3017, III – East Fold, Rohan, August
The rage and fear turned her commander’s voice into thunder. She could hear her bellowing through the smoke, searching for her, but she could not raise voice to answer for most of her jaw was missing.
The Shieldmaiden lay on her back amongst the fallen. Some were her sisters. Some were the Easterlings that swarmed through the East Fold in ever thicker, vicious packs. She stared up at the sky. Pale blue it had been when the battle had begun but now, between the drifts of smoke, it seemed darker. Perhaps she was dying.
”SAERA!” Freja cried, frantic now.
Fall back, you fool. That’s what she wanted to say. Go, before it is too late, and ride again another day. Seek your vengeance, slake your spears in their blood with my blessing. Do not fall, like me, now. Not now.
The battle was not finished but it would not be long now. She knew it. Her commander had to as well. Freja had an implicit knack for such things. An uncanny talent. A one woman army, they joked amongst themselves. If the Easterlings took Freja… no, didn’t bear thinking of. Years invested into their next captain for naught. And they knew, now, what happened to the Shieldmaidens they captured. Please, Saera prayed, let me die before they find me.
But she did not.
Light was failing and her sisters were gone. They had to pull Freja away and Saera could still hear her bitter cursing as they did so. The Easterlings were picking through the dead, harvesting weapons and gear and looking for captives. She could hear them drawing near and she knew what would follow. A swarthy face, handsome behind his midnight beard she supposed, blocked her view of the sky. He looked down upon her, impassive and then he noticed she lived. Must have seen her pupils dilate. Warmth, sudden, flooded her lower limbs as terror set in.
He crouched, impassive and unhurried, eyes lifted from her to the surrounding field.
”They will come for you,” he said, his Westron thickly accented and quiet, ”I cannot prevent it. When they do, I will claim you. I will…give you an honourable end.”
His dark eyes returned to her for a moment to check she had understood. Saera had, but she didn’t believe a word these men said. Then he nodded, rose to his feet with a grunt and left her lying there. It unfolded exactly as the Easterling had described.
Others had found her, chattering and crowing with delight in their strange gibberish. An unholy glee and well she knew why. She had eight braids and she’d not taken her injuries to her back. Few of her sisters to fell to these men did, now. They lifted her up and carried her, jolting and ungentle, from the battle field. She passed in and out of consciousness, the pain unbearable. When her senses cleared, she was lying on her back again before a fire. Men were arguing around her, over her…likely about her. Saera could barely move her head but she could see enough from the corner of her eyes to see they had found others.
One of her sisters wept openly, tears glistening in the firelight. The other two had fallen into silence, shocked and ghostly or so she thought until one raised her head to meet her eyes. A ferocious, unbowed will was still alight in her. Whoever claimed her would find more than he bargained for. She wished the woman fortune. May your spears drink deeply, sister.
The debate ended abruptly and men strode forward. The weeping Shieldmaiden, an initiate, cried out in fear as she was pulled to her feet. She lashed out violently, startling the Easterling and turned for the night. Bows snapped and she fell heavily face first, four thickly feathered shafts protruding from her back. The man she had eluded spat, displeased at having his sport ruined for the night, and stalked off as his fellows dragged the initiate’s body out of the firelight.
The two silent shieldmaidens were claimed by the man that had found Saera first. He took each in hand, far more alert and watchful than the last fellow, and Saera again was lifted from the ground. She lost consciousness almost immediately.
When it returned, she was inside a tent. It was quiet, the light gentle. Where were her other two sisters? As she wondered that, the man that had claimed them came forward. He was rubbing his hands with a bloodied cloth, calm and not in the least out of breath.
”It was quick,” he said to her, ”I will see them buried, and you, before the night is out.”
Again she didn’t believe him. Not a word. Why would this Easterling take such a risk, and for them? Easterlings hated the Shieldmaidens with particular ferocity now. And what did they know of honour?
”Freja and Eriwyn,” he began and then shook his head as he reconsidered, ”Ah, no matter. You will not be able to deliver them any message. Know that this…it is not my doing. I find it…abhorrent. If you but stopped tattooing…”
He shook his head again, ”But you will not. You cannot, and so we are the both of us reduced to this.”
The Easterling drew his curved knife, the blade notched from its earlier work. Likely her sister’s bodies lay cooling in the tent even now.
”A single blow to the eye is enough. Fast. And I swear to you again, upon my honour, I will not take your skin.”
Useless words to a dead woman, she thought, as he raised his dagger. Saera refused to close her eyes. She fixed them upon the Easterling’s face as inwards she screamed at him: liar! Savage! Monster! Kil-
Swift, as he promised, Khule noted but his dagger had become stuck. It was unpleasant, but necessary to remove it from the Shieldmaiden’s face. He had no time to waste, with three bodies to bury and all without his men seeing. If they knew he had not claimed their skins, there would be bloodshed again this night.
It was nearly dawn before Khule was done and he’d narrowly avoided detection four times. He made his way back to his tent weary. He’d succeeded tonight, but there would come another night when he would not. The practice of flaying and curing a Shieldmaiden’s skin was rampant now in other units. Impossible for him to stop and so he took what measures he could.
The war looked set to rob them of their very humanity. Glory, wealth and riches. A return of their sacred lands. The righting of ancient wrongs. It had all fallen away. Soon, perhaps this year, maybe the next, his brothers would commence the march south. Perhaps he would join them. No matter whether he went or remained here, he knew that he would see pale leather marked with intricate, swirling tattoos in either place. Prized, much admired, coveted. But there would come a time of reckoning. There always did. And Khule thought it unlikely that those who flayed their captives alive would be accounted anything other than savage beasts.