil took the part of a rough rogue that sat by the fire in the far reaches of the common room. Hilferin took to dicing, wandering the common room in search of anyone after a wager. Maclon became the newest bar fly, propping up Foldine’s bar and complaining about the watering down of the ale. Aside from Foldine, all four men cycled between the inn’s common room and scouting around the inn, hunting for any sign of Naiore Dannan or her supporters whilst Macvil withrew east down the road to watch for Hanasian.

    When Hanasian’s arrival coincided with the first rain since summer. Macvil rose up as the Company edged closer through the downpour. He moved carefully, aware that he would resemble little more than a highwayman.

    ”Are we glad to see you Cap!” he hailed them, his cowl pushed back and his arms held wide.

    His brethren peered at him intently before Hanasian swung down from his saddle to approach.

    ”What is your situation? Any sign?”

    “Nothing definitive. There was one who looked suspicious. He proved to be no more than a traveler making for Bree. There’s been a persistent sighting too, but it’s unclear whether he’s just a bandit. Every time we get close, he’s off. Slippery as an eel, that one. Otherwise, we’ve established our forward position at the Inn itself. Foldine runs it, I think, and badly. Waters the ale far too much.”


    Hanasian nodded as he took this in, ”Well then, I suppose there will be room for all of us then.”

    “Aye!”
    Macvil answered and then, ”But ware the bedding. As I said, Foldine runs the inn badly.”

    That night Foldine and Berendil took first watch as the Company settled in after a long road. Five unremarkable days passed wherein no one arrived. As for the slippery eel, he was only seen on two occasions. That he proved so elusive troubled Hanasian. Bandits were wily and cunning but rarely so skilled. By the time the sun set on the sixth day, two men arrived from the East. By that time, the Company resembled little more than a band of rouges exiled from proper institutions, taverns and inns of Bree.
     
  4. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    3021, III – September, Forsaken Inn


    At one of the corner tables, Hanasian sat up when a tall man slunk through the door of the Forsaken Inn upon evenfall. Heavily cowled, he fit the description of the man his scouts had reported. The Slippery Eel, as they'd come to call him. Now that Hanasian had eyes on the Eel, he could see why he had caught their attention.

    Just from the way he moved, Hanasian could see the man knew how to handle himself in a fight. His clothing, though worn, was the kind favoured by a canny operative. Generic, functional, able to blend in easily in most locations from Rhûn through to Arnor. Forgettable. It was entirely possible that this was the Moricarni agent they’d been hoping to find in this dank and dismal place.

    The Eel prowled to the bar, deep cowl drawn low and lower face wrapped in cloth, to slot into the press. Khule had marked the Eel as well and with a glance to Hanasian, began to wend his way towards his target. They’d been here close to a week and thus far they’d found no discernible trace of Naiore Dannan nor those who served her.

    Still, for all of that, the information that had led them here was credible. This man was likely to be connected to the Elf somehow. The Eel was no petty bandit or down on his luck criminal. That much Hanasian was certain of now that he’d sighted the man. A better target there was not to be had in the fetid Forsaken Inn.

    He glanced to Berendil seated beside him and saw that his friend also closely watched the Eel. A quick sweep around the common room revealed Videgavia. The Daleman was already on his way to join them at their table. It was the best vantage to be had. His dark eyes held a cold gleam and Videgavia’s expression was set in its hardest lines. He fit right in to the Forsaken Inn’s clientele and so no one risked setting themselves in his path.

    He yanked a chair back, dropped into it with a sullen thud and growled, ”We’ll soon see what the Easterling’s made of.”

    The almost gleeful note in the man’s rough voice lifted Hanasian’s brows and made Berendil look askance to him. Videgavia shrugged at them in reply and turned his attention to the bar. Whatever this man was or wasn’t, Khule was their best chance of taking him in. It was not long before a scuffle broke out at the bar. Khule had made contact and the game was finally afoot, come what may.

    Fights were not uncommon at the Forsaken Inn. Drunken aggression often overflowed. This, however, was a different creature altogether. Khule was amongst the best warriors within the Black Company. He was a master of both close and ranged combat. Such men were rare and this was why Khule had been selected to initiate contact. He was most likely to emerge unscathed.

    Those at the bar did not push, shove or lash out. All Company men, they drew back to give the Easterling room to move. The fight spun away from the bar and careened dangerously towards the tables, the Eel swiftly revealing he was not to be easily overcome. Videgavia straightened from his slouch and frowned. His eyes narrowed as he leaned forward and Berendil whistled appreciatively at the display.

    Whoever this Eel was, he was easily Khule’s match. On the other side of Hanasian, Videgavia took to muttering to himself and then fell silent as the mercenary very nearly took Khule’s face off. Khule's shaken expression was clear for all to see for a moment and then he recovered from what had been a very close call.

    ”The Easterling can handle himself,” Hanasian murmured but Videgavia shook his head from side to side.

    Hanasian glanced at the Daleman curiously and saw concern, if not outright dismay, in the deep lines of Videgavia’s face. It was odd, he thought, for Videgavia had only managed to barely tolerate Khule’s presence in their number thus far. Khule recoiled from yet another vicious strike and still the Eel gave him no opening, no chance at seizing the advantage, no opportunity to regroup. Hanasian could see his men starting to twitch, restless and worried. If this descended into an outright melee, the Eel could easily slip away in the chaos. Videgavia wiped a hand over his jaw and, eyes still tracking the fight, uttered something from the corner of his mouth.

    A name that made Berendil shoot to his feet immediately. Try as he might, he could see nothing that might identify the Eel and so he slowly sank into his seat. Videgavia leaned forward, dark eyes glittering and then nodded to himself.

    He swiftly leaned back between the Rangers he was seated amongst, ”It’s her. I’d stake my life on it.”

    The two Rangers rose to their feet for a better vantage but all that could be seen was Khule fighting for his very life. Swathed from head to foot it was impossible to see whether the Eel was in fact a woman, much less which woman. However, if it was Freja then she was about to take out their best and if she was recognised, their entire operation would be derailed. Hanasian and Berendil sank back into their chairs.

    Khule twisted to slip by in a bid to gain the window of the inn, which he did. He crashed through it, raising a shout from Foldine as the barkeep. The Eel, as swift as Khule, paused ever so briefly in the sill. A brief calculation and then the Eel was through to give pursuit.

    In that moment, a flash of hair was glimpsed. Just the end of a braid, perhaps, but most assuredly the rich wine coloured shade of one Freja Fireborn. It settled the matter of identity for such a hue was not seen beyond the East Fold of Rohan. All three men were on their feet in an instant but Freja had already disappeared into the night, hunting Khule.

    Something had to be done and quickly before Freja blew their mission and killed their newest recruit.
     

  5. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    3021, III - The Forsaken Inn, September

    Hanasian, Videgavia, and Berendil darted through the door of the inn and looked about. Macvil was on watch and he pointed north across the road. The three men fanned out, careful to keep each other within earshot, and pushed into the bushes lining the northern edge of the road. In their wake, Mulgov slid out of the door as well and shortly after that into the night. There was no way he was going to abandon his newest friend to this murderous eel, though the fighting truly was spectacular. It would be a pity to put an end to the eel, he thought. As for Foldine, he leaned his weight on the bar and considered the ruin of the window. Then he shugged, for it was unlikely to be his concern now. He set about gathering up anything useful to take once they quit the Forsaken Inn.

    Khule pushed hard to the north. There was a small woods there, he knew, and it was his best place to lose his assailant. Could it be her? The eyes…He shook his head because whoever the eel was, he could hear that they were still right behind him. It was only a matter of time before he was run down and he knew what the outcome would be if he tried to face the eel winded and tired.

    The best Khule could do was find a good place to make his stand. He eased back on what had been an unmitigated sprint and it was a good thing he did for he shot until a clearing from between the trees. The moonlight showed clearly a rock ledge that dropped about as far as his height standing. It had rained recently and he could hear water thundering through the ravine below. It sounded like its flow was waning. Khule debated climbing down into the ravine but decided against it. He had no time. Instead, he crouched as low as he could by the edge with the hope that his pursuer would hit the clearing at a full sprint and fail to realise the precipice in time.

    Sure enough the eel came flying through the trees but his hopes were disappointed as the eel scrabbled to a halt, arms wind milling on the very edge for balance. Not to worry, though, for Khule had his hand axe at the ready and his opponent was momentarily disadvantaged. Perfect. He jumped at the eel, swinging his axe for where he knew the eel’s head was. If he had been a fraction faster or the eel slower, then this unfortunate affair would have met with a definitive end. As it was, the eel had turned too quickly and crouched.

    His axe sailed through clear air but Khule used his momentum to crash into the eel as hard as he could. It was all he had left, really, and they both plummeted over the edge. Bouncing onto the rocks below, Khule found himself badly winded. The eel fell a bit further away, biting off a Rohirric curse and scrabbling in the water. If it was the Shieldmaiden, his best move would be to simply let her drown. They don’t swim, as he knew. Unfortunately, all Khule could do was gasp for air like a landed fish. His lungs screaming, he heard the eel gain her footing and he knew with sudden certainly that his hours were numbered.

    The eel was drawn by the sound of his gasping and he glimpsed the blade lifted in the night. It took all the strength he had to lift his arm to deflect the blow and the blade bit into his shoulder deep enough to scrape on bone. Excruciating pain made him lash out blindly and he kicked the eel hard enough to unbalance but not for long. The eel regained footing and came at him again. The rocks that had stolen his air and likely cracked his ribs proved his ally this time. Wet and slippery, the eel slipped on the way back in and the angle of the knife was thrown from the hand that gripped his axe to his thigh.

    Khule roared with outrage and pain, grabbed the eel’s hand and squeezed fingers as he rolled away. He hauled the knife out of his thigh only to see the eel had another knife and his deathblow was at hand. Strangely, of all the things he wanted to do or say, it was to ask the eel’s name. Was it truly the woman he’d spent years hunting in the East Fold. If so, then perhaps this was….not right but proper. As strange thoughts tumbled through his head, the eel’s knife swung for his life and would have claimed it if not for the stone that came tumbling through the night to glance off the eel’s head.

    The eel shuddered, the knife clattered to the rocks, and the eel collapsed bonelessly to the side and into the stream. Now the pendulum had turned and Khule knew it. He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the blood that was coursing down his leg and arm and the burning of his ribs and staggered to the eel’s unconscious form. Some foes simply had to be put down.

    Khule stood over the eel’s limp body with the eel’s knife in his hand. Only fitting to return the blade to its owner. With his compliments for what was a peerless warrior, whoever this eel was. Had not Mulgof and Hanasian dropped into the ravine, he would have done so.

    ”We need this one alive,”Hanasian said as Mulgov pulled Khule back from the eel.

    It took a moment for his captain’s words to sink in. Once they had, Khule laid back against the rocky embankment. The matter was out of his hands now. And he wasn’t dead. That was most certainly a marvel.

    ”Didn’t know you were in on this pursuit. Nice throw by the way,” Hanasian observed, ”Do you think you can get her out of this ravine?”

    Her, Khule noted. Was it? Mulgov, taller than even the Dunedain, looked about to consider things and then shrugged. He threw the limp eel over his shoulder like a sack of grain. Deadly, murderous, bloody thirsty grain. That done, he turned about, stepped up onto a rock and dumped the eel hard on the flat grass above.
     
  6. Elora

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    Mulgov was the first to climb out and he immediately set to binding the eel thoroughly, at ankle and wrist. Hanasian and Khule followed, the Easterling grateful for his captain’s assistance for without it he’d be stuck in that ravine for some time. As Hanasian eased him down, Berendil and Videgavia came racing along the ravine from the north. After some momentary confusion over identities, none of the Black Company men were wearing anything that might identify them as such, the two men were permitted to scramble up. Another rustle in the bush proved to be Bareck.

    He moved with less haste into the clearing and carefully studied the scene, from the Easterling trying to act as though he was not badly injured to the prone form of the eel. Still breathing, he noted, which he supposed was a good thing given that it was difficult to interrogate the dead. Messy. Leaving the eel to the others, Hanasian drew up to Bareck with a simple question.

    ”Did you bring your aid kit?”

    “No, I headed out figuring we will have to abandon the inn. There is a good hidden camp not far from here.”


    Hanasian nodded, ”I know of it. We will relocate shortly. Khule, can you walk?”

    “I don’t know. I think so,”
    he staunchly answered, ripping off a part of the eel’s cloak to bind his leg, ”Maybe.”

    Unlikely, Bareck thought to himself and so did Hanasian for he said, ”Take Khule back to the Inn and do what you can do for him. Inform Foldine that he, along with the Macs and Hilferin, will remain at the inn for now. The rest need to move out for this camp before dawn.”

    Bareck took it all in his stride with a nod, had Khule lean into him and set off for the inn again. Khule, for his part, made no protest at the arrangements and Hanasian released a pent up breath. Last thing he wanted was that Easterling around when the eel came to.

    Soon as the Easterling was gone, Videgavia swung into action. He dropped to his knees by the eel, pulled back the hood and immediately, from the shape of the brow, it was clear the eel was indeed a woman. He pulled away the cloth she’d used to conceal her lower face and sighed heavily.

    ”Freja!” he mumbled with a shake of his head and it was at that moment Berendil jostled forward.

    Hanasian drew them both back with the help of Mulgov with an urgent caution for both men, ”Let her breathe!”

    Once he was sure the Haradian had a secure hold on both men, Hanasian drew forward. In the moonlight there was no mistaking the Shieldmaiden’s features now. She’d stripped away any trapping that might hint at her identity. That was unusual for a Shieldmaiden, so fierce was their love for Rohan. But there was no green cloak. No armour either. Remarkably, the loose breeches were from Rhûn. Gone too were her heavier weapons. Inconceivable that a Shieldmaiden would venture so far afield without shield, sword or spear.

    As his thoughts ran, Freja began to stir. Slowly at first, her senses likely stunned and sluggish after a blow like that. Once she realised she was restrained, though, her movements took on a furious quality and she almost succeeded in rolling herself away, back towards the ravine. Hanasian was forced to pin her down with a knee applied to the small of her back. This in no way pleased Freja Fireborn and she made that clear in the snarling Rohirric cursing that came from her.

    Mulgov again proved his worth for he was both strong and tall enough to drag Freja back from the ravine by the ankles and flip her over to her back again. He did none of these things. Instead, with a nod from Hanasian, he uncorked a flask at his belt to soak one of the cloths she had used to conceal her lower face, crouched and pressed it against her nose and mouth.

    ”I am sorry about that lump, he murmured as she thrashed about, ”But I could not let you kill my friend.”

    And with that Freja subsided again with an ominous growl boding a world of trouble for whoever happened to be on hand when she woke. Hanasian swallowed hard at that thought and wiped a hand over his face.

    ”Come on then, we need to get her out of here before she’s recognised,” he said and then shook his head at Berendil and Videgavia, ”Not you two. I want you at the Forsaken, Vid. Berendil, you’re back to camp. You’ll take third watch. Understood?”

    Videgavia nearly always looked mutinous and tonight was no exception. Berendil though, Hanasian thought he just might object. He opened his mouth as if to do so and then reconsidered, attention on Freja. With a sigh, and Hanasian knew this had to be difficult for both men, Berendil set out for the camp. Videgavia, though, was slower. Hanasian waited until both men were well on their way, wondering if he’d have to set watch for the Daleman, and then nodded to Molguv.

    The Haradian collected up Freja again and with her tossed over his shoulder set off for camp.
     
  7. Elora

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    3021, III – September, Arnor


    Hanasian squatted in his hastily erected tent and rubbed a weary hand over his face. Freja lay on the other side, yet to come to. She’d be in a murderous frame of mind when she did. They’d unbound her hands and feet and thoroughly disarmed her, he hoped. The woman had a startling collection of various knives and daggers.

    The Shieldmaiden was a very long way from Meduseld. For what purpose was anyone’s guess but he had his own ideas on the subject. It was unlikely that she’d come here looking for Easterlings to kill. Was she alone, though, or was a horde of irate Shieldmaidens about to descend on his camp. He shook his head at that notion and pushed out a sigh as he studied the woman. How was he going to approach this?

    He’d had the task of questioning Freja the last time their paths had crossed. She’d yet to recover from the injuries she’d sustained on the Pelennor then. He recalled well the air of vulnerability that she’d tried to mask through nothing more than sheer will and determination. Now…well now she was very much back to her full strength, as near as he could guess, and she’d have an axe to grind. He could not rely on her inclination to assist an ally. Not after the events of tonight. As that thought travelled across his mind he caught the slight twitch of one of her feet.

    He rose to his full height and prepared himself for whatever was to come next but she did not stir. Her breathing remained measured and slow. Hanasian frowned and then snapped into action when she tried to roll herself under the tent wall and into camp. Predictably, Freja did not take this quietly and a short struggle ensued until she caught a good look at who grappled with her.

    ”You!” she exclaimed and while there was a world of anger in her voice she didn’t swing at him again.

    Her brilliant blue eyes narrowed into a searing glare and such was the intensity of her focus that there was no need to worry about whether she was concussed or not.

    ”Release me, Ranger, or…” she growled and Hanasian felt the unmistakeable prick of a dagger. Evidently, the search had not been thorough enough.

    ”Really?” he replied, but released his hold on the Shieldmaiden and eased back.

    Freja pulled herself into a fighting crouch, her wary expression wary suggesting she was not sure what would come next. That, Hanasian thought, was probably understandable. He pulled back to the other side of his tent.

    ”Welcome to the Black Company,” he said and nodded to the dagger she held, ”And that, I can tell you, will not be necessary.”

    “I’ll be the judge of that,”
    she muttered, truculent.

    He remained where he was, completely still, and after a long moment Freja elected to unfold herself from her combative crouch. She winced momentarily as she did so and then her attention shifted to the lantern that lit the tent. Hanasian had a sudden mental image of his tent burning down.

    ”I apologise for the manner of our meeting,” he was swift to say.

    Her eyes fairly crackled with ire at that, ”As well you should!”

    For good measure, Hanasian moved towards the tent entrance just in case she tried to rush it. Freja pushed a breath out, either in frustration or disappointment.

    ”I’m a prisoner?” she demanded, rubbing at the back of her head.

    ”Of course not,” he answered, ”Though I can understand the confusion.”

    Freja was silent for a moment, evidently deciding what to do or say next and then he was relieved to see her dagger lower. Hopefully that meant she was not going to try to fight her way out. She stowed the dagger into her belt and glared at him.

    ”Where is the Elf?”
     
  8. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Any doubt as to why Freja was so far afield vanished with that question but still, alone? Surely not, for such a course was foolhardy in the extreme. The woman scowling at him was bold and ambitious but not reckless.

    ”I doubt she is close to hand,” he answered.

    Freja seemed to weigh that up before she dismissed it with a flick of her head that she clearly regretted an instant later. Hanasian unhooked his water skin from his belt and passed it towards her. Freja accepted it warily, uncorked it and then cautiously drank.

    No sooner had she lowered it did she say, ”Her agent is here, she is here.”

    “You’ve seen one of the Moricarni?”
    he inquired, brows lifting.

    She frowned at a word she was unfamiliar with, then pushed past it as she corked the water skin and tossed it towards the ground at his feet.

    ”I encountered her agent tonight. That Easterling could be anywhere now, thanks to you!”

    “He is being tended to by my own men, as it so happens.”


    Freja was clearly repulsed by any such notion, “WHY?!”

    “He’s one of my mine. Sworn, like every other man in my service to pursue Naiore Dannan wherever she may be found and bring her to justice.”


    At that her jaw hung for a moment, as though she could not believe what she had just heard. Then she spat a furious curse in Rohirric. She stepped forward so fast he thought she might come at him.

    She demanded, ”You permit him to serve?”

    “There are many in my service far from unblemished. Videgavia of Dale, is one such.”

    “Videgavia does not burn women and children in their beds or toss them back into the flames should they somehow manage to escape their pyres,”
    Freja recoiled as Hanasian flew towards her to clap a hand over her mouth.

    To her credit, she did not lash out at him but he knew she was sorely tempted. He could feel her coil in preparation for any number of responses. All of which, he was certain, he’d not enjoy in the least.

    He glanced pointedly at the tent door, ”Such talk will rip this Company asunder and wouldn’t Naiore Dannan appreciate that! Is that what you want?”

    She glared at him over his hand and then he slowly he loosened his grip over her jaw.

    Against his fingers she hissed, ”Videgavia did not flay my sisters alive and wear their skins!“

    And now it was his turn to be appalled. He responded as though scalded and Freja pulled herself about so that all he could was stare at her back. Her hair was caught in a single, intricate braid that fell fat and heavy to her hips. The lantern made it glow, like embers were caught within its strands.

    She drew in a shuddering breath as she contemplated an old horror that for him was new. He did not know what to do with it. Then he did. He hated it, but he knew it was right.

    ”Khule has sworn service to the High King. If you strike at him now, you become what he once was – the Enemy. Is that any way to restore honour to those you seek to avenge? What is more,” he paused and her braid swayed as Freja turned her head to study him over her shoulder.

    ”Are you prepared to let it overtake your war path?” he asked.
     
  9. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Her eyes closed at the question and he knew, then, that he had correctly identified the nature of her braid. And, with that he knew how he might cobble together a way forward. Freja muttered something he didn’t catch under her breath.

    ”Does Éomer know you are here?” he inquired, the question turning her about to face him again.

    She folded her arms against her chest, expression guarded. Clearly, then, the answer was no. Made sense. Éomer guarded his Shieldmaidens jealously. He’d not squander them, particularly not this one woman. It confirmed for Hanasian that his Company was not about to awash with furious Shieldmaidens all trained to some degree by the woman in his tent. That was the first piece of good news all night. Freja’s boot tapped a few beats on the ground, impatient, and then she called his bluff.

    ”Is that how it’s to be, then? Pack me back to Edoras?” her tone veered dangerously towards open hostility.

    Hanasian rubbed a hand over the bristles along his jaw, ”Needn’t come to that, Freja, if you’re willing to reach an agreement.”

    Brief, incredulous laughter fell out of her, genuinely surprised, ”Why would you want to do that?”

    “My reasons are my own,”
    Hanasian replied and pressed on, ”The terms are straightforward enough: I’ll not send you back to Meduseld and you’ll not kill my men. Any of them.”

    ”You think you could return me to Edoras against my will?”
    Freja countered.

    Not for an instant did he think anyone could make this woman do anything against her will. More to the point, he didn’t want to have to try.

    ”You think you could take the Elf down on your own?” he answered instead.

    Freja sniffed at the question, shifted her weight and then offered him a shallow, ambivalent shrug, ”I’ll…consider it.”

    ”Then I’ll have your answer on the morrow,”
    Hanasian replied and inclined his head to her, deference from one Captain to another. For that was how he regarded the woman in his tent even if she had repudiated all claim to rank within her order.

    He stepped away from the tent’s entrance and she seized his clear invitation to leave without delay. With that a woman affectionately described as an army in her own right was at large in his camp. Some exaggeration there, to be sure, but then again Freja was alarmingly adept and if she decided to employ her skills she’d wreak havoc through his men. Hanasian very much hoped he had not misjudged her character for if he had, he recognised that there was little he could do about it now.

    But Freja did not get very far from the tent for waiting outside was Berendil of Cardolan. She was ill prepared for the sudden longing that stabbed at her. She tried to swallow against the sudden dryness of her mouth. How was it fair that he was so damn beautif-

    ”Ni nîn,” he said quietly, his deep velvety voice slicing through her thoughts.

    Berendil’s eyes combed over her as she stood there, struck momentarily dumb. What did he see, she wondered as she tried to gather her scattered wits, and why did he insist on speaking Elvish? Surely he knew she had no grasp of that.

    His clear grey eyes glinted as though she might see his thoughts if she looked closely enough. In truth, she dared not. She had not the stomach to face it and in any case, Freja could guess easily enough. Resentment and anger. Bitterness. Regret. He must surely rue the moment their paths crossed.

    ”What are you doing here?” she finally whispered and his dark brows lifted.

    ”Our battles, you informed me, are our own to choose,” he replied and her eyes flared with dismay.

    ”And you chose this?!”

    Berendil’s response was resolute, ”I am not here to argue with you, Freja.”
     
  10. Elora

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    He swiftly caught her wrists and pulled them up between them. Something dropped into her palm and instinct closed her fingers around it even as his eyes trapped her own. She could not look away and her breath caught in her throat when she realised what she held. He had kept it. Through the years that had passed between them he had retained the torc.

    ”Annon 'ûr nîn angin,” he said and folded his hands around her own.

    This Elvish was not new to Freja. She’d heard it before, in the darkness of that chaotic night at Dunharrow, but she still had no idea what it meant. This time Berendil imbued the words with force and urgency. Before he had whispered them in that night, on the eve of war. His hands were still wrapped around her own and his eyes remained locked on hers. What did this mean, she wondered. What did any of it mean?

    He returned to Westron, ”You would have me forget you.”

    “Yes,”
    she answered, her voice betraying her with a persistent quiver.

    She would have that, despite what it meant for her. Forget her, leave the past behind, search for a future free of war and battle and treacherous Elves and-

    ”Have you, I wonder, any sense of the enormity of what you ask?”

    His question fell across her thoughts. She had no idea what he meant and Freja had never been particularly adept at concealing her emotions. Still, despite her confusion, Berendil continued to gaze at her. He had fallen silent, as though waiting for something. Did he want her to seek his forgiveness? She had a thousand times over in her dreams already. Sometimes he forgave her. Sometimes he did not.

    She did not know what to do and this unsettled her further. Even in uncertain times Freja had always known what to do. She felt strangely adrift, as though the strings that had anchored her to her lonely path were unravelling one by one. Through it all, Berendil’s grey eyes rested on her own. Freja could not help but shiver, skittish.

    At that Berendil stirred, ”Videgavia says you have bound yourself to me. Is this true?”

    What she should do is lie to him. Tell him that Videgavia was mistaken, or that she’d changed her mind, or that she had made a mistake. Anything to save him from the path he was on. Yet, the thought of such deceits twisted her gut. Ashamed tears prickled at the back of her eyes for she knew that for what it was. This was why she had sent Éowyn in her stead before. Now she had only herself to rely upon. Freja closed her eyes and lowered her head. She knew her coward’s heart would betray Berendil with the truth.

    ”Yes,” she hoarsely answered, the truth welling up from the earth beneath her feet.

    His brow came to rest against hers and the effort required to not throw her arms around him made her tremble. She had already betrayed him once this night. Berendil drew his fingers lightly along the line of her jaw, traced towards her ear. She should have pulled back from such a caress. Instead she felt herself lean into it. His thumb brushed over her lips gently and her heart surged from her chest to her throat.

    Berendil gathered her to him as he had at Dunharrow and his mouth descended towards hers until their lips barely brushed. That alone was enough to send jolts of sensation thundering through her, scouring all in its path. She felt disorientated and the hair upon her arms stood on end.

    ”This,” he groaned, ”Is neither the time nor place.”

    “It never is,” Freja sighed and the spell was broken.

    He released her with a reluctant sigh and pulled back. She watched him rake fingers through his hair and glance briefly around him, as if recollecting where they were, before his attention returned to her and lingered for a moment. By the Sun and Moon, she thought, he was beautiful to behold.

    Berendil shook himself, ”I am to take the third watch. Will you be here when it is done?”
     
  11. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Freja had not intended to remain another moment. Certainly not with the Easterling loose. She should be setting about retrieving her gear, particularly her weapons, now that she knew Khule of the Sagath Clan was about. She’d already decided that on her way out of Hanasian’s tent behind her. Now, though, was astonished to discover that she was nodding at Berendil’s question. Remain, in this camp mostly unarmed with that Easterling rattling about somewhere unaccounted for? Apparently. It was bewildering to say the least yet when her eyes met Berendil’s she saw he was pleased

    ”I will look for you when my watch is done,” he said, offered her a shy smile and then was off.

    He did not pause, nor glance back as he strode for the camp’s perimeter, drawing up his cowl upon its edge. Soon his swift, long stride carried him past it and into the night beyond. Had her heart not still been galloping she might have thought this all some sort of strange, waking dream. It had been a long, lonely trail since quitting Edoras and she knew she was fatigued. Hunting Elves and dodging Rangers was not easily undertaken alone.

    Across her rambling thoughts came the sound of a man clearing his throat nearby. Freja felt her cheeks heat as her head swung about and her attention settled on another Ranger. He had the look of the Dunédain. His eyes crinkled at the edges as he offered her warm smile and acknowledged her with a respectful nod.

    ”Cwēn Béma,” he said, invoking an ancient honorific for Shieldmaidens that surprised her for how would a Ranger of Arnor know that.

    ”I think you must be very weary.”

    “I am,”
    she admitted and at that he stepped closer.

    ”Let’s get you settled.”

    “The Easterling, where is he?”
    Freja asked and after a moment’s thought the Ranger answered.

    ”He is not in this camp tonight.”

    That, Freja thought, was a likely story and her attention fell on one of the largest men Freja had ever seen. He had the look of the Haradrim to him.

    ”What of him?”

    “The Southron will not be troubling you,”
    the Ranger replied, ”My word upon it, Cwēn Béma.”

    ”Where did you learn that?” she asked as he invoked the honorific again, frowning at him.

    He offered her another smile, ”Does not everyone know it? If not, they should.”

    Freja was certain he was laughing at her but she was too weary to pursue the matter further. Besides, she had more than an inkling that she probably deserved it after her conduct this night. A farce, from start to finish. Somehow. She fell into step beside the Ranger of Arnor and allowed him to escort her through camp to what he considered a suitable location. There was a tent, empty, and a nearby log. A fire had been set, small and flickering.

    ”Whose tent is that?” she asked warily.

    ”Berendil’s” he replied calmly and again she felt her cheeks flush.

    ”I’m in deep enough as it is,” she muttered as she planted herself on the log.

    The Ranger considered her for a long moment, his thoughts on the matter his own, and then nodded to her, ”As you wish, Cwēn Béma.”

    Freja squinted at the Southron and then considered the Ranger. He had set off again, his greyish cloak flapping at his heels. Bloody Rangers, she thought to herself and then returned to her scrutiny of the Haradrim.

    ~~~~~~~~~~

    AUTHOR’S NOTE – Translations:


    Old English will be used for Rohirric save where JRRT cannon stipulates a variation of Old English.


    Ni nîn – Dorathien Sindarin = my love


    Annon 'ûr nîn angin – Dorathien Sindarin = I give you my heart.


    Cwēn Béma – Rohirric (Old English) = Maid of Oromë (Shield Maiden/Spear Sister)
     
  12. Elora

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    3021, III – September, Black Company Arnor

    Berendil was forced to adjust his breeches as he took his leave to watch the road and the inn, Freja’s eyes upon his back. He could feel their weight and his fingertips still felt the touch of her skin. Of all the places to find Freja, he didn’t expect it to be here. Meanwhile, his letter was ruminating around somewhere down south in Gondor or, if it had made good time, perhaps even waiting for her in Rohan. Which she would not receive any time soon given she was in Arnor and intent on killing their latest recruit.

    Berendil had little love for Khule, one of the few things he and Videgavia agreed upon, but Khule had proven useful just as the Haradian had. So too, Berendil wagered, would have Khemra had she not been so seriously injured. His thoughts turned next to Hanasian and his insistence on separating him from Freja almost immediately. Hanasian knew more than anyone else just what had transpired between Freja and himself. How his childhood friend could then only length their separation troubled him deeply. Perhaps, he mused, this was the toll of command.

    And Freja...she had smitten him from the first look and had taken his heart, and then pledged herself to him with her torc. He sat on the edge of the clearing, thinking of that torc. Before tonight, he would have taken it out and looked at it and rolled it about in his hand and thought of Freja being somewhere far away; of finding out its meaning and just why she had given it to him.

    He did not have it now, though. It was with Freja again, and she is not far away, but right here. His thoughts shot all in chaos as he considered the events of the night. Had her thoughts and feelings toward him changed in the time? Would she freely give the torc to him again? Did she love him as he loved her? Did she love him more? Less? At all? Berendil blinked and looked about, for he was supposed to be watching. He didn’t need to have one of Naiore’s agents slip by while he was lost in his ruminations.

    He checked his lines and there was no movement. He could barely make Maclon across the way, and they signalled each other that everything was clear. This just seemed it would be another long night; longer than most to Berendil. At least it wasn’t raining. Summer had regained its hold and the bright moon made the landscape silvery in its sheen. Berendil pondered all the moons he had gazed at in his travels. Each had reminded him of Freja. He wanted to see Freja, and see her now! It had been so much time and so many miles since he had last seen her, and even longer since she was right before him, speaking to him. Gazing at him.

    Little had passed between them since Dunharrow. She had refused to see him or accept his letters. All save the one he had first left with Vorda, desperate that she know the truth should she wake and should he fall at the Black Gate. Their doom had seemed all but certain then. And after that, she had refused to see him. Or hear from him. Adamant. And now…

    Berendil blamed Naiore for all this. More than once he had wondered at what could have been had Freja not crossed the Elf’s path upon the Pelennor? Of all those upon the field, why had the Elf singled her out? Why had she continued to prey upon Freja? What possible threat could Freja pose. Mighty as she was, and assuredly dangerous for he had seen for himself what she was capable of, she was no match for Naiore Dannan. Not in raw power. Such questions, he knew, could never be answered. Freja would not know and the Elf would not say even were she to hand to say it.

    All that he knew was that he was here, watching the Forsaken Inn just to the north, hoping that one of the Elf’s agents did approach. And so too was Freja, pursuing anyone she thought an agent of Naiore Dannan. In all of the many scenarios that had run through his head on the long trail through Harad, Khand, Rhûn to Arnor again, he knew that Freja would not sit idly by and wait for others to address the Elf. Such was not in her nature, as he understood it. Nor was it in his, which brought his thoughts back to the Black Company and Hanasian.

    Hanasian should have known the he was the last man who would be alert enough for standing the watch. He must have known there would be nothing out here happening. The confrontation between Khule and Freja would have been warning enough. Both had demonstrated a formidable, honed combat ability that any agent would heed and heed well. But…then Berendil’s thinking shifted because perhaps, just perhaps, Hanasian had sent him on watch for a reason. To think, ponder and consider. In this his friend was wise, for Berendil knew he was confused. Hopeful and fearful both. What would he do if she was not there when he returned, he wondered. As his thoughts careened about, it was just as well that Maclon was there to keep a good eye on him.

    As the time for his relief was approaching, Berendil pondered what might come. The moon had westered in the sky and was now high overhead. He thought of Freja and wondered what she would be doing other than trying to kill Khule. Sleeping? Already on her way, slipping through the trees? What if she was there in camp still? Their time together had been so scant…what if more time together revealed that she had made a mistake? No…he shook his head at that.

    He had seen her response to him. She was fearful, yes, but he knew what he saw in her eyes. A hunger despite her attempts to push it back. What if that desire slipped free? What would he do then? And what did she fear? These thoughts pulled at Berendil as his watch dragged on. Inevitably though, Berendil settled on one certainty, he only wished to see and talk to Freja once again – come what may.

    The slight rustle and the challenge word came, and he answered. Hilferin came up and sat down next to Berendil.

    ”What is the situation?” Hilferin inquired.

    Berendil replied, ”Quiet, but not so quiet to be suspicious. Animals moved about freely. They don’t do that when people are about. No movement on the road and no one at the inn. May the forth watch be as quiet.”

    Hilferin nodded at this and Macvil similarly relieved his cousin across the way. With a few pats upon Hilferin’s shoulder, Berendil set about on his way back to camp.

    Upon arrival, he immediately looked for Freja. He found her in the open air tent that Hanasian set for his command tent. His childhood friend and the woman he loved sat across from each other, the firelight flickering over their expressions, in deep conversation with each other. Elsewhere the others sent back to inn had returned to camp. Videgavia eyed him from a nearby watchfire, some of the Dalemen seated with him. Would the Daleman interfere? If he did, what would he do? Videgavia was a friend, perhaps even a close one of Freja. He had years on Berendil when it came to Freja.

    Berendil decided to settle by a watchfire with Frea, Folca, and Dereck.

    ”What is this all about?” Berendil asked as he nodded at Hanasian and Freja talking.

    Dereck shrugged and said, ”I think the Cap wants to know why she’s here. Or perhaps how. Word is, he’s offered an…alliance to her?”

    Berendil said nothing of that for he knew very well the nature of the exchange between Hanasian and Freja. He’d been standing just outside the tent at the time.

    “Where’s Mulgov and Khule?” Berendil inquired.

    ”Khule’s still at the inn. I suspect Molguv has joined him.”

    They all would have been at the inn had not the events of last night overtaken them.. Berendil was quiet though. He just sat quietly, straining to hear any word that was said.
     
  13. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    3021, III – September, Black Company Camp

    All it took was for Berendil to return to camp and just like that, her focus was scattered. Hanasian was saying something and from his expression it looked like something important but she didn’t hear a word of it. As soon as she realised what had happened she wrenched her attention back to Hanasian but in the process she met the dark, bitter gaze of a man she considered her friend. Videgavia glared at her, cold enough to make her shiver and it was this that alerted Hanasian to the fact that she was no longer paying attention.

    “Well then, it would seem we have ourselves an accord,” Hanasian repeated as she wrenched her attention to him.

    The enemy of her enemy is her friend. So did Eriwyn hold, ever the pragmatist. What would her Captain have done now? No, wrong question, because Eriwyn would have slit Khule’s treacherous throat. That was what Eriwyn would have done but Freja was not here, so far from home, to hunt Khule of the Sagath Clan. Freja pushed a heavy breath out through her nose. Was she going to throw away her best chance at taking the Elf down because of one Easterling? She was under no allusions. Her singular warpath was likely to lead to her singular death one way or another. Exposure, last winter, as it so happened. That had been a close call.

    Now winter was coming again. She had cleared Eriador on her way north. Rhuadar was next and after that Angmar. A dreadful place to consider on her own even in the best of seasons. Freja did not flinch from peril and she had embarked upon this path holding no assurances that she would prevail. She was ready to die for it, if that was what it took. Better to die on her feet than endure on her knees.

    But what if she did not have to either die or endure? That, right there, was a treacherous thought and she knew it. She met Hanasian’s gaze squarely from across the fire and then he extended his hand above the flames. She stared at it, perplexed.

    ”Grasp my forearm,” he murmured.

    ”Why?”

    “Because that is how things are done in Arnor,” he answered. It was amongst the many things Freja would learn, he thought to himself, if he correctly understood what was unfolding right now between her and his friend.

    Freja followed his instruction and the alliance was formally struck. Seated with Berendil, Hanasian’s cousins clapped, clearly well pleased at the prospect of serving with Freja.

    "Just to be clear, I am not recruited am I?” Freja inquired.

    ”Would you accept an order from me?” he quipped and she shrugged.

    ”All depends on the order,” she answered as she released his arm.


    He nodded, unsurprised, ”We reconvene upon the Inn at dusk. I expect you amongst us. Until then…”

    Hanasian paused, thinking and then pushed to his feet. Freja followed suit.

    ”Until then, do as you judge best, Shieldmaiden,” Hanasian finished.

    Just what did he mean by that, she wondered, but already he had turned away.

    ”And fetch your gear. I know you did not set out from Edoras like that!” he called over his shoulder and rightly so.

    There would have been protests in street had she been sighted in Edoras wearing the loose pantaloons of Rhûn. Though she’d sooner lose her teeth than admit it, the pantaloons were damned comfortable. Practical too. But that did not mean she did not miss her gear. The shield, her spears and her sword… and her cloak. Good, thick, reliable Rohan wool.

    "I want my knives back. All of them!" she returned in kind.

    Hanasian lifted a hand in acknowledgement and then gestured to Videgavia. The Daleman continued to stare at her, his expression robbed of any hint of friendliness. Retrieving her daggers from Videgavia would not be an easy task, she knew, and she was too weary to attempt it now. Perhaps, come the daylight...

    For the first time since setting out, Freja was at a loose end. She had the rest of the night and an entire day to fill...and one Berendil of Cardolan. Again she found herself gazing at him, his earlier words echoing in her thoughts.

    Have you, I wonder, any sense of the enormity of what you ask?” What did that mean? ”Annon 'ûr nîn angin.” Damn it! She understood Elvish no better now than she had mere hours ago! And why had he returned the torc? It was his to with what he wished. Sell it, trade it, toss it into a ravine, bury it. Her vow would stand until her last breath no matter what he did with it. Her hand slid into the pocket she had dropped it into.

    Slowly Berendil rose to his feet, his fair features illuminated by the watchfire he stood beside. Distantly, Freja noted that two of her country men shared the fire. Young, she noted and then inwardly rolled her eyes. No younger, really, than her. Still, they did not have the look of long experience to her eye. Twins, she saw, and both grinned at her, excited for some reason. She wondered what they would think if they saw her return the torc to Berendil. She'd not had the strength to do it herself before in Minas Tirith. She knew she would falter, stray into precisely the very weakness she had blundered into hours earlier. Would it be any different now? Was she any stronger?

    The answer came as Berendil approached her. She was suffused by a welter of thoughts and emotions she could not keep up with. In her present, fatigued state, it took all her remaining strength to not sway under it.

    ”Can you find respite here?" Berendil asked as he drew up, eyes drinking her in. Why did he look at her like that? Did he not know what it did? In any case, she knew she could not.

    She was exhausted but unable to sleep. It was why Hanasian had pulled her back. He didn't want her wandering about his camp. It was also why the Haradian had left. He didn't want to be in camp whilst she was wandering about it. Freja shook her head, unable to tear her eyes away despite herself. She knew she should stop this. It wasn't helping at all.

    ”Come, then. Not far," he told her and with that Berendil was off.

    Freja lingered, undecided. If she followed him would that make things worse? Probably. If she didn’t…also probably. Muttering under her breath, Freja again considered her options and decided that it was important to set the record straight. From one mess, then, into another or so Eriwyn muttered at the back of her mind. She hastened after Berendil, catching him up at the camp’s edge to fall into step beside him. He spared her a brief glance and then directed his attention to the way ahead in the darkness.

    Freja let him keep his silence and followed on until the camp was lost in the night behind them. His pace slowed eventually until he turned about, scanning the trees around them as best she could tell. She did not have his acuity of sight in the night and this was why her people held that Rangers were but the students of Elves. What he was looking for, Freja could not guess, for without the moon she could see little.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2017
  14. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    ”This will do,” Berendil announced, gently took up her hand and led her further, ”Come, sit.”


    “Why?”
    she asked, puzzled.

    ”Please, Freja,” he pushed a breath through his nose, ”Humour me.”

    If there was a woman alive who could resist that voice, she did not know how. Never mind what his hand around hers did to her. Her limbs understood her heart but not her mind and so she sat. Then she promptly began to fidget.

    ”What’s this in aid of, Berendil?”



    “You can’t sleep in camp,”
    he replied and then glanced about, ”This is not camp.”



    “You brought me here to sleep?”


    Berendil’s voice was placid, ”Settle in. I promise you that I will not bite.”

    Her eyes felt like they were filled with gravel, her skull throbbed in counterpoint to her heart beat and if she yawned one more time she thought her jaw would drop off…and Berendil’s shoulder was very appealing. This was a slippery slope, she knew. Dangerous, she told herself that as she drew a little closer. She could feel his heat as if she drew closer to a fire.

    Tension was building as it had before. Ever since their eyes had first met all those years ago. Each time she was saved by intercession. The watching crowds at Dunharrow, the looming shadow of battle and only a few hours before, the military encampment around them. The encampment left behind them now. Here in the woods she had only her will and self-restraint and she knew all too well that she could not rely on either when it came to this man. Her heart jumped each time she tried to set her head on his shoulder.

    Berendil shifted beside her and she froze. He reached an arm around her shoulders and gently guided her head into place against his shoulder and neck. She shifted and then froze again when she realised what she had done. Damn it! How did breathing him in like that help anything? His fingers lingering to stroke her cheek before they withdrew. Her heart echoed in her ears and sleep was going to be nigh on impossible. Then she heard him speak. Nothing she understood, and very soft, almost beyond the ranges of her hearing. The strange words soaked into her, melted and left her limbs feeling pleasantly warm and heavy. The ache of her skull had begun to fade.

    ”A Ranger’s trick,” she observed, her voice thick and drowsy.

    ”Something like that, ni nîn,” he acknowledged and let his cheek rest against the top of her head.

    Oh, but she loved the sound of his voice and now his hands were curving around her own, drawing them together, as he continued whatever it was he was saying. Her restlessness continued to ebb away until she was curled against him, wandering realms of sleep scarcely understanding how she came to be there.

    At first there were no dreams for she was far too tired for them. She’d scarcely slept properly since setting out from Edoras. In part that was her own doing but more than once she’d had to sacrifice rest for remaining ahead of those attempting to intercept her. In time, though, heavy sleep gave way to dreams and they were as ever they were. Mild at first, benign, and then not. Freja woke, trembling violently in the dawn. She surged forwards to her hands and knees, gasping for air. To make matters worse, the subject of the dreadful dreams was on his knees beside her, trying to comfort her. Dawn had brought with it a cool, damp fog.

    ”A dream, that’s all it was,” Berendil said, rubbing her back.

    ”Stop, Berendil. This, us, it can’t be. The harm it will cause,” she warned and at that he drew back in the uncertain light.

    ”The Rohirrim are not known for their seers,” he challenged.

    Freja sat over her heels, pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, ”Others possess gifts I do not.”

    Berendil was stunned momentarily by a dawning realisation, ”You trust to Naiore Dannan?”

    The horror in his voice was something Freja found unbearable.

    ”She lies,” she spat, loathing for the Elf clear, ”And yet I knew of Eriwyn’s fate well before Vid gave me the tidings. The fall of Théoden King, Éowyn, the decimation of my Order in Dale and upon the Pelennor. All of it, every abominable detail, given to me first by that Elf!”

    Berendil was either lost for words or unwilling to speak. He stared at her, expression unreadable in the mists, and Freja lifted her face to the veiled sky. Her will had been sharpened by that dream but that, in no way, made this any the less agonising.

    ”And the things she has shown me,” she pressed her fingers to her mouth as sudden scenes spilled into her mind, each terror enough to make her voice shiver with dread, ”She has lied about your fate since you took the Dimholt Road, or so I thought. I thought you safe all these years. Until last night.”

    Freja’s head hung again and she stared at the ground, scarcely seeing, ”She leavens her deceits with truth. The things she can do, Berendil… How am I to know what is true and what is not?”

    Her hands tightened into fists as she steeled herself against the anguish swelling hungrily within her, ”I will not be your undoing.”

    Freja pushed to her feet, wretched and Berendil followed to catch her wrist in his hand, ”The Elf seeks to divide us. She has even from the outset. Why do you think that is? Do not now give her what she wants!”

    Deep pain twisted in her belly as she turned back to him and he moved closer still, eyes locked on her own in the morning light, delicate as her heart, ”I have met no terrible end, Freja. Do not give in to her lies now, ni nîn.”

    He studied her face for a moment and then lifted the back of his hand to her cheek. Mist clung to him like a jealous lover. Her eyes closed at the tenderness and hot tears slipped free such was the torment. Her eyes opened as he drew her closer.

    ”You are wise to mistrust the Elf…but will you not trust yourself? Will you not trust me?” he gently placed his hand over her thundering heart, ”Will you not trust to this? I sense your yearning, Freja. ”

    Her mouth went dry at that. If he sensed that, she was already undone. Slowly, he brought his lips to hers as he had before and she shivered at the sensations that shot through her. But this time he did not pull back. Instead, he kissed her with a passion that undid her entirely. His fingers plunged into her hair. Colour washed across her mind and instead of pulling away she wound herself around him.

    Thoughts swirled like leaves scattered on the wind. Through her pulsed that which she had first known at Dunharrow, unchanged and undiminished and roaring for answer as loudly now as it had then. It had woken her, aching and cold through the long dark watches of the night. It had gathered her tears when the longing and sorrow became too much to bear in steadfast silence and now it grew until it howled and clamoured. Hunger, for him, for this, and it would not now be denied.

    She was fire, as Lady Verawyn had foretold, winding around him with urgent need. Unable to deny it or keep it banked, she surrendered to it and allowed it to rage through her blood. Berendil knew that this to be a declaration of its own. Unmistakable.
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2017
  15. Elora

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    3021, III – September, Black Company Camp


    The dawn shimmered in the mist. It turned the air silver as it swirled around them. Ever since Dunharrow had Berendil yearned for this moment. As it unfurled there in the dawn beneath the trees it was so much more than anything he could have dared imagine. He felt their hearts and their minds connect and it was wondrous to him. But it was also overwhelming.

    Their lips met and he melted into her, unable to pull himself back. Freja slammed him against a tree and they fell to the ground entwined. Before he knew it was too much it was and when his senses cleared he could not believe what he was about to say.

    Sensing his pause, Freja pulled back to peer at him with concern, ”What is it?”

    Blood rushed to his face and he leaned back against the tree to catch his breath, ”I think I…”

    He wasn’t sure how to say it. For so long he had dreamed this very moment with Freja. Berendil pushed a sigh out through his nose.

    ”I think… uh…I need to catch my breath,” he amended.

    Freja weighed him up, as if she could not believe what she was hearing, and then she tipped her head back to laugh in a throaty, fulsome fashion that did nothing to calm his senses or aid his cause. Still, it was a joy to see her smile and laugh, even if it did seem to be at his expense.

    ”Perhaps this says how much I have thought of you since I saw you last at Minas Tirith. That time was hard to bear. I did not understand why. If I am truthful, I still do not.”

    Freja’s levity vanished like smoke on the wind at his statement and he closed his eyes, aware that she was studying him intently.

    He was so vulnerable right now that it brought tears to her eyes. That he would trust her so, in this moment, after all that had passed. This man had astonished her, and at times baffled and infuriated her, from the outset. Freja reached a hand out to run her fingers along the inky bristles that lined his jaw.

    Berendil’s eyes opened at that, turned quicksilver in the uncertain light of dawn, and he considered her as she let her fingers trace the line of his jaw, then his throat and along the spread of his shoulders. Such power was there beneath her fingers. These Rangers, they were not common folk like her. Dunédain. Students of the Elves. They saw in the dark and could sense things that she, no matter how she tried, could not equal. What did he see in her, she wondered, especially after what had passed between them.

    ”I…wanted you…safe,” Freja said in a quiet voice as her fingers wandered lower over his chest, ”I wanted you spared from the Elf’s malice. I have wanted you spared from the outset, even when you interjected into Vorda’s training.”

    Berendil’s hand rose to cover her own as he recalled, ”You spared my pretty face.”

    Freja grimaced, her words echoing in her mind. She’d been so furious then. And, if she was honest, something else too. As had her spear sisters around her. Yes, they were all vastly displeased at the disruption. They were also not blind to the fact that Berendil was a vastly attractive disruption.

    ”I was…unkind,” she said, lifting her eyes to his solemnly and he nodded.

    ”And magnificent. Beautiful.”

    Freja flushed at that, for she knew that beauty was not one of her attributes. Such things belonged to others.

    ”I am no Elf maid,” she demurred.

    “No, you are not,” Berendil smiled gratefully, ”And given you left me painted in bruises, you have a very curious notion of what safe means.”

    Freja lifted a shoulder, ”People were watching. I couldn’t just let that…slide.”

    She sighed and slowly lifted her hand away to peer at Berendil, ”I don’t understand how it is that you still…after all I said…and did…”

    He pushed out a deep sigh, settled his hands to her hips as if to assure himself she was there still, and closed his eyes.

    ”Only two did Cardolan send to the Grey Company. I dare say you were hip deep in battle in the East Fold at the time,” he paused, opened his eyes to see her nod, and then settled back again, ”We set out before dawn, Mecarnil and I. I recall it well for I could scarcely believe I was to go. I had thought the Prince would refuse the call for aid…”

    Berendil fell silent, his thoughts briefly wandering before he collected them again, ”But there I was, checking through everything I had with me, waiting to take my leave of my liege lord.”

    “This Prince?”


    Berendil smiled dryly, ”I do not serve Prince Bereth directly.”

    To Freja he sounded relieved but she was not given the opportunity to press further for he pushed on, ”As I waited to take my leave, Lady Verawyn, the daughter of my liege lord, sought me out. I had heard talk that she was gifted with foresight but until then, I did not know whether it was so.”

    “Dwimmerlaik,”
    Freja breathed, eyes wide.

    Berendil’s brow furrowed at the unfamiliar term, ”I am not sure. In any case, the Lady spoke of fire. She both warned me against it and commended me to it. And, until such time as I set eyes upon you, ni nîn, I had no idea what she meant.”

    Freja jaw dropped just a little and then she flushed, ”This? She saw…this?”

    Sudden laughter burst out of Berendil at the question, ”Oh, I hope not. But even so, she saw…us. And it is to that, and my heart that I trust, Freja.”

    Freja leaned forward, her heavy braid sliding over her shoulder as she did so, to kiss Berendil with no small degree of passion. But even so, she could not forget who she was and who he was. He felt her thoughts shift.

    ”What?” he asked.

    ”I…do not speak Elvish…and I am not of the Dunédain…”

    “It matters not,”
    he answered urgently, ”Not to me.”

    “But you do not know,”
    she said pulling away.

    The sudden dismay on his face was palpable and she lowered her eyes, ”And it is time.”

    “For what?”
    Berendil asked as she shifted back.
     
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2017
  16. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Freja’s hands lifted to the worn dun cloak she had replaced her proper cloak with and set it free. Berendil frowned at her as she pulled herself away, hands delving to grasp the hem of her tunic even as she turned her back. She pulled it up, revealing the expanse of her back to him for the first time and all that was writ upon it. From the base of her spine to the spread of her shoulders, her life as a Shieldmaiden was set out.

    Right at the bottom of it all was the mark that represented her…a Daughter of the Mark in spirit, but not by blood, for such were the inescapable circumstances of her birth. Eriwyn had held that there could be no escape from such truths but nor did it serve to allow it to become a weapon. And she had made it part of her. Only by embracing the truth could you be freed from it. Such had been Eriwyn’s counsel, stern and unflinching. She clutched her tunic to her chest and behind her Berendil sucked in a shocked breath. Did he see it, she wondered? Did he understand what she was.

    ”It’s…this…it’s…”

    Her eyes closed at his struggle to find words and she found them for him, ”I daresay it is crude to Dunédain eyes.”

    And just like that she felt his fingers touch one of the swirls that looped below her shoulder blades, ”The Pelennor. You are in that one. Vorda made sure of that.”

    His touch trailed down, following the designs etched into her skin, ”How is it done?”

    “With a particular ink and something very sharp, so that it is sealed into the skin.”

    “Is it the same for all Shieldmaidens?”
    he asked, voice low and breathless.

    ”Yes, though each is different,” she added and braced herself for what he would ask when he saw it. He had to. Surely he had to.

    “Does it hurt?”

    Freja smiled for every Spear Sister wondered the same thing when their first moment came. Always in the victorious tumult of finally gaining all eight braids, giddy, exhausted, filled with purpose and usually no small degree of wonder at having finally done it. At least, that was how it was for her.

    ”At times,” she replied, echoing the very answer Eriwyn had given her all those years ago.

    Her heartbeat was in her ears and she heard movement behind her before Berendil pressed himself against her back. She drew in a sharp breath at what she felt pressed against her and knew it echoed within her and yet she swallowed as his arms curved around her. His hands delved into the soft folds of the tunic she clutched.

    ”I am not Dunédain. I am-“

    “The woman that has claimed my heart,”
    Berendil murmured into to her neck, grazing with his teeth.

    Freja gasped, ”If you bind yourself to me you will never be free of the El-“

    Her capacity for speech faltered, undone by the man who held her to him. She could sooner pull the rising sun from the sky than articulately explain the delicate matter of her scandalous birth now. He chuckled, well pleased at the soft moan he won from her.

    ”I say again, woman, that come what may we face it together,” Berendil’s voice was warm in her ear, ”One of these days, I hope you will take me at my word.”

    ”That might be easier if you used Westron,”
    she answered as he ran his hands down her flank, tracing in to her waist and then flaring out to her hips, ”Though, it would seem we understand each other well enough now.”

    “Is that so?”
    he asked, hands at her hips now.

    Freja closed her eyes and leaned into him, ”You know that I have bound myself to you and, given you have done the same, I know that you are a madman. Who speaks Elvish.”

    She felt quiet laughter shiver through him but did not hear it for his face was buried in her hair. Despite the lunacy of this, Freja found herself smiling up at the leaves overhead, though in truth she did not really see them given what Berendil was up to.

    Much later Berendil found himself stretched out beside Freja. He brought his lips to her shoulder she or perhaps he had bared earlier. Such had been their urgency that it was hard to know who had done what now. She was languorous now, relaxed and sated, eyes closed and a velvet smile upon her lips. Knowing. Victorious, even. He too was loathe to stir.

    ”I have dreamed of this moment for so long.” he said softly, breathing in the scent of her skin, ”Ni nîn, annon 'ûr nîn angina. “

    Freja’s lashes shifted and she revealed her eyes to him again. They were a piercing blue, perfectly deep pools a man could drown in if he were so minded.

    ”I am no more able to speak Elvish now than-“ he pressed a finger to her lips and saw her brows arch.

    ”It means: My love, I give you my heart. And you will have it forever more.
     
  17. Elora

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    Freja, Berendil had learned, was adept in keeping her thoughts to herself. Her emotions, though, played out all too clearly in her expression. He saw her heart take joyous flight at his words. He shifted closer to her by rolling to his side and fitting himself to her. Berendil ran his fingers along the curve of her cheek, from the high flare of her cheekbones to her strong jaw. Hers was not a fragile, ephemeral beauty of starlight and silvered glass. Rather, Freja’s beauty was that of the earth and fire, generous and strong and glorious.

    Before she could argue further he kissed her thoroughly. That, by far, was the best way to manage this woman or so he had found. When he pulled away again, he saw that it had worked and so they nestled together beneath the trees, soaked each other in as they slowly drifted back towards sleep.

    His thoughts skipped about like a stone across the water. First to the scent of her at Dunharrow in the darkness. She smelt of heather then and now and he wondered how that could be. Next to the way she had tasted when finally he had kissed her: smoked honey. That made him smile. Last of all to the way in which she had unfurled before his very eyes, setting aside her many formidable defenses. He had always thought her magnificent. Now he knew she was also glorious. A fierce upswell of love hit him so hard that it thickened his throat. They had lost so much time. No more. No more.

    By some marvel no one wondered across them during the day. No one came looking or calling for them. They were in their own little bubble, though at the back of his mind Berendil knew that he probably had Hanasian to thank for this respite. Inevitably, though the day wound on. By late afternoon they had managed to retrieve Freja’s gear from a series of undeniably cunning caches before returning to camp. She had given him the shield to carry, and he had done so gladly but he had no idea that it meant something significant until two of the three Company Rohirrim stood, gaping at him in open surprise.

    “Why are they staring,” Berendil asked out the corner of his mouth.

    ”It’s…” Freja paused as she searched for a way to explain it, ”A declaration.”

    Berendil hefted the shield, ”Of what?”

    “That a Shieldmaiden has set her spears aside…and for whom.”


    Frea and Folca stared at Berendil as though they had never seen him before. The Dalemen were muttering to each other quietly, save for Videgavia who maintained a stony stillness. Hanasian, meanwhile, had his thumbs through his belt and was rocking backwards and forwards on his feet, grinning openly. Berendil shook himself and realized that Freja had continued on, taking all of this in her stride. She was even now lowering the spears she had brought with her, a startling collection, to the ground near his tent.

    He hurried to join her, set her shield down against the log and watched her rifle through his pack.

    ”What are-“

    “Found it,”
    she declared, stood and turned to him.

    She reached for his hand and into it dropped her torc once again, her eyes searing in their intensity, ”With this, Berendil of Cardolan, I bind myself to you. My sword and spear, my shield and horse…my heart and mind. That is how it goes, I think, in Westron.”

    There was such poignant power in her voice that he acted before he realized what he was doing. Berendil pulled her to him hard and claimed her lips with the heat that they had welcomed the day with. Then he remembered where they were and so, aching anew, he released her careful to keep a hold on the torc she had returned to him.

    He pressed his brow to hers to allow his roaring pulse to abate. If she had spoken those words to him at Minas Tirith…no, done was done and she was here now, before him. He would not waste the time they had with regrets over the past. Eyes closed still, Berendil lifted the palm of his hand to fit it against her cheek and as before felt her press into his touch. She no longer sought not to hide or fight it now.

    When he opened his eyes he found she was watching him. They said nothing for several heartbeats and then she pulled back, gathering herself. Dusk was not far off. Berendil pushed out a sigh and ordered his own unruly thoughts as he tucked the torc safely into his jerkin.

    ”I suppose I should see what the plan is for tonight,” he said, raking his hand through the lengths of his hair.

    That said, he badly wanted to kiss her again. Freja had seated herself on the log and was busy correcting her braid. It had become unraveled as a result of the day’s activities. Sunset made her hair glow, as though she was gilded in it. Luthien was said to be of the dawn. Arwen the evening. This mortal woman, a Shieldmaiden of Rohan, was of the sunset. He shook himself from his thoughts, pushed out a sigh, and went in search of Hanasian before he succumbed to the urge to abandon his duties there and then.
     
  18. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    3021, III – October, Black Company Camp


    Freja adjusted slightly where she sat with, or rather leaned against, Berendil. Then she shivered for she could feel winter even if Berendil teased her that it was still far off. Tonight they were both retired from the watch on the Forsaken Inn. Another contingent was cycling through. She was reasonably sure they’d find it as fruitless as any of them had during her time amongst the Company. As her, though all things considered she’d found the Inn to be quite productive…she smiled at the thought and considered sidelong the man she was lounging against. No matter how many times she looked to him, which even she could admit was frequently, he still made her heart skip a beat.

    ”Isn’t that Hanasian’s map,” he observed and then, when she went still, ”Does he know you have it?”

    “Yes,”
    she said, smiling widely.

    By now Berendil was not in the least fooled. He lifted his eyes at her but remained where he was, content to study the map. He had the end of her braid rolling idly in his fingers.

    ”Now, what about here? There’s no detail there whatsoever,” she said, refocussing once more on the task at hand.

    ”You must have heard of Angmar. There is a reason the map is sparse there.”

    “Yes, but you Rangers have probably been there. Just to nose about. So…”


    Berendil pushed out a deep sigh and she knew that meant he was thinking. Brief though their time together was, she had come to know a great deal about him. As she had sensed from the outset, she had tumbled headlong into what was a new place. Wondrous to her and also, sometimes, terrifying. She had loved before, in many ways, but never like this. But, then, he was unlike any she had ever encountered. Deeply intelligent, compassionate, kind and gentle of nature, Berendil was a thinker. Still waters ran deep, she had heard it said. The man she loved was proof of that. However, whilst Freja knew that she was in and in deep, she had yet to resolve what that meant for the way ahead.

    They’d been so focussed on the here and now, discovering each other as they juggled their commitments for or with the Black Company, that there had simply not been the chance to discuss the path ahead. The braid Berendil was playing with was a very clear direction, but it was not the only one. Not now…and she had no idea how to broach the subject or even if she should. Perhaps it was too soon.

    As these thoughts rolled about her mind she looked up at the approach of another. As soon as she saw who it was she eased herself up to sit, crossed legged. Videgavia looked straight through her, as though she was not there. He’d met her with that cold, detached indifference from the outset and Freja was beyond the point of being concerned about it. Now, she was just plain angry. But for the need for camp discipline, she’d have confronted the Daleman over whatever it was.

    Berendil too moved, no longer content and relaxed. In the brief moment between Freja’s study of the map, Berendil had seen the Daleman’s haunted expression upon arrival. By the time Freja looked up to see Videgavia, his face had resumed its habitual sullen lines. His black eyes were coldly glittering and calculating once more.

    ”Captain’s tent,” the Daleman growled to Berendil, turned on his heel and stalked off towards Hanasian’s tent.
     
  19. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    Berendil studied the man’s back, the stirrings of sympathy in his heart. He looked down to Freja to find her head was still bowed over Hanasian’s map, studiously ignoring everyone and everything. With a shake of his head, Berendil followed in Videgavia’s wake. As ever the two twin Rohirrim courteously greeted him as he passed. They’d been doing this since the day he’d arrived in camp bearing Freja’s shield and whilst he nodded, Videgavia ahead muttered darkly under his breath and walked faster to push into Hanasian’s tent ahead of him.

    Still, it was only a few moments before Berendil arrived to find Hanasian rifling through his collection of maps, looking for something. Berendil rubbed a hand over his jaw and wondered just how it was Freja had managed to take one of his friend’s more detailed maps…and how Hanasian would react.

    ”As it so happens, I don’t really need it now,” Hanasian murmured as he rose to his feet and nodded at Berendil, ”I’ve just received my seventh consecutive report that nothing has been sighted at the Inn.”

    Berendil frowned, ”Freja was drawn here by the same information we were. There has to be something more to it.”

    “Freja thought Khule was the agent,”
    Videgavia muttered, ”And we thought she was. We could be here another month, empty handed.”

    ”And Bareck informs me Khule is in need of care we cannot provide,”
    Hanasian paused and then sighed, ”It’s time to pull out and take stock.”

    “Bree?”
    Videgavia asked as Berendil shook his head.

    ”Freja is planning a fresh campaign,” he glanced apologetically to Hanasian, ”Full of questions on what might be found beyond the north eastern reaches of Rhuadar.”

    “You can plan a campaign without-“
    Hanasian paused and his eyes narrowed, ”I don’t know how she got it but I want that map back. It’s my best one.”

    Berendil nodded without hesitation and so Hanasian rubbed at his jaw, “Angmar, as winter encroaches?”

    Vid barked mirthless laughter.

    ”Of course Angmar. And if her mind is set, then that’s that” he declared and then shrugged, ”But that doesn’t mean we need to follow along. Let her go.”

    “We cannot have her venturing to Angmar on her own,”
    Berendil returned, astonished at how stonehearted Videgavia was.

    ”We cannot have her venturing anywhere at all,” Hanasian added with a sigh, ”I crossed paths with Massuil today. He’s been looking to intercept Freja for the better part of the year, and the fact that he hasn’t been able to suggests that she is well aware of that. This war path of hers is unsanctioned by her King and our own. Unless she acts as part of this Company, Massuil will forcibly return her to Edoras for breaching Arnor’s peace.”

    “Die trying, more like,”
    Videgavia muttered.

    Berendil was too astonished to find words but Videgavia was not for he continued on to warn, ”That woman will ask for forgiveness before she does permission.”

    It was an extraordinary charge to make and the urge to speak out pressed hard at Berendil. He glared at Videgavia for a moment and then looked to Hanasian. It then he realised that his friend was not in the least swayed.

    ”I’ve yet to consider the matter fully,” Hanasian said, quashing all further debate on the subject.

    ”Your funeral,” Videgavia muttered and eyed his captain, ”When do we move out?”

    “We break camp tomorrow,”
    Hanasian replied, his attention on Berendil for the man had gone quiet, deep in thought.

    ”Done then,” Videgavia declared and left them to it.
     
  20. Elora

    Elora Dreamweaver

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    After a pause Berendil asked a quiet question, ”Do you truly mean to recruit her?”

    Hanasian rolled his shoulders before he responded, ”Freja has an unrivalled set of very particular set of skills that will serve the Company well. She would be an asset, despite Vid’s…concerns.”

    Berendil nodded thoughtfully and then lifted his eyes to Hanasian, ”Then I ask something of you, one friend to another: wait…at least until Bree?”

    The two men considered each other and then Hanasian nodded, ”Naturally. But, if Freja pursues this warpath of hers, then I will act. I’d sooner see her one of us than under arrest.”

    “Agreed,”
    Berendil smiled gratefully, ”Thank you, Han."

    He turned to depart the tent and Hanasian called after him, ”Good luck.”

    “Why would I need that,”
    he returned, pausing at the tent’s only entrance.

    Hanasian offered him a rakish grin, ”Because you’re going to tell her that her Angmar is not happening. And I really do want my map back.”

    Berendil groaned but Hanasian was adamant, ”I can think of no one better qualified for the task.”

    Whatever Berendil said, it worked for come the morning Freja zipped about with a singular determination to ensure camp was broken down in a timely fashion and time, it seemed, moved faster for Shieldmaidens than anyone else. When she wasn’t chivvying men along, she was saddling horses. Through it all she hummed to herself as though this was all just a jolly summer lark.

    ”You, sir, are a magician,” Hanasian quietly observed out of the corner of his mouth as Freja swung another saddle into place set about securing it with brusque efficiency.

    Berendil shrugged his shoulders, ”I’ve been paying attention this past week.”

    He passed across to Hanasian a rolled map, ”She has quite the collection. And if the Prancing Pony doesn’t have a cask of honeyed ale, I am a dead man.”

    Hanasian carefully tucked his map into his jerkin with a chuckle and then reached across to pat Berendil’s back.

    ”Knew you were the man for the job,” he mused and then turned about to ensure the rest of the Company was matching the Shieldmaiden’s pace.

    Within an hour of dawn they were on their way to Bree.
     

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