The Ranger And The Shieldmaiden

Alqualisse

Chapter 011

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Chapter 11

3019, III – May, Minas Tirith


Vorda walked through the Houses of Healing at a fast clip, her pace a reflection of the speed of her thoughts about what lay ahead. She had a number of misgivings about what was to unfold and her discussion with Captain Hanasian had not resolved them. The fact that Berendil had shown up in the midst of it was just one problem. He’d shown up just in time to hear that Freja was likely being tormented and influenced by Naiore Dannan even now. That, predictably, had caused no small degree of dismay fuelled by no small amount of ale. The man had been beside himself and that fear had transformed into anger. Hanasian had managed to contain his friend’s distress but Vorda was not confident that he’d remain away today.

It wasn’t that she didn’t understand and empathise with Berendil. He was a good man with a good heart, loyal and true, and genuinely feared and mourned for the woman he loved. He did not wish her ill nor harm. Vorda’s concern rather centred on Freja. She was unreliable, vulnerable and fragile and this… well this would hard enough as it was. The man loping silently along at her side despite her speed noticed her glance about, looking for Berendil.

”He won’t be here,” Darhias assured her, ”He’s calmed down and seen reason.”

Vorda shook her head, the two torcs she bore now on her braids rattling, ”If you were he, would you see reason? Would you stay away?”

Darhias grunted at that and amended, ”You focus on Freja and leave Berendil to me. If he shows up, I’ll deal with him.”

That was about as good as it was going to get. Vorda knew this. She was a pragmatic, practical woman. Still, her stomach was knotted tighter than a hangman’s noose by the time they reached Freja’s room. Without word, Darhias hung back. Not once had he set foot within Freja’s room and today was no exception. The door was open and Vorda could hear discussion, or rather an argument was under way. She scowled as she recognised the man’s voice on her way through the door.

Sure enough, there was Videgavia of Dale and he was brandishing one of his long knives at Freja. In turn, Freja had her arms crossed against her chest and a scowl fixed firmly in place.

”I said no, Vid, and I meant it.”

“You wouldn’t walk about Meduseld unarmed and you know it.”

“This is not Meduseld!”
Freja returned, something of her old fire lurking in her voice.

The Daleman crouched then and a small scuffle ensued. Despite the fact that he earned more than one swift strike of Freja’s cane for his efforts, he rose to his feet without his sheathed long knife looking pleased with himself.

Videgavia turned about to consider Vorda watching on. Her scowl made no dint on the Daleman either.

”All is in hand, Shieldmaiden?” he inquired, eyes as dark and cold as the night raking over her as if they stood in the forests of Dale and she was an Easterling raider.

Vorda bit back an oath and turned her attention to Freja. Her commander was smoothing out the wide, emerald skirts of her kirtle, flustered and irritated but Vorda had never reported to this man and never would.

”Are you ready, Captain?” Vorda inquired and Freja scowled as she lifted her eyes to Vorda.

”I am not your Captain,” she returned.

Vorda sniffed at that, ”You’ll always be my Captain, Freja. Are you ready?”

“Look at me! Do I look ready to you? And ready for what? How can I be ready when I don’t know what I am to ready for?”


Agitated already and the questioning had not even begun, Vorda thought as Freja scowled down at the wide skirts of her kirtle. Truth be told, by appearances alone Freja looked very well indeed. The tight bodice and golden girdle slung at her hips combined with the long thick waves of her now unbound hair transformed her from warrior to lady. A comely one at that.

”What’s this meeting about?” Videgavia asked suspiciously, ”And just who is this Hanasian? I’ve never heard of him.”

Not for the first did Vorda wish Videgavia had never arrived at Minas Tirith. Oh, he carried tidings that needed to be heard but by his own account he had already delivered those to Éomer along with Eriwyn’s torcs. What purpose to bring the dreadful fate of their sisters to Dale to Freja? And why was he still here? Freja might account him a friend, might trust him, but he didn’t seem the sort of man that understood what friendship was.

Vorda answered through her teeth, ”You can quiz the King on Hansian’s qualifications if you like.”

Videgavia eyed her hard and then turned to Freja, ”I don’t like how this smells, Freja. I’m coming with you.”

It was everything Vorda could do to not tear her braids out but fortunately Freja was still displeased with the Daleman.

”You’ve already foisted your knife on me,” she said irritably.

”Freja-“ Videgavia said, set to argue but Freja drew herself up, blue eyes cold.

”I wouldn’t walk Meduseld with a nursemaid either, Daleman.”

Vorda watched them trade glares and for a moment she though Videgavia would press the issue. He seemed inclined to as far as she could see but instead he shook his head at her.

”Fine,” he grumbled, ”Not like I nothing else to do while I’m here.”

And with that the Daleman took his leave, fuming in silence on his way out of the door. Vorda washed a hand over her face and considered Freja. She looked uncertain now, indecisive.

”Why is he here, Vorda?” she asked quietly, staring after Videgavia.

Vorda shook her head, ”I don’t know.”

Freja nodded at this and turned away to the window. She had spent a lot of time staring out that window. She could stand there for hours at a time if Vorda didn’t find some way to draw her off. Standing there now, Vorda could see the bouts of shivering wash through Freja. Her commander had little liking for pity and yet how could she not pity this woman. If everything she had learned was true, Freja had battled a terrible foe alone since the Pelennor. As all around her had celebrated victory, Freja’s war had continued. And it was more than likely that she had pushed Berendil away to protect him. That was exactly the sort of thing Freja would do.

Ensuring that her expression was schooled, she approached her commander and stood silently by her side. Perhaps it was better if this didn’t proceed today. Freja’s eyes were glassy and dilated, terrified and peering out at the world from a very dark place indeed.

”Perhaps Captain Hanasian can wait a little longer,” Vorda softly said and Freja’s eyes narrowed.

”It was important, you said.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean-“

“Will Berendil be there? Is that what this is about? Am I to be called to account? Reprimanded?”

“It is no ruse...nor censure,”
Vorda said, although it was entirely possible that Berendil might pop up. Likely, even.

Freja pushed out a heartfelt sign and shook herself, ”Listen to me, whining and snivelling like a green recruit. How quickly we forget our mettle, Vorda. Eriwyn would be disgusted were she here to see this.”

Vorda hadn’t know Eriwyn as Freja had but she imagined the steely Captain of the Shieldmaidens would feel compassion before contempt now.

”You mean to proceed,” she asked Freja and saw the other woman nod, almost as if convincing herself, and tighten her grip on her cane.

When they reached her door, Darhias had already absented himself. Likely he was scanning the way ahead from the Houses of Healing to the Citadel proper. Though it was but a short walk, it would be a gruelling and painful one for Freja. And yet, they could hardly do this in the Houses of Healing. Freja bore her pain in silence, grimly tapping her cane ahead with a fixed, dogged expression. By the time they reached the place of the meeting, her breath came in short, pained bursts and she was white as a sheet. Still she did not complain.

With no sight of Darhias or Berendil in the hall, Vorda remained behind as Freja advanced into the study to close the door behind her. She leant against it with a sigh and then her head jerked up as she heard movement. Sure enough, there was Darhias and he was not alone.

This study was a warm, comfortable place with wide windows admitting the morning sun and a small fire on the hearth to throw back any chill that might yet linger in the citadel’s stones. Waiting within was not Berendil but Hanasian. Freja released the breath she had not realised she had held as her stomach knotted tighter. Relief, for she doubted she could hold to her course if she set eyes on Berendil again, and disappointment for she longed to see him again, sense his presence. Emotion bounced jarringly within her and she knew it all to be utterly absurd. Why would he be here? She had given Berendil ample cause to despise her. Her jaw clenched as she advanced into the study.

Thick carpets lined the floors, muffling the echo of her cane, and reassuringly stout chairs anchored them. Hanasian leant against a wide desk, legs stretched in front of him. He took no effort to conceal the fact that he studied her. What he made of her Freja could not guess and further she was not sure that she wanted to. Nothing good, certainly. Not now.

Hanasian peeled himself off the desk and quickly strode to close the door as Freja selected a chair and discovered that she’d forgotten about her skirts yet again. They bunched uncomfortably around her and she was forced to wrestle them back into place in a manner as undignified as it was all too common for her of late. It was at that moment that her cane slid rebelliously to the floor. Flustered, Freja growled a heated Rohirric curse and bent to retrieve it but Hanasian was already in motion as he returned from door. He swooped on his way past to collect it and set it back within her reach.

He made for the desk again to collect a book, ink and quill before selecting a chair for himself.

”Thank you for meeting me” he said as he sat and set his possessions upon a nearby side table.

Freja lifted a shoulder at him, ”I was told this is important.”

He nodded and then seemed to hesitate, eyes flicking to the door as if he expected someone to come through it imminently. She turned about herself, twisting in her chair as much as her bodice permitted. What if it was Berendil? Could she hear voices from the hall?

As she stared at the door, Hanasian asked ”How do you fare?”

Her brow lifted, surprised that this was in any way important, and she straightened again to looked to the windows, ”I live. It’s more than I can say for too many others.”

Her tone sounded bleak and bitter, as though she wished otherwise, even to her own hearing. A note of condemnation, for had they not met their deaths here in the south under her command? A swift glance to Hanasian confirmed that he had heard it too.

”I was sorry to hear about Captain Eriwyn,” he said.

If Théoden had been as a father to her, Eriwyn had been as a mother. A fierce, demanding, iron fisted mother, but one who had steadied her path as she had come to understand the dangerous life she had been drawn to. Eriwyn had, for some reason, taken a liking to the scrappy, irascible, gangling even then, boisterous, illegitimate byblow of a girl she’d been given to train. That liking had developed into a fondness over the years and a deep regard had flourished. Eriwyn’s loss in Dale had been a deep blow, another grief set atop so many others. So many faces gone now…so many voices fallen silent.

The war had proved to be the death knell for the Shieldmaidens of Rohan as best Freja could discern. The northern contingent obliterated in Dale, the southern contingent reduced to a fraction of their number. Videgavia…he had wept when he told her of his grim task on that bloody day. He had stripped Eriwyn’s torcs from her body and returned to Edoras where they belonged.

Their captain dead and she unfit to serve. It would take generations to restore the damage done and Freja could not see how Éomer could do it. A tradition that had stood since the days of Eorl the Young had shrivelled away. The thunder of their hooves that rode, singing through her dreams now, was that of the dead. Still, Eriwyn would not approve of her brooding. No one could carry the dead, she would say.

Freja clenched a hand in her lap and steadied her voice, ”As was I.”

Hanasian leaned back in his chair, stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles, ”Has the fate of the Shieldmaidens been determined yet?”

“If so, I am unaware of it,”
Freja replied and tucked her hair behind her ears to emphasise the fact that she was no longer counted one of their number. Her hair spread in thick, loose waves to the small of her back. Untorced. Unbraided. Whatever Éomer’s decision might be, she had no part in it now.

Hanasian nodded, ”And your role once you return Edoras?”

He’d noticed, then, that she wore Éomer’s colours. Berendil’s friend was a perceptive man who knew more of Rohan than first appearances might suggest but she had no way to answer that question either. Éomer had not been obliged to offer her anything aside from a cell. She expected no small degree of censure for her role in placing his sister upon that battlefield. Her failure to stem the savage losses to their ranks was egregious. He had every right to throw in her in chains. Perhaps even send her to the gallows. Instead, he had offered her a place in his service.

In what capacity she did not know. Such details, he had told her, could be established out once she was back at Meduseld. Perhaps those details included an intimate familiarity with the interior of one of Meduseld’s cells. Dark, fetid places they were. Wouldn’t that warm Wormtongue’s shrivelled black heart…though not as much as, say, a gibbet.

Freja frowned at herself as she realised her haphazard thoughts again careened. This happened to her all too often now. It was like she was falling, picking up speed, without any way of knowing where the bottom was. Perhaps there wasn’t one.

”That too remains to be seen,” she admitted and then lifted a shoulder in half a shrug, ”Chief harridan, perhaps.”

She caught what she thought was a small, wry smile and decided it was time to determine just what this meeting was truly about, ”Why is any of this of import? You surely can’t be in any way concerned overly much. Not after all I have done to…”

Freja trailed off as Hanasians gaze sharpened on her. She did not say Berendil’s name but he heard it all the same. If he had assumed she would return to Edoras, then he had to know at least something of what had passed between she and Berendil.

”I bear you no ill will,” he answered, his expression and voice earnest, sincere.

Freja studied the Ranger’s face for a moment and then she shook her head at herself, ”I still fail to see why any of this is of import.”

Hanasian uncrossed his ankles and leant towards her, elbows on his knees. His eyes, a hint of blue mixed amongst the grey, glittered keenly.

”I’m to hunt Naiore Dannan.”

Freja’s reaction was as visceral as it was immediate. She recoiled sharply as the Elf’s name sent painful barbs jangling through her body. Her skin crawled. To her her horror, she realised that she was shaking. A name! Just a name and she was reduced to water, craven! Confusion and humiliation bloated within her, rushing in on the heels of her fear to fill the space it left behind.

She found herself leaning forward, hands pressed to her face and breathing hard through her nose. At least she had not fallen off her chair, she told herself, the thick curtain of her hair sealing the study off from her sight. A touch on her shoulder, light and brief but still enough to make her flinch, and then a horn mug filled with water appeared. Hanasian held it so that she could see it. Fear had scoured her throat. Shame coursed through her anew.

”It will help,” Hanasian softly said.

Humiliated, she wrapped her hands around the proffered water. The mug shook visibly but she didn’t drop it. She didn’t witlessly spill water. She brought it to her mouth and discovered that it was flavoured. The taste was unfamiliar, herbs though she was not sure which, but not unpleasant. Then Freja lowered the mug to her lap and considered her knees for a long moment. Her chest still heaved as though she was fresh off the tourney field. She could feel cold sweat trickling down her spine.

Pushing out a shivering breath, she murmured to herself in Rohirric, ”You must think me mad fool.”

”You clearly have no idea what I think,”
Hanasian’s voice was a quiet rumble, ”Keep drinking. It really will help.”

Freja peered up at him and found that he had retaken his seat. His expression was seemed to be one of concern rather than contempt. Then Freja realised that he had spoken to her in her mother tongue. He nodded at her, eyes pointedly falling to the mug she held in her lap. Puzzled, she lifted it to drink. Hanasian watched a moment longer to be satisfied that she heeded his counsel and then reached for his book.

She watched him unstopper the ink well and add his quill to it. He picked up his book and again he paused to return her scrutiny. Freja recalled that she was supposed to be drinking. She resumed and with a small shake of his head, Hanasian flipped open his book and commenced writing. She had no idea what no matter how she tried to watch the motion of his quill. Not Westron, she deduced, nor Rohirric but something else entirely.

Each time Hanasian looked up at her she ensured she compliantly drank. He was right; it did help. Each time he looked down she tried to guess at what he wrote. And so some time passed like this, cat and mouse back and forth, until she had drunk all the water and Hanasian had finished writing. He folded the book shut again and considered her solemnly.

”You’re the last to have seen the Elf and the only one known to have survived her,” he told her, picking his words carefully to avoid invoking her name, ”What you know may be of assistance to me…but if it is too much, I can wait.”

Freja narrowed her eyes at that. She could not bear yet more pity. She was choking on the stuff. It came at her from all directions in this place, suffocating, squeezing her until she felt she could hardly breathe. She shook her head and then jerked her gaze away. There were larger concerns at play than her savaged, battered pride to consider.

She had stood in Hanasian’s boots more than once before. Were their positions changed, she’d want whatever information she could obtain as soon as she could get it. Hanasian’s offer to wait might just be a kind one but she could not accept it. Not if she claimed to still be in service to Éomer. Rohan was Gondor’s ally. That she was unfit to serve as a shieldmaiden did not expunge her duty to assist the realm and its allies.

”It may never get easier…you cannot wait indefinitely,” she answered.

Hanasian gave her a dubious frown, ”You are certain?”

”If it is necessary, have at it Ranger.”

Hanasian’s jaw bunched beneath his closely trimmed beard, ”What can you recall of the encounter?”

Frega swallowed thickly and let her eyes fall to the desk. She studied it for a long moment as she tried to assemble her thoughts into something coherent. Then she violently shuddered and discovered her hands had tightened, white-knuckled on the horn mug. She forced them to unknit but when she made to answer, her throat contracted in open rebellion against her.

This had happened before, on that very day. The Elf had stolen her limbs from her before. Her thoughts, her mind, her soul too it seemed. Hanasian’s chair creaked as Freja fought for control. As before she won it back and she forced her reply past her choking fear.

”She found me unhorsed…compelled me to combat.”

Hanasian was silent for he’d opened his book in the time she had needed to regain mastery of herself and was now writing. His quill lightly scratched over the page. She focused on that sound, anchoring herself in this room. In this place and this time. Now. Still, the study faded away anyway and she was returned to that dreadful field with its charnel stench of terror and death redolent on each and every breath she drew.

Thick, acrid smoke roiled across her, oily and black, stinging her eyes. She’d forgotten about that awful smoke until now, it’s sickly sweet smell revealing yet another horror. She’d encountered it too many times in the East Fold, homes and villages burnt to the ground with their inhabitants still in them, for it even to be remarkable to her now. That, in itself, galled her.

In the midst of that horrendous carnage was the most beautiful and terrifying sight she had ever beheld. Tall, fair beyond all description, hair of fine gold and those eyes. Malevolent. Anathema. Full of horrors to come. Fell words floating on gossamer from perfect lips. The Elf drew closer through the ruin of the field, whispering, taunting, tormenting. Now, as then, Freja moaned. It was a deep, raw sound from the depths of her soul and she shuddered with naked revulsion as the Elf ruthlessly violated her mind, marauding through her very soul…

His head bowed and quill flying over the page, Hanasian was both astonished and appalled by the clarity and detail of Freja’s recall. Her account was one of utter terror and he knew that had their roles been reversed his voice would shudder too. There was no shame or cowardice in that. Despite her monolithic fear, though, Freja stood fast. Resisting the Elf, steadfast in her duty.

Hanasian expelled a quivering breath and then frowned as he saw it freeze despite the warmth of the room. Freja’s voice changed, became flat and lifeless and it made him look up. A great force bore down on Hanasian, pinning him as if he were no more than a tiny insect caught in a web far greater than he could conceive. His quill fell from his fingers and his book slid from his knees. All he could think of, all he could feel was a creeping horror, ancient and malevolent.

As he was pinned, Freja slid forward out of her chair to kneel upon the carpets. Still her account continued. He could hear her rip the words free, snarling with the effort it took. The wrath within the room swelled, throbbing, and then Freja fell to the floor outright. Her body arched as though her very bones unravelled. Agony soaked through her voice but still she spoke on.

Distantly he could hear people bellowing at the door, crashing into it. Time withered as the horror took hold and he knew a despair of the like he had not imagined. Hollow. Vast. Ravenous.

Freja was crawling now across the floor, snatching at the legs of the chairs she dragged herself past. She was panicking and he did not understand why until she hauled herself up again by the window ledge. Still she growled out her tale, but now it was broken by horrified sobs as two windows were pushed open. With dawning comprehension at what was unfolding right before his very eyes, Hanasian tried to heave himself out of his chair.

Still he could not move and now Freja was in the window. Tears streamed down her face as she stared beyond to her death. He could see her try to reach for the windowframe and haul herself back but the malice and fury of the power that permeated the room was too much.

Freja was begging now, pleading with herself but Naiore Dannan would not, could not be swayed. The Shieldmaiden was being dragged through the window before his horrified eyes. She knew she was going to die. He could see it in her face. Already her legs were through and by some wild surge of desperate will to survive, Freja clung to the interior of the window. And then…and then she began to sing.

Terrible it was, fell words of battle and death. A Shieldmaiden’s ancient battlesong.

“Then as now, witch,” Freja snarled between the verses, savage defiance a fierce if lonely light in her piercing blue eyes, ”I will not go quietly.”

She was slipping as she sang but she refused silence and surrender both. Dreadful rage filled the room and Hanasian found himself propelled from his chair towards Freja. He knew immediately what Naiore was trying to do and there was nothing he could do to stop her. He was as helpless as Freja was.

Hanasian was halfway across the study, set to collide with Freja and cause her to hurtle to her death, when then study door splintered. He fell to his knees, lathered in a chill sweat and shaking like a child as someone hurtled to the window with an anguished howl, and pitched forward into darkness.



~ ~ ~ ~ ~


When Hanasian woke again, someone had rolled him onto his back and he stared up at the thick rafters of the ceiling. His head throbbed viciously as Darhias’ face appeared into view, floating between where he lay the the ceiling he studied. He offered Hanasian a brief grin and then stepped back. Hanasian rolled himself to his side and pushed himself up to sitting. Freja lay with her head in Vorda’s lap as Gandalf tended to her. Standing, watching on with his fists curling and uncurling, was Berendil.

Hanasian washed a hand over his face and wondered whether he was as ashen faced as Berendil was. The man was panting, as if he had only just gotten here but Hanasian was certain it had been Berendil that had raced for the window and that felt like it had happened hours ago. Hanasian looked to the study door and found it was in ruins. Darhias crouched beside him and passed him his flask.

”You look like you could use it,” Darhias quietly observed and Hanasian didn’t argue.

”What happened?” Darhias asked as Hanasian took a mouthful and passed it back.

He shook his head, unable to find any words to describe the horrifying, eerie scene he had beheld. Berendil could not tear his eyes from Freja. She was still now, quiet. Someone, likely Vorda, had sliced open the lacing of her kirtle so that she could breathe and the wizard’s hand rested on her brow. Hanasian looked to the hearth to find the small fire had been utterly extinguished, right down to its coals, such had been the savage intensity of the chill. His bones held a residual ache from it and there were patches of ice still fading from the window panes.

”Naiore Dannan,” Gandalf replied, eyes opening beneath a bristling brow, ”It is a marvel her heart did not burst.”

Vorda flinched, ”Does that mean she’s here in the city?”

”As best I can tell, this was accomplished from somewhere in Harad. She’s made an error, revealing her hand so boldly. A rare gift for us that almost came at too terrible a price.”


Hanasian swallowed as the various implications unfolded. He had at first thought that he had learned nothing of import to his task from Freja but now he knew he needed to make for Harad. And then, there was the matter of Freja. If she had been under Naiore Dannan’s influence all this time, that might well explain her strange conduct towards Berendil.

”Not easily are the Shieldmaidens of Rohan vanquished,” Berendil softly murmured, as if to himself.

Hanasian slowly climbed to his feet, steadied by Darhias, as Gandalf removed his hand from Freja’s brow. No sooner was the wizard on his feet did Berendil sink to his knees by Freja. She looked to be at peace now, her striking features free of the torment and anguish that had beset her only moments ago. Berendil gently smoothed away her hair and ran the back of his fingers down her cheek, a gesture as tender as it was heartbreaking.

”Aragorn will want to know of this,” the wizard said, fixing Hanasian with a steely gaze for the moment and then turning for the ruined door. Already men gathered in the hall to peer in. At this rate, the King would learn of this well before Hanasian could duly report.

”I’ll wait with her until the healers arrive. They won’t be long,” Vorda said to Berendil but the Ranger’s attention had shifted to Gandalf.

“Could it happen again?” Berendil asked, peering up at the wizard as he returned from the door.

”Not in a hurry. I’ve given that Elf a thing or two to think about,” Gandalf paused though, considering Freja, ”Though who can say? She’s shown more than a passing interest in the Shieldmaiden and she will be most wroth.”

This was not what Berendil wanted to hear and it showed. The man was shaken, fearful and desperate for a solution.

Gandalf seated himself and extracted his pipe as Berendil lingered, stroking Freja’s hand, ”Go on now. You’ll only be in their way when they get here and she’s safe enough with me.”

Hanasian nodded respectfully to Gandalf and Darhias crossed to squeeze Berendil’s shoulder. Reluctantly, the man stood, frowning down at Freja upon the floor, but allowed Darhias to draw him off. The three Rangers left the study with more than one backwards glance.

”What am I to do?” Berendil asked, plaintive, once they were out in the hall.

As far as Hanasian knew, the only thing that could be done was find Naiore Dannan.

”She’s strong,” Hanasian replied, ”Just look at what she has endured.”

“And she is safe here, in the keeping of the King and the wizard,”
Darhias added.

“For how long?” Berendil replied for they all knew Freja would not linger in Minas Tirith indefinitely.

He looked back to find the Wizard busy with his pipe, chatting amicably with the insensate Shieldmaiden as if she might wake at any moment and respond. He doubted that would be the case. Vorda looked too rattled to take any of this in.

Hanasian looked back to his friend, ”What are you going to do?”

Berendil shook his head, brooding, ”I don’t know. Something’s got to be done, though.”

He realised, then, that Berendil turned Freja’s torc over in his hand, ”She pushed you out of this fight, Berendil, perhaps to protect you.”

“Freja Fireborn chooses her own battles…as do I,”
Berendil replied, gaze directed through the study door.

His hand closed around the torc as Berendil looked back to him. He nodded at Hanasian, turned on his heel and strode away. The grim determination in his face worried Hanasian but he could not go after him now. The wizard was right. Aragorn needed to be informed immediately. With a shake of his head, Hanasian made off in the opposite direction.

The day flew past and it was late evening by the time Hanasian left the citadel. In that time, he had learned that Freja had been returned to the care of the Houses of Healing. He’d not heard any great detail. Only enough to know the news was not good. Naiore’s wrath had been most vicious today. As he walked, he felt a faint edge of discomfort. He had not forced Freja to do this. She had pressed on at her own volition. There had been no way to know this would happen. Still, if he were Berendil he’d have some hard questions to ask and thus far he’d not seen the man since earlier in the day.

Hanasian slipped into the common room of the White Swan Inn to discover the inn was crowded. Hanasian had little appetite for company and so he turned to leave. His name halted him and he turned back to see Berendil standing there, looking straight at him. Berendil was called the Fair for his appearance and his even tempered nature. Right at this moment, Berendil’s features were not arranged in a manner that suggested he was well disposed.

Pushing out a sigh, Hanasian began to push his way through the throng towards Berendil. He found his friend at the other side, seated at a table that was empty of any tankards. His arms were crossed against his chest and his agitation played out in the rapid tapping of one booted foot upon the floorboards.

Hanasian would have rather had this discussion with an ale, preferably even something stronger, or even better not at all tonight. Instead he pulled out an empty chair and sat across the table.

”You’ve news,” he said, ”Out of interest, how did you hear?“

“Darhias,”
Berendil replied and raked a hand through his hair.

Hanasian grunted, unsurprised. He’d heard the two men arranging just this.

”And what does Darhias say?” Hanasian asked next.

Berendil shifted in his seat and grief shivered through his voice, ”The healers aren’t certain what will happen next. She…screams when she wakes and so they keep her asleep.”

”She’s strong, Berendil. Consider what she has endured,”
Hanasian repeated and Berendil nodded impatiently as he washed his hands over his face.

”I don’t think I will ever forget that battlesong,” he hoarsely admitted and Hanasian nodded in agreement. There were a great many things about today he’d not soon forget either.

“Will the Elf return again?” came a growl that neither Hanasian nor Berendil were responsible for.

Both men looked up to find another loomed over the table. Tall, wiry, with a decidedly dangerous air. Weathered face, hard features reminiscent of Dale and eyes as black as the pits beneath Barad-Dûr. A killer, through and though, and an angry, stealthy one. The Daleman’s knuckles popped as he flexed his hands. Neither Hanasian nor Berendil had known of his approach.

”Who might you be?” Hanasian asked, his hand falling to the hilt of a knife.

”Answer the damn question! Is Freja free of Naiore Dannan or not?”

Across the table, Berendil’s expression coalesced into one as suspicious as it was angry as he recalled where he had seen this man before: Aragorn’s coronation. He’d seen him at Freja’s side in the press, speaking urgently into her ear. It was only the briefest of glances for no sooner had he found her in the crowd was she gone again. Whatever he had said, it had been enough to draw her off and keep her away. And now, here he was, demanding answers to questions concerning Freja.

”She sought Freja out before,” Hanasian said and left the implication hanging.

The Daleman bristled, ”Something’s got to be done!”

“Something is being done,”
Hanasian answered, glancing briefly across to Berendil who had said that very thing hours earlier, ”What concern is this of yours?”

”Personal,”
the Daleman tersely answered and another knuckle popped, ”What’s being done?”

“Personal,”
Berendil growled in return.

The Daleman considered him at length and then Hanasian, as if weighing them both up, then spun about and relieved a chair from a nearby table. It had not been unoccupied when Hanasian had arrived but they’d wisely moved on at the Daleman’s arrival. The fellow sat astride it and hooked his arms over its back – ready to whip it out and over someone’s head should it become necessary. A classic tactic for a close quartered melee. Given the way Berendil looked at him, Hanasian had a growing sense that it just might come to that.

”Fine,” the Daleman muttered, folded his arms atop the back of the chair, ”Freja and I go back a few years. Your turn.”

“I’m raising a company to hunt the Elf down,”
Hanasian replied despite the way Berendil scowled at him.

The Daleman’s dark brows lifted at that, ”Leaving when?”

“None of your business,”
Berendil spat.

“What makes you think I’ll have you?” Hanasian inquired, bemused by this man’s presumption.

The Daleman shrugged, ”I was good enough for the Shieldmaidens of Rohan. I’m good enough for you.”

Incredulous, Hanasian frowned, ”You served within their ranks?”

“Met Freja when she was knocking about Dale. Come the War, was me Freja sent her Captain to,”
the Daleman paused and then with what was perhaps the first display of humanity either Ranger had seen from him, ”Was me that returned Eriwyn’s torcs to Edoras.”

Hanasian lifted a brow but otherwise remained impassive as his thoughts spun. Freja would not waste her time with this fellow if she deemed him in any way inadequate or untrustworthy. Certainly, she’d not commend him to her sisters and captain. Added to that was the fact the man had survived the fighting in Dale. It had been, by all accounts, horrendous.

”How would you describe your skills?” Hanasian asked and the Daleman gave him a murderous smile.

”I’ll leave that to you, Ranger,” he replied as he stood, ”Name’s Videgavia.”

With that, the man stalked off and Hanasian scrubbed at his face. It had been a long, tiring day.

Berendil raked his hand through his hair, ”Will you take him on?”

Hanasian pushed out a sigh and nodded, ”Provided what he says is true.”

Berendil grunted at that and pushed back his chair to stand. The grim light had returned to his face again.

”Where are you going,” Hanasian asked, worried. The man had to be worried out of his wits by now.

Once Berendil's mind seized on something there was little chance of shaking it.

“Doing something,” Berendil obtusely replied and wove through the press for the door.

Hanasian dared not imagine just what Berendil’s mind had settled upon now. He hoped that it was no more than seeking out Darhias for a further update.

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