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Legacy Prequel - The Ranger & The Shieldmaiden

Elora

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3019, III – March 7, Harrowdale

The menhirs marched into the very mountains themselves, marking out the dread Dimholt Road that the Rohirrim so feared. And rightly so, for a darkness dwelt in the heart of Dunharrow that was palpable to man and beast. Still, that was to be their road. No matter how dark, none of their number would forsake him now. Hanasian, Mecarnil and Berendil gathered around one of the stones and peered down the cursed road.

The plain below the plateau bristled with spears and tents and horses but it would not be enough. Not against the combined might Mordor would spew out to lay waste to the White City. Brave these Eorlingas were. Fierce of spirit, steady of eye and hand. No one spoke of the reality they faced. A long ride, a final charge and then oblivion. Assuming Sauron permitted them to reach Minas Tirith.

Berendil pushed out a heartfelt sigh, ”Loathe as I am to say it, I can see no other course.”

Mecarnil grunted agreement at that and the trio stood in silent reflection of the fact that come the dawn, this would be their path.

”Come,” Hanasian said after a long moment, ”I saw Shieldmaidens as we rode in.”

The clear anticipation in Hanasian’s voice prompted Berendil to inquire, ”Why is that of significance?”

Hanasian swept overlong dark hair from his face and answered as if it were obvious, ”Shieldmaidens!”

Berendil, the only one who could claim a strong friendship with both Hanasian and Mecarnil both, shrugged. Mecarnil scratched at his jaw indifferently.

Hanasian shook his head at them, ”You don’t want to miss this.”

Mecarnil shifted his weight, the eldest of the trio by a good margin, and gestured at the Dimholt Road, ”We don’t have time to gawk.”

His response was not unexpected as far as Hanasian was concerned. Mecarnil was a steady, solid Ranger of average height and stature. Damnably good with a weapon, and single minded. A stickler for duty. Berendil, though, had only a few years on Hanasian. He looked upon the world as a new and interesting place still. With his curious nature, Hanasian was certain Berendil “the Fair” would want to see what Hanasian knew to be unfolding on the plain below right now.

Remarkably, though, the tall Ranger shook his head at Hanasian, ”Mecarnil’s right, Han. The more prepared we are for this, the bet-“

Hanasian waved them both aside and turned away for the plain below. If they wanted to miss this, fine by him. He moved through the tents at some speed, dodging ropes and tent pegs with an ease born of youth and skill, and soon reached the switchback trail to the lower encampment. As another fell into step beside him, Hanasian shot a collegial grin at Berendil.

”How did you even notice them?” Berendil asked as they made their way down the trail.

”Their armour is different,” Hanasian explained and gestured to his abdomen, ”Reticulated, for better agility. I make it my business to take note such details.”

”Odd,”
Berendil remarked, ”Why would they be in full kit now?”

Hanasian’s grin returned, ”That’s why I want to get down there.”

He accelerated into a jog and Berendil found himself following suit if only to pick through his friend’s newly discovered cache of information, ”What are they like?”

Speaking quietly in Sindarin, the pair had little concern that any of the Rohirrim about would comprehend.

”Insular,” Hanasian replied as they gained the lower plain. As he had suspected, he could hear the testing underway even now.

He made his way towards the press, as he explained further, ”Established by Eorl the Young, I think, to serve as the King’s shield. They’ve been gone from Meduseld for years now, banished to the East Fold by Wormtongue. I am not sure what function they serve now.”

Berendil nodded as he took in those around them, ”I think we can safely conclude it’s not a decorative one..”

Hanasian’s brows quirked at that but he said nothing further until they found a way to the inner edge to view what was unfolding. There were several sets of Shieldmaidens, all in full kit, battling each other with various weapons.

”What is this for?” Berendil asked, having to raise his voice to be heard over the din around them. The crowd was shouting and cheering, the noise as thick as the people around.

”Rank,” Hanasian shouted back.

A sharp whistle cut through the field and the combat ceased. Most were pairs but in two instances, one Shieldmaiden had faced as many as three opponents all at once. The women on the field pulled their helms free and braids came tumbling out. All different kinds and lengths and colours ranging from a warm brown to a fair gold in the firelight.

”Two braids denote novices. Three to five are initiates. Six and seven are Maidens. Eight are masters,” Hanasian explained, pointing out various women now retiring from the field.

”And the torcs? What do they mean?” Berendil inquired and nodded to a woman that stood with her back to them across the field.
 
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Elora

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Hanasian’s eyes widened as he took in the eight torcs woven into her braids. Her hair was entirely braided. One thick braid fell to her waist from the centre of her head. Smaller braids swung, flanking it, from either side of her head. The colour of her hair, a rich red like that of a deep wine, glowed under the torchlight as she tipped her head back to laugh. She turned, her helm held under one arm by her hip, to call something out to one of the women returning from the field. A brief exchange ensued and the women met to embrace briefly, the woman with the torcs clearly proud of the woman she embraced.

He glanced sideways to where Berendil stood and saw the man was transfixed, unable to tear his eyes away.

”That is Freja Fireborn, second in command of the Shieldmaidens of Rohan. Youngest to attain full mastery and gain all eight torcs.”

“You know her?”
Berendil asked, still watching the tall woman across the field.

Hanasian shook his head, ”I know of her, as do the Rohirrim. The Shieldmaidens hold an unusual position in Rohan. The people follow their doings closely, or they did whilst they were in Meduseld. As for Freja, she grew up as fosterling in Meduseld.”

”Hence her rapid ascension,”
Berendil speculated but Hanasian shook his head.

”She is uncommonly gifted in war craft and she has worked hard. Make no mistake, he countered, ”Rohan has not seen her like in many a generation.”

Berendil broke off his scrutiny of the Shieldmaiden to consider Hanasian a moment, ”You seem… almost enamoured.”

Hanasian sighed at that, ”A woman who can steal a tribute of horses from under Mordor’s nose? That’s impressive!”

Berendil’s brows shot up at that, ”Dangerous, you mean. Horse theft in Rohan?”

“That woman does not shy away from anything, Berendil. But be warned. Shieldmaidens are wedded to their spears. They do not abandon them lightly.”


Berendil nodded thoughtfully and another tranche of Shieldmaidens took to the field.
 

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”Again, Vorda,” Freja called and watched the initiate struggle to stop herself from groaning as she started for the field a second time.

Vorda had five braids now in her sandy hair. Rightfully, though, she could probably claim a sixth. Freja had only fifty or so masters amid the one hundred and thirty spears she had brought with her, but the remaining novices and initiates had experience and skills far beyond their official ranks. Such had been their service along the Eastern fences, beset by Rhûn and Orthânc alike. So hard pressed that there was not enough time to test for advancement, much less recruit and train. But that would not continue. Could not continue.

No, her sisters would ride to battle with their full due, their full honour and rank. And if they should fall, they will great their sisters in the halls of the dead with their heads held proudly aloft. She owed them that, at least. All of this flickering through Freja’s weary mind prompted her sip at the ale Éowyn had found. It was nothing remarkable, aside from the fact it wasn’t wine. Wine was for pouring on wounds…or pickling things, if that is what you liked. Freja didn’t.

”The spear this time,” Freja added and saw the Vorda’s weariness punctuated by a grin.

Yes, Vorda loved her spears just as Freja did. A bright future lay ahead for her provided Freja could bring them through what waited for them in Gondor. Freja continued to watch Vorda spar with one of her sisters for a moment before she turned back to Éowyn.

”I have missed this,” Éowyn sighed wistfully and transferred her attention to Freja, ”And you. Especially you.”

Freja nodded at her words and rolled her shoulders beneath the weight of her chain and armour. She had almost forgotten what it was like to be without them now.

”Come back to us, then,” Freja said, ”We’d have you in a heartbeat. You might have to start at five braids or six but I know you, Éowyn. You’d soon have that sunshine of yours bound up entirely.”

“I can’t,”
Éowyn replied, surprising Freja.

”After the War you could. Théoden has recovered his strength now that Wormtongue is put out,” Freja turned to spit as if his name fouled her mouth and drank a mouthful of ale down, ”You are free to decide your own fate once more.”

Éowyn shook her head at this but her expression was not one of regret. Rather, a strange smile set her entire face alight. Her eyes, a beautiful blue far more restrained than Freja’s, practically glowed. The Shieldmaiden frowned slightly at her.

”I know how you chafe at being kept back, Éowyn. I was the one you trusted with your heart’s desires and whispered words. And now you have a chance, a real chance, at it! What has gotten into you? Who are you? Where is the Éo that I love so well?”

Éowyn’s smile blossomed as Freja used the childhood name and she leant forward to whisper in Freja’s ear, ”I am remade!”

Freja did not miss the note of exhilaration in Éowyn’s voice but she caught something out of the corner of her eye that drew her attention back to Vorda. Freja growled quietly as she took in that Vorda no longer faced one of her sisters but rather a man. No Rohirrim would dare to intrude like this and indeed none had, though more than a few watched on in patent fascination. Even the other Shieldmaidens stared in open disbelief. Vorda was flummoxed and she looked back to Freja. At that moment, the man swiftly disarmed her.

Incensed, Freja threw down her ale and started forward as a dismayed gasp rippled through the onlookers. She was shocked anew when Éowyn caught her arm to restrain her. Freja came to a halt, anger radiating from her tall, lean frame.

”Vorda, hold your position,” she ordered and then threw her bristling attention to where Éowyn all but hung off her left arm, ”What in seven hells does he think he is doing?!”

Before Éowyn could reply, and it would take quite an explanation indeed, another man ventured onto the field. There were two of them now! He did not have the same a height as the man facing Vorda and his hair was not raven black, but he shared his grey eyes. These were not Rohirrim. That much was evident.

”My apologies,” he said in a rush, his manner respectful, ”Berendil is unfamiliar with your customs. He means no offense.”

Freja’s eyes narrowed but before she could demand him his name or an explanation of just why this particular stranger presumed to know a Shieldmaiden's customs, the one named Berendil spoke up.

”If you are to fight men, you must test your measure against them,” he said.

Frega growled at the towering arrogance of the statement. Who was he to gainsay the practices of the Shieldmaidens tried and tested over generations?

Her response was enough to prompt Éowyn to warn her, ”These Rangers are our allies.”

”Desperate times indeed, then,”
Freja threw back but relaxed her stance so that Éowyn released her.

She hooked her thumbs through her sword belt and considered Berendil for a long moment. Her eyes raked over him, face to boots and back to his face again. He had the sort of pleasant features that appealed to women. Clear eyes, even and strong features and so very tall. Of course she noticed all of that. She was not blind, but right now her attention was on other details. At his height, he had a reach which would make his long sword longer again.


”Vorda,” Freja called and beckoned her over, ”You – Berendil – stay precisely where you are.”
 

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The man that had spoken on his behalf groaned as Vorda came hurrying over. Freja drew her away, followed by Éowyn.

Freja murmured, ”Think of his sword and arm as one long weapon and do what you can with your spear.”

She glanced up to see that while Berendil had not moved, his friend either. They stood together, studying her. Freja offered them a ferocious grin that grew when Berendil’s face started to reveal the first traces of consternation.

She turned back to Vorda, ”No blood, mind, unless he draws first.”

At that Vorda’s eyes lit up, ”And if he does?”

“Turn him over to me.”


Vorda nodded gleefully, reinvigorated. Nothing like the prospect of a proper fight to get a Shieldmaid’s blood flowing. Freja shooed the initiate away and followed in her tracks as Vorda sped back to position. The two men seemed to be discussing something of great import as Vorda arrived.

Freja, rocked back on her heels and addressed them loudly, ”I’m more than happy to dispense with a duel and move straight to the melee proper if that is your desire.”

At that the crowd of Rohirrim watching on cheered with outright anticipation.

”Frega!” Éowyn called with no small amount of chagrin that was matched when Berendil’s companion hissed at him, ”See?!”

Berendil acknowledged him with a nod, ”Hanasian has pointed out my error. I seek your pardon and will retire, with your permission.”

Freja’s brows shot up at that and she crossed her arms against her cuirass, ”None of my business if this is all it takes to send Rangers scurrying from the field, tails between their legs.”

At that laughter rippled through the crowd. Berendil threw his arms up and glared at Hanasian who threw back a glare of his own, ”I told you that would happen.”

“Coming down here was your idea.”

“Pity you didn’t attend me as closely on the other details,”
Hanasian rejoined and then turned to Freja, ”Just to first blood?”

Freja inclined a brow but nodded all the same, ”So precious few of you rode in tonight , so I suppose we’ll just have to keep it to first blood.”

Hanasian’s jaw clenched at her words, and of course Freja had no idea at how callous they might sound for she had as much understanding of Arnor as Berendil had of Rohan. Using their genocide as a taunt was unforgiveable but Freja may not even know it was genocide in the first place. When he looked to Berendil, though, he found the man was still as a statue and seething. No stopping this now, then. He nodded to Berendil and then strode away to clear the field. The other Shieldmaidens followed suit until only Berendil and Vorda remained. As soon as Hanasian was out of the way, Vorda began moving. She wove about as Berendil swiftly drew his long sword, mouth pressed into a thin line of displeasure.

”Freja, it was a simple accident,” Éowyn chastised as the bout began, ”No dishonour was intended.”

”And yet it was done all the same,”
Freja retorted, ”That Ranger disrupted an initiate's testing on the eve of battle. Despite, it would seem, the advice of his companion. There is nothing accidental about it.”

Freja broke off to catch sight of Hanasian again. How, she wondered, could he know enough to caution Berendil.

”Still, this only makes it worse than it needs must be. Vorda can be retested tomorrow. There’s time yet. And these Rangers are our allies. You risk imperilling that,” Éowyn returned and Freja gave off her search.

”I risk nothing of the sort. It’s just to first blood and you well know that I am, in fact, holding my hand in no small degree of forebearance for what has been done. For these…allies,” she snarled the last word, ”Such as they are.”

“Thirty Dúnedain Rangers are more advantageous than you can admit. I know well what you think of them,”
Éowyn replied and, at Freja's nod, added, ”But the simple truth is that you are wrong.”

Freja did not answer immediately. Instead she was watching the match unfolding. As she had hoped, and perhaps Berendil had not understood, Vorda was very much holding her own with her spear. No shortage of fighting men, particularly Easterlings, on the eastern borders of Rohan.

”They skulk in their forests, flitting from tree to tree. On the open field, what use are they? And such arrogance! To presume a Shieldmaiden does not know how to fight a man!” Freja’s voice was low and she looked away from the contest to glare directly at Éowyn, ”But most galling of all, is that you defend them over your own spearsisters.”

Éowyn swallowed for there was no easy way to say this now. Not to this woman, with her quick temper already roused by the Ranger's transgressions. Nor could she keep it from her. Not this woman, who had grown up with her shoulder to shoulder and loved her like the sister she had never had.

”There is one amongst their number, their leader,” Éowyn began and Freja nodded, her scowl deepened.

”Even Rangers must have leaders, I suppose,” she said, dismissive.

“He’s the heir of Elendil,” Éowyn pointed out and Freja sniffed as she had just remarked upon the weather.

Éowyn drew close, almost in an embrace, to whisper, ”He took from me a cup of mead.”

Freja’s jaw dropped at what she heard but Éowyn cleverly gave her no chance to recover, “At Meduseld, before the King and Éomer and all gathered there. There was a great celebration,”

While Berendil and Vorda pushed on, Freja tried to make sense of what Éowyn had just told her, ”One of these Rangers took a cup. Of mead. Real mead. But that means…it means…”

Freja fell silent as the implications took shape. It meant Éowyn would no longer be free to race the sun, wind in her hair and the boundless plains of Rohan stretching around her. Instead, she would be trapped, penned in the stone houses of these Men and their politics. And would they ever accept her? Did they not fight civil wars amongst themselves over lineage? Gondor had, of that she was certain. How could even Éowyn, bright and fair and fierce Daughter of the Mark though she was, ever match the lofty bloodlines of these Dunédain?

Her dismay must have been evident in her expression for Éowyn said, ”He is a good man. Can you not be happy for me? Just a little? My heart is full. He has brought me such hope, such light, when there has been only sorrow and darkness.”

Freja closed her eyes and washed a hand over her face. She feared for Éowyn. Little good could come of this and yet, such hope and joy did indeed dwell in Éowyn’s eyes. And who was to know what lay ahead? This might be her last happiness. Freja stepped forward to embrace Éowyn.

”I can see that you are happy,” Freja murmured, ”And that is all I have ever wanted for you."

“And I you,”
Éowyn answered, heartfelt relief in her face and voice.
 

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Freja nodded, and despite her deep misgivings, smiled at Éowyn. That was when Vorda gasped, more in surprise than pain, and the crowd murmured. Freja found her initiate on her knees, staring at the back of her hand. A scratch had just begun to bleed. Vorda looked up, past Berendil, to Freja with wide eyes and managed not to grin at her.

”I yield, Freja Fireborn,” Vorda said and at that Freja nodded. About now was a perfect time to give these Rangers a proper lesson in manners.

You don’t interrupt an initiate testing. You don’t get to tell a Shieldmaiden how or when she trains and you certainly don’t get to steal her best friend away. Oh no!

”Please don’t,” Éowyn asked her.

”I’ll be gentle,” Freja returned as she strode towards Berendil.

Berendil threw Hanasian a worried look for his earlier anger had receded and he had no desire to make an even bigger mess of things. The Shieldmaiden had paused to divest herself of her sword belt. She shed her armour swiftly too and rolled out of her mail. She was tall, easily able to look into his eyes, and he could see that she was both lean and strong. That much was evident now that she was clad in little more than a short tunic and breeches. Though she had set aside both her weapons and her armour, she was no less perilous. He could see that very clearly too.

He said to Freja, ”I have no desire to continue this.”

“Ah, I see how it is now. You’re happy to test yourself against an initiate but when it comes to a master Maiden…”


Berendil sighed unhappily at her and then grimaced over to where Hanasian was standing. The two men flickered hand signals at each other, communicating something. Freja took up a spear haft that was unpointed, hefted it a few times and then nodded her satisfaction. To that she added a shield. Heavy it was, round, wood with a dull metal hub. She carried it easily, as if she had been born with it on her arm.

”I have neither shield nor buckler,” Berendil pointed out as Vorda hurried off, clutching her hand and still trying very hard not to grin in anticipation of what was to come.

” And I do not have an edged weapon,” Freja replied, unperturbed, and glanced back to where Éowyn was fretting, ”I have given my word that I will be gentle with you, Ranger. But if that will not suffice then I offer you this: I shall not dint that pretty face of yours.”

Again there was laughter from those watching, particularly the Shieldmaidens, and Berendil scowled, ”I suppose it will have to, won’t it.”

“Now we understand each other,”
Freja purred and fell into an opening stance that she preferred for this scenario. At that she heard those watching murmur appreciatively. Anticipation was electric as it eddied through her. A heady thrill. She gave the Ranger a smile over the edge of her shield. He shook his head at her and raised his longsword.

How hard could it be, he wondered. She’d been drinking ale. And she was fighting his two handed long sword with a shield and a stick. More than like, she was all bark and no bite right at the moment. He feinted but she did not take the bait. Perhaps was as good as Hanasian thought she was and perhaps she wasn't. She’d been using his pride as a goad. Now it was time to return the favour and trip her on her own vaunted reputation.

Berendil pressed in with a rapid flurry of attacks. To her credit, she yielded ground as required, unhurried and unconcerned. That infuriating smile of hers was still on her face as she adjusted and he ended up doing little aside from battering on her shield. It was unsurprising that she was very good with a shield but defense is but half the struggle and she’d have to do more than that against him.

No sooner did he think that did her unfinished spear set to work. Freja was wickedly fast with it and while he kept it from cracking him over his ears, arms and body, she managed to trip his feet. Berendil tumbled and rolled, coming to his feet and expecting to find her there ready to break his arm with her spear shaft. Instead, she had drawn back to wait. That surprised him. She’d struck him as impetuous. Hasty even.

Those watching cooed and then clapped and Berendil reset himself. At that, so did she and they were off again. In time, her smile faded away. He saw she had started to sweat though she was not winded, her breathing still well controlled. He’d gotten a few good whacks on her shield that he knew had to jar her arm. That can be anything from unpleasant to painful. Certainly it would weaken her. For his part, he was reasonably sure that he would painted in bruises by the time this was done. That thought prompted him to speak the first words they had exchanged since their spar commenced.

”To first blood, yes?” he asked, narrowly avoiding being clouted by a spear shaft. Apparently, her comment about his face did not relate to other regions of his head.

They prowled about each other still but at her nod, he asked, ”How do you intend to draw blood without a blade?”

The smile she answered him with was almost carnal.

”There are ways,” she promised, her wildly blue eyes glittering over her shield.

Berendil blinked, surprised at the way in which he had responded to her statement. She was a striking woman. Not classically pretty. She did not bat her lashes or bite her lower lip or wind her hair around her fingers winsomely. For all of that, her long clean lines were strong. Almond eyes, perched atop imperiously high cheekbones, were the stunning blue of a mountain sky and yet they had seen death, blood, gruesome, visceral combat. They were knowing and right now they were trained on him...

Berendil stepped back. He cast his sword to the ground and held his arms out, palms forward towards her.

”A draw,” he proposed, watching her frown at him from behind her shield. She hesitated, smelling a trick or ploy. He stepped back again.

”We are evenly matched,” he told her as she straightened.

Her shield lowered to reveal her face. Cheekbones flared wide, a strong jaw that narrowed to a well defined chin. Freja looked him up and down again, at length. Her frustration all but seared wherever her eyes travelled. Then she growled something in Rohirric, a curse by the sound of it, turned her back and stalked away. He watched her throw the spear shaft down, drop the shield, and then shoulder her way through the crowd. Still, Berendil waited, until the crowd itself began to disband.

Once that happened, Mecarnil and Hanasian both approached.

”What was that?” Mecarnil demanded, unimpressed.

Berendil bent to retrieve his sword and sheathed it.

”Common sense,” Hanasian answered for him, ”There was no way she was going to let Berendil off this field without at least one broken bone.”

“Nonsense! A little more persistence and the boot would have been on the other foot,”
Mecarnil replied.

”She was softening him up,” Hanasian argued, ”Most of our time is spent fighting orcs, wargs and the like. The Shieldmaidens have spent a good portion of theirs fighting men. She knew what she was about. It’s a special kind of ignorance that downplays the obvious experience of an opponent.”

“Now you listen here. I’ve fought men too, you know, and-“


Berendil walked off on the debate, eyes raking the crowd. Mecarnil turned to watch him leave, as did Hanasian.

”Where’s he off to now? Not more trouble, I hope,” Mecarnil grumbled, as if that would prevent anything.
 

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Finding Freja again proved more difficult than Berendil anticipated. He was routinely stopped by curious Rohirrim and asked what he had been trying to accomplish. Each time he was asked, Berendil found it difficult to answer. Yes, Hanasian had warned him to simply watch, to not interfere in whatever the Shieldmaidens were doing. And yet it had seemed so straightforward the moment he had strode out there. He had been trying to help and while he could admit to himself that perhaps there were other intentions afoot as well but those he kept to himself. In the end, he had only managed to make things worse.

Looking back at it now he should have known it would end this way. No good deed goes unpunished, Mecarnil would say and on this occassion he had been proven correct. Trying to explain that to the puzzled warriors around him seemed futile. All he could do was shrug and ask if they had seen her.

As a result, it was some time before he at last tracked her down. She was seated at a campfire with other Shieldmaidens. All laughed freely with each other, Freja most uproariously of them all. All of them had their hair completely braided, each in their own preference, and Berendil guessed that meant that they were all master Shieldmaidens.

Berendil found himself struck by the contrast between the Shieldmaiden that had stalked off, filled with contempt, to the one that roared with lusty laughter now. That wild, utterly free and absolutely improper smile he had seen earlier was back. She was relaxed and the firelight made her hair glow. He shook himself and wondered what he was going to say. Aside from knowing he needed to speak with her, he hadn’t managed to think much further ahead than that.

Then he wondered why it was none of the Shieldmaidens had paid him any heed. As far as he could tell, he was the only man standing there. Shieldmaidens of varying ranks had to divert their paths around him so they had to know he was here. Why were they ignoring him? As he wondered that Freja unfurled her long limbs and stood, still laughing and cheeks flushed with unabashed delight. Hers was a throaty, fulsome laugh. The perfect companion to her improper smile.

Still wiping tears of mirth from sparkling eyes, she stepped over the logs that ringed the fire and headed in his direction. Her eyes were on the ground as she walked, her movements relaxed. She had that loose limbed poise shared by the finest of swordsmen. He almost thought she’d pass him by entirely, her attention diverted by whatever the source of this hilarity was, but she brought her head up and stopped in front of him. Off to one side, she crossed her arms under her chest. No cloak over her shoulders, despite the fact that it was March and the nights were decidedly crisp even this far south. She canted her head to one side and raised a brow at him in silent question.

Before Berendil could answer it, one of her sisters called out from the fire, ”Back for more, eh Ranger?”

There was simmering laughter at that, as if they waited to see what he would do or say next. Freja, though, did not chuckle with them. She merely studied him. Berendil had the distinct sense, for the second time that evening, that no matter what he did it would end up casting him as a fool. He was not an ordinarily proud man but even humble men value their dignity.

”They’re goading you,” Freja quietly informed him.

”Why?”

She shrugged at that and he saw the hint of a smile, ”You amuse them.”

“Is that what I am? A jester to caper for the great Shieldmaidens of Rohan?”


Freja shrugged again, indifferent, and Berendil retorted, ”I’m not the only fool serving the Shieldmaiden’s tonight.”

He spoke with no small degree of heat but for all of that, Freja’s smile was wry and self-deprecatory.

”Like as not,” she agreed without hesitation, ”Particularly if you are referring to me. There was no good reason for sparing your face, no matter how pleasing it is.”

While Berendil was trying to work out what do with that, a call came from the fire, ”I think this Ranger may be in need of another lesson in respect.”

”They’ll be at this all night unless we go elsewhere,”
Freja advised and nodded past Berendil’s shoulder.

He glared over at the fire as Freja walked past him and then turned to follow her. As she led him through the encampment, the men she walked past called out greetings of some sort or the other. This Freja took in her stride, a friendly lift of the hand or inclination of her head. Sometimes there would be a mystifying exchange that seemed to be insults but left both parties smiling widely. Hanasian had said she was highly regarded but it also seemed she was equally well liked. How a prideful, hot tempered individual had managed that was a mystery.

She shifted her path sharply as he thought that and a short while later he saw Fastred pass by. No greeting or acknowledgement there. Clearly Freja had not befriended the entire encampment. The man swept a cool gaze past Freja as if she was not there at all and settled it on him. Dark blonde brows rose as he took stock of Berendil following along and then he shook his head dismissively. What, Berendil wondered, had that been about? His own black brows drew together in thought until he stumbled across a possible answer. Following Freja of his own accord, particularly after what had unfolded earlier, might be considered unwise.

The woman ahead diverted around another tent. Her braids swayed across her back and the torcs gleaming whenever firelight struck them. She was young, Hanasian said, to have risen to all eight. Second in command. Ordering people about was second nature to her. She didn’t think twice, or hesitate, or even wait to see it those she had ordered had complied. Certainly the Shieldmaidens jumped at her words. She expected others to as well, he guessed.

It did not take long for her to lead him to a quiet place on the edge of camp. At their arrival, the few Rohirrim that had been there bowed their heads to Freja and departed. He hadn’t even seen her make such a request but she did not seem overly surprised by it. She kicked a faggot of wood in their fire as if rearranging it to her liking and nodded.

As she turned about to face him, he said, ”You’re accustomed to getting what you want, aren’t you.”

Surprise showed on her face, ”I’m accustomed for working for what I want and succeeding.”

Again her arms crossed under her chest as she continued, ”And right now I am working very hard to determine how you intend to fashion a proper apology from that.”

Berendil was flummoxed. She expected him to apologise?! Him? Now? She had already dismissed his earlier attempts. She narrowed her eyes at him and then shook her head. Freja turned to face the fire and stared into it for a moment.

”You didn’t come to apologise, did you Ranger?”
 

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Frankly, he wasn’t sure why he had sought her out again but apology was certainly the least likely reason.

”I’m not the only one who made a fool of themselves this evening,” he answered and saw her eyes narrow.

”That so,” she challenged and he stepped within the glow of the fire.

”The difference between you and I, Freja Fireborn, is that I have come to learn from my errors.”

Berendil watched her eyes flare at that and she gave a short, incredulous laugh as she met his eyes, ”And you, I presume, are here to educate me?”

“Allies should understand each other.”


She swiftly sat, crossed one long leg over the other and clasped her knee with both hands, ”I am ready to learn, Master Ranger.”

Berendil was certain she mocked him.

”You don’t think much of Rangers, do you?” he asked.

Freja shrugged at that and so he continued, ”In fact, I’d go so far as to say you think you’re better off without us.”

“Thirty of you can’t do too much harm,”
she replied.

”Perhaps thirty of us is all you need.”

Her brows quirked and he saw a faint smile, ”You’re talking like a Shieldmaiden.”

Berendil nodded and then said, ”Or maybe there is only thirty of us left.”

Her smile shifted at that and so he continued, ”What do you know of Arnor?”

“Big – north,”
she shrugged, ”Not Rohan.”

So, next to nothing Berendil thought and tested that with another question, ”And Cardolan?”

Freja shook her head, ”Something you might eat. A spice, perhaps. Why?”

Berendil sat and pressed a hand to the centre of his chest, ”I am from Cardolan.”

She lifted a brow at him but she did not smile. Her cocky assurance was banked and she was perceptive enough to sense that he was going somewhere with this. And so, he did. The telling took some time, even if he skipped over the intricacies. By the time it was done, he finally looked at Freja. He’d avoided that during the telling, lest he find her smirking and lose his restraint again. She was not smirking though. Nor scowling. Nor glaring. He found himself surprised, in fact, to find tears shone on her cheeks and she had pressed a hand to her mouth.

”All of them,?” she whispered through her fingers and he nodded grimly.

”Man, woman and child. My home, Freja, is a little more than graves and abandoned buildings now and that is but one part of Arnor. Sauron did not spare the others, either. Rohan has not been the only one to suffer under the his malice.”

Her eyes dropped to the fire again. It was in need of more wood and so, to fill the gaping silence and address his growing restlessness, Berendil fed it. He leaned back on his heels and brushed his hands off only to find Freja had set a gentle hand to his shoulder.

”I am sorry, Berendil,” she told him earnestly and he looked, startled by her sudden honesty, into her face, ”I did not know.”

Berendil tensed as Freja drew her arms around him and embraced him.

”I do not desire your pity,” he told her.

For all of that, her warmth was undeniably pleasant. Vital she was, strong. She tightened her embrace a moment and then pulled back so that her face hung before his.

”It is not pity I offer,” she replied solemnly, firelight flickering over the panes of her face.

”What, then?” Berendil asked her through a suddenly dry mouth. His eyes widened as she lifted her fingers to trace the line of his jaw but he did not draw back.

”Is it so surprising that a Shieldmaiden might be capable of compassion,” she returned, voice barely more than a murmur.

She gazed up at him, as if looking at him clearly for the first time. He could feel the warmth of her skin through her tunic. She drew a deep breath into her chest that she pushed out again. As if debating something. Then she stood and walked away from him and the fire both, into the darkness beyond. Slowly, Berendil stood, staring after her. He felt…regret. And the pressure of someone’s study. He turned to see Hanasian standing there. His friend shook his head at him in warning. Despite that, though, Berendil followed the Shieldmaiden’s steps into the darkness.
 

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She was not difficult to locate for she had not gone far and her teeth softly chattered.

He asked, ”Are you cold?”

Freja shook her head, not sure why she denied what was obvious, and crossed her arms against her tunic. Though she could barely make him out in the darkness, she could sense his scrutiny. Did these Rangers see better in the dark? They were said to be the pupils of Elves. She heard fabric rustle and then started as Berendil settled his cloak around her shoulders. Freja held her breath as his fingers gently secured it in place at the base of her throat, barely grazing her skin.

Her mouth was strangely dry. Again. Not the first pretty face, she reminded herself, and this one seemed to have no particular liking for her. Freja allowed her fingers to explore the device Berendil had used to fasten the cloak. It was a star, the metal cool to the touch.

”Seven points,” she murmured.

”An emblem of Elendil’s followers,” Berendil replied, ”For that is what we are.”

“And Aragorn is his heir,”
she said, puzzled by why it was these men were so enamoured of a lord, washed up from the ruin of a drowned land.

“Our chieftain too.”

“Éowyn said as much,”
Freja replied, her voice thoughtful.

”What do you think of him,” Berendil asked and immediately Freja recalled her exchange with Éowyn. She felt reluctant to comment on Rangers now. Frankly, she wasn’t sure how to describe any of them anymore, particularly the one who stood so very closely beside her.

”It hardly matters what I make of him,” Freja replied, neatly evading the entire topic, ”My service is given to another.”

She made no effort to keep her pride from shining in her voice.

”Do you not fear what is to come, then?” Berendil asked.

She was struck, then, by a clear note of dismay. It made no sense to her at all, but how to explain this to a stranger to her land, her customs and their ways? Freja paused for what could she say that was not already known.

Then she pulled Berendil’s cloak and pulled it tighter around her shoulders for warmth, ”Battle is a Shieldmaiden’s lot and I knew this when I chose my path. I will not turn away from it now.”

“Death is what you live for,”
Berendil said and Freja shook her head impatiently, irritated anew. How dare he?

”I live for the duty I swore to uphold. Much, I suspect, as do you,” Freja added for good measure.

“Perhaps, then, we are more alike than you think,” Berendil replied quietly, his words cutting across her chagrin. She had no answer for that. She had been on such solid footing only a moment ago and now she was floundering in the dark. Again.

”If we prevail in this war, Freja, have you given thought to what might follow when it is done?”

Berendil’s question was both surprising and dangerous. She answered carefully indeed, ”A Shieldmaiden’s life is brief, even by our measure. Little is served by looking too far ahead.”

Berendil did not answer immediately and she was started by his hand. It cupped her cheek gently and all of sudden he was very close. His fingers trailed along her cheekbone to her hair and then followed one of her braids. He held it in his hand, toying with torc he had discovered. He must have been able to feel the etchings upon it.

”What is it for?” he asked, voice quiet in her ear.

”The spear,” she answered and closed her eyes.

Breathe, Freja. Just breathe. Berendil released her braid but did not draw away. Tension mounted and either she kissed him or she asked him a question.

Freja opted for the latter, ”The long years ahead belong to you and those of your kind. What do you think will happen?”

His answer came easily, ”Gondor and Arnor will be united and we will know peace. Such is our hope. There will be much to rebuild, in Arnor and Rohan alike.”

“And Cardolan.”

“I do not think it likely that Cardolan will ever rise again,”
he said.

Another question occurred to her, ”What is Arnor like, then?”

“You wish to know?”


Freja shrugged at his question, ”It is unlikely I will ever see it for myself. What business would a Shieldmaiden have in Arnor, Berendil?”

He seemed to pause at that, as if he had ideas on that of his own, and then went on to describe Arnor to her. She heard of Bree and of the best apples to be had in all of Middle Earth. One thing was clearest of all.

”You love it,” she told him, ”I hear it in your voice.”

“I plan to return when this is done. And you?”
he asked.

”Aside from battle, I do not know,” she replied.

“Is battle all you think of?”

“Not entirely,”
Freja admitted, swallowing in a dry throat, for just at that moment she was thinking of battle or war at all. She felt her cheeks heat. Damn the man for standing so closely. She almost leapt out of her skin as his fingers returned to her face. He drew them along her jaw on either side and then cupped her face between his hands. They stood like that for a long moment. Then she heard Berendil whisper something in the strange Elvish tongue she had heard in use around the camp. She almost sensed his lips drawing near but he did not kiss her.

”I find the thought of you falling in battle unbearable,” he told her, as if this puzzled him.

“You answered your King’s call. Why should I not answer mine?”

Berendil’s sigh was heavy and he drew his arms about her, ”I will look for you, Freja, upon that field. What comes after we will face together. All of it.”

The notion was almost startling to her if he meant what she thought he meant. To say such a thing… He lowered his head and buried his face where her neck met her shoulders. Then he drew in a deep breath as he gathered her to him, as if he would inhale her entirely.

Freja asked, ”A Ranger and a Shieldmaiden?”

Her question made Berendil lift his head, “If we may fight and die together, why may we not live…together?”

Berendil pressed a kiss to her brow, her skin soft against his lips, and reluctantly drew away. Now was not a time for undertakings beyond that. He was to take the Paths of the Dead come the dawn and she was riding to battle soon thereafter. He lifted her hand in his and kissed her palm. Then he strode back to camp. It was some time before Freja followed and by the time she had returned, there was no sight of the Ranger. He had vanished.

When Berendil gained the upper plateau, both Hanasian and Mecarnil had retired for what little sleep they could gain. He could hear Mecarnil soundly snoring. Something he should have done, would have done if only…Berendil slipped into the tent he shared with the other two men as quietly as he could.

Despite his stealth, though, Hanasian was clearly awake for he asked, ”What are you up to with that Shieldmaiden, Berendil?”

“Nothing,”
Berendil answered even though he knew very well that wasn’t true.

As did Hanasian, apparently “Because I’ve told you Shieldmaidens do not abandon their spears lightly.”

“So?”


Hanasian yawned, ”So you aren’t the sort for idle dalliances.”

“What makes you think I’m dallying anyone?”
Berendil challenged and at that Hanasian fell silent.

Berendil wrapped himself up in his bedroll. As he tried to settle in to sleep he found his mind racing and body thrumming. He closed his eyes and saw a pair of almond shaped eyes gazing back at him, knowing. What was he doing? Had he really said what he thought he had. He could still feel her in his arms. He shifted again, aware of the bruises she had given him.

”I’m not dallying,” Berendil muttered to himself.

Hanasian sleepily murmured, ”Perish the thought.”

Berendil grunted and tried to find a comfortable position yet again. It was going to be a difficult night finding rest.
 

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3019, III – March 8, Harrowdale


Freja woke to the discovery she had slept in Berendil’s cloak. This startled her, for it any of her sisters marked it then the questions would soon follow. It would not do to have them wondering whether their commander was considering setting aside her spears on the eve of battle. And was she? Was she really considering that?

This is what she asked herself as she threw on her own green cloak and set off for the upper encampment. Dawn had yet to creep over the eastern horizon and fog blanketed the plain but the upper camp was clear and crisp. Few were about at this hour and so she padded through the tents as stealthy as ever she had been for where the Rangers might have set their camp.

Few of the Rangers moved about, each eerily silent in their long cloaks. If they noticed her, they gave no sign of it. On she went until she found a tent with a familiar face. It was Berendil’s friend and he was smoking a long pipe whilst sleepily prodding at a fire. Hanasian cracked a wide yawn and then discovered she was standing there, staring at him. His pipe almost fell out of his mouth but he recovered with admirable swiftness. This, then, was a man who guarded his inner thoughts. Interesting.

Freja wondered anew how it was he knew so much of a Shieldmaidens’ ways. Hanasian slowly stood after a few moments of her scrutiny. At that, Freja swiftly set Berendil’s cloak down on the other side of the fire. Hanasian’s brows rose when he saw what she had left there but he kept his silence. Freja drew up to her full height and considered him again. But before she could depart, Berendil emerged from the tent, dark hair tousled by sleep and dragging his pack with him.

Her eyes narrowed at that and Hanasian murmured a brief warning that brought Berendil’s face sharply up to take in her presence.

”Going somewhere?” she inquired, keeping her tone cool with some effort.

As she asked she saw a Ranger lead a horse towards the menhirs. It was then she noticed there were others there. They were leaving. All of them. When her eyes returned to Berendil, she discovered he was approaching her.

Berendil set down his pack, ”My path to the battle ahead is different to yours, yet we will find each other again. Of that I am certain.”

Her eyes narrowed as he closed the final distance, ”Are you, now?”

He reached for her but she was too fast. Freja set her hands to his broad chest and pushed him back from her. As he rocked on his heels she began to circle him.

”The Paths of the Dead - are you mad?” she hissed as she prowled a wide circuit around him.

“Do not presume to gainsay those wiser than you,” Berendil returned with equal heat, ”My duty, my honour is no less than yours. Am I to be sundered from it when you will not?”

She had returned to face him and bared her teeth at his question, ”How long have you known, eh? How long?”

At her question she saw Berendil hesitate and she knew, then, that he had known all along. He had known even as he had lured her with promises of a different future. She saw it all then for what it was and her fists curled at her sides.

”Was it a joke, then? Something to chuckle over amongst yourselves as you turned a Shieldmaiden’s gaze from her spears?”

Her voice shook with fury and Hanasian murmured in alarm. Berendil, though, clenched his jaw. She could see it bunch as he struggled for a calm she had surrendered.

”Your silence is answer enough, Ranger,” she snarled.

”Every word! I meant every word, Freja!”

“Oh, I am sure you did…so easy it is to throw out pretty, clever words when you know, you KNOW, you will never be held to account for them. I see it now, Berendil, and make no mistake. I see you too.”

“Is that what you think of me? Feckless and callow?”
Berendil returned, stung.

”I do not know and will not pretend to care,” she spat at him, ”Do not look for me. Save your eyes, Ranger, for the foolish road you are to take! I wish you the joy of it!”

Berendil quivered from head to foot as she turned her back on him and left him standing there without so much as a second glance. He stood frozen, desperately trying to understand what had just happened. As he did so, the humiliation he had seen searing in her eyes returned to him. Betrayal. Pain. Helpless howling anger. New hope bitterly crushed. He closed his eyes, and washed his hands over his face, even as Mecarnil and Hanasian came to him.

”What did you say to her?” Hanasian asked urgently, setting a hand to his shoulder.

Berendil shook his head and lowered his hands, ”I was careful. I thought I was-“

“You turned her gaze, Berendil. Have you any idea what that means?”
Hanasian pressed.

Both Berendil and Mecarnil shook their heads, baffled, and there was little time to explain.

”When a Shieldmaiden’s gaze is turned, she lays her spears aside. It is rarely done for a man.”

Berendil’s already washed out face turned ashen but Mecarnil clapped his back in a bid to liven his spirits up, ”Valar willing, lad, there will be time to set things to straights again if that is what you wish. Focus now must be on the task at hand.”

“But what if…”
Berendil swallowed his question before he finished it. What if he could not find her again?

There was no way to know if they would survive the Paths of the Dead and reach Erech, much less the battle beyond it. Same could be said of Freja. Riding in Théoden’s vanguard, she would be at the heart of the Rohirrim’s battle when it was joined. The future was uncertain for them both. Still he felt no small degree of sorrow at the bitterness of their parting. He had not intended to cast her aside. She was not a game, a joke, to him. Halbarad gave the signal to pull out. All Berendil could do was hope, as Mecarnil said, to find her again on the other side.

He turned for his pack to discover his cloak had been set there. He gathered it up and pressed it to his face. Already the outer layers were cool but her warmth was still within the inner folds. And heather. He had noticed she smelt of heather when he had set this cloak around her shoulders. He drew that clean, earthy, honest scent in. Faintly floral, but herbal – almost mossy. He slung it around his shoulders and set to work breaking their brief camp.
 

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Chilled to the bone and shivering, Freja returned to her tent and sank onto the scant bedding she had tossed aside in what seemed, now, to be a lifetime ago. How could she be so foolish? So stupid? She felt sick to her stomach and bent forward over her knees with a soft moan. No sooner had she done this did another enter her tent. Humiliation still stamped upon her face, Freja looked up to find Éowyn standing there. Sorrow, profound and solid as the mountain that reared above them, was stamped upon her face. All the light, all the hope, had been stripped from Éowyn’s eyes, replaced, now by despair.

”Ah,” Éowyn said as she took in Freja, ”You know too, then.”

“The Paths of the Dead,”
Freja whispered, the urge to retch greasily sliding about in her belly.

Éowyn sank onto Freja’s blankets beside her and for a long while they were silent, united in grief. In time, though, it occurred to Éowyn to ask after why Freja was so deeply affected. It was a question she could not answer and yet the other woman caught her eyes in her own and then she sighed.

”You see, now, do you not?” Éowyn whispered and Freja nodded, eyes closing before tears could betray her anew.

”Take me with you,” Éowyn said and Freja’s eyes opened to see there was a feyness to Éowyn now. A wild reckless abandon, ”Take me with you to death and destruction, Freja Fireborn.”

Freja stared at Éowyn. Did she have the same fell look too? If she did she would have to put it from her lest her sisters discover her gaze had been turned by one of these Rangers.

”We will call you Dernhelm,” she replied, her voice stark and quiet, and at that Éowyn gave her a small, terrible, smile.
 

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3019, III – March 15, Pelennor


The plain had been swallowed by a dark, malevolent tide. The White City, proud citadel of a proud people, shone no longer. It’s walls were scarred, blackened and pocked. War machines clustered like flies upon them. Pits of fire belching a foul thick smoke that billowed over city and plain alike. The gates hung useless. Broken. Minas Tirith had been breached and the army below was gripped with a vicious, palpable glee. Anticipation of the slaughter to come.

Freja stared at it, struck dumb by the sheer scale of what she saw. They had pushed as hard as they could. They had defeated Sauron once already to reach this place, trusting to the Wild Men and their King’s judgement. Just five days it had taken them but they were too late. She sucked in a shivering breath at a sudden image and the dread it unleashed. A cursed road, dark, buried in the mountains she had left behind. Upon it he lay, still, twisted. Dead. Left there, unburied, unmarked, to rot away over the years. Feminine laughter, mocking, floated at the very edges of her hearing.

Reeling, she whispered a single word before she could stop herself, ”Berendil.”

She had dreamed of him these past five days, despite the fact that she should have lain in the exhausted slumber everyone else had. She woke with his name on her lips in the pre-dawn murk. His grey eyes, deep set under a brooding brow, watched her in her sleep. Despite the fact that he was probably dead now, needlessly and carelessly so. Despite the fact that he duped her with whispered hints of a future he well knew would never come to pass.

Staggering briefly, Freja hauled her feet under her with ruthless determination and pushed it away. Already they were mounting up, weapons unlimbered, saddles and hooves checked. A hasty meal, for those able to stomach it. Freja set her helm in place and strode for her horse. As she went, she scanned for sight of Dernhelm. She’d opposed, staunchly, the halfling’s presence. Doughty though Master Merriadoc might be, what lay before them was no place for him.

Dernhelm had been determined and nothing Freja had been able to say had swayed her…him. Just as she sighted the halfling and Dernhelm both, Éomer intercepted her. Freja pulled back to scrutinise him. He looked…worried. That was good. It meant he had not yet discovered Dernhelm’s true identity. Their ruse, disguising her as a man, had worked and now Éowyn would receive that which she sought. They all would this day. Rack. Ruin. Death.

”The vanguard, yes?” Éomer asked tersely and Freja nodded.

” I think it likely we will struggle to hold our lines once battle is joined,” Freja answered and Éomer grunted agreement.

”We must do what we can, as we can,” Éomer answered. His eyes had been roaming restlessly throughout, gauging the readiness of those about to go charging into oblivion, but now they centred on her. What he might be thinking she could not guess. Éomer was largely a cipher to her. Always had been. But then she was surprised to see his hard expression soften.

”Ride well this day, Freja Fireborn,” he said, briefly reaching to set his hand on her pauldron. She nodded, startled by such unanticipated warmth.

”And you Éomer, Son of Éomund, Lord of the Mark,” she returned. He searched her expression, that which her helm revealed, a moment longer and then was away again. Her future King, Freja thought as she marked his departure. But not this day. If she fell, then it would be so that Théoden did not. With a shake of her head, she mounted up.

Their lines formed swiftly, the Shieldmaidens in and around Théoden himself. Freja looked for Dernhelm one more time. Horses shifted, restless, smelling the carnage ahead. Around her the horns pealed, a ringing glorious note that shivered in the morning air. A harbinger of a red, bloody dawn. Again they rang out and Freja felt her blood surge in a sudden savage joy. A third time and they were away, thundering down the final approach to fall upon the northern flank of the besiegers. Crashing like the tide, lances levelled and songs of battle thick in their throats.
 

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For a time she was able to keep Éowyn and Théoden both in her line of sight but that changed once Mordor’s armies recovered from their initial shock. Never had she seen so many gathered before against so few. Futile it was, but battle was joined and she could not and would not turn aside. The war machines needed to be dealt with, and the Southron horsemen, for these had not scattered like the Orcs.

Their onslaught was savage, the battle bitter. In the fog of war, she lost sight of Éowyn. All she saw was the Enemy, pressing in around her. Her spears were all gone and she had been unhorsed, her beautiful gelding cut down underneath her. She’d unhorsed a Southron in return and hewed death, singing and snarling the battle songs of the Shieldmaidens as she delivered war upon them.

Again her horse was injured, its foot caught in a depression. She was flung from the saddle at speed, a combination of experience, her armour and dumb luck resulted in her not being crushed. Instead she tumbled across the ground without any means of stopping herself. When the tumbling stopped, Freja was sprawled on her belly. Her senses reeled and her instincts, honed by years of combat, screamed at her to get up. Move! Groggily, she rose to her knees only to be knocked flat again by one of her countrymen as he battled an Easterling. Still her instincts roared at her and so she rose once more, this time coming to her feet. Swaying drunkenly, Freja stared about her. She had lost sight of Théoden and Éowyn both as well as her sword. An inhuman snarl to her left, just beyond the view permitted by her helm captured her attention.

The orc grinned at her, aware that she was without any weapon beyond her knives. Freja stumbled back and almost fell when her heel caught a body lying upon the ground. She crouched as the orc advanced, hefting its brutal falchion, slavering with anticipation. By some chance, Freja’s hand closed on a shaft and she seized it, bringing whatever it was with her as stood. She blinked at what she saw.

It was a crude pike of the sort many of Sauron’s orcs had brought to this battle. Disgust shivered through her momentarily but she was quick to push that aside and level it at the orc that was now rushing at her. Such was its speed, its lust for her blood, that she almost did not manage to bring the pike to bear in time. Teeth bared, screaming, she thrust with all of her weight and strength, driving the orcish pike into her foe’s belly. The orc snarled at her as she ran him through and Freja feared that the haft would snap under the weight as it bowed. The snarl, however, slide into a wet gurgle as the orc was driven back. It slumped to the broken earth and then fell to one side.

Panting, terror skated far too close to her thoughts. It shivered along the edges. She could sense it gathering, waiting. If it took her, it would be the end of her. She had to keep it at bay somehow. She wheeled about, desperate for a clean weapon. That would help. A proper, fitting hilt to close her fingers about. Just as she thought this, a sword was kicked towards her. Not hers, that was long gone now, but one of Rohan’s all the same. Freja blinked at where it rested near the toes of her boots and then looked up in the direction it had mysteriously appeared from. What she saw made her throat choke in visceral fear.

The Elf that stood there was still, a statue amidst the battle raging about. Clad all in black, her fair hair was bound in braids. Malevolence radiated from her perfect face and her smile, when it came, was as cold as death itself.

”Pick it up, Shieldmaiden,” the-Elf said, her voice bloodsoaked velvet.

Never before had Freja known such crippling fear. Never before had she wanted to run, to turn heel and flee. But all of this mattered not for her body was moving despite her horror. She found herself bending and reaching for the sword and this only deepened her distress. Sobbing, she stood once more with it in her hand.

The Elf canted her head, studying the way she trembled for a moment, ”Do you know my name, mortal?”

Freja shook her head, unable to speak. She was so terrified that she did not even know her own name at that point. All she knew was that her heart was about to stop, frozen by fear.

”Naiore Dannan am I,” the Elf supplied, ”Ravennor of Mordor.”

Naiore’s beautiful eyes narrowed as she stepped nearer, ”And you, snivelling wretch, are Freja Fireborn.”

Around her Naiore walked, her movement that of inhuman and lethal grace. She completed her circuit and her expression had shifted to one of boredom, ”I had hoped you might offer a modest distraction from this tedium.”

At that the Elf flicked her sword, skewering an orc in danger of lumbering between them without so much as a sideways glance. It was a beautiful weapon, superbly crafted, and she used it with a skill honed over centuries. She freed the blade and drew closer still, gazing into Freja’s eyes like a snake might watch the mouse it intended to eat for dinner. Freja could not so much as lift her sword into place between them.

”We will cross swords,” she said and smiled at freja’s urgent, desperate shaking of her head. She did not wish to fight this Elf. She wished only to flee.

”I can compel it, or you may choose it. Fight well enough, and freely…I may even spare your life so that you might return to your King to die at his side,” Naiore tilted her head, quizzical, ”Or perhaps you desire something else?”

Again she saw Berendil. His face, by the fire, as he spoke of his people. His expression as she repudiated him. Such…such sorrow and anger and pain. His voice vibrating through her as he spoke to her in the darkness. Horror flooded through Freja as the Elf trawled through her mind, violating every recollection, every sensation.

The Elf laughed at her, mocking, ”Pathetically predictable.”

Freja knew she was being manipulated. The Elf had seized her, mind and body alike. She knew that it was unlikely that she would survive whatever humiliation the Elf had in mind. And she knew she could not let her fear, her terror, claim her duty from her. She forced herself to think of her king and her duty. Only that and Naiore’s smile was contemptuous as she stepped back. Panting, Freja finally lifted her blade. It shook in her hand and steadying it required all of her strength, all of her focus.

What followed was marked by few such was the intensity of the battle unfolding around them. Those that did saw only snatches, brief glimpses into the contest between Naiore Dannan and this Shieldmaiden of Rohan. It started inauspiciously but once Freja sank into her own body, it took on a new quality. She made less errors. Her terror ebbed, drained away. Naiore’s smile diminished and then vanished as she realised the Shieldmaiden was no longer responding to her manipulations.

Back and forth they went, ranging across the field until Naiore found a way through the Shieldmaiden’s defences. That much was inevitable. An Elf with her swordplay and dread abilities was always going to best a Mortal no matter how gifted she might be. She shoved Freja back hard and pounced, ready to drive Celebrimbor’s sword through her. Naiore unleashed a wave of terror that should have had her gibbering. Instead, though, the mortal bared her teeth at her and she realised that the woman was saying something. Her eyes narrowed.

”You sing?” she hissed down at the mortal, astonished, ”You go to your death singing?”

The woman did not stop to answer her. Instead, her eyes were locked on the long curved expanse of the sword Naiore had raised to deal the final blow. She stared at it, unblinking, singing in the guttural tongue these horse brigands used, teeth bared. Uncowed. The Shieldmaiden was unbroken. It made no sense to her. How was this possible in such a weak creature?
 

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Intrigued, Naiore withdrew, rising to her feet and backing away. The Shieldmaiden rolled to her feet. She stared at Naiore for a long moment and then her attention shifted to something she saw behind Naiore’s. She took off at a lope for whatever it was and Naiore turned to watch her. The Shieldmaiden had espied her King, she discovered. The Ravennor of Mordor paused at that. She had no intention of honouring her offer at the time it was made and yet it was being fulfilled all the same. Of course, she could even now bring it undone.

The temptation to take the Shieldmaiden here and now, away from this field to somewhere where she could truly study her, was palpable. There would be undeniable pleasure in properly breaking her. Such mortals were a rare treat. And yet, as her interest sharpened into a darker lust, something else intruded. Something far more powerful even than her. Naiore snarled openly at the pleasure now denied to her and then turned away, stalking through the battle as if it no longer mattered. To Naiore Dannan, at least, it did not. She had another task to see to.

Freja’s progress towards Théoden was arduous. The combat around the King was vicious and she was on foot. She had no chance to look behind her to see if that Elvish horror hunted her. Her mind felt raw and bloodied, as if it had been shattered and stuck back together all wrong. As she fought her way towards her king and his glorious horse, she did so expecting to feel Naiore’s sword slide through her. It did not come, though, and so she gained Théoden alive.

Freja wheeled about to gauge the disposition of the forces around them. The Rohirrim were scattered in thin wedges, the lines now utterly lost. A tight knot of Shieldmaidens were with her still, Vorda amongst them. At a cry, Freja turned and briefly glimpsed what she thought was Éowyn in the press. A sudden searing sting at her left hip, however, drew Freja’s attention down.

”THE LINES! FORM THE LINES! FREGA, FORM THE LINES!” Théoden bellowed at her and yet all she could do was stare at what lay in her greaves.

Her vision swum, the wicked dart she had been peering at blurred, as Snowmane’s rump buffeted her. Then came a terrible scream, like the world was cracking open. It drove her to her knees, her own throat bloody as she screamed with it, wrenching her helm free in agonised madness. Blood ran in thick rivulets from her ears and her left hip had already locked, her flesh burning. A tremendous weight slammed into her back and she crumpled beneath it.
 

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3019, III – March 8 – Paths of the Dead and Beyond

The air upon the Dimholt Road was thick and close. With the tall stones beckoning, the dark firs, large and ancient, filled the air with a heavy piney resin while their overreaching crowns let little light of the morning through. The road at first was two horses wide, and while Aragorn and Halbarad rode together at the front, Mecarnil and Berendil rode the fourth rank and were mostly silent. Berendil‘s mind was held by the thought of Freja, and he held to the slim hope they would meet again in victory. Behind them rode Hanasian and Darhias, a young stealthy Ranger whose ancestry was said to have strains of the Rhuadurian royal line. Darhias at first peppered Hanasian with questions about the Shieldmaidens, and Hanasian answered with what he knew. In answering them, Hanasian realized Darhias was too interested for this to be passing curiosity.

”Not you too! Who I wonder?” Hanasian inquired by Darhias gave no reply no matter how hard Hanasian stared at him.

Hanasian thought back to what he had seen of Darhias at camp. A few paces more, and Hanasian nodded his head, ”Ah, sandy-haired one Berendil had interrupted. You watched her from the crowd. Why do the women of Rohan draw the attention of us Dunedain men of the North? You and Vorda, Berendil and Freja, my father and my mother, Aragorn and Éowyn... although I'm not sure about that last one…”

Hanasian drifted off in thought before Darhias broke is silence, “Unlike Berendil and Freja, Vorda likely doesn’t know who I am. I’m just another Ranger.”

Hanasian only shook his head as a large pinecone fell from high above, bouncing off a stone and hitting him in the boot. The chatter of a squirrel could be heard as if laughing… Laughing perhaps at men moving toward the Path of the Dead? Other than the gusts of wind far up in the crowns of the tall trees, it was the last sound they heard other than their own passage. It had become eerily quiet.

From then on, the Grey Company was silent but for the calming words to their increasingly uneasy horses. It wasn’t until they came to the door that the silence was broken…

'The way is shut. It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut,' an old man declared and if he was not already dead, he died soon after his warning.

The horses were keen to bolt at the sound of his voice, but the soothing words from Legolas and the sons of Elrond calmed then. Halbarad declared said he could foresee his death beyond the door, but Berendil thought that was likely true of all of them. Dark thoughts filled their minds. Yet Aragorn, their chieftain and heir of Isildur, challenged the door. He calmed his steed and together they passed into its darkness without waiver. One by one the Company passed into the darkness after him.

Once inside the air closed in hard and still around them, and now the Rangers longed for the thick piney air of the Dimholt Road. But they remained true as Aragorn pushed forth down the narrow track with his torch held high over his head. Even its light struggled against the very air to light the way. Elladan followed behind at the rear, ensuring the dwarf Gimli was not left behind as he muttered direly into his beard. Twisted dark fears seeped into the minds of the men and it sapped their strength. It took all they had to keep their horses from breaking free from them.

Long did they walk a seemingly endless dark road until suddenly it seemed they had entered a chamber. The air became even colder and dryer and the walls fell away so that the light of Aragorn’s torch could not even touch them. Aragorn cast about this strange place until his torch lit up a long-dead man in battle finery,

Hanasian whispered to no one in particular, ”Baldor.”

Berendil stared at flickering torch light playing over the armour of the fallen Prince of Rohan. Suddenly he saw Freja’s face, surrounded by her helm. He blinked and strained to look again, but she was not there. Only the chalky dry skull of the man Hanasian mentioned. Aragorn spoke a little about him before summoned the dead to the Stone of Erech. A chill fell over them as if an icy hand of death sought to grab them. Halbarad nodded knowingly as the torches went out. Their fate rested now upon Aragorn and the strength of his will to hold the Dead to their oath. Almost by the sense of smell did Aragorn lead them through. After some way, the sound of water dripping. When a few drops fell upon them as they passed, a sense of relief came to them. For until then, there was only the dread feeling of the Dead upon their ghostly horses pressing in behind them.
 

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It was more than a relief to come forth into the Morthond Vale. The headwaters of the River Morthond splashed fiercely upon the stones from high above, to pass them into a deep cut ravine near where their track wandered. Emerging from the darkness to the fresh damp air filled the men with gladness. But the dead were close behind them, and Aragorn called them on to push on hard to the Stone of Erech. The Grey Company rode hard through the vale with the icy breath of the dead upon their backs.

It was well into the night when they came to the stone and halted. Berendil had finally managed to shake the ill vision of Freja lying dead in her armour somewhere on the fields of Eastfold, twisted and bloodied by an Easterling’s malice. Hanasian and Mecarnil wore grim expressions but said nothing, while Darhias and the other Rangers were still deep in thought. They were quickly shaken to life by Aragorn’s words and that of a far off voice that sounded as if it was straining to die. The realization that the Dead wished to fulfil their oath took some of the lingering fear from them and their horses and it seemed the iciness had receded. They stayed there for the rest of the night, but little sleep would they get. The thoughts and visions they had experienced while taking the paths were too near and vivid for them to push aside easily. Broken slumber was all they could manage before a pale light appeared in the east. Silently they arose to ready to ride again, aware of what they rode into.

They pressed hard on their ride through the dark days toward Pelargir. Their journey was swift for they stopped little for rest, and by nightfall they had gained the Fords of Ciril and crossed the River Ringlo. Rest would have been welcome then but they made haste for the armies of Mordor had already advanced into Lebannin. They had come just in time to battle them at the Fords at Linhir. Once routed, the enemy was pursued back toward Pelargir.

As they approached Pelargir in the dim darkness, Aragorn could see the ships of the Corsairs approaching. But Aragorn, the Grey Company, and the Army of the Dead came fast unlooked for. After a quick fight, they had reached the quay just in time. They had grappled the first ship and kept it from leaving the dock, but the second had set out upon the first sign of trouble. It soon was far to the east bank of the river. The Company battled on the first ship while archers on the second ship fired their arrows at the attacking Rangers. Aragorn called to the King of the Dead to attack the remaining incoming ships, but not to kill any man on the ships that were in chains. They abided his order, and soon claimed the trailing ships as they started to turn. Only one of these ships ran aground while the others were brought in by the slaves.

There was only one ship left that was held by the Corsairs. It tried to make a run upriver, but a counter wind came up and they could not make headway. The three elves stood apart on the river’s edge, taking aim and sending sure arrows away to the second ship. One by one the Corsair archers fell.

Some hardy seamen of Lebannin, seeing that the shadowy dead had moved with Aragorn, came from hiding and rallied their strength. They now came forth and joined in the battle of Pelargir. One brought pitch and flame, and the three elves set their arrows alight and fired them into the back of the second ship still making way upriver. After several arrows, the ship began to burn. It was not long before its sails were alight and the oarsmen were crying out as the men of Umbar jumped into the swift currents of the Anduin. Few survived this as the river itself seemed to have turned its wrath onto them. The currents and undertows pulled their mailed bodies under.

The fight was a victory for the West, and would prevent an ill turn to the battle that would befall Minas Tirith and the fields of Anorien. The Dead had fulfilled their oath, and received their release by Aragorn. A sound of relief could be heard as their ghostly swords and shields fell away and they dissipated in the rising wind. With their parting, the brown-grey haze gave way in the southerly gusts and the light of the sun could be seen. Yet little rest was taken, for wounds had to be treated and the ships gathered.

The seamen of Pelargir now came forth and bowed to Aragorn, the master of the Dead, for the fear had fallen a way. Now they now worked tirelessly to ready the captured Corsair ships, and some of their own. With favourable winds and the desire of the former slaves to fight as free men, they with intensity and Aragorn hoped to arrive at the Harlond in time for battle. Plans were drawn to set out at dawn on the morning breeze, but this night they sought much needed rest as the armies of the southern fiefs gathered to embark.
 

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There was little talk as they sat. Some set to tending and repairing their weapons for the doom that awaited them. Others ate the food that the people of Pelargir had brought to them. Hanasian wrote some before putting his journal away. Berendil and Darhias smoked the last of the pipeweed they had brought with them, heads bowed in a conversation that no one else could hear. Mecarnil guessed it would have something to do with the Shieldmaidens of Rohan.

Moving through the Grey Company, Halbarad came to them and said, ”I fear there will be little chance for rest in the days ahead. Sleep whilst you can.”

He gave them a nod before seeking his own sleep. Even Aragorn took leave of the three elves by the riverbank and lay down with his eyes closed. Legolas, with the sons of Elrond sat and talked through the night of the undying lands and their desires to go there. Elladan and Elrohir had both beheld the sea before in their ventures to Mithlond. Legolas of the Woodland Realm, however, had only now seen the wide seas to their south and smelled the salt air. He would sit there all night long filled with a strange wonderment and curious longing.

Morning came too soon for the men of the Grey Company. Their desire for sleep was high now the breath of the Dead had been removed from their backs. Still the Company readied themselves and the ships were soon loaded with grim soldiers and provisioned by the men of Lebannin and were ready.

One of the hardy seamen who first helped them in the battle looked at the signs and said to Aragorn, ”The Vala work in your favour! A fair southerly is coming, and the tide is coming in! We should get the sails high and ride the tidal current as far as we can.”

Aragorn nodded and with his hands signalled to the Company an immediate departure. They set off before any hazy light in the east could be discerned. It would be a dark day once they sailed north.

The steady southerly wind filled the sails and pressed their ships hard and fast as the now free men rowed with strength. The river was calm, but they were moving with the mighty Anduin in Spring so the water was high and the current swift. With urgency they pressed forth yet they found the battle upon the Pelennor well under way despite their speed. It had raged throughout the day and the outcome now was uncertain at best.

The arrival of the Rohirrim had raised hopes, but the fall of King Théoden and the heavy casualties suffered by a valiant ally hopelessly outnumbered meant that the situation was now in question. Éomer, the new King of Rohan, was stricken by grief having found his beloved sister fallen upon the battlefield. He blew loud a horn and cried for ruin and death in a voice that was cold and fell. Those who were nearby that still had, or could master, a horse to ride came to him, answering with a ferocious roar.
 

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Vorda, separated like so many others in the course of the battle, heard Éomer’s horn through the din. She glimpsed the King’s banner held high by his standardbearer and she pushed her horse forward to join his host. Among them were her sister shieldmaidens and there was a terrible fire in this eyes. They thirsted for veneagance after what they had witnessed. The death of their King and Lady Éowyn…and Freja, their commander crushed by the King’s horse…so many of their sisters slain in the tumult around Théoden as Mordor’s forces strove to bring him down. They set off hard into a horde of orcs that moved towards the city, a shieldmaiden’s battlesong thick in their throats and death in their eyes..

Swift was their destruction and they scattered in fear of the wild Rohirrim host as they drove forth. But confusion and mayhem filled the fields in this hour, for ill horns were sounded from afar and a host of Easterlings came at a run from the north issuing out of the ruins of Osgiliath. They were soon matched by the fair sound of the horns of Dol Amroth. Éomer and his host had driven far and had slew their number four fold but they were now diminished. They had pushed hard and were to the east of the city nearing the river. They had broken up a host of Haradian foot soldiers and scattered them, but now they now rallied around their fell mumakil beasts of war. Few had been felled, and they were strength uncounted coming against the Rohirrim, and they took their toll.

A shieldmaiden was trampled, and the standardbearer of Éomer fell from arrows coming from high upon a beast. Vorda was thrown when her horse reared up before a beast and she fell hard. Her head swam as she tried to regain her breath. She rolled away and kept hold of her horse, and picked up the King’s standard. Dizzy and hurting she remounted and rode forth to stand by Éomer.

It was the infantry of Gondor that held the ground by the south wall of the city that came forth to turn the tide again. They showed no fear of the mumakil and they had long spears that they threw at the eyes of the beasts. When one was hit, they would turn hard and stomp away, mortally wounded, from the men of Gondor. Yet this was a gain shortlived for now the charging Easterlings joined the battle and the tide was again inexorably turning in favour of Mordor.

It was then a wavering cry went up from the city walls. The Corsairs of Umbar! Hearts sank among the men of Gondor. It could only mean the southern fiefdoms had fallen and they now come to pick spoils from Minas Tirith. Éomer squinted south and his keen eyes could see the black sails on mighty ships of which the likes he had never seen before approaching fast. Instead of his spirit failing, it filled him with a stronger, ever grimmer remorse.

”To Death and the ending of the world!” he cried and it rallied his remaining riders.

But the ships filled the armies of Mordor with joy, and the Easterlings began a terrible war chant. They had pushed hard with no quarter and had forced their way between Éomer and the riders of Prince Imrahil. The Prince had to hold fast and set defence but he was slowly pushed back toward the city. Éomer and his diminished host were now alone and surrounded. He swore that if there could be one last feat he would do, it would be to meet these Corsairs on the quay and die fighting them. But his numbers had waned and the enemy numbers swelled. Éomer dismounted and they formed a shield wall on a hillock. Vorda planted the standard high and true, and they braced for the onslaught of another Easterling horde coming from the north.

With swords clashing and bows twanging, his archers fought to their last arrow before taking up swords. And as the last hope of Éomer King was beginning to fade, a cry of joy was raised from the high walls of the city. Éomer again looked at the approaching ships and he could see nw a fine standard in the sunlight that followed the southerly wind. A silver crown with seven stars and a white tree emblazoned on a deep blue banner fluttered in the wind. And he was sure he could discern Aragorn there on the prow of the lead ship with Anduril drawn and held high!

At the sight of the Corsair ships being manned by the Grey Company, the enemy wavered and were dismayed. But they fought on with ever more ferocity in their desperation in a renewed attempt to overrun Éomer’s hillock. At the quays, the ships began to land and the southern armies issued forth. Aragorn with the Dunedain, the sons of Elrond, Gimli and Legolas, freed slaves, and some hardy men from Lebannin led the attack and they charged into the waiting southrons. They quickly overwhelmed the garrison at the docks, and charged up the wall and out into the field. Aragorn shouted as he pointed to Éomer and the standard of Rohan with his sword.

’To the Rohirrim!”
 

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A cry went up and they charged forth harder into the enemy. There was a mile of Southron and Easterling footsoldiers between them, and the way was hard and bloody. For having lost hope in the coming of the men of the west on the ships, some broke and ran and were hewn as they fled. Others fiercely stood their ground and fought on to the death. The fight was grim and many men fell. Berendil was nearly hit in the head by a mace, but his skill in movement saved himself from death. He did suffer a deep gash on his cheekbone that bled hard. It was difficult to keep order in their approach but they slowly made their way toward Éomer.

Meanwhile, from the west, Imrahil again pressed forth toward Éomer, and as the hours passed with battle unceasing, the Rohirrim on the hillock were relieved. To see the three standards flying in the breeze on the hillock was a sight to behold! The meeting of Aragorn and Éomer made hearts glad, and those that stood cheered and had joy for a brief moment. Hanasian smiled even as he gasped for breath as he looked upon the three leaders. Berendil joined him and looked about. His eyes locked onto the eyes of Vorda, and suddenly his breath left him.

‘Where was Freja?’ he thought as he looked at Vorda. Her face was covered in dirt and blood, and rents in her armour were deep and terrible. He reached out to brush away a clot of dirt stuck to her cheek. For a brief moment she was going to turn away but instead she stood in place, tall and proud, the banner of the King of Rohan in her gauntleted grip. A slight touch and the dirt fell to the ground. Yet before he could ask of Freja, Aragorn swung his blade to deflect an arrow meant for Éomer King.

Hanasian slapped Berendil on the shoulder, ”We have work yet to do!”

That arrow was a reminder that the fight was still on and that the battle was uncertain. More arrows rained down and the Rohirrim shields stopped most of them. The Prince turned and set forth toward the enemy that had rallied and returned to the fight. Aragorn and Éomer called forth any who were near and they charged hard into the flank of the regrouping Easterlings.

Swords were broken and helms shattered. The blood of men, friend and foe, spilled forth through the air and poured onto the ground. All order was lost and men went this way and that fighting one on one, two on three, and small groups in melee. Berendil and Darhias were together as they charged into some Easterlings that were battling some Rohirrim. Grievous was the blow that felled Halbarad even as he slew four Easterlings. Mecarnil was last seen driving against a large southron with a spear. Gareth took an Easterling war club in the head while he fought another and fell hard. Aragorn and Eomer were fierce and few would stand before them.

They joined in a fight some Dunedain and some Rohirrim were having with a desperate and vicious band of Variags. They fought to the last man. Once defeated, a chance to take a breath was had. Berendil gasped for air as he broke off an arrow that had found him. He looked over to see Darhias wrapping his arm with some torn leather when he was jumped by a raving orc. He saw Darhias stand victorious. Berendil had no time to nod. Southron fanatics were charging and he felled one of them before being knocked back. His head swam as his vision got blurry and hearing muffled.

He did not fall, but staggered toward the Rohirrim standard. He shook his head as his sword moved as if it had a mind if its own. He turned and twisted, and as his head started to clear, he realised there was someone that had his back. With a final blow an orc fell, and there was a lull. He turned to the one at his back and saw it was Vorda. She had the standard in one hand and a sword in the other and watched out intently.

He turned to stand at her back and watch out for the enemy as he gasped, ” Do you know where Freja is? Have you seen her?”

His words seemed to stun Vorda and her eyes fluttered. She had not seen her, not since she was with King Théoden. She did not know where Freja was now. In fact, she realized that she did not know where any of her sisters were now. Only one of her number was still with her. And in her gut she knew a sickening dread for if Freja was not here with her, there could be only one reason. The sound of shattering steel snapped Vorda from her thoughts. She turned and swiftly ran a Southron through as he charged towards Éomer. A movement, a sequence, Freja had drilled her on relentlessly.

Her answer to Berendil was halting, ”I do not know…”

Yet Berendil did not hear her for he was fighting hand to hand with a particularly frantic Easterling. The man used a rock to batter Berendil way and as the Easterling regained his footing he waved the few Easterlings still alive to him. Berendil staggered to his feet and soon put paid to that as the Easterlings instead ran away. Berendil gave chase as they fled for the river. They ran even harder as the fight continued. While the day lasted, the battle continued like this, flaring and then subsiding only to flare again until the sun sank into the west.

Sunset it threw deep red beams to the east under the darkness of Mordor. The sky and the ground and the river all as if they were giving up the blood that had been spilled this day. In the hour that night fell upon the field of battle, victory was at last held by the Men of the West! Those of the enemy who had not been slain had fled, and those of the West who still stood were exhausted beyond hope. But as the sound of steel fell away, the sounds of the wounded and dying now filled the air. It would be a long night before the light of day again came to the field. Only a brief rest was to be had to regain enough strength to go and seek the living among the dead.

Berendil was found sitting by the riverbank with several dead Easterlings around him. Though he had a severe headache, and his cheek felt like fire, he waived off attendance to his wound, directing them instead to those in true need. He went into the night walking about, making those injured beyond all hope comfortable in their passing. Others he assisted to get to the city. As he looked over the dead strewn across the field, his one prevailing thought was to find Freja.

In time he found a shieldmaiden lying face down with a spear in her back. He gently pulled the spear out of her, and little blood seeped out. He knelt down and rolled her over, brushing the matted bloody braids from her face. It was not Freja but one who had taunted him from the fire when he had sought Freja out a second time. He could see that the spear was not the cause of her death, but a blade had hewn her neck. He lay her straight and folded her arms across her chest. Finding her sword next to her, he placed the hilt in her hands and nodded as he brushed her cheek. He then tore a red cloth from the brow of a dead Southron she had slain and tied it to his sword before pushing it into the ground by her. She would be given her full due in honour.
 

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3019, III – March 16 - Pelennor Fields


Come the dawn, Berendil discovered that he had sat down by a dead mumakil and fallen asleep. The raucous sound of a crow awoke him. They were everywhere now, calling and clicking and flying in great black drifts here and there across the field. Soldiers were moving the bodies of their dead. They continued to bring in the wounded whilst others set fire to the enemy dead. Berendil rose to his feet and returned to his search. Where in all this carnage was Freja? Did she live? Would he find her dead? As he wondered, images of the woman he sought flashed through his mind. The firelight in her brilliant eyes. That impudent smirk. Her searing anger and fierce pride. They way she prowled, bloodthirsty and deadly as the hunting cats rumoured to live far to the south.

Berendil wandered far and wide across the fields, searching through the day. He found five shieldmaidens of lesser rank before his grief and weariness overtook him. He cared for each in honour, and marked each where they lay as he did the first. But he saw no sign of Freja. As the sun swung high across the sky and crawled westward, Berendil sat upon a patch of bloody grass. He had no more strength. All he could do is watch over the fields before he lay upon his back and closed his eyes.

As the sun westered, men still searched. The wounded had either been carried away to the city or they had perished and now the soldiers searched the field for their dead. Berendil was shaken by a boot. He slowly opened his eyes and saw see a face he knew. It was Darhias!

”Berendil! We thought you lost! I feared the worst when I saw you laying here! Are you wounded?”

Berendil stood and looked around in grief. He answered in a whisper, ”How bad?”


“Very. We lost Halbarad and Gareth is in the healer’s tent. He suffered a hard blow to the head…


Berendil's sorrow was stark upon his face and Darhias fell quiet for a time before he continued, ”Mecarnil is missing too. But it was much worse for the men of Gondor, for the fight started in Osgiliath. Lord Faramir and his men fell back but long did he hold the Rammath Echor. For two days! This was when we met the enemy at Linhir and drove them back through Lebennin. Lord Faramir was gravely wounded the day we took the ships, Lord Denethor died in grief, and the city was besieged. Their losses have yet to be counted.”

“What of Rohan? The Shieldmaidens? I have found five dead on the field this day. Have you seen Freja?


The grim look on Darhias’s face broke as he said, ”Éomer is now King of Rohan. Their losses are still being counted. Only two of the Shieldmaidens were brought to the healing tent. They were masters. Freja was not among them. Of the others, I do not know.”

A sudden thought struck Berendil, ”Théoden… where did he fall?”


“There, maybe a mile in front of the city gate,”
Darhias pointed across the field and Berendil squinted into the distance.

He then said, ”The Shieldmaidens who did not ride with Éomer would have stayed there!”

Without further word, Berendil started walking that way. Darhias took a deep breath and called after him, ”You will find that battlefield by the stench of the Morgul beast. Even the crows will not feast on its flesh!”

Berendil nodded but did not look back. He pointed to his left to draw Darhias’ attention to someone nearby on their knees grieving. Darhias nodded and turned and walked toward them. As he got closer, he could see it was Vorda. She was grieved over another fallen sister. As he approached, she did not look up at him, but knew he was there. She wept freely as she touched the cold cheek of the fallen shieldmaiden.

”We knew each other since we were young girls learning to ride. We challenged each other in everything! We joined the Order together.”

Darhias knelt beside Vorda and looked at her friend. The wound was to her side, a deep cut by a spear or sword jab. Looking at her face, she looked at peace. But when Vorda waved away a fly that tried to land on her, Darhias thought he saw her move.

He blinked, unsure, but when her eyelid twitched, he stood and called out to a couple soldiers with a cart nearby, ”Come! Bring this heroine to care! Hurry! She lives!”

Vorda blinked as he turned to her and said, ”She is not dead, but her wounds are grave. Let us get her on this cart.”

T
he woman had bled much and gave a moan as she was moved. The soldier looked at her wounds and was surprised she yet lived. Of stern stuff were the women of Rohan fashioned, it seemed. She was placed with care on the cart with other gravely wounded and the soldiers started to look for others.

Vorda, though, would have none of this and her voice was steely for all the grief still upon her face, ”No! She goes in now! She is not dead! I will take her. You go look for others!”

The soldiers looked from her to Darhias as the weary Shieldmaiden advanced. Darhia nodded and waved them on. It was a fight they didn’t need or want. Vorda lifted the cart and started to walk, but she was fatigued beyond her strength. Darhias was as well, yet he relieved Vorda of one of the rails and they both walked the cart toward the city.
 
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Elora

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Berendil came to where the beast lay and found the grass was stained black with its blood. The dead were being moved and the enemy dead were being stacked by the beast. He looked at the corpses of the Rohirrim lying side by side, seeing only a few more Shieldmaidens there. None were Freja. She was one of many of the missing.

Berendil looked closely at the dead shieldmaidens, and recognised some of them from that day in Dunharrow. He looked at each and would remember their faces. Suddenly he heard a man behind him ranting in anger as he stomped about

”Why have these fine horses not been attended to!”

“They are dead, sir. We tend to the dead soldiers.”
a Gondorian soldier replied.


The man of Rohan, young with bright yellow hair that was tangled by battle, gritted his teeth and said loudly, ”These horses are warriors no less than those they bore! We will tend to them now! This horse over here… it is the King’s horse!”

Berendil looked over at the horse the Rohirrim had named. A grey creature it had been, truly stupendous he guessed in life. It lay still now, limbs stiffened in death, with another horse beside it. Only then did Berendil espy a booth beneath it. A boot he knew. He was assailed by a dreadful vision that had come upon him as he walked the Paths of the Dead. So many times had he seen Freja’s death, in countless cruel and bloody ways and now he feared the worse.

He called out, ”A soldier lies beneath these horses! Let us move them!

Two soldiers from Gondor and the man from Rohan quickly came over. As four worked to move the horses Berendil’s heart sank into his boots. The bootleg and breeches he recognised! He lay down and tried to look under Snowmane but could see little more than a second mangled bloody leg. He reached under and felt the ankle. It was shattered, but it still trickled fresh warm blood!

He cried, ”Alive!”

This was not now heard on the field for it had been over a day. Berendil’s cry drew any nearby within hearing.

The man from Rohan ordered, ”Let us move this honoured horse with care so we may tend the valiant warrior beneath they indeed be alive!”

Snowmane was a heavy horse and with the kingly raiment the weight was vast. It wasn’t until another rider of Rohan came with his horse that they could move the horse. Berendil could now see her hair… the matted braids and torcs, and he knew it was Freja! It took several men to lift Snowmane and as the horse was moved she made an dreadful gurgling noise. Blood spewed from her mouth and nose as she coughed but somehow, she still laboured to breathe in short, shallow bursts.

Berendil cried,”She lives! Freja Lives!”

He stood and waved for a cart but there was none. Still the cry went up, travelling through the Rohirrim upon the field who echoed Berendil’s words and chanted.

”Freja Lives!”

It swiftly spread across the field until it reached Vorda and Darhias as they trudged toward the gates. Vorda was filled with sudden wild joy. Darhias too found the energy to smile.

”They need a cart! Come! Let us go!” Vorda cried, and Darhias could see that they were the closest with a cart, so they wheeled around and started toward where the men were gathering. All thought of exhaustion had left them and they moved swiftly.

Berendil knelt by Freja as the hurried towards them. Her lips moved but she could voice no words. He pushed back the woven fire of her braids, darkened by so much blood, and sought to soothe her. Her skin was ablaze and her eyes were closed as she wandered dark paths.

He whispered, ”We will get you to Aragorn! He is a great healer!”

At this he saw her eyes move beneath her eyelids almost as if drawn by his voice. One eye opened, a barest crescent of searing blue visible as she searched, reached. He could feel her straining.

Finally her voice came in a soft, agonized gurgle,”…Théoden… Éowyn…”

“Hush…. Say no more… Lady Eowyn is in the city. She lives,”
Berendil whispered, soothing the clammy, slick skin of her brow.

He wasn’t sure of that, but thought he heard someone say it was true. He could not say what the fate of King Théoden was. Perhaps he lay grievously injured as well. Her eye wandered momentarily, opening further. She sighed something that might have been his name as her eyes closed again.

Vorda and Darhias soon arrived and Vorda dropped her grip upon the cart to run to freja’s side. She fell to her knees with reckless haste, thudding down hard and reaching for Freja. Again, Berendil saw Freja’s eyes flare. Almost as if she sensed her pupil’s return. He watched her try to smile, and if such a thing were possible then this woman would do it. Freja’s hand twitched before she tried to lift it but that was too much for she grimaced in pain and went limp, senseless once more.

As Vorda ran her hands over Freja’s battered armour, Berendil considered Freja’s broken body. How she could be lifted or moved in such a state was beyond his comprehension. As Vorda and Berendil bent over Freja, a healer from Minas Tirith found the cart.

”Two here,” he said as he peered within, ”If they lived before, they do so no longer.”

He signalled to have the dead placed with the line of corpses.

At his words, Vorda’s head rose and she looked back to the cart stricken. Darhias, though, had remained and he knew that the two the healer spoke of did not include Vorda’s friend. He waved her back to Freja as the healer advanced on the grievously wounded Shieldmaiden.

”Well now…this is a conundrum. This one should not live.”

“Yet she does,”
Vorda growled, as ferocious as the woman who had taught her, ”And you be well served to see that continues.”

The healer blinked at such sudden aggression but Berendil reached across to steady Vorda’s sudden bristling anger.

”We will do what we can, Vorda. And to do that, we need to find a way to safely move her. Will you permit us that?”

Vorda peered at him as if she had forgotten who he was but then nodded, recovering herself. At that Berendil beckoned the others closer and they set to work. Whilst he ensured Freja was lifted with all care to the cart, Darhias saw the two shieldmaidens that had perished within were set down and covered with a blanket from a horse. Thankfully, Freja remained unconscious during this for there was no way to spare her the agony their actions would cause.

Once she was set within, Berendil joined Darhias at the cart rails and they set off. Vorda soon found them, hurrying past with a banner she had managed to recover so that she could walk before them with it held high.

”Make way! Make way for the Shieldmaidens of Rohan!” Darhias cried.

Berendil repeated this call and they took in turns as they slowly progressed towards the city gates. By the time they reached the city, the path was lined with soldiers and citizens alike who had beheld the mighty cavalry charge. They bowed their heads as the cart passed for word had already spread of the terrible price paid by this ally from the north.
 

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