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Ashes and Dust
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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 men-folk had not yet returned from the hunt, and she was alone at the homestead with her two young children and her widowed mother.

“Go inside,” she told her son calmly, handing him the basket of eggs they had just gathered.

“What is it, Mother?” The child’s eyes showed no fear, only curiosity. But Sunilda only shook her head, and told the boy to do as he was bidden.

“And tell Grandmother that I will be in shortly,” she said, adding cryptically, “There is something to which I must tend.”

Reluctantly the boy obeyed, though he lingered in the doorway to watch as his mother made her way past the new barn toward the meadow beyond. There at the edge of the forest lay a grass covered mound. Sunilda would often go there. Sometimes she seemed to be talking to someone, but when her son asked to whom, Sunilda would shrug, saying that it comforted her to talk with her own grandmother, who was buried there – she left unsaid that she would talk with her grandfather too, for Sunilda had promised her Grandmother that she would bring Grimald to her when he returned, and she had honored that promise.

And there was another with whom she would speak at whiles. But of those conversations none other could ever be allowed to know.

The mound was at the far side of the meadow, and though her footsteps were unhurried, there was purpose to her movements. In her arms she bore a long parcel, wrapped in sheepskins, that she had retrieved from its hiding place in the barn. The sheep grazing peacefully in the meadow scarcely lifted their heads as she passed, so accustomed were they to her presence.

He was there, waiting on the western side where the grassy mound was sprinkled with star-like blossoms.

"You look well, sister-daughter," Hagan greeted her.

"And you, Uncle. You look well."

Uncle… There was a hint of irony in their salutations, for Sunilda had learned that he was almost a full year younger than she.

And her mother had yet to learn that she had a half-brother. Sunilda longed to tell her, but Amalfrida’s bitterness toward her absent father had only increased after the slave revolt, when she learned that it was he who had led the assault. Sunilda had tried to tell her mother the full tale, but she would not hear it, and Sunilda had concluded sadly that it would be wiser, and safer, to keep Hagan’s existence secret.

"The flock has increased since last I was here. And the land – it too thrives under your stewardship." Such subtle banter had become part of their relationship, though both knew in their hearts that the land would never again welcome its former masters.

"I have news,” he continued. “I was telling them of it just now." Hagan nodded toward the mound where Grimald and Berenga lay together, nevermore to be parted.

Sunilda smiled. She had known of his surreptitious visits to his father’s burial place long before the day she had contrived to meet him here by seeming chance. After that he had come whenever he could, looking always for the wolfskin she would hang on the fence as a signal that the men were away. In that way they had come to know more about one another, and through the years that followed had shared in one another's joys and sorrows: her marriage to a tribal elder's son; the births of her children; the deaths of her father and eldest brother; his marriage the previous year to the daughter of a chieftain of the Éothéod.

"We have a child," he told her, "born a little over two months ago."

Sunilda nodded. She had expected that it would not be long before he brought such news.

"A daughter," he continued. "We thought it fitting – my wife and I – that she be named Berenga."

Sunilda was silent, wondering if she could find the words to say what she knew she must. Through the years she had watched as her people's strength was renewed. She had listened at the councils where men spoke always of their hatred for the Men of Gondor, and she knew full well that their hatred extended to Gondor's allies, the Northmen who had dared to defy them. She did not doubt that the day would come when they were no longer content to hold this land alone, when they would move against her uncle’s people, the Éothéod, who dwelt in the river vales that lay on the other side of the forest. The naming of his daughter was more fitting than he knew.

Say it, she told herself impatiently. She held out the parcel she carried. "Here. Take this – for her."

Accepting it, Hagan loosed the thongs that held the skins in place and folded back the protective covering to reveal a sword – old, but obviously well cared for. Its blade was clean, oiled to ward off rust, and it bore a freshly sharpened edge. It also looked strangely familiar.

"It was his sword, the one that I carried," she told him, responding to his unspoken question. "You know I have no more use for swords." Indeed, for she had at last joined in her mother's work. “I want your daughter – his granddaughter – to have it now.”

Hagan looked at his niece quizzically. "A sword for a girl-child…. Is this a traditional gift among your people?" He spoke lightly, so the intensity of her answer surprised him.

"Do you remember what I told you – about a shieldmaiden's first duty?" Sunilda grasped Hagan's arm.

He stood there, trying to comprehend the urgency he sensed in her. Her words had taken him back to that day when all his hopes had seemed like to be buried in the ashes and dust. He had seen the line of warrior-maidens standing firm in the face of their enemies, could stand himself as a witness to their fierce defense of their homes and families.

"Yes," Hagan said at last. "I remember." He looked across the peaceful meadow toward the homestead, rebuilt on the foundations of the old structures that had been destroyed by fire. All along the forest eaves, and throughout the East Bight, those homesteads that the outlaws had fired in their failed attempt to drive out the Easterlings had been rebuilt, as had the great wagon-camps. And though there had been no retaliatory raids on the people of the Éothéod in the years since that fateful day, it came to him that Sunilda was warning that the day could still come when the young women of the Éothéod would need to stand in defense of their families, even as she had done.

“Think you it will come to that? Does not the fear of the forest hold them back?”

“Now, perhaps, and for some time to come. But their hatred is strong. The fear, and the uncertainty of what lies beyond the forest, will not hold them once they recover their full strength. They desire conquest – and revenge.”

“Revenge – strange that the same motive should drive both our peoples,” Hagan said in sober reflection.

“The same, and yet not the same.”

“How so?”

“We gave you cause.” Sunilda met Hagan’s gaze levelly. “Naught but conquest was the desire of my people when we entered this land, while you only sought to reclaim what was rightly yours.”

Hagan shook his head. “Vengeance was the stronger motive that day.” He lowered his eyes, recalling with shame the hatred that had filled him. It had almost cost the woman before him her life – yet she had repaid that hatred by saving his. “It was wrong, and it cost us. We lost because of it.”

“Not wholly. I did not understand it at the time, but I have come to believe that, whatever gods watch over this land, they honor those who fight for what is right and good. We only sought to defend our homes and families. The cost was great, on both sides, but in the end we prevailed.

“And yet our men did not. They rode out with thoughts of conquest, lusting after the taste of blood and death. No few fell to our foes, and few returned to us. Many who did return never recovered fully from their wounds.” Including her eldest brother; he had died the following winter, so weakened that the winter’s cold was more than his body could withstand.

“So the gods are on the side of love?” There was a teasing note in his voice, but it was not reflected in his eyes.

Sunilda smiled, a sad sort of smile. “As you say. At least those who fight for love of their homeland, for love of family and home.” And even then the price exacted was grievous to bear.

“And you would have me teach my daughter to fight thus? As a shield for her home and family?”

“Yes – your daughter, and the daughters of all who will heed this warning. We have both seen what happens when the men are unable, whatever the reason, to stand between their homes and the swords of an enemy. We have both lived with the consequences.”

From across the meadow they could hear the voice of her son, calling for her.

“I must go. Freda will be wanting to feed.” Her own daughter was not yet a year old, born shortly before Hagan’s last visit. And if the gods heed my pleas, neither of our daughters will need put such training to use. Yet such training their daughters must have, lest all the gods forsake them, a judgement against laxity.

Wrapping the sword once more in its protective coverings and tying the thongs securely, Hagan slung it on his back. "Thank you. For everything," he said.

She embraced him then, the first time she had ever done so. There was a finality in that gesture, and it saddened him, that and seeing the look in her eyes as they said goodbye. He pondered it, and her words, as he made his journey homeward. The first duty of a shieldmaiden...

Yes, the Wainriders’ strength would in time be renewed, and their smoldering hatred for the Men of Gondor and their Northern kindred would burst forth in yet another conflagration, one from which there might be no escaping.

It was clear that the consequences of the choices made that day, there amid the blood and dust, would continue drifting down through the years, carried like ashes on the winds of time.


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