The Ranger And The Shieldmaiden


Chapter 027




Chapter 27

3021, III – October, Black Company Camp

Freja adjusted slightly where she sat with, or rather leaned against, Berendil. Then she shivered for she really could feel winter even if Berendil teased her that it was still far off. Tonight they were both retired from the watch on the Forsaken Inn. Another contingent was cycling through. She was reasonably sure they’d find it as fruitless as any of them. As her, though all things considered she’d found the Inn to be quite productive…she smiled at the thought and considered sidelong the man she was lounging against in front of his tent before the fire.

”Isn’t that Hanasian’s map,” he observed and then, when she went still, ”Does he know you have it?”

she said, smiling widely.

By now Berendil was not in the least fooled. He lifted his eyes at her but remained where he was, content to study the map. He had the end of her braid rolling idly in his fingers.

”Now, what about here? There’s no detail there whatsoever,” she said, refocussing once more on the task at hand.

”You must have heard of Angmar. There is a reason the map is sparse there.”

“Yes, but you Rangers have probably been there. Just to nose about. So…”

Berendil pushed out a deep sigh and she knew that meant he was thinking. Brief though their time together was, she had come to know a great deal about him. As she had sensed from the outset, she had tumbled headlong into what was a new place. Wondrous to her and also, sometimes, terrifying. She had loved before, in many ways, but never like this. But, then, he was unlike any she had ever encountered. Deeply intelligent, compassionate, kind and gentle of nature, Berendil was a thinker. Still waters ran deep, she had heard it said. The man she loved was proof of that. However, whilst Freja knew that she was in and in deep, she had yet to resolve what that meant for the way ahead.

They’d been so focussed on the here and now, discovering each other as they juggled their commitments for or with the Black Company, that there had simply not been the chance to discuss the path ahead. The braid Berendil was playing with was a very clear direction, but it was not the only one. Not now…and she had no idea how to broach the subject or even if she should. Perhaps it was too soon.

As these thoughts rolled about her mind she looked up at the approach of another. As soon as she saw who it was she eased herself up to sit, crossed legged. Videgavia looked straight through her, as though she was not there. He’d met her with that cold, detached indifference from the outset and Freja was beyond the point of being concerned about it. Now, she was just plain angry. But for the need for camp discipline, she’d have confronted the Daleman over whatever it was.

Berendil too moved, no longer content and relaxed. In the brief moment between Freja’s study of the map, Berendil had seen the Daleman’s haunted expression upon arrival. By the time Freja looked up to see Videgavia, his face had resumed its habitual sullen lines. His black eyes were coldly glittering and calculating once more.

”Captain’s tent,” the Daleman growled to Berendil, turned on his heel and stalked off towards Hanasian’s tent.

Berendil studied the man’s back, the stirrings of sympathy in his heart. He looked down to Freja to find her head was still bowed over Hanasian’s map, studiously ignoring everyone and everything. With a shake of his head, Berendil followed in Videgavia’s wake. As ever the two twin Rohirrim courteously greeted him as he passed. They’d been doing this since the day he’d arrived in camp bearing Freja’s shield and whilst he nodded, Videgavia ahead muttered darkly under his breath and walked faster to push into Hanasian’s tent ahead of him.

Still, it was only a few moments before Berendil arrived to find Hanasian rifling through his collection of maps, looking for something. Berendil rubbed a hand over his jaw and wondered just how it was Freja had managed to take one of his friend’s more detailed maps…and how Hanasian would react.

”As it so happens, I don’t really need it now,” Hanasian murmured as he rose to his feet and nodded at Berendil, ”I’ve just received my seventh consecutive report that nothing has been sighted at the Inn.”

Berendil frowned, ”But Freja was drawn here by the same information we were. There has to be something more to it.”

“Freja thought Khule was the agent,”
Videgavia muttered, ”And we thought she was. We could be here another month, empty handed.”

”And Bareck informs me Khule is in need of care we cannot provide,” Hanasian paused and then sighed, ”It’s time to pull out and take stock.”

Videgavia asked as Berendil shook his head.

”Freja is planning a fresh campaign,” he glanced apologetically to Hanasian, ”Full of questions on what might be found beyond the north eastern reaches of Rhuadar.”

“You can plan a campaign without-“
Hanasian paused and his eyes narrowed, ”I don’t know how she got it but I want that map back. It’s my best one.”

Berendil nodded without hesitation and so Hanasian rubbed at his jaw, “Angmar, as winter encroaches?”

Vid barked mirthless laughter.

”Of course Angmar. And if her mind is set, then that’s that” he declared and then shrugged, ”But that doesn’t mean we need to follow along. Let her go.”

“We cannot have her venturing to Angmar on her own,”
Berendil returned, astonished at how stonehearted Videgavia was.

”We cannot have her venturing anywhere at all,” Hanasian added with a sigh, ”I crossed paths with Massuil today. He’s been looking to intercept Freja for the better part of the year, and the fact that he hasn’t been able to suggests that she is well aware of that. This war path of hers is unsanctioned by her King and our own. Unless she acts as part of this Company, Massuil will forcibly return her to Edoras for breaching Arnor’s peace.”

“Die trying, more like,”
Videgavia muttered.

Berendil was too astonished to find words but Videgavia was not for he continued on to warn, ”That woman will ask for forgiveness before she does permission.”

It was an extraordinary charge to make and the urge to speak out pressed hard at Berendil. He glared at Videgavia for a moment and then looked to Hanasian. It then he realised that his friend was not in the least swayed.

”I’ve yet to consider the matter fully,” Hanasian said, quashing all further debate on the subject.

”Your funeral,” Videgavia declared and eyed his captain, ”When do we move out?”

“We break camp tomorrow,”
Hanasian replied, his attention on Berendil for the man had gone quiet, deep in thought.

”Done then,” Videgavia declared and left them to it.

After a pause Berendil asked a quiet question, ”Do you truly mean to recruit her?”

Hanasian rolled his shoulders before he responded, ”Freja has an unrivalled set of very particular set of skills that will serve the Company well. She would be an asset, despite Vid’s…concerns.”

Berendil nodded thoughtfully and then lifted his eyes to Hanasian, ”Then I ask something of you, one friend to another: wait…at least until Bree?”

The two men considered each other and then Hanasian nodded, ”Naturally. But, if Freja pursues this warpath of hers, then I will act. I’d sooner see her one of us than under arrest.”

Berendil smiled gratefully, ”Thank you, Han."

He turned to depart the tent and Hanasian called after him, ”Good luck.”

“Why would I need that,”
he returned, pausing at the tent’s only entrance.

Hanasian offered him a rakish grin, ”Because you’re the one who is going to break it to her that her Angmar is not happening. And I really do want my map back.”

Berendil groaned but Hanasian was adamant, ”I can think of no one better qualified for the task.”

Whatever Berendil said, it worked for come the morning Freja zipped about with a singular determination to ensure camp was broken down in a timely fashion and time, it seemed, moved faster for Shieldmaidens than anyone else. When she wasn’t chivvying men along, she was saddling horses. Through it all she hummed to herself as though this was all just a jolly summer lark.

”You, sir, are a magician,” Hanasian quietly observed out of the corner of his mouth as Freja swung another saddle into place set about securing it with brusque efficiency.

Berendil shrugged his shoulders, ”I’ve been paying attention this past week.”

He passed across to Hanasian a rolled map, ”She has quite the collection. And if the Prancing Pony doesn’t have a cask of honeyed ale, I am a dead man.”

Hanasian carefully tucked his map into his jerkin with a chuckle and then reached across to pat Berendil’s back.

”Knew you were the man for the job,” he mused and then turned about to ensure the rest of the Company was matching the Shieldmaiden’s pace.

Within an hour of dawn they were on their way to Bree.

The rain seemed to set in that day as they set out for Bree. The Autumn weather of the north had finally driven out the last bit of summer. The sun would not find the company for many days to come.

When they set out for Bree, Mulgov and Khule tried to convince Hanasian that they would be best serving the Company by staying and running the Forsaken Inn. Hanasian considered leaving Foldine and Maclon, but he decided that if the Moricarni was going to be anywhere, they would eventually come to Bree. They needed to keep eyes out on the road though, but so far, they saw no one. Once they would arrive in Bree. They would regroup and send out their own watches outside the gates.
Berendil rode point with Freja, and they kept a wary watch on the road even as they talked.

Berendil said, ”Of all the miles if travel with the company, it would have been so much more enjoyable to do it with your company. But since you weren’t there, I brought you with me and I drew several sketches of you. When we get to Bree I will show you. And I would like to draw you with you in front of me if you allow it.”

Freja seemed curious about what he had drawn.

”I would like to see them,” she replied, unsure if she would allow him to sketch her. She would save judgement on that for now. She deflected the conversation away from herself and asked,

”Tell me Berendil… tell me of these lands you seen.”

Berendil looked straight on and to the side at some bush that grew close to the road. It was safe with only two birds flirting about in it. If the birds were there, nobody else was. He looked at Freja as she scanned the other side of the road. As she turned back toward him he started to tell her.

”We took ship to Pelargir, an old Numenorean city with much history. The quays were many and could harbor many large ships, but these days, they only use one jetty. We stayed there three days and gathered horses, supply and intelligence before setting out to the east side of the river.”

He paused as he looked hard at some stones that rose up by the road where it started to hook around to the right. His right fist went up and two fingers motioned to the right as he and Freja pulled their horses to a halt. The signal silently went through the line, and Videgavia who was toward the rear rode his horse up the slop to the right and circled around coming to the back of the rocks. He led his horse to the edge of the rocks and looked down, signalling all was clear. Berendil and Freja started forth again. Videgavia dropped into line about three men back from the leaders. Freja watched him warily before turning her eyes back to Berendil.

With the road clear, Berendil went on…

”Our journey across Harondor was long and dry, and meeting Mulgov as he guarded the Fords of Poros… well there was an awkward relationship between Gondor’s former enemies and us. Not sure what he did, but Molgov ended up deserting and joining us, and we had a reluctant pursuit from the Haradians. We made it to Khand though. That was where the nightmare started…”

Berendil paused, thinking of those of the company who were killed, and of nearly getting Naiore, and of the brutal civil war and the slaughter of the Khe’al and the Moricarni…. He hoped that Khemra fared all right in Rhun. Freja noticed he went quiet. Freja said, ”You don’t have to speak of Khand if you don’t want to.”

Her hand reached over and touched Berendil’s arm. Berendil reached for her hand and held for a time before they parted. Berendil said, ”I think the Cap.. Hanasian is keeping records. He tasked Videgavia and I to do the same. I have done some, but I always found myself writing letters to you. It helped me write the records, as if I was telling you all about things. I told you about Khand then, I can say it now.”

He looked about, and the road looked clear and open as far as they could see; they would be approaching Bree soon. Berendil took a deep breath and said, ”We lost the first man of the company in Khand. He was from the highlands of Ringlo in Gondor. His name was Tarucal He was ambushed while on watch. His countryman who was on watch with him slew the lone attacker, but he was cut. It was because of some tribal animosities there, and though we were met in the south by the chief of the Khe’al tribe and his seven daughters and they welcome us into their nomadic camp and were very friendly. But there were some in the east that had been the power of Khand under Sauron. They were called the warlords. The southern and western tribes, which the Khe’al were but one, had lost heavily with the decimations of their sons in the war. They rose up against the east, and Hanasian had our camp moved west. It was when sappers from the east came and killed everyone in the camp save a few.”

Berendil paused, remembering the people there. He went on, ”I wasn’t there for I had taken some men and had gone north to recon. It was there we nearly had her. She was unsuspecting, and I laid eyes on her. Maras, who was an Ithilien Ranger in the war, had gone a different way in the caverns, and when she caught sight of me, he hit her with an arrow. The elf bleeds and is not invincible! Yet, in her anger at being caught out she tried to bring down the cavern on us. Maras didn’t make it. He was our second man lost. After that, we were left hanging alone but for the only surviving daughter of Khemal. Her name was Khemra. I think you would have liked her.”

“Did she live?”

Freja asked. Berendil shook his head and said,

”Yes. She became the leader of the southwest tribes and led the attack on the warlord fortress. The company had moved north and were in the highlands above Nurn in east Mordor. The attack of determined but not very well armed tribal fighters against a fortified city with professional soldiers could never be won. The eventually were spent and eventually were wiped out by the counterattack. Khemra was one of the few who made it to where we were dug in. We cared for her wounds, but we had to leave her in Nurn with the Easterlings.”

Freja winces at that, she looked back to make sure Khule was well behind them. Berendil looked back too. He said, "We met Khule there. He was in command of a provisional army of Nurn and they got caught up on the edge of the civil war in Khand, fighing the warlord army when they pushed a little too far. So it was Khule who got us passage north to Rhun. There we got caught up in their civil war, well, a coup against the ruling prefect. The land of Rhun was a relief from the arid dryness of Harad and Khand.”

He looked about and held up the company. A neutral stop so they gathered around and spread out across the road and into the grass.

”Bree is before us!”  Berendil said.

Hanasian nodded and waved to get the company to form up in pairs. They would approach two abreast. Hanasian would take the front alone. Berendil and Freja would ride right behind him.

He said,”Let us look professional. A large armed force like this approaching the gate will be disconcerting to the gatekeepers.. Once inside, we make for the Prancing Pony.”

He signalled to move and the slowly rode toward the gate as the sun shone red before dropping behind the western hills.