3021, III – September, Black Company Camp
All it took was for Berendil to return to camp and just like that, her focus was scattered. Hanasian was saying something and from his expression it looked like something important but she didn’t hear a word of it. As soon as she realised what had happened she wrenched her attention back to Hanasian but in the process she met the dark, bitter gaze of a man she considered her friend. Videgavia glared at her, cold enough to make her shiver and it was this that alerted Hanasian to the fact that she was no longer paying attention.
“Well then, it would seem we have ourselves an alliance,” Hanasian asked and her attention returned to him.
The enemy of her enemy is her friend. So did Eriwyn hold, ever the pragmatist. What would her Captain have done now? No, wrong question, because Eriwyn would have slit Khule's treacherous throat. That was what Eriwyn would have done but she was not here, so far from home, to hunt Khule of the Sagath Clan. Freja pushed a heavy breath out through her nose. Was she going to throw away her best chance at taking the Elf down because of one Easterling? She was under no illusions. Her singular warpath was likely to lead to her singular death one way or another. Exposure, last winter, as it so happened. That had been a close call.
Now winter was coming again. She had cleared Eriador on her way north. Rhuadar was next and after that Angmar. A dreadful place to consider on her own even in the best of seasons. Freja did not flinch from peril and she had embarked upon this path holding no assurances that she would prevail. She was ready to die for it, if that was what it took. Better to die on her feet than endure on her knees.
But what if she did not have to either die or endure? That, right there, was a treacherous thought and she knew it. She met Hanasian’s gaze squarely from across the fire and then he extended his hand above the flames. She stared at it, perplexed.
”Grasp my forearm,” he murmured.
“Because that is how things are done in Arnor,” he answered, and not because that was what she would need to learn judging by the long, heated gaze exchanged between the woman across from the flames and his friend.
Freja followed his instruction and the alliance was formally struck. Seated with Berendil, Hanasian’s cousins clapped, clearly well pleased at the prospect of serving with Freja.
”Just to be clear, I am not recruited am I?” Freja inquired.
”Would you accept an order from me?” he quipped and she shrugged.
”All depends on the order,” she answered as she released his arm.
He nodded, unsurprised, ”We will reconvene upon the Inn at dusk. I expect you amongst us. Until then…”
Hanasian paused, thinking and then pushed to his feet. Freja followed suit.
”Until then, do as you judge best, Shieldmaiden.” Hanasian finished.
Just what did he mean by that, she wondered, but already he had turned away.
”And fetch your gear. I know you did not set out from Edoras like that!” he called over his shoulder and rightly so.
There would have been protests in street had she been sighted in Edoras wearing the loose pantaloons of Rhûn. Though she’d sooner lose her teeth than admit it, the pantaloons were damned comfortable. Practical too.
Now that Hanasian had concluded their meeting she was at a loose end. An entire day to fill and one Berendil of Cardolan. As she turned away her eyes fell on him. Immediately she heard his voice.
”Have you, I wonder, any sense of the enormity of what you ask?”
What did that mean?
”Annon 'ûr nîn angin.”
Damn it! She understood Elvish no better now than she had mere hours ago!
Slowly Berendil rose to his feet, his features illuminated by the watchfire he stood beside. Distantly, Freja noted that two of her country men shared the fire. Young, she noted and then inwardly rolled her eyes. No younger, really, than her. Still, they did not have the look of long experience to her eye. Twins, she saw, and one grinned at her, excited for some reason.
What was she supposed to do now? The answer came as Berendil approached her. She was suffused by a sudden emotion that she did not understand.
”Can you find respite here?’ he asked simply as he drew up.
She’d sooner pull the Sun from the sky than rest peacefully on what remained of this night.
Freja shook her head, unable to tear her eyes away despite herself.
”Come, then,” and with that he was off.
Freja lingered, undecided. If she followed him would that make things worse? Probably. If she didn’t…also probably. Muttering under her breath, Freja again considered her options and decided that it was important to set the record straight. From one mess, then, into another or so Eriwyn muttered in the back of her mind. She hastened after Berendil, catching him up at the camp’s edge to fall into step beside him. He spared her a brief glance and then directed his attention to the way ahead. Freja let him keep his silence and followed on until the camp was lost in the night behind them. His pace slowed eventually until he turned about, scanning the trees around them.
What he was looking for, Freja could not guess, for without the moon she could see little.
”This will do,” he announced, gently took up her hand and led her further, ”Come, sit.”
“Why?” she asked, puzzled.
”Please, Freja,” he pushed a breath through his nose, ”Humour me.”
If there was a woman alive who could resist that voice, she did not know how. Never mind what his hand in hers did and so Freja sat.
Then she promptly began to fidget, ”What’s this in aid of, Berendil?”
“You can’t sleep in camp,” he replied and then glanced about, ”This is not camp.”
“You brought me here to sleep?”
Berendil met her incredulous expression placidly, ”Settle in. I promise you that I will not bite.”
Her eyes felt like they were filled with gravel, her skull throbbed in counterpoint to her heart beat and if she yawned one more time she thought her jaw would drop off…and compared with the alternatives, Berendil’s shoulder was very appealing. This was a slippery slope, she knew. She told herself that as she drew a little closer.
She could feel the tension building as it had last night. The only thing that had saved her then had been the military encampment they stood in at the time. Here in the woods she had only her will and self-restraint and she knew all too well that she could not rely on either when it came to this man. Her heart was jumped every time she tried to set her head on his shoulder.
Berendil shifted and she froze as he settled an arm around her shoulders. Gently, he guided her head into place, fingers lingering to stroke her cheek before they withdrew. Her heart started echoing in her ears at that. Sleep was going to be nigh on impossible, she thought. Then she heard him begin to say something. Nothing she understood, and very soft, almost beyond the ranges of her hearing. The strange words soaked into her, melted and left her limbs feeling pleasantly warm and heavy. The ache of her skull had begun to fade.
”A Ranger’s trick,” she observed, her voice thick and drowsy.
”Something like that, ni nîn,” he answered and let his cheek rest against the top of her head.
Oh but she loved the sound of his voice and it was not long before her restlessness ebbed away until she was curled against him, wandering the realms of sleep scarcely knowing how she arrived there. At first there were no dreams for she was far too tired for them. She’d scarcely slept properly since setting out from Edoras. In part that was her own doing but more than once she’d had to sacrifice rest for remaining ahead of those attempting to intercept her. In time, though, heavy sleep gave way to dreams and they were as ever they were. Mild at first, benign, and then not. Freja woke violently trembling. She surged forwards to her hands and knees, gasping for air. To make matters worse, the subject of the dreadful dream was on his knees beside her, trying to comfort her.
Dawn had arrived and with it, a cool fog.
”A dream, that’s all it was,” Berendil said, rubbing her back.
”Stop, Berendil. This, us, it can’t be. The harm it will cause,” she said and at that he drew back.
”The Rohirrim are not known for their seers,” he challenged.
Freja sat over her heels, ”Others possess gifts I do not.”
Berendil was stunned momentarily by a dawning realisation, ”You trust Naiore Dannan?”
He stared at her, aghast and Freja found it unbearable.
”She lies,” she spat, loathing for the Elf clear in her voice, ”But not always. I knew of Eriwyn’s fate well before Vid gave me the tidings. The fall of Théoden King, Éowyn, the decimation of my Order in Dale and upon the Pelennor. All of it, every abominable detail, given to me first by that Elf!”
Berendil was either lost for words or unwilling to speak. He stared at her, expression unreadable, and Freja lifted her face to the sky. Her will had been sharpened by that dream but that, in no way, made this any the less agonising.
”And the things she has shown me,” she pressed her fingers to her mouth as sudden scenes spilled into her mind, each terror enough to make her voice shiver with dread, ”She has lied about your fate since you took the Dimholt Road, or so I thought. I thought you safe all these years. Until last night.”
Freja’s head hung again and she stared at the ground, scarcely seeing, ”The things she can do, Berendil… How am I to know what is true and what is not?”
Her hands tightened into fists as she steeled herself against the anguish swelling hungrily within her, ”I will not be your undoing.”
Freja pushed to her feet and Berendil followed to catch her wrist in his hand, ”The Elf seeks to divide us. Why do you think that is? Do not now give her what she wants!”
Deep pain twisted in her belly as she turned back to him and he moved closer still, eyes locked on her own, ”I am here, Freja. I have met no terrible end. Do not give in to her lies now, ni nîn.”
He studied her face for a moment and then lifted the back of his hand to her cheek. Her eyes closed at the tenderness and hot tears slipped free such was the torment. She felt Berendil shift and her eyes opened just as he drew her to him.
”You are wise to mistrust the Elf…but will you not trust yourself? Will you not trust me?” he released her hand to gently place the palm of his hand over her thundering heart, ”Will you not trust to this?”
Berendil kissed her with a passion that undid anything that remained of her certainty. She was helpless before it. Colour washed across her mind and instead of pulling away she wound herself around him. Emotions stormed within, swirling this way and that like leaves scattering on the wind. Through it all pulsed that which she had known at Dunharrow, unchanged and undiminished and roaring for answer despite all that had unfolded since then. It had woken her, aching and cold through the long dark watches of the night. It had gathered her tears when the longing and sorrow became too much to bear in steadfast silence and now it grew until it howled and clamoured. Hunger, for him, for this, and it would not be denied.
She was fire, as Lady Verawyn had foretold, winding around him with urgent need. Unable to deny it or keep it banked, she surrendered to it and allowed it to rage through her blood. Berendil knew that this to be a declaration of its own. Unmistakeable.
The shimmering moonlight gave them a silvery glow, and as Freja wrapped herself around him, Berendil held her close. Ever since Dunharrow did he dream of this moment. Their lips met and he melted into her. He could not hold back. Freja slammed him against a tree, and they soon fell to the ground entwined and tearing at each other. Berendil gasped and shook, and he could not believe what had just happened. Freja kissed him and looked at him, and asked,
”What’s the matter?”
She looked at him with concern even as the blood rushed to his face. Berendil leaned back and propped himself up against the tree. As he caught his breath, he said, ”I think I…”
He didn’t know how to say it. For so long he had thought and dreamed of this moment alone with Freja. He did not even consider this happening. He finally mumbled, ”I uh…. Couldn’t help myself.”
They both looked down at Berendil’s breeches, and Freja started to laugh. Berendil let out a long breath. Freja stopped and looked at him serious for a brief moment before she smiled again. Berendil smiled at her as well, happy to see her smiling and even laughing even if it was at his expense. He finally said, ”Maybe that says how much I been thinking of and about you through all my travels. I had a hard time after Minas Tirith, when you refused to see me. I knew you would not like to know I joined Hanasian’s company in pursuit of Naiore.”
Berendil leaned his head back against the tree.
He was so vulnerable right now that it brought tears to her eyes. That he would trust her so, in this moment, after all that had passed. This man had astonished her, and at times baffled and infuriated her, from the outset. Freja reached a hand out to run her fingers along the inky bristles that lined his jaw.
Berendil’s eyes opened at that, turned quicksilver in the uncertain light of dawn, and he considered her as she let her fingers trace the line of his jaw, then his throat and along the spread of his shoulders. Such power was there beneath her touch. These Rangers, they were not common folk like her. Dunédain. Students of the Elves. They saw in the dark and could sense things that she, no matter how she tried, could not equal. What did he see in her, she wondered.
Especially after what had passed between them.
”I…wanted you…safe,” Freja said in a quiet voice as her fingers wandered lower over his chest, ”I wanted you spared. I have wanted that from the outset, even when you interjected into Vorda’s training.”
Berendil’s hand rose to cover her own, ”You spared my pretty face.”
Freja grimaced, her words echoing in her mind. She’d been so furious then. And, if she was honest, something else too. As had her spear sisters around her. Yes, they were all vastly displeased at the disruption. They were also not blind to the fact that Berendil was a vastly attractive disruption.
”I was…unkind,” she said, lifting her eyes to his solemnly and he nodded.
”And magnificent. Beautiful.”
Freja flushed at that, for she knew that beauty was not one of her attributes. Such things belonged to others.
”I am no Elf maid,” she demurred.
“No, you are not,” Berendil smiled, ”And given you left me painted in bruises, you have a very curious notion of what safe means.”
Freja lifted a shoulder, ”People were watching. I couldn’t just let that…slide.”
She sighed and slowly lifted her hand away to peer at Berendil, ”I don’t understand how it is that you still…after everything thing I said…and did…”
He pushed out a deep sigh, settled his hands to her hips as if to assure himself she was there still, and closed his eyes.
”Only two did Cardolan send to the Grey Company. I dare say you were hip deep in battle in the East Fold at the time,” he paused, opened his eyes to see her nod, and then settled back again, ”We set out before dawn, Mecarnil and I. I recall it well for I could scarcely believe I was to go. I had thought the Prince would refuse the call for aid…”
Berendil fell silent, his thoughts briefly wandering before he collected them again, ”But there I was, checking through everything I had with me, waiting to take my leave of my liege lord.”
Berendil smiled dryly, ”I do not serve Prince Bereth directly.”
To Freja he sounded relieved but she was not given the opportunity to press further for he pushed on, ”As I waited to take my leave, Lady Verawyn, the daughter of my liege lord, sought me out. I had heard talk that she was gifted with foresight but until then, I did not know whether it was so.”
“Dwimmerlaik,” Freja breathed, eyes wide.
Berendil’s brow furrowed at the unfamiliar term, ”I am not sure. In any case, the Lady spoke of fire. She both warned me against it and commended me to it. And, until such time as I set eyes upon you, ni nîn, I had no idea what she meant.”
Freja jaw dropped just a little and then she flushed, ”This? She saw…this?”
Sudden laughter burst out of Berendil at the question, ”Oh, I hope not. But even so, she saw…us. And it is to that, and my heart that I trust, Freja.”
Freja leaned forward, her heavy braid sliding over her shoulder as she did so, to kiss Berendil with no small degree of passion. But even so, she could not forget who she was and who he was. He felt her thoughts shift.
”What is it?” he asked.
”I…do not speak Elvish…and I am not of the Dunédain…”
“It matters not,” he answered urgently, ”Not to me.”
“But you do not know,” she said pulling away.
The dismay on his face was palpable and she lowered her eyes, ”And it is time.”
“Time for what?” Berendil asked as she shifted back.
Freja’s hands lifted to the worn dun cloak she had replaced her proper cloak with and let it drop. Berendil frowned at her as she pulled herself away, hands delving to grasp the hem of her tunic even as she turned her back. She pulled it up, revealing the naked expanse of her back to him for the first time and all that was writ upon it. From the base of her spine to the spread of her shoulders, her life as a Shieldmaiden was set out.
Right at the bottom of it all was the mark that represented her…a Daughter of the Mark in spirit, but not by blood, for such were the inescapable circumstances of her birth. Eriwyn had held that there could be no escape from such truths but nor did it serve to allow it to become a weapon. And she had made it part of her. Only by embracing the truth could you be freed from it. Such had been Eriwyn’s counsel, stern and unflinching. She clutched her tunic to her chest and behind her Berendil sucked in a shocked breath. Did he see it, she wondered? Did he understand what she was.
Her eyes closed at his struggle to find words and she found them for him, ”I daresay it is crude to Dunédain eyes.”
And just like that she felt his fingers touch one of the swirls that looped below her shoulder blades, ”The Pelennor. You are in that one.”
His touch trailed down, following the designs etched into her skin, ”How is it done?”
“With a particular ink and something very sharp, so that it is sealed into the skin.”
“Do all Shieldmaidens have…?” she nodded.
”Though each is different,” she added and braced herself for what he would ask when he saw it.
“Does it hurt?”
Freja smiled for every Spear Sister wondered the same thing when their first moment came. Always in the victorious tumult of finally gaining all eight braids, giddy, exhausted, filled with purpose and usually no small degree of wonder at having finally done it. At least, that was how it was for her.
”At times,” she replied, echoing the very answer Eriwyn had given her all those years ago.
Her heartbeat was in her ears and she heard movement behind her before Berendil pressed himself against her back. She could feel his need pressed into her and knew it echoed within her and yet she swallowed as his arms curved around her. His hands delved into the soft folds of the tunic she clutched to her.
”I am not Dunédain. I am-“
“The woman that has claimed my heart,” Berendil murmured into to her neck, grazing with his teeth.
She arched, electrified by the sensation and his hands tightened in the tunic, pulled it away and let it drop.
Freja gasped as his hands ran over her skin, ”If you bind yourself to me you will never be free of the El-“
Her capacity to speak failed her, undone by the man who held her to him. She could sooner pull the rising sun from the sky than articulately explain the delicate matter of her scandalous birth now. He chuckled, well pleased at the soft moan he won from her.
”I say again, woman, that come what may we face it together,” Berendil’s velvet voice was warm in her ear, ”One of these days, I hope you will take me at my word.”
”That might be easier if you used Westron,” she answered as he ran his hands down her flank, tracing in to her waist and then flaring out to her hips, ”Though, it would seem we understand each other well enough now.”
“Is that so?” he asked, hands grasping her hips.
Freja closed her eyes and leaned into him, ”You know that I have bound myself to you and, given you have done the same, I know that you are a madman. Who speaks Elvish.
She felt quiet laughter shiver through him but did not hear it for his face was buried in her hair. Despite the lunacy of this, Freja found herself smiling up at the leaves overhead, though in truth she did not really see them at all given what Berendil was up to.
Berendil stretched up behind Freja and he breathed into her ear and kissed it. He said softly,
”I have dreamed of this day for so long. The long days and long miles of Harad, to the close intense days in Khand, and the unsure days in Rhun, I wondered what you were doing under the same moon but where the stars had moved. Those words the Sindarin speaking madman says…I would say them to the familiar stars and the moon in hopes you would be looking at the same star or moon and they would reach you. I believe that Varda has the power to affect such things should she wish it.”
He kissed along her shoulder following the pattern as he whispered, ”Ni nîn Annon 'ûr nîn angina…. “
He lay aside Freja and she turned to him. He looked into her eyes and reached deep, saying, ” My love, I give you my heart.”
He then kissed her long and slow as he pressed himself to her. He was filled with love and desire for her, and all the time he drew her picture from his memory, and all the letters he had written and had not sent… He rolled to his back and Freja rolled atop him. She worked her thighs around him and settled on his hardness and leaned forward with her hands on his chest. His hands came up and took a breast in each as she started to move back and forth atop him. Her warmth wrapped about him, and the intensity kept building. It got to a point that they had forgotten about trying to be quiet as noise discipline had been well and truly forgotten.
When Freja finally collapsed onto him, he wrapped his arms around her and held her, and even as the skies started to brighten. He kissed her brow as he lay there with his eyes closed.
”Ni nîn Annon 'ûr nîn angina. Forevermore…“
He felt as if he was drifting away asleep, when a rain drop hit his face.