There were eyes watching her as she made her way across the open space between the barn and the house; of that she was certain. The feeling of unease had been growing for days, ever since the men had gone off to confront the army that threatened from the south, from the Land of Stone.
"Ervig..." She called his name softly as she entered the low timbered house. She halted just inside the door, taking a moment to let her eyes adjust from the brilliant sunlight to the dim illumination of the interior. On the hearth, which occupied the center of the room, a fire burned, pale tongues of flame lapping hungrily at the nearly spent wood.
A boy appeared in the doorway to her left. Hands and feet that were overlarge for his lanky frame showed him to be at that age where he was more than a child, but not yet a man. His features too displayed the awkward proportions of youth, yet they held a handsome promise for his maturity.
"Has Mother returned yet, Sunilda?" he asked.
"Not yet," she answered. "Birthing a child is slow work – even more so for the first one." There was a distinct note of pride in Sunilda’s voice, for their mother was accounted the best midwife in the tribe, and it was well known that the chieftain’s young wife would have no other attend her lying-in.
Sunilda walked past Ervig to lay the bundle of wool she carried on the rough planked table. Sunlight streamed through the still open doorway, and the young woman returned to stand in its warmth, gazing out at the forest that loomed ominously close to the homestead. Most of her people avoided the forest, mistrusting the power that was said to dwell there, but her grandfather had scoffed at their fears, deliberately choosing this house in which to settle his family. Sunilda and Ervig had been born in this house, and it was they to whom their father had entrusted its protection while he and their elder brother were away.
Sunilda stood in the open doorway, watchful and listening. There was no movement, no sound that might cause alarm. All was quiet. Too quiet, she thought as she turned to close the door.
Abruptly she arrested its movement. Stepping back into the open, she watched as a lone wood grouse erupted from the underbrush at the edge of the pasture that lay just to the north of the barn. Then, with deliberate movements, Sunilda turned and closed the door, and reached for the heavy crossbar to set it firmly in place.
Ervig watched his sister, a look of puzzlement on his face. "Why are you barring the door?"
Raising a hand to her lips, Sunilda signaled for silence. "There are men in the woods," she whispered.
Grimald watched the young woman as she strode across the yard to the house that he had once called his home. Her confident walk emphasized the gentle sway of her hips, momentarily distracting him. Berenga had had that same look about her, the same fall of red-gold hair that draped over full round breasts to swirl about her waist and hips. Even after birthing a child her waist had been slender enough for him to wrap one arm around. If he closed his eyes he could see her still, just as she had been that morning, laughing in the golden sunshine as she waved goodbye, their young daughter balanced on one of those softly curving hips.
He forced himself to put the memory aside. That had been more than forty years ago, in another life. Now he made his home under Mirkwood’s canopy; his family the desperate men and women who had managed to escape their servitude under the conquerors, those invaders from the East whom they named the Wainriders. There was not one amongst them who did not bear scars from their captivity; whether physical or emotional, it mattered not. Vengeance was the desire that burned in every breast.
Fortune had at last presented an opportunity to reclaim, at least in part, what the interlopers had stolen. That past winter Marhwini had called Grimald to his council, and together with the other chieftains of the Éothéod they plotted to drive out the hated Easterlings and reclaim their former lands. But the men knew they could only succeed if the enemy went to war against the Men of Gondor. Schooled to patience by the long years of exile, Grimald bided his time, watching, waiting for a sign, all the while organizing the outlaws, doing what he was able to train them to fight.
Rumor had come at last of the Wainriders’ intent to raid Calenardhon, meaning to cross over the Great River at the Undeeps. Grimald wasted no time in sending Hagan to the chieftains of the Éothéod, bearing word of the anticipated raid. Marhwini’s messengers had in turn hastened to warn Gondor’s king, not forgetting to give him word of the outlawed Northmen’s planned uprising. The Easterlings would have to fight three foes at once, and if all went as planned, the element of surprise would be on the side of the allies.
It was not long until the Éothéod’s mounted scouts brought word to Marhwini that King Calimehtar was moving northward from Ithilien at the head of a great army. Hagan returned to the forest eaves bearing the news, and Grimald greeted his report with grim satisfaction, knowing that the time long awaited had come at last.
“The king has made no secret of his army’s approach,” Hagan told him. The strategy had apparently worked, for the Wainriders had gathered all the fighting men they could, marching south to intercept the advancing army. There would be naught but old men and younglings left behind to defend their homes. “The scouts have reported that Gondor’s army is giving way before the enemy, moving toward the plain the Men of Gondor name Dagorlad, and,” Hagan added incredulously, “the Easterlings are pursuing them.”
Grimald was well pleased with the news. Marhwini should even now be leading the Éothéod across the Undeeps to join forces with the cavalry of our southern allies. That the battle would likely be joined where Marhari, Marhwini’s father, had fallen in defense of Gondor’s army seemed to him altogether fitting.
The snare has been set; time to close the trap, he thought grimly, and then destroy the lions’ den. There would be no homes, no families for the enemy to return to – if any were left alive to return.
A wood grouse’s complaint sharply recalled Grimald’s attention to the present. “Maraulf is in place.” Hagan’s softly spoken words sounded harsh in the unnatural silence that had descended once more on the forest.
Grimald looked around once more at the men who waited anxiously under Mirkwood’s eaves. They were a motley band, some armed with ancient swords or spears that they had obtained from the Éothéod, and there were a few bowmen, skilled enough at hunting game.
How will they fare in battle, where the hunted fight back? Grimald wondered. And what of the others, many of them but recently escaped slaves, armed for the most part with pitchforks and axes, and some few with naught but staves? We must be madmen. Even with the fighting strength of the enemy away, he knew his outlaw band was ill-armed, ill prepared for the task ahead. Nor were any of the outlaws who were set to attack other camps and settlements along the East Bight any better armed.
And yet, as he looked at the faces of his men, the fire in their eyes could not be denied. This might be their one chance to take back their own. Steeling himself, Grimald raised his hand to signal the attack...
“Breathe…” Amalfrida prompted her patient. Sweat beaded the young mother’s brow as she concentrated on the calmly voiced directives of the midwife. For twenty years and more Amalfrida had been ushering children into the world; in the early years she had worked at her mother’s side. There had never been a better healer than Berenga, and though she was gone there were times when Amalfrida could still feel her presence, hear her words of encouragement and advice.
Berenga had been there to help Amalfrida birth her own children, two fine sons and a daughter. For a time they had hoped that this granddaughter would follow the same path as mother and grandmother, but Sunilda had shown no interest in the healing arts. Her talents lay elsewhere. Still, grandmother and granddaughter had enjoyed an enviable relationship, spending much of their time in one another’s company.
“Almost time,” Amalfrida reassured the young mother. Calmly, steadily, the midwife did her job. It could not be allowed to matter that the child might well be the next chieftain – after having four daughters by his first wife, Sarus desperately desired the birth of a son. She would do everything she could to ensure that the child made its way safely into the world regardless. Her mother had never failed to do so, despite how badly she had been treated by her captors. But that had all changed when Gunteric claimed Amalfrida as his bride, and had taken her mother into his home. Though she suspected pride had been the chief motivation for Berenga's emancipation, Amalfrida was still grateful for the peace and security her new status had ensured for her mother.
“What is all the commotion outside?” the mother of the laboring woman asked as the sound of raised voices and running feet penetrated the wain’s interior. She stepped outside, returning moments later with Sunilda close behind her. Amalfrida made note of the skirt that was hitched up, tucked firmly into the leathern girdle that hung low on Sunilda’s hips. In her hand was an ancient sword.
My father’s sword. Though Amalfrida could scarcely remember the man who had been her father, his sword remained, a prize claimed by the people who had adopted her as one of their own. Now her daughter, a true child of her people, carried that sword as though it were a natural extension of her hand.
“The settlement is under attack,” Sunilda told her mother as the other woman returned to her own daughter’s side.
“How long?” There was no mistaking Amalfrida’s meaning.
“Not long. They follow hard upon us,” Sunilda answered somewhat breathlessly. “We gathered those we could along the way – our defense is surest here.” She looked toward the chieftain’s wife, who was only a year or two older than herself. “Sarus will find his family safe when he returns.”
The young woman nodded, squeezing her mother’s hand as another contraction came and went. She knew Sunilda well, for they had been schooled together, and as she trusted Amalfrida with the life of her child, so she trusted her daughter with all their lives.
“Ervig…?” Amalfrida spared one moment to inquire after her youngest child.
“He is with the others at the barriers.”
The others… Old men, young boys – some even younger than Ervig. Amalfrida knew she could not allow herself to think of that now. She had a job to do, as did her son – and her daughter.
“Go. They have need of you there.”
Mother and daughter looked at each other, both knowing that the worst might befall one of them before this day was over, but unwilling to say the words before they turned away, each to her appointed task.
Smoke rose, thick and acrid, as the wool in the burning storehouses caught fire. Higher the smoke-cloud rose in the clear blue sky, its shadow meandering across the sun-drenched meadow.
The house had been empty; Grimald made sure of that before he allowed his men to fire it. She must have sensed something was wrong and slipped out an eastern window. And was no doubt raising the alarm. No matter. After all, what could one young woman do?
Moving on toward the great wain camp they passed another homestead – deserted, they thought, like the first. Brocard’s farm. Forty years ago Grimald had been the one who found the old man sprawled facedown in the dust…
Facedown in the dust before the barn lay a grey-haired figure. For a moment Grimald thought he was seeing once more the body of his old neighbor, left there by his murderers for the pleasure of the carrion crows.
The appearance of a rail-thin youth dispelled the vision, and Grimald noted for the first time that the old man wore the garments of an Easterling. The bloody scythe in the young slave’s hand bespoke his revolt. He would not be the last to join their band as they forged a path of blood and fire toward the wagon-camp.
Sunilda had seen the billowing smoke that rose at the forest’s edge. The house – the livestock…
She shook her head, admonishing herself for the tears that had threatened to cloud her vision. Houses could be rebuilt. Even the livestock could be replaced. Her grandmother had taught her what was important; all that truly mattered was here, sheltered within the fortified enclosure of the camp. She looked around at the grey-haired men and stripling youths who stood ready, some armed with ancient swords, others with bows or spears.
“Vittamar’s place is burning,” the greybeard standing next to her said, the anger in his voice suffused with sadness. Vittamar had refused to leave his home, though he had insisted on sending his son’s wife and children to the shelter of the camp with Sunilda’s hastily gathered band of refugees. They knew he would never have allowed his barns or house be fired – not while he lived.
“Look!” another shouted. Across the open meadow came a throng of men. They looked like wild men, brandishing their swords and spears. Sunilda could see that some carried torches, their tongues of flame wan reflections of the blazing sun.
They’ll be brought down long before they reach the barriers. Ervig and the other archers would see to that.
An arrow flew past her. Horrified Sunilda realized that it too bore fire. Dozens more came whizzing over the barrier. The wain behind her caught readily, the flames greedily consuming the well-seasoned wood of its roof. Soon fires had been ignited all along the barrier as more wains caught fire with each new flight of arrows.
Sunilda assessed the situation pragmatically. There was little hope they could extinguish the fires here; for one thing, the stream that flowed through the camp was too far away. Furthermore, there were too few of them to fight both the fire and the armed men, even though the latter were advancing more slowly now. Ervig and his fellows had exacted a hefty price for the initial assault; the attackers had learned caution.
The smoke was growing thicker, and the flames perilously close when at last the signal was given to fall back from the barrier; there was little they could do to save this part of the camp. They abandoned the burning wains to the flames, helping the women and children carry those few possessions they were able to salvage toward the other side of the camp, closer to the flowing stream. There they might be able to protect the remaining wains from both fire and foe.
Grimald led the outlaws through the gap in the barrier where a rough-hewn gate had stood; the broken timbers hung crookedly against the protective wall. The flames had all but consumed several of the wains close by; more were catching fire as the flames were fanned by a strong westerly wind. Still the defenders at the gate had decimated the forward ranks of the attackers, fighting determinedly before the heat and smoke had forced their retreat.
Through the camp the vengeful outlaws sought the hated interlopers. Brief skirmishes were fought here and there along the way, until at last the enemy was brought to bay beside the low-banked stream. A handful of old men stood their ground on the near side of the stream, while on the opposite bank ranks of youthful warriors now stood between the outlaws and the remaining wains.
The lads raised their voices in challenge, shaking their spears and beating their sword hilts against their shields. The outlaws halted only briefly, astounded by the unflinching courage of these younglings. And for the first time it could be clearly seen that among them stood female warriors, young, proud and resolute.
Why did I not see them before? Grimald wondered, even as he realized that they must have been there all along, fighting side by side with the old men and stripling lads who had made them pay such a costly toll to gain admittance to the camp.
Diminished though their ranks were, the outlaws were still determined to exact retribution from their oppressors. Surging forward, they quickly overwhelmed the greybeards to splash across the shallow waters and clash with the younglings – beardless youth or soft-cheeked maiden, it mattered not whose hands wielded a bloodstained sword.
Strange how faceless the enemy becomes… All Grimald saw was the flash of a blade or the thrust of a spear as he fought his way through the serried ranks. Streaks of blood and dust masked his features, broken only by the rivulets of sweat that washed down his face and neck. Time ceased to exist; there was only the rise and fall of his sword arm to mark its passage.
And then the battle-spell was broken as he found himself face to face with her – the maiden from the forest’s edge. He hesitated. His sword was poised, ready to add to its vengeful tally, yet he could not will himself to strike.
Not so the warrior-maid. Her blade cut the air with deadly purpose. Instinctively Grimald parried the blow. The hilts caught, locking the pair in a desperate embrace. Grimald could not take his eyes from her face; so close at hand the maid was even more like the wife for whom he had ached these many years.
Unbidden, her name fell from his parched lips. “Berenga…”
“What means that name to you, knave?”
The voice was not hers; this one spoke in the harsh tongue of an Easterling, a tongue he had learned to despise during his years of servitude. No, this was not his Berenga. He had known all along it could not be so, though foolishly he had wanted to believe.
Yet the name is not unknown to her…
“You know her.”
The maid did not mistake his words, though he spoke them in his own Northern tongue. “I knew her,” she answered. “She was my grandmother,” Then, before he realized what she was about, the warrior-maid had freed her sword, whipping it about to press against Grimald’s throat.
“What was she to you?” Her voice sounded harsh still, though to his amazement the maid now spoke in Grimald’s own tongue. The point of her sword nicked his flesh, drawing a fresh trickle of blood. “Speak, rogue!”
“Berenga was my wife.”
Sunilda’s sword wavered. His wife…? Then this must be my grandfather – Grimald – that was how Grandmother named him. Her grandmother, who had died still believing that he would return for her one day. Now at last he had come, but he had come bringing only death and destruction. The anger Sunilda felt at these dual offenses was to her young mind insuperable. Once more her blade pressed hard against his flesh.
“She said you would come back – she even made me believe it. But Mother was right. You didn’t come back for her. Men care only for their own pride, their own honor.” The scorn in her voice was unmistakable
“If you believe that, then kill me – kill me now.” Grimald dropped his bloodied sword on the ground at her feet.
Again Sunilda hesitated, unable to read the look in his eyes. Was it despair? Resignation? Either way, it was clear that this man was prepared to die. Do I grant his wish? Perhaps the greater punishment would be to return him to a life of bondage, along with the others who had dared to rise against her people…
There was a barely perceptible change in the man’s expression, but it was enough to decide Sunilda’s course of action – that and the movement she sensed behind her. She ducked, avoiding a crushing blow from the shield that was wielded by a fair-haired young outlaw. But quickly though she moved, the sweeping blow still caught her sword arm, knocking the weapon from her hand.
Thrown off balance by this assault, Sunilda fought to keep her footing, even as the young man aimed another savage blow, this time with his sword. Her own lay just out of reach. She looked up, seeing her impending death in the young man's eyes. Incongruously her next thought was how like in appearance to the older man he was. They might even be father and son...
The thought was banished as she felt someone grab her arm, pulling her sharply aside. Sunilda heard a heavy grunt as she stumbled and fell to the ground. Frantically she scrambled after her own weapon, and seizing it, turned to face her assailant.
But all she saw was the older man – my grandfather, she reminded herself – crumpled on the ground at the young man’s feet, the young man whose sword was buried deep in Grimald’s flesh. Desperately pulling the sword free to fling it aside, the younger outlaw fell to his knees as ashes, carried on the wind, began to fall like a winter’s snow.
“Why…?” The young man’s cry was one of confusion and pain, mingled like the ashes and blood that quickly covered the earth at Sunilda’s feet. She too dropped to her knees beside Grimald.
“Why?” she echoed softly. “Why would you save me?”
“Family…cannot lose family…again.” The words came out slowly, labored like his breathing.
“Father…” The younger man began to speak, but Grimald paid no heed, reaching out to touch Sunilda's face.
“Forgive…” Grimald kept repeating the word. She tried to quiet him, but he would not listen. “A man becomes lonely…and she was lost to me.”
"I do not understand..."
“Father…” The younger man was weeping openly, heedless of the scattered fighting that continued around the trio.
Father? Sunilda heard the word at last, and finally comprehended the meaning of the dying man’s words. Gently she touched the young outlaw’s arm. “I think I understand. He sees his wife, Berenga – my grandmother. To him I look like my grandmother.” And seeing Berenga in her, had been torn between saving the family he had lost and his son, a son whom he had obviously fathered in the years spent as an outlaw in the forest.
And with that realization all the scorn and anger she had directed toward her grandfather drained away. She had thought to punish him, but now she knew that there could be no punishment of her devising that could be worse than the grief and the guilt he had lived with these many years. It was all there in his eyes, in his anguished plea for forgiveness.
Then she recalled the light that had always come into her grandmother’s eyes whenever she spoke of him, and she knew what she must do.
Gently wiping away the ashes that had fallen on Grimald’s face, she pressed her lips to his in a tender kiss. “We are safe now. Your daughter – Amalfrida is safe too,” she whispered. He smiled. Then a coughing spasm shook his body. Blood trickled from his mouth as he tried to speak once more.
“I am here, Father.” The young outlaw took Grimald’s hand.
“You must lead...,” Grimald said, his voice now a broken, husky whisper.
Hagan shook his head sadly. Sunilda looked around, and for the first time realized that the fighting had moved back across the stream. The outlaws, those few who were not dead or dying, had fled, and the warrior-maidens and younglings were in pursuit. She knew they would hunt the outlaws to the edge of the forest, but not beyond.
There was no time to lose...
“Quickly,” she said, tugging at Hagan’s sleeve.
He looked at her, unmoving. “I cannot leave him.” Grimald lay now silent and still upon the ground. Gently Sunilda closed his sightless eyes, then turned to Hagan once more.
“As you love him, you will honor his last command.” Sunilda rose, offering the hilt of Grimald’s sword to Hagan. Her tone softened. “I will see that he is cared for,” she told him, “but you must come with me. Now.”
Hagan stood, reluctantly accepting his father’s sword. “Cover yourself,” she ordered, handing him a roughly woven cloak, which she had taken from another fallen warrior. He did as commanded, pulling the hood close to shade his fair coloring from unfriendly eyes. Without another word, Sunilda turned and led the way through the camp toward the southern barriers. There the stream flowed out through a low opening, protected by a rough grate. Alongside it a barred door stood. Lifting the bar, Sunilda opened the door and stood aside for Hagan to pass.
“Follow the stream till it bends toward the west,” she told him. “Head due south – there are no homesteads between that place and the forest’s edge, so you should pass unseen.”
“Why are you helping me?”
Sunilda shook her head. How could she explain? The weight of years, the hardship and strife, all that divided them might be too bitter to be overcome by this sudden revelation of kinship. Still, she knew that she had to try.
“Defending family is the first duty of a shieldmaiden. My grandmother – his wife – she taught me that. And as you are his, so you are mine. I know Grandmother would see you thus.”
Hagan made no response, though he stood staring at Sunilda for a long moment, as though he would memorize her features. Then, without another word, he slipped through the open door and headed off at a trot in the direction she had indicated.
But Sunilda did not wait to see him out of sight. Closing the door, she dropped the heavy bar back in place, then turned to make her way back to the place where her newfound grandfather lay. She too had a last wish to honor.