‘Twas the Elf who woke them in the next morn, shortly before daybreak. They ate something, fed the horses and gave them some water, but they used their own supplies rather than touching whatever was stored in the cave. Elfhelm had thought that this would be an old hideout of Strider’s, but the Ranger said that last time he had been there it was just an empty cave. The Khimmer patrols must have made it to one of their regular resting places.
Shortly thereafter the Elf parted company with them, turning back on the path he and the Ranger had come and vanishing from their view in no time. Elfhelm and Strider made themselves on their way, and the young Marshal was thankful to have a companion who knew at least a little about these strange lands. Even though Striders knowledge, too, was a little... well, outdated.
“When I was here, Thorvald the One-handed, Ragnar’s grandsire was still alive,” he said thoughtfully. “As far as I can tell, he was the most respected Warlord of the Khimmer people. He was renowned of his berserk fury in battle. With only one arm, he was able to beat any adversary, or so the Khimmer warriors told.”
“’Tis unusual for an Easterling chieftain,” said Elfhelm, “to lack a limb yet rise to power nevertheless.”
“He lost his arm during the bear-fight, or so they say,” answered the Ranger, “and that he survived it at all was seen as a sign that the bear has been reborn in him. But he is said to have been sly as well as strong. He was the one who secured Nimvarkinh for the Warlords, by marrying the daughter of an old yet unimportant clan, which owned the Deep Furnaces back then. ‘Tis said that the Easterlings used to fear the Furnaces, for the fire that burned in them came from the inside of the earth and needed no coal nor wood to feed them. But I doubt that very much. I deem ‘tis but a legend. Not even the Dwarves of Moria could do without coal to heat up their smithies.”
“Is it not said that Nimvarkinh, too, used to be a Dwarf city once?” asked Elfhelm. “Mayhap there is more hidden in its deep shafts than just Easterlings hiding from both, friend and foe.”
“That might be so,” admitted the Ranger, “just as ‘tis true that once the Broadbeam Dwarves had a great city under the Mountains of Nimvarkinh. But that was a long time ago, back in the Elder Days. They are gone now, save a few families that are said still to be dwelling in the deepest shafts, which the Khimmer cannot reach. No-one knows aught about their true fate.”
“And the Khimmer tolerate them?” asked Elfhelm in surprise. Strider shrugged.
“The Dwarves bother them not. Sometimes they even accept a skilled Khimmer lad as an apprentice. Ragnar himself was taught by a Dwarf master in his youth, ‘tis said.”
“Then let us hope the Khimmer are just half as patient with us,” said Elfhelm, eyeing the horizon worriedly, “for it seems that we are about to have some company.”
Strider looked into the same direction and saw about a dozen sturdy, muscular, russet-haired men, approaching quickly. They wore soft leather shirts and breeches, and above those rough wolfshide tunics. Their legs were wrapped in some rough, woollen cloth, the sandals fastened with thin leather thongs above them. Their heavy leather belts were at least a span wide, and from them hung knives, leather pouches and battle-axes, while the men held short, broad-pointed spears in their hands. The round iron helmets they wore had narrow, upturned brims like hats. The men had short-cropped, full beards and thick moustaches, in the fashion of the Easterlings.
“Be quiet,” said the Ranger warningly. “Khimmer warriors on patrol are quite irritable. The best thing is to wait for them to make the first move, or else you can get killed ere you state your business here.”
“But I cannot fulfil my quest if I get captured by the raiding bands of some Khimmer chieftain,” pointed out Elfhelm in worry.
Strider shrugged. “I would not worry about that. Look at their helmets; they wear the iron sign of a rampant bear. And their weapons were undoubtedly made by a skilled ironsmith. These are the Warlord’s people all right. Now all you have to do is to persuade them to bring you before their Lord. Alive.”
Elfhelm was not sure he liked the amused tone of the Ranger, but at the moment he was too busy watching the approaching Easterlings to respond in kind. They came on foot; only their leader and his two companions rode big-boned, heavy horses. It was the leader, particularly, who had caught Elfhelm’s interest.
The Easterling leader was a young man of roughly Elfhelm’s age, a true giant among his own people, with big bones and heavy limbs. His chest was broad like the bellows in a Dwarf smithy, his arms like the branches of a great tree, with the wide sleeves of his fine leather shirt rolled up over his elbows. His tunic was made of the hide of a cave bear, the sacred animal of his people, which alone revealed his high rank and importance among his own people.
His breastplate and pointed helmet was of polished bronze and adorned with ancient symbols representing the sun – a reminder of the Easterlings’ old faith, way before the bear cult. Like his men, he pulled his hair back into a tight ponytail, and as he turned his head to the side to say something to one of his companions, the sparkle of small jewels could be seen in the clap holding it together. His heavy weapons’ belt and his boots were fitted with gold. He alone of all men had a short broadsword, hanging from his belt in a jewelled scabbard, and a gilded oval shield in his hand, adorned with the image of the rearing black bear.
“Impressive,” murmured Elfhelm. “This must be one of the Warlord’s captains, I deem.”
“More than that, I assume,” answered Strider quietly. “I tend to believe that he might belong to Ragnar’s family. They are known to be taller than their subjects, and the symbols upon his helmet and breastplate cannot be worn by any other clan than that of the Warlord.”
“And who are the women with him?” asked Elfhelm, looking at the young man’s companions. “Do Khimmer chieftains take their wives to battle with them?”
“Nay,” the Ranger shook his head, “these are Khimmer shieldmaidens. Be careful with them – they are not quite the same shieldmaidens you know from the Mark. These live only to fight – and to die honourably. ‘Tis a short and violent life, and they know no mercy, not in giving it, nor in expecting it.”
Elfhelm eyed the two young women curiously. They wore mail shirts that covered their knees but were open on the side, up to the hip, so that they could move unhindered. Their weapons’ belts were like those of the men, but aside the battle-axes they also wore long swords. Their muscular arms were naked under the short-sleeved shirts, but they wore strong vambrances for protection. Their helmets were pointed like the leader’s, but they wore the symbol of their order upon them – a small golden shield and across it two silver arrows – and a piece of chain mail hung from those helmets, protecting their necks. The same symbol as on their helmets could be seen painted upon their shields.
One of them was the usual voluptuous, russet-haired, round-faced Khimmer woman the likes of which could be seen all across Rhûn. The other one, however, had a fine, oval face, clear grey eyes, raven hair and a more slender build, confirming the rumour that some Khimmer chieftains took wives from the Northern Dúnedain – even though it might not have been a voluntary match from the women’s side.
This shieldmaiden most certainly was a half-bred; her arched eyebrows and high forehead revealed a quick wit and a strong will, while her full, slightly wide mouth spoke of passion. Her sword hilt and the handle of her axe were set with gold and jewels, signalling her high rank among her own people. And yet it was her strange, almost angry beauty that caught Elfhelm’s eye most.
She radiated sadness, pride and cool strength, and the young Marshal got the inexplicable feeling that there were few powers in this world that could resist her iron will. Which was strange, as the women of the Easterlings lived, as a rule, in complete submission to their men. Therefore, this shieldmaiden could not be just any common woman. Either her bloodline or her own deeds – or, most likely, both of these factors together – had apparently raised her above the others. Unlike her shield-sister, she rode on the side of their leader with a blank face, without stealing admiring looks at him.
The bear-sized young man rode up so close that the nostrils of his horse nearly reached Elfhelm’s face. His steely blue eyes sized up the strangers suspiciously; then he asked in a deep, rough voice.
“Who are you and what are you doing here? These are our lands; outsiders have no business crossing our borders.”
He spoke Westron, and not badly at all, but with the harsh accent that revealed an Easterling at once.
Strider did not even flinch at the tone.
“I am called Strider,” he replied calmly. “I am a huntsman from the North. I have visited Rhûn before, and my name is known among the older chieftains of the East. This is Ossiach, a messenger sent out on an urgent errand. But who are you to hinder us in going on our own ways?”
The face of the young Khimmer leader darkened in anger.
“Choose your words carefully, stranger, or I shall make you choke on them,” he answered heatedly. “I do not have to justify myself to strangers in our own realm. But if you must know, I am Ingolf Ragnarsson, and I have every right to question any trespassers in the lands under my father’s rule. So, tell me at once who has sent you and why, or I might shake it out of you!”
Strider did not lose his calm for a moment. His manners reminded Elfhelm of those of a patient adult, dealing with an angry child.
“You are mistaken, if you think you could frighten me, Ingolf Ragnarsson,” said the Ranger with a shrug. “And these lands are far from belonging to your father yet… ‘tis doubtful, indeed, whether they ever will, unless the Dark Lord falls from power and his fell creatures scatter in all winds. Boast not ere you have achieved victory. But if you truly are the son of Ragnar the Smith, Lord of the Deep Furnaces, you need not to fear us. ‘Tis he my companion has been sent to.”
“Fear you?” Ingolf laughed disdainfully; a booming laughter that echoed from the hills. “Why should the warriors of Rhûn fear two puny spies? If I swung my fist, the mere draught of it would knock you off your feet. I can bend an iron bar with one hand – why should I fear you?”
“Trust not the strength of your arm alone, son of Ragnar the Smith,” said Stride with a thin smile. “The poisonous snake is thin like the finger of a man; yet one bite of it could kill the biggest, clumsiest oaf. And the snake can hit you as quick as lightning, if angered.”
“Are you threatening me?” Ingolf’s big hand clenched into fists and he towered over the Ranger like and angry mountain bear. “You think you can frighten me?”
“I am warning you, young one,” answered Strider, his eyes glittering now. “You deem yourself safe, protected by your men and your own strength. But there are other powers in this world, higher and deeper, brighter and darker, but certainly more dangerous ones than yours.”
The steel-blue eyes narrowed in suspicion again.
“I knew it; you are spies,” declared Ingolf in satisfaction. “Half-breds like your companion never walk straight paths, and they often seek out the help of dark arts. Are you a sorcerer of some sort?”
The accusation was so ridiculous it would have made Elfhelm laugh, had their situation not been so dangerous. Strider, however, looked more than a little annoyed by now.
“Young fool,” he replied, not caring any longer about angering the Khimmer leader. “Were I a sorcerer, I had already turned you into a lump of rock, for that is what your mind resembles. Fortunately for you, I am no sorcerer, nor a wizard of any sort, just a simple huntsman, like many others. And Ossiach here is a messenger, sent to Ragnar the Smith on an important errand, as I have already told you. So, would you cease bothering us?”
A slight murmur arose among the Khimmer warriors. Messengers had been spared and protected since the oldest times in Rhûn, for their errands could mean life or death for a clan… or for the entire folk. More than that, the Ranger’s words and manners radiated a kind of authority these rough warriors could not help but respect. Unlearned they might have been, but they recognized true leadership when they saw it.
The raven-haired shieldmaiden gave first Strider, then Elfhelm a thoughtful look, as if trying to decide if they were trustworthy. But Ingolf was not easily persuaded.
“If you think us such fools that we would lead you to the gates of our city and open the secret doors of Nimvarkinh for you, then you are mistaken,” he said angrily. “So that you can show the way for all outlaws and brigands to our halls? Nay; visitors like your kind are welcomed with the tip of a sword, in safe distance from home.”
The Ranger shrugged. The cold flame of wrath had gone from his eyes already, and he looked rather… bored with both Ingolf and the whole affair.
“My name is known in the court of Ragnar the Smith,” he said simply. “I have been there before, in the times of your grandsire; I am older than I look. You cannot remember me, for you are barely more than a child. My last visit in Nimvarkinh was before your birth.”
The hint that he might be too young to be involved in the important issues of his father’s court angered Ingolf very much, but he felt – and rightly so – that despite his raw strength, he would be no match for the Ranger. Seeking easier prey, he now turned to Elfhelm, crossing his muscular arms before his broad chest challengingly.
“You pretend to be a messenger, then? Sent to my father, no less? What important message is it you are carrying, eh?”
“I have been sent to your father, not to you,” replied Elfhelm curtly. “Those sent to the head do not go to the feet,” he added, quoting the old Morduin saying of his mother’s people, and refused to answer any more questions.
The Khimmer warriors growled angrily; tempers started running high among them again. A few even began to agree with Ingolf that they should simply kill these spies and be done with them.
“We can always kill them if we find proof hat they are indeed spies,” said the raven-haired, grey-eyed shieldmaiden. “Yet what if this one truly carries an important message for our Lord? If we kill them now, although we would need them alive later, we would harm ourselves and our own people. Besides… it would not be right. They should be given the chance to prove themselves.”
Ingolf became thoughtful, silencing his men. This surprised Elfhelm, for his mother had always said that the Khimmer men did not care for the opinions of their women. It was thinkable, though, that this fair and proud shieldmaiden would have a privileged status, even among her shieldmates. Shieldmaidens of the East were known to have a certain influence in Khimmer society, depending on their heritage and on the level of their skills. What kind of connection might have been between this one and Ingolf, Elfhelm could not guess, but something was there, even an outsider like him could see that.
“What do you suggest, Beryl?” the young Khimmer leader finally asked. The shieldmaiden – Beryl was probably a name she wore only inside her order – shrugged.
“Let us take them to Nimvarkinh; we are returning home anyway. If the messenger turns out to be honest, good foor him. If not, we still can break his neck… both their necks. Have they lied, at least we can beat out of them who sent them and why.”
The suggestion was a strange mix of well-meaning cruelty. The men discussed it shortly – then Ingolf decided to follow it.
“This is unusual,” murmured Strider. “She behaves herself like someone whose opinions are usually respected – it does not happen frequently to Khimmer women. Not even to shieldmaidens.”
“I was told that shieldmaidens of the East have a different status than those of the Mark,” answered Elfhelm in an equally low voice, “but I know not what the differences are. Do you know?”
“Shieldmaidens of the East are chosen for life,” said the Ranger thoughtfully. “They are not allowed to marry or to become pregnant; to avoid the latter, they use a special draught.”
“What for? If they are not allowed to marry anyway…” Elfhelm trailed off, realizing the truth ere the other man could have answered.
“They are sometimes offered to an important guest, an emissary or an ally,” said Strider nevertheless, his even voice not revealing what he would think about such practices. “And they are allowed to choose lovers during their times of rest.”
Elfhelm stole a glance at Beryl, admiring her stern, almost angry beauty, wondering if she could avoid becoming a bargaining offer. Mayhap not; she would be greatly desired for her unusual looks. Her weapons were well-made and richly adorned, unlike those of her shield-sister, and she seemed to be respected, too, but still… she was a woman, and women had little worth in the East, or so the rumours said.
“I wonder if she is related to Ingolf,” he murmured. Strider shook his head.
“They have no similar features. Perhaps she is his lover.”
“I think not,” said Elfhelm. “He does not look at her as a man looks at a woman who has caught his eye. More like one looks at a trusted ally.”
Strider watched Ingolf and Beryl arguing for a moment. Then he nodded.
“You might be right. ‘Tis still a little strange, though, that…”
He could not finish, for Ingolf stepped closer again, with Beryl in trail, and measured them from head to toe with a suspicious look.
“Very well,” he said to Beryl, “we take them with us. But they are your responsibility. You will answer to me if they escape.”
With that, he mounted his horse and ordered his men to set off again.
“They will not have the chance,” announced Beryl coldly, winking to two of the men. “Bind their arms to their backs safely and fasten the lash to my saddle. If they want to get to Nimvarkinh, they will have to run.”
The prospect of a run of many miles to Nimvarkinh’s West-gate did not seem to bother Strider. Rangers were used to cover great expanses on foot. But Elfhelm had already had more of it than he liked to, and could barely suppress a groan.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They travelled ‘til the onset of darkness. The speed was not one that would have been beyond Elfhelm’s abilities; still, he was deathly tired when they finally reached another hideout, larger and better supplied than the one in which they had spent the previous night. This had a huge main cave and several smaller chambers that opened from the central room, providing some semblance of privacy to the leader and the shieldmaidens.
Beryl ordered the captives to be brought to one of the smaller caves, where she intended to watch them personally. As usual, her orders were followed without objections. Their weapons and Elfhelm’s horses were kept with the men in the main cave. Still, Beryl had their legs be bound, too.
“If they manage to escape now, I deserve my fate,” she said to her shield-sister who wore the name of Emerald.
“Do you want me to help guarding them?” asked Emerald. The calculating look with which she eyed the two captured men revealed that the offer was not entirely selfless.
Beryl noticed it, too, and her eyes turned to ice.
“Oh no, Emerald, my dear,” she replied coldly, “I need no help from you to keep my captives under tight watch. I saved them from being killed for their big mouths; they are mine now. I shall present them to our Lord, so that they can prove their trustworthiness… if they can, that is.”
The ruddy face of Emerald was distorted by pure hatred for a moment.
“You, always you!” she hissed. “You are grabbing every scrap of honour and glory, as if it would do you any good! What do you hope for? You not even have what we do – the young Lord never looks at you, not once. You got your wish and became our captain – what good has it brought you? Do you hope to get into the good graces of our Lord himself? What if your captives are lying?”
“Then I shall cut their throats with my own hand,” replied Beryl coldly and lay down on the floor, next to the two men. Emerald and she were talking in their own tongue, unlike earlier, when they had confronted the strangers in Westron. They could not know, of course, that both Elfhelm and the Ranger understood them.
“You ask me why I am chasing glory tirelessly?” Beryl continued, without as much as looking at Emerald; her voice was dripping with disdain. “How could you even begin to understand, you and the others? You are only trying to exceed to catch the eye of a powerful man. You want to be called shieldmaidens, followers of Freya the Great? Nay, miserable little wenches you are, fearing the hard fate of wives, the childbirth and the ageing, so you flee to battle and an early death. But you wish not to give up the pleasantries of womanhood, either. Zephyr is the only one truly seeking honour and glory, craving the great deeds of battle, like men do. Zephyr… aye, she is a shieldmaiden like all of us should be.”
Beryl’s voice became quiet but full of fire and admiration.
“I have not reached yet the same level,” she added with fierce determination, “but I shall, one day. That has been my ultimate goal, ever since my initiation. This is why I am willing to cross the empty lands between Nimvarkinh and the Ash Mountains, seeking out good weapons masters that could teach me new things. I care not what their price would be… they all want the same thing anyway.”
Her disdainful voice left no doubt about the nature of that price. Emerald squatted down next to her. Jealousy gone for now, she asked her admired – and much hated – captain with open curiosity.
“Is it true what they say? That Zephyr is your sister, by blood, too? And that you both belong to the kin of the young Lord? Is this why he would never touch either of you?”
“You babble a lot or rubbish, you and the others,” replied Beryl, not even opening her eyes.
But Emerald kept pressing. “Is it true or not?”
Beryl now sat up and gave the fleshy, russet-haired shieldmaiden a stern, almost angry look.
“Have you not sworn the Oath of Silence? Do you want me to report you to the Tanfana?”
Emerald shut her mouth with an audible snap. Her round face mirrored such fear that Elfhelm almost felt pity for her. She seemed to wish to beg her captain not to report her, but obviously dared not to do so.
‘Twas Ingolf who saved her from this trap. They young lord appeared in the entrance of the inner cave and winked her to him. Emerald laid down her helmet and her weapons belt and hurried to obey. She could not afford to keep the young lord waiting.
Beryl looked after them in bitter disdain as they retired to the private chamber that opened from the main cave.
“Well, he is just a man, like all the others,” she murmured, more to herself than to her captives. “They are all the same.”
She stepped out into the outer cave, too, joining the men for supper. No-one of them bothered to offer Elfhelm or the Ranger any food.
“Can you tell me what that was about?” asked Elfhelm.
“I do not know much, either,” said Strider, trying to move his arms and legs a little, despite the tight leather thongs they had been bound with. “I was told that the shieldmaidens fight for nine moons in every year. After three moons, they have one free. They return to their tribe, let their kin celebrate them and choose a lover, usually a well-respected warrior, to spend a few pleasant days with him.”
“But why is it forbidden to know their true names?” asked Elfhelm. “And what about that Oath of Silence?”
“I am not entirely certain,” answered the Ranger, “but as I understand it, their lives in the order and in their families are completely separated. At home, they use their given names and do not speak of what happens to them during their time of fighting.”
“And who might that Tanfana be?”
“The Tanfana,” corrected Strider. “That is the high priestess of their order – an old woman who alone knows all their secrets and who has taught them the mysteries of their order. She can decide about life or death of a shieldmaiden; no wonder they all fear her.”
Elfhelm taught about that for a while. Compared with the lives of the shieldmaidens of the Mark, all this seemed cruel and barbaric to him. He said so. Strider sighed and nodded reluctantly.
“And still, the fate of the shieldmaidens is somewhat more bearable than that of the other women in Rhûn,” he said grimly. “At least they get out of the caves and see the sunlight. Most other women spend their entire lives underground, as the bed-warmers of a powerful jarl or a respected warrior. There are too many women among the Khimmer people, and they are not valued at all.”
“Not even the shieldmaidens?”
“Not even them. I have heard that sometimes, even though ‘tis a rare thing, they are freed from their oaths, whether they want it or not, so that they could be given to an important ally as a wife. Marriages like these happen when the shieldmaiden is the daughter of a respected jarl.
“And they have no saying in this?”
“None at all.”
“That is just… just not right,” said Elfhelm. “When we bargain for a bride, ‘tis because a daughter is of great value for her cynn. ‘Tis a long ritual, based on the consent of both parties, and it is seen as a way to unite the members of the two clans into one family. Women are the carriers of the family maegen; they are more closely connected to their kinfolk than men are. They serve as the head of the household and do many of the chores that ensure the survival of the whole community. Even if some of them use to pick up the sword, they can change their minds any time they want and get married. Most of them do, in fact, after having fought a few years.”
“I know,” said the Ranger quietly. “I heard that the Lady Aud, Prince Théodred’s wife, used to be a shieldmaiden once. Is that true?”
Elfhelm nodded. “It is. Nonetheless, she accompanied Prince Théodred in many of his battles. They are childless, unfortunately; and though the law would allow Prince Théodred to release her and take another wife, he refused to do so when the Elders advised him.”
“But he does need an heir, does he not?” asked Stride with a frown.
Elfhelm shrugged. “’Twould not be the first time that kingship went to the King’s sister-son. ‘Twas how Fréaláf Hildeson became King after the death of Helm Hammerhand and his sons. Éomer son of Éomund might be young, but the bravery and greatness of his forefathers is already showing in him.”
“Has he been named as Théodred’s Heir already?” asked the Ranger.
“Not yet,” answered Elfhelm, wondering a little why the other man seemed so interested in the affairs of the Mark, but he saw no reason not to tell him something that was widely known anyway. “But it is only a matter of time. He is a good choice; the sooner the King names him as Heir, the better.”
“Why is that?” asked Strider.
“It would give the throne stability,” said Elfhelm. “When all know who is to follow the Crown Prince, usurpers have less chance to seize the throne, and a kin-strife can be avoided. Prince Théodred and Éomer are like brothers to each other – Éomer’s naming as Heir would ensure the peace in the Mark.”
Strider gave him an odd look. “You know much about what is going on at court,” he said. “’Tis unusual for a simple messenger.”
Elfhelm looked back at him blankly. “None of this is some great secret in the Mark. We like to know what our King and his cynn is doing.”
“If you say so,” the Ranger replied, clearly not believing him, but not pressing the issue, either. “We should try to sleep now. ‘Tis bad enough that we have to spend the night with an empty stomach. The lack of sleep would make tomorrow’s journey even more unpleasant.”
“You truly believe it could get any more unpleasant than it already is?” grumbled Elfhelm, but he knew the Ranger was right.
They tried to find a slightly less uncomfortable position on the hard stone floor of the cave and forced themselves to sleep. Neither of them noticed the return of Beryl. The shieldmaiden gave them a long, suspicious look. When she was certain that they were truly sleeping, she covered them with wolfskins ere leaving again.
maegen is a difficult concept to translate to our modern life. It is not exactly magic; more the ability to ensure the clan's well-being.