Author's Chapter Notes:
Cultures collide at Dunharrow
3019, III – March 7, Harrowdale Hanasian shook his head and countered, ”Freja is considered uncommonly gifted in battle. Rohan has not seen her like in many a generation and the Rohirrim are not inclined to be easily impressed.” Who was he to gainsay the practices of the Shieldmaidens tried and tested over generations? Who was he to declare that they were somehow inadquate? Had he been in the East Mark?! HAD HE! Frega growled at the towering arrogance and ignorance and this prompted Éowyn to warn her. ”These men, these Rangers of the North, are our allies.” Berendil threw his arms up and glared at Hanasian who threw back a glare of his own, ”I told you that would happen.” Meanwhile, the Shieldmaidens that had eagerly gathered for a possible melêe filed away with disappointed murmurs until only Berendil and Vorda remained. As soon as the field was cleared, Vorda was on the move. She wove about as Berendil swiftly drew his long sword, his mouth pressed into a thin line of displeasure. Freja shifted her attention to the unfolding match. As she had hoped, and perhaps Berendil had not understood, Vorda could hold her own with her spear. There was shortage of fighting men, particularly Easterlings, on the eastern borders of Rohan. And it was for good reason that even a skilled swordsman feared encountered a proficient spear on the field. As she observed, she replied to Éowyn. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ As Vorda withdrew and Freja neared, Berendil threw Hanasian a worried look. His earlier anger had cooled and in truth he had no desire to make things worse than they already were. The Shieldmaiden paused to divest herself of her sword belt. That surprised him. She shed her armour swiftly too and rolled out of her mail. She was tall, easily able to look into his eyes, and he saw that she was lean and strong. That much was evident now that she was clad in little more than a short tunic and breeches stuffed into her tall, battle worn boots. Though she had set aside both her weapons and her armour, she was no less perilous. He could see that very clearly too. She had the rolling fluid gait of a well practised, highly skilled warrior. Just as Hanasian had warned him. It did not seem very likely at all that her high rank was merely the result of her position at Meduseld. She offered him a knowing smile, "I see how it is now. You’re happy to test yourself against an initiate but when it comes to a master…” To her credit, she yielded ground as required, unhurried and unconcerned. That infuriating smile of hers didn't slip once as she adjusted and he ended up doing little aside from battering on her shield. It came as no surprise to him that a master Shieldmaiden would be accomplished with a shield. Still defence was but half the battle and he'd make sure that she'd have to work hard to best him. 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. It whistled alarmingly close to his ear and shoulder. Apparently, her remark about his face did not relate to other regions of his head. Freja hesitated, susupecting some sort of trick or ploy he guessed and so Berendil took another step back. "There was no good reason for sparing your face, no matter how pretty it is.” ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ She frowned, puzzled by the strange sense of comfort she felt at this. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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 he 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?” 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.
”Rankings,” 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 three or more opponents 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.
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. The colour of her hair, a rich red like that of a deep wine, glowed under the torchlight as she tipped her head back in laughter. She turned, her helm propped under one arm on 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. A typical reaction given the woman he and a good many others were staring at.
”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 by reputation. All the Rohirrim do. The Shieldmaidens are revered. The people follow their doings closely. Or, at least, they did before they fell out of favour at Meduseld. Freja, she is Théoden King's fosterling, raised in Meduseld.”
”Hence her rapid ascension,” Berendil speculated, for Freja was young to be ranked so highly.
Berendil broke off his scrutiny of the Shieldmaiden to consider Hanasian a moment, ”You sound… 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, ”Horse theft in Rohan? I'd describe that differently, Hanasian.”
Hanasian shrugged, ill-inclined to argue the point for another tranche of Shieldmaidens was even now taking to the field. A sideways glance to Berendil, though, confirmed that he was still staring at Freja. In the torchlight, surrounded by her sisters, she made for a striking figure indeed.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
”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 rank. 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 with what waited for them. She had walked out of the King's tent determined, after all their plans had been laid, to see this put to rights.
Her sisters would ride to this battle with their full due, their full honour and rank. And if they should fall, they will greet their sisters in the halls of the dead with their heads held proudly aloft. She owed them that much, 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 called after Vorda and saw her weariness punctuated by a grin.
Vorda was, in many respects, so alike to her that it almost seemed that they shared the same blood. A bright future lay ahead for her provided Freja could bring them through what waited for them in Gondor. She watched Vorda spar for a long moment before she turned back to Éowyn.
”I have missed this,” Éowyn sighed wistfully and transferred her attention from the field to Freja, ”And you. Particularly you.”
Freja nodded at her words and rolled her shoulders beneath the weight of her armour out of habit. She had forgotten what it was like to be without the weight 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, Éo. We'd soon have that hair of yours bound up entirely.”
“I can’t,” Éowyn replied, surprising Freja.
”After the War you can. Théoden King has recovered his strength now that Wormtongue is put out,” Freja turned to spit the foul taste of his name from 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 shade of blue far more restrained than Freja’s, glowed. The Shieldmaiden frowned slightly at her.
”I know how you chafe at being kept back. I was the one you trusted with your heart’s desires and whispered words. What has gotten into 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!”
She could not miss the 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. That there were now two men on the field only served to double Freja's outrage. 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,” the newcomer said in a rush, his manner respectful, ”Berendil is unfamiliar with your customs. He means no offence.”
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 against them,” he said, not in the least remorseful.
”Desperate times indeed, then,” Freja retorted, fuming even as she strove to relax 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 features that appealed to women. Clear eyes, even and strong features and so very tall. Of course she noticed that. She was not blind, but right now her attention was on other details. He had a reach which would make that long sword of his longer again. No shield, but a cloak.
”To me, Vorda,” Freja called and beckoned her over, ”You – Ranger – you will remain precisely where you are.”
The man that had spoken on his behalf groaned as Vorda hurried over. With an ominous smile for the two Rangers on the field, Freja drew Vorda away so that they might not hear or read what they said. Worried, Éowyn followed them through the gathering displeasure of Shieldmaidens.
Freja murmured, ”That longsword of his, when coupled with his height, will move differently to the shortswords of the Easterlings. Vorda. Still, you will have the advantage with your spear for half his reach is his flesh and blood. Harry his feet, foul his legs. Whatever you can, and make it look convincing. Draw no blood, mind. That you will leave for him.”
She glanced up to see that while Berendil had not moved, his friend had pulled in closer and the two men stood intently studying them. Freja offered them both another ferocious grin that grew when Berendil’s face revealed the first traces of consternation. Even so, she was confident he'd have no idea what was coming at him.
Vorda’s eyes sparkled, ”And once he has drawn first blood?”
“You cede 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. No matter, she thought, for the die was already cast. Vorda regained the field and approached her starting mark but the two men continued their discussion. Two against one, Freja mused? Was that what they wanted? She rolled her eyes at that. How quaint! Vorda could do much better than two against one.
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 jubilation and why not! Everyone loved a melee.
”Freja!” Éowyn objected 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 concern if this is all it takes to send Rangers scurrying from the field, tails between their legs.”
At that laughter rippled through the crowd. Freja allowed herself to smile along with them. It was, after all, mildly amusing.
“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 content ourselves with that.”
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 genocide as a taunt was unforgiveable but Freja did not even know it was genocide in the first place. His stomach knotting, Hanasian looked to Berendil and found his usually calm friend was seething with quiet fury. No surprise there, he thought to himself, for of of the three northern realms Cardolan's fate had been the most vicious of all. There was, he realised, no stopping this now so with a nod Hanasian strode away to clear the field. The sooner this was over and done with, and put behind them, the better.
”Freja, it was an accident,” Éowyn chastised as the bout began, ”A misunderstanding. No dishonor was intended.”
”And yet it was done all the same,” Freja retorted, unmoved and her eyes upon Hanasian. How, she wondered, could he know enough to caution Berendil, explain to him what he had done. He was from the North. What could he know of Rohan?
”This 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 pressed and Freja gave off glaring at Hanasian.
”I risk nothing of the sort. You well know that I am, in fact, holding my hand and displaying no small degree of forebearance for what has done. For these…allies,” Freja growled the 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, ”But the simple truth is that you are wrong.”
”They skulk in their forests, flitting from tree to tree. On the open field, what use are such men? 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, ”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, Freja's quick and formidible temper already roused. 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's scowl deepened.
”Even Rangers must have leaders, I suppose,” she said, dismissive.
“He is the heir of Elendil,” Éowyn pointed out and Freja shrugged a shoulder. As best she could tell, Eldendil was overrated. Not that she'd ever bothered to spend much time looking into the matter. The fanciful tales of a people who thought themselves very much superior to everyone else did not appeal to Freja overly much.
Éowyn drew close, almost in an embrace, to whisper, ”He took from me a cup of mead.”
Freja’s jaw dropped 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.
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 ceaseless, suffocating 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, Freja. A wise, noble and brave man who fought to defend us at Helm's Deep as if we were his own people. My heart is full. He has brought such hope, such light, when there has been only sorrow and shadow.”
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 gaze. And who was to know what lay ahead? This very likely would be her last chance at happiness before all dwindled to naught before Mordor's assembled might. Freja did not have it in her to quash that and so she embraced Éowyn.
”I can see that you are happy,” Freja murmured, ”And that is all I have ever wanted for you."
“Thank you, Freja,” Éowyn answered, heartfelt relief evident.
Freja managed a smile for Éowyn even though it seemed to her that the world had descended into madness. 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 to Freja Fireborn,” Vorda said and at that Freja nodded, grimly satisfied.
”Please don’t,” Éowyn asked her.
”I’ll be gentle,” Freja replied as she strode for the field and the tall man upon it. He was going to receive a lesson on Shieldmaidens he'd not soon forget. That much she could manage in the chaos they had all fallen into.
He said to Freja, ”I have no desire to continue this.”
Berendil sighed unhappily this and then grimaced over to where Hanasian was standing. He used his hands to ask the man for help but Hanasian shook his head at him and signed back that he was on his own. As they did this, Freja took up the thick haft of a war spear that had yet to be pointed. She hefted it a few times before she nodded her satisfaction and then 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. No sharp edges on this one, at least, so she'd not be severing his limbs with it. Something to be said for that, he supposed.
”I have neither shield nor buckler,” Berendil pointed out and Freja shrugged, utterly unconcerned.
”And I do not have an edged weapon,” Freja replied and glanced back to where Éowyn was fretted, ”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 that will have to do.”
“Now we understand each other,” Freja purred and fell into an opening stance that she preferred for this. Berendil head an appreciative murmur ripple through the watching crowd. Anticipation was building like the storms of summer. He could almost taste it in the air. Freja gave him a smile over the edge of her shield and so, with a shake of his head, Berendil raised the tip of his sword.
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 long stick, effectly. He feinted but she did not take the bait. Well now, tried another feint she did not bother to engage with. Nothing for it, he decided, and pressed in with a rapid flurry of driving attacks.
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 foul his footing. 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 reckless. Those watching cooed whilst they clapped. Berendil reset himself, as did Freja, and they were off again.
”To first blood, yes?” he asked, narrowly avoiding being clouted by a spear shaft.
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, outrageously 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. And right now they were trained on him...
Berendil stepped back, cast his sword to the ground and held his arms out, palms turned towards her.
”A draw,” he proposed as her frown replaced her smile.
”We are evenly matched,” he said her as she straightened out of her fighting stance.
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 disgusted 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 press. 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.”
“A little more persistence and the boot would have been on the other foot,” Mecarnil replied.
”She was softening him up,” Hanasian argued, ”She knew what she was about. It’s a special kind of ignorance that downplays the obvious experience of an opponent!”
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.
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 against interfering 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 a mess of things. All he could do was shrug and ask if they had seen her.
All these delays meant that it took Berendil some time to track Freja down. He found her 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 according to their own preference, and Berendil guessed that meant that they were all master Shieldmaidens.
As she watched, Berendil struck by the contrast between the woman that had stalked off the field, seething with contempt, to the one that roared with lusty laughter now. That wild and absolutely improper smile he had seen earlier in the night 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 an awareness that 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. He was the only man standing in this part of the encampment and 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 sort of laughter of someone who made the most of life in all its riot and glory. The perfect companion to her improper smile.
Still wiping tears of mirth from her 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. Her loose limbed walk was unhurried in the least. 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 at the last moment. Off to one side Freja stood, arms crossed under her chest. No cloak over her shoulders, despite the fact that the nights were decidedly crisp even this far south. Freja 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? He just can't get enough!”
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.
She shrugged at that and he saw the hint of a smile, ”You are amusing and they have need to pass the time. Many of us seek to distract ourselves whilst we still might.”
“Is that what I am? A jester to caper for the great Shieldmaidens of Rohan?”
Freja shrugged again, indifferent, and so 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 refer to me."
Berendil blinked, baffled by such a statement from a woman of such fierce pride as Freja.
While Berendil tried to determine whether to be offended or flattered or both, a call came from the fire, ”I think you should bring this Ranger here so we can all play with him. It's not fair that you keep him for yourself!”
”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, which only made the women there chortle, and then turned to follow her. As Freja 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 of insults that left both parties smiling widely. Hanasian had said she was highly regarded but it also seemed to him that she was equally well liked. How a prideful, hot tempered individual had accomplished that was a mystery.
She shifted her path sharply and a short while later he saw Ióen, one of the senior officers trusted by Éomer, pass by. No greeting or acknowledgement there. Clearly, he mused, Freja had not befriended all of Rohan. 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. Meanwhile, he thought he heard Freja mutter something under her breath. What, Berendil wondered, was that 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 dived 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.
In all, it did not take very long at all 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 surprised by it. She kicked a faggot of wood in their fire, rearranged 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 suitable apology.”
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.
”You didn’t come to apologise, did you Ranger?”
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.
”And so we're back to that...again,” 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, good Master.”
Berendil was certain she mocked him.
”You don’t think much of us, 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 at that and he saw a faint smile of approval, ”Your talk is that of 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 shrugged, ”Sounds like something I might eat, a food. 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 answer 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, the firelight flickering over the panes of her face.
”What, then” Berendil asked her through a suddenly dry mouth.
”Is it so surprising that a Shieldmaiden might be capable of compassion,” she returned, voice barely more than a murmur.
Freja gazed at him, as if she saw him clearly for the first time. He could feel the warmth of her 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.
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 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. What do you think of him,” Berendil asked and immediately Freja recalled her exchange with Éowyn. She felt reluctant to comment on Rangers now.
”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 that made no sense to her at all. How was she to explain her land, customs and their ways? And in any case, it would not do for a Shieldmaiden to seek approval for such things. Their customs were their own. 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. I knew this when I chose my path and I will not turn 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.
”It is for 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. But there will be much to rebuild, in Arnor and Rohan alike.”
“I do not think 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?”
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.
”My thoughts rest on the battle ahead,” she replied.
“Is battle all you think of?”
“Not entirely,” Freja admitted, swallowing in a dry throat, for just at that moment she was not 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 and then he sighed as 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, then surely we may find a way to 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. In fact, he could scarcely understand just why he had done as he had done this night. 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.
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, Berendil?”
“Nothing,” Berendil answered even though he knew very well that wasn’t true.
As did Hanasian, apparently “Shieldmaidens do not abandon their spears lightly.”
Hanasian yawned, ”So you aren’t the sort for idle dalliances.”
“What makes you think I’m dallying?” 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 to find sleep.
3019, III – March 7, Harrowdale
Hanasian shook his head and countered, ”Freja is considered uncommonly gifted in battle. Rohan has not seen her like in many a generation and the Rohirrim are not inclined to be easily impressed.”
Who was he to gainsay the practices of the Shieldmaidens tried and tested over generations? Who was he to declare that they were somehow inadquate? Had he been in the East Mark?! HAD HE! Frega growled at the towering arrogance and ignorance and this prompted Éowyn to warn her.
”These men, these Rangers of the North, are our allies.”
Berendil threw his arms up and glared at Hanasian who threw back a glare of his own, ”I told you that would happen.”
Meanwhile, the Shieldmaidens that had eagerly gathered for a possible melêe filed away with disappointed murmurs until only Berendil and Vorda remained. As soon as the field was cleared, Vorda was on the move. She wove about as Berendil swiftly drew his long sword, his mouth pressed into a thin line of displeasure.
Freja shifted her attention to the unfolding match. As she had hoped, and perhaps Berendil had not understood, Vorda could hold her own with her spear. There was shortage of fighting men, particularly Easterlings, on the eastern borders of Rohan. And it was for good reason that even a skilled swordsman feared encountered a proficient spear on the field. As she observed, she replied to Éowyn.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
As Vorda withdrew and Freja neared, Berendil threw Hanasian a worried look. His earlier anger had cooled and in truth he had no desire to make things worse than they already were. The Shieldmaiden paused to divest herself of her sword belt. That surprised him. She shed her armour swiftly too and rolled out of her mail. She was tall, easily able to look into his eyes, and he saw that she was lean and strong. That much was evident now that she was clad in little more than a short tunic and breeches stuffed into her tall, battle worn boots. Though she had set aside both her weapons and her armour, she was no less perilous. He could see that very clearly too. She had the rolling fluid gait of a well practised, highly skilled warrior. Just as Hanasian had warned him. It did not seem very likely at all that her high rank was merely the result of her position at Meduseld.
She offered him a knowing smile, "I see how it is now. You’re happy to test yourself against an initiate but when it comes to a master…”
To her credit, she yielded ground as required, unhurried and unconcerned. That infuriating smile of hers didn't slip once as she adjusted and he ended up doing little aside from battering on her shield. It came as no surprise to him that a master Shieldmaiden would be accomplished with a shield. Still defence was but half the battle and he'd make sure that she'd have to work hard to best him.
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.
It whistled alarmingly close to his ear and shoulder. Apparently, her remark about his face did not relate to other regions of his head.
Freja hesitated, susupecting some sort of trick or ploy he guessed and so Berendil took another step back.
"There was no good reason for sparing your face, no matter how pretty it is.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
She frowned, puzzled by the strange sense of comfort she felt at this.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~