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Elana's Tale  by Elana

Chapter 1 - The Screams Were Real

Swimming up through layers of dream and nightmare, Elana suddenly realized that the screams were real. Groggily, she sat up on her bed, automatically reaching for the forms of her younger sisters on each side. Beona and Renewyn still slept. Still faint, but growing louder, the screams which had awakened her continued. Now she could hear the clash of metal on metal.

She crawled from the bed and raced to the window. Lights flickered against the midnight sky – the roofs of several of the village’s houses were in flames! Smoke, more bitter than the familiar hearthfires, bit into her lungs. She could see dark forms darting from shadow to shadow.

Snatching up her cloak and throwing it around her night shift, she dashed to her parent’s room. Her father, Charamer, was dressing with grim speed, while her mother, Marbrona, clutching Elana’s youngest brother to her breast with one arm, stuffed blankets into a bundle with the other hand.

“Wake the younger ones,” her father snapped. “We have to get them into the root cellar. Orcs have attacked the village.” Going to a chest against the wall, he lifted out his seldom-used sword. Strapping the belt around his waist, he strode off to the boys’ bedroom.

Returning to her room, Elana found four-year-old Beona sobbing, eleven year-old Renewyn holding her, eyes big and frightened. Elana tried to smile reassuringly, though her own heart was pounding nearly out of control. “Come on,” she said, scooping up Beona. “Get the cloaks, Renewyn, we’ve got to get out to the root cellar. We’ll be safe there.” Will we? she wondered, but she shoved the thought down as she grabbed her belt with its small knife and slung it over her shoulder. Then she grabbed Renewyn’s hand and ran out of the house.

Joining their mother and the three boys, they hurried down the path to the root cellar. The screams were louder and closer now, and shouts and snarls seemed terrifyingly near. They reached the small rise where the root cellar was dug, its heavy wooden doors promising refuge. Setting down Beona by their mother, who was burdened with the baby and bundle, Elana helped Gareden, at fourteen almost as tall as their father, but gangly, struggle with the stout beam that barred the doors. They wrestled it free, then hauled the doors open.

At that moment, two hideous shapes burst around the corner of the house. In her seventeen years, Elana had never seen orcs before, but what else could they be? Hunched and grotesque, they screeched with glee at finding new victims, and lurched toward the family.

Barely thinking, Elana shoved the heavy beam at Gareden. “Get them in,” she gasped. Giving her mother a rough shove toward the downward-leading steps, she stepped to the rear of the group, snatching her belt knife with fingers that suddenly seemed numb. She faced the approaching orcs, holding her pitifully inadequate weapon, hoping only to buy enough time for the rest of her family to escape.

They paused when they saw her, then laughed evilly and came on. She slashed wildly at the first one’s face, drawing blood with a small gash. He batted the knife away negligently, while the other grabbed her from behind, clamping his hand over her mouth. Kicking wildly, she bit down hard on the filthy hand, causing the orc to loosen his grip for a moment. She wrenched away, and turning saw the last of her family members disappear down the dark steps, the doors slamming shut behind. They shook as the heavy beam was thrown into the inside sockets, placed there for just such a need as this. Tears of relief stung her eyes as the orcs seized her again, then her heart failed as she realized the horror of her own fate.

The larger orc flung her over his shoulder, and she was carried to the outskirts of the village. There the band of orcs was reassembling, many the worse for their battle with the men of the village. They seemed to be retreating, Elana saw with hope, beaten back by the valor of the townspeople. Some had plunder, sacks of food, purses with a few gold coins, a horse, and a few goats, but not much.

“Look what we caught!” Elana’s captor shouted. “She’s a frisky one. She’ll be a fine addition to Burnruk’s collection!” The other orcs roared with obscene laughter, poking at her, and only laughed harder when she struggled. She was thrown to the ground, and a sack was shoved over her head. She nearly gagged at the overpowering stench of onions, garlic, and rotting meat apparently left from the sack’s last contents, as she was bound hand and foot with rough ropes, and slung over the horse’s back.

The next few hours were a blur. Miserably uncomfortable, yet crushingly tired, Elana occasionally half dozed, her head banging against one side of the horse, her feet the other, as the orc gang jogged along. It seemed like years, but must have been only hours, when she realized she could begin to see the coarse threads of the sack in the grey light of early dawn. Wracking her brain for everything she knew about orcs – precious little – she was almost sure she remembered they couldn’t stand sunlight. But her faint hope was dashed when she heard the voices of her captors change, calling greetings, and the answering shouts of other orcs welcoming the raiding party home.

She was lifted from the horse, slung over an orc’s shoulder, and was carried into darkness, down, down, where the echoes of the orcs’ clashing boots told of narrow stone tunnels. Deeper and deeper, twisting and turning, Elana had no idea how long they traveled. Finally, she was thrown down onto a hard rock floor. Her hands and feet were unbound, and the sack was removed from her head.

Chapter 2 – Newest Broodmare in the Stable

Elana looked around. She was in a stone cell, illuminated by a flickering lamp and a tiny bit of sunlight leaking in from some unseen window. A pallet lay on the floor against the far wall. On it sat the hunched figure of a woman, her eyes watching Elana, but her face betraying no emotion. The orc who had carried her stomped out, slamming behind him the heavy iron gate that closed off the only entrance Elana could see. He turned a key in a huge padlock, then strode away. His footsteps echoed down the corridor, then all was silent.

“Who are you? Where am I?” Elana asked the stranger. As Elana sat up, her muscles screamed in protest at their recent abuse, and a hundred bruises turned her whole body into one ache.

As the woman slowly unfolded her body and stood up, Elana could see that she was pregnant, perhaps five or six months. She wore a skimpy shift, ragged and dirty, and her hair was shorn indecently short. She walked over to where Elana sat, and looked down at her with a mixture of pity and scorn. She extended a hand and helped Elana to her feet. Meeting her eyes, Elana was shocked by the depth of pain and misery etched into her face.

“Roswyn is my name,” the woman said. “And you, I’m afraid, are the newest broodmare in the stables of Burnruk Halforc, curse his name.” Elana stared, uncomprehending. “You’ll understand soon enough, I suppose. So, what name shall I call you by?”

“I’m Elana, Charamer’s daughter, from the village of Grassymede in Rohan.” Elana replied automatically. Roswyn’s words had sparked a terrible suspicion, and even greater fear than before, if that was possible, began to grow in her gut. “What…what do you mean?’

“We – there’s several dozen of us – have been brought here by the orcs for breeding stock,” Roswyn declared bluntly. “They are breeding half humans, half orcs. They bring us here, and use us to carry their foul offspring, until we die of despair.” Elana gaped in disbelief and denial. “I’m one of the longest survivors. This is the fourth time they’ve bred me.” She gestured toward her belly.

Elana stared at her protruding abdomen, the familiar shape of a growing child suddenly transformed into a grotesque horror. Suddenly violently nauseous, she covered her mouth and looked wildly around. Roswyn steered her to a chamberpot in the corner, where she retched what little was in her stomach. Trembling, she started to cry. Roswyn led her to the pallet, and sat beside her in silence while she shook with sobs.

“They treat us well enough,” Roswyn said as she ran out of tears. “They know they have to keep us healthy to bear strong whelps. You can survive, if your will is strong.” Her voice dropped to a hiss, and she stared into Elana’s eyes. “I will live to cut their throats, every one of them, no matter what it takes. They cannot destroy me!”

Elana shrank from her piercing gaze. “But why,” she whispered. “Why should they want to…to…”

“I hear the half-breeds are bigger and stronger than plain orcs. They can tolerate sunlight. Someone, no one knows who, has decided he wants an army of these creatures.”

Her words were interrupted by the sound of striding boots in the corridor. The gate was unlocked and flung open, and a figure stepped in. He was tall and straight, unlike the hunched orcs, but his face was an orc’s, cruel and brutal. In the light of Roswyn’s words, Elana could see that he must be a crossbreed.

He seized Elana’s arm in a powerful grip, and dragged her to her feet. Roswyn shrank back onto the pallet, turning her face away. He propelled Elana in front of him out the door, shutting and locking it behind him without ever loosening his grip.

Elana was taken to a small chamber. Orcs entered; one had a pair of shears. Seizing her waist-length blond hair, in one motion he chopped it off at the base of her skull. Another stripped her dirty and torn nightshift from her, replacing it with one far skimpier and more ragged. With deferential bows to the half-orc, they left. Elana was left alone with the half-orc, who gazed at her appraisingly.

“Strong, healthy, wide hips, plenty of meat on your bones – you’ll do.” He strode closer. He spoke in a singsong voice words that had obviously been scripted and repeated many times. “You have been chosen to be the mother of mighty warriors. Your sons will fight gloriously for our cause. Your daughters will bear the next generation of heroes. My name is Burnruk, and I’m in charge here. As long as you cooperate, you have nothing to fear.”

Elana twisted away, dashing for the door. With a sigh of exasperation, Burnruk reached out and grabbed her arm. His grip was like steel, and Elana was nearly jerked off her feet. He held her at arm’s length. “Why can’t they understand that it would be so much simpler for everyone if they’d just go along without all this drama?” he asked the air. “I wish we could just stick with the other crossings. The orc wenches are willing enough, and the studs are certainly eager, but there’s only the three of them, and Sharkey insists that the stock not get too inbred. Oh, well, she’ll settle down soon enough.” He snapped his fingers toward the door, and an orc stepped in. “Take her to the breeding room. Argluk is next on the schedule; he should be waiting. Make sure she’s bred, then return her to her room. You know the routine, every day, in a fortnight start checking for signs of pregnancy. Inform me when the breeding is successful.” Burnruk twisted her arm behind her and shoved her toward the orc, who took over and propelled her from the room. Down the hall they went, until they came to a door. Inside was a small room, with a pallet on the floor. Waiting was the hugest, most hideous orc Elana had yet seen. Realizing what was to come, she closed her eyes, praying to black out, to disappear, to die, anything to spare her what she knew was to happen.

Chapter 3 – No Matter What

The cell gate opened, and Elana was flung inside. She collapsed in a heap on the floor, sobbing. The gate crashed shut again. With silent compassion, Roswyn sat down next to her. After a while Elana’s sobs slowed, and she turned to the other woman. Roswyn put her arms around her, and together they rocked gently back and forth for a long time. Then, still wordless, Roswyn fetched a rag dampened from their meager water supply, and helped Elana clean herself. Then they sat together again in silence. Finally, Elana turned to Roswyn. In her eyes flamed the same spark that burned in Roswyn’s soul. “I have to live,” she said. “No matter what. I have to survive.” Roswyn nodded, and they sealed the bargain with clasped hands.

The midday meal was brought, stale brown bread, raw vegetables – onions, greens, wilted carrots – and more water. Though unappetizing, Elana recognized the food as nutritious, and forced herself to eat. Then an orc came to take them from the cell. Elana tensed with fear, but Roswyn shook her head reassuringly, and went along with the orc without resistance, so Elana followed. They were escorted through many twisting passages to a cavernous room.

In the center of the room, an orc sat on a high stool, a long whip in his hands. Around the perimeter, women shuffled slowly in a circle, round and round. Elana thought there might have been as many as fifty, all in similarly ragged condition as herself, and most showing signs of various stages of pregnancy. Elana and Roswyn fell into the line, the orc with the whip watching them boredly to make sure they kept moving. Elana found that the women were allowed to whisper together, as long as they formed groups of no more than three or four. She was the object of much sympathy and interest, as by ones and twos the woman fell in beside her, murmured their names and homelands, and squeezed her hand or touched her arm. Most also came from villages around Rohan, although a few had been captured as they traveled through. Elana found their presence both horrifying, that so many others shared her fate, and greatly comforting, that she was not alone.

They were kept moving for at least an hour. At first Elana welcomed the chance to stretch cramped muscles, but by the end of the time her feet were stumbling, and the whip cracked in her direction a few times to speed her tired legs. Then orcs came and took the women back to their cells, two or three at a time. Having been the last to arrive, Elana and Roswyn were the last herded back down the corridors to their cell.

Once there, tired as she was Elana was seized with a restless energy and roamed about the cell, searching every corner. In one corner was the chamberpot and water basin, on the far side a second pallet had been added next to Roswyn’s. The only other feature was a square opening high up on the back wall. At Elana’s urging, Roswyn boosted her up and she wiggled inside. A narrow, sloping tunnel led back many yards through the rock, to a small opening closed off by a heavy iron grate. A little sunlight and a bit of a fresh breeze seeped through, and Elana hungrily peered out through the grate’s tiny holes, though all she could see were rocks and a bit of scrubby brush. She wrestled with the grate with all her might, but of course it was firmly in place, edges sunk deep into the rock. At Roswyn’s urgent whisper, she slithered backwards down the narrow passage to the cell, to find an orc guard staring in through the cell gate. Seeing her, he gave a sharp nod, slapped the butt of his whip against his gloved hand suggestively, and went on down the hall.

Later their supper was brought, a reasonably hearty stew of potatoes, carrots, turnips, and meat – best not to wonder what kind. The two women sat with their backs propped against the cold stone wall, eating and talking.

“My home is the town of Waymeet.” Roswyn started.

“I know where that is,” Elana exclaimed. “Just a few hours from Grassymede. Sometimes we take horses or produce to the market there.”

“Yes, its market is famous. My husband is a blacksmith there. We’d been married three years when I was taken. My babe was almost two. That was more than three years ago now. I doubt he even remembers me. They probably all think I’m dead. I expect Teolar has taken a new wife by now.”

“How were you… taken?”

“I went down to the river with laundry early one morning. The women often meet there to wash clothes, but that day I was the only one. Some orcs had set an ambush in a thicket of bushes. I had just set down my basket when they jumped me.”

They were silent for a while. Then Elana said, “Surely my father will try to rescue me. The men of the village will help him. They fought off the orcs attacking the village.”

“They probably assume you were killed. But even if they try to track down the orcs, what chance do they have? That was just a small raiding band, more interested in grabbing what loot they could and escaping than fighting. This is their fortified stronghold. Villagers or townspeople wouldn’t stand a chance. It would take the king’s army to break in here. And a few missing women aren’t enough to attract the king’s attention.”

They continued to talk far into the night. They told each other about their families, their homes, their former lives. Finally, when they couldn’t stay awake any longer, they huddled together for warmth and comfort, and slept.

Elana’s days fell into a routine. Each morning was the horror of the breeding room. The rest of the day was the cold of the cell, broken by the few precious hours of contact with her fellow captives in the exercise room. Her friendship with Roswyn deepened. Their shared ordeal, along with a natural affinity of their personalities, bound the two women close together.

Chapter 4 – Everything Is Going as Planned

One morning, almost two weeks after her capture, Elana awoke even more reluctantly than usual. Rising to go to the chamberpot, she was swept by a wave of nausea. When their usual breakfast of dry bread arrived accompanied by two raw eggs, the nausea returned. When she saw Roswyn crack hers onto a slice of bread and start to eat, she had to run to the chamberpot to be sick. Roswyn looked at her sharply.

“When did you last have your moon time?” Roswyn questioned.

“About, oh, two weeks before the raid, I think. Why?” Her stomach felt greatly relieved after vomiting.

“I think you’re pregnant already. If you are, they’ll stop the rapes.” Roswyn went to the cell gate, and called for the orc guard.

Elana was beset by a storm of conflicting emotions. The thought that the offspring of her monster rapist had taken root inside her was horrible. But the prospect of not having to face the daily nightmare was a desperate hope. And deep inside was a touch of wonder that life, any life, had been kindled in her body, accompanied by a bitter grief that reality was so different from the fond dreams of her childhood, when she’d imagined with longing the day she would take her place among the women and mothers, with her own babe warm and heavy in her arms.

Elana was taken to yet another chamber in the stone warren – was there no end to the tunnels and rooms buried beneath the ground? This one had a waist high stone table in the center, and against the walls were racks of strangely shaped instruments. Elana was stripped and laid on the table, her arms tied down at her side. A different half-orc, younger looking than Burnruk, entered. With swift efficiency he began examining her, prodding her belly and breasts – she winced when they were unexpectedly tender - and using a metal tool which allowed him to peer into her inner parts. Elana’s body protested this different sort of violation, but she bit her tongue and did not resist, hopeful of what he would find.

The half-orc left the room, and she lay for an interminable time, tied naked on the stone bed. Finally he entered again, and busied himself about the room, ignoring her completely. Soon Burnruk entered.

“Well, Obstuk, what did you find?”

“Oh, she’s pregnant all right. Looks like you picked a fertile one this time. Guess Argluk gets his fun cut short, huh?” he said with a leer.

“Excellent,” Burnruk said, ignoring Obstuk’s banter. “Everything is going as planned. Looks like we’ll have a good crop of cubs this season. Have her returned to her cell.”

Chapter 5 - Courage

Elana lay on her pallet, her hand resting on her round belly, feeling the wiggles and kicks of the life within. Though it was hard to keep track of time, here where each day followed the same pattern as every other, she knew her time to give birth must be drawing near. Stay put, little wiggler, she thought. Although experiencing the discomforts common to all women in late pregnancy, she knew that every day the babe lingered inside pushed farther into the future the day when she'd again be taken to the breeding room. They'd given Roswyn barely more than a month to recover after her birth. Now her body was swelling again.

She caught her breath as she felt her womb harden. It stayed firm for a minute, then relaxed. Still painless, the contractions had been occurring more frequently in recent days. Elana was familiar with the processes of pregnancy and birth. Like all girls in her community, she had been included in the company of women who gave comfort and support to each birthing woman in the village. Her own mother had birthed many times. Elana smiled as she remembered her youngest brother's birth. Deeply in tune with her woman's instincts, Marbrona had moved about their small house, walking, squatting, leaning on one neighbor woman or another, taking the positions her heart told her would ease the contractions and facilitate the baby's movement down through her body. Beona had been three, apprehensive but fascinated. Elana reassured her, as she had once been assured, that the low moans and grunts were not screams of pain, but the sounds of a body laboring at a great work. At the end, Marbrona had knelt on her hands and knees, head down with the effort, and pushed the baby out into the waiting hands of the midwife. Marbrona turned and sat, and the midwife placed the wet infant in her arms, cord still connecting their bodies. The baby’s eyes were big and dark, gazing with an expression of wonder at his mother’s face. Beona’s eyes were equally big, mirroring his look of wonder as she reached a tentative finger to stroke his cheek.

Elana’s reverie was interrupted by another tightening in her belly. Suddenly afraid, she squeezed her eyes shut and buried her head in her arms. How could she give birth, alone in a den of monsters? What would she do without the loving, supportive presence of her mother, her sisters, her friends? At the first sign of contractions, Roswyn had been taken away, to return only after three days, refusing to speak of her ordeal. In those lonely days, Elana had realized how much she had come to depend on her friend’s company to ward off the black depression that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her. Now soon it would be her turn to be taken away, to face her fate alone.

Elana continued to have irregular contractions over the next few days. One morning, almost a week later, she noticed the contractions were coming at regular intervals. They continued through the midday meal, and by the time Elana and Roswyn were taken to the exercise room, they were starting to feel painful. Elana hid her reaction from the watching eyes of the orc overseers as long as she could. The other women sensed what was happening, and let Elana know by many quick looks and quietly squeezing hands that they supported her. The contractions became stronger and stronger, requiring more and more concentration to get through, and Elana was hard pressed to conceal her labor. Finally, as an orc escorted them back to their cell, a particularly strong contraction hit. Elana gasped and stopped. Leaning heavily on Roswyn, she focused intently on deep, slow breathing and relaxing all her muscles. She had heard the theory of how to cope with labor pain many times, and now she was learning the trick of it in her own body. The orc’s presence seemed a terrible distraction. All she wanted was to find somewhere dark and private and safe.

The orc figured out what was happening, and called for reinforcements. Several more appeared. One dragged Roswyn off in the direction of the cell, while the others grabbed Elana and half-dragged, half-carried her away. Straining to look back, Elana saw Roswyn raise her fist in the air, and silently mouth “Courage.”

Elana was taken to the room with the stone table. She was hoisted onto the table and bound down. Her arms were tied at her sides, and her legs were bound to metal supports that held them high and straddled. Elana writhed as much as her bonds would allow, trying desperately to find a comfortable spot. The contractions were so much more painful in this position, and everything in Elana cried out to move. Orcs went in and out, adjusting things in the room, occasionally poking or prodding her with leering faces. The half-orc who had examined her before, Obstuk, came in. He looked over the preparations, then thrust his hand inside her to check her progress. He grunted noncommittally to himself, then went out again.

For hours her labor went on. Elana tried hard to concentrate on relaxing through the pain, and was successful for a while, but every time she’d get into the rhythm of tension and release, another orc would come in, messing with the furnishings of the room, tightening her bonds, or feeling her body. Lunch seemed very far past; the time for supper had long since come and gone, and Elana was ravenous, her mouth dry and sticky, but she was given nothing to eat or drink. The awkward position was becoming unbearable. Elana had never seen a woman in labor lie flat on her back for more than a moment or two, and she could well understand why – she could hardly imagine a worse position to labor in. Her spine ground into the hard stone, and the circulation in her arms and legs was cut off, leaving them numb.

The contractions were coming hard and fast now. One would barely be over before the next began. The pain was intense, and Elana began to cry out, calling for her mother, begging to be let up, for the pain to stop. Orcs gathered around, and Elana could see in their faces a sadistic enjoyment of her pain. Obstuk was back in the room. Elana saw him take up a long metal rod with a hook on the end. He inserted it in her, and she felt a pop as water gushed out. Immediately the pain was greater, but Elana also felt a stirring of a primal need to push. Over the next few contractions the urge grew stronger, and Elana was hopeful, for she knew this meant the end of her ordeal was close. She began to push with the contractions, feeling the powerful muscles of her womb working far beyond any conscious effort on her part. She moaned and grunted, the sound and the sensations strangely satisfying. Surely a few more of those powerful pushes and her task would be done.

Panting after the end of a contraction, she opened her eyes. She saw Obstuk choose a metal instrument shaped like a pair of tongs. She yelped in horror and pain as he inserted the tongs into her. He clamped the tongs around the baby’s head, and began to drag it from her. She cried out in protest, and screamed, because this was more painful than anything that had gone before.

Then, in an instant, it was over. The babe was pulled and tugged free of her body. Obstuk seized it by one leg, and held it aloft for all to see. The watching orcs cheered as he slapped it roughly, and it began to wail.

Elana’s eyes fixed on her child. Red and wrinkled like any newborn, his face was screwed up in distress, his body flopping as it dangled from the orc’s hand. A powerful compulsion seized Elana, to hold him, comfort him, protect him. She struggled wildly against her bonds, but she was ignored.

With deft fingers Obstuk knotted a string around the baby’s cord, then with a quick slash of a knife severed it. “Let’s see, I think Lurnahk whelped last week, didn’t she? She can suckle this one along with her own brat. She’ll teach him proper orcish manners!” The gathered orcs roared with jeering laughter. “You, take him there.” The child was tossed to another orc, who slung him over his shoulder and turned to leave. The last glimpse Elana had of him was his crying face as they vanished out the door.

Worn out with so much effort and emotion, Elana began to sob. At first she’d thought of the babe growing insider her with horror and disgust. But somehow, over the course of her pregnancy the horror had faded, and now, seeing his reality, knowing he was as much a victim of their cruel captors as she, recognizing in him the innocence of any newborn, she wanted him desperately, and his loss devastated her.

Ignoring her distress, Obstuk went about his business. Where his instruments had torn her flesh, he splashed a liquid that burned with a searing pain. Then, seizing the end of the cord still attached to her, he gave a sharp tug. The afterbirth came out, followed by a rush of blood. After disposing of that, and cleaning and tidying the room, the half-orc finally released her bonds. Dizzy and faint, Elana could barely sit up. Her shift and a few rags to contain the blood were tossed to her, and she scrambled to put them on. An orc guard appeared, and dragged Elana, weak as she was, down long corridors to her cell.

Chapter 6 – I Have to Die

Roswyn was worried about Elana. At first, weak from loss of blood considerably greater than the normal bleeding following a birth, it was understandable that she would only lie on her pallet. But she refused to even talk, turning her head away and staring blankly at the wall. Now two weeks had passed. The blood had diminished and had now nearly stopped. Her breasts, that three days after the birth had turned rock hard and painful, leaking drops of milk, softened again and dried up, gradually returning to normal. But Elana was still sunk in a black depression. She picked at her food, eating little. She answered only in monosyllables when Roswyn spoke to her. After the first week, when the orcs again began dragging her to the exercise room, she plodded along, staring at the ground or straight ahead, refusing to engage in the conversation with the other women that had previously been the high point of their days.

Elana’s despair circled over and over again in her mind. She felt utterly helpless. Soon she would again be raped, and after a brief respite, another child would be torn from her and sent to face unspeakable abuse. Then again, and again, and again, and… For herself, Elana felt she could perhaps find the strength to endure, to survive, to hold on to hope that the seemingly impossible rescue would someday come. But the thought that every year another baby would be sacrificed to the lust and greed of the orcs was intolerable. She could not let it happen. And she knew there was one way she could prevent it, though the thought sickened and terrified her. But finally, she could hide in despair and denial no longer.

Late at night, curled together for warmth on their pallets, Elana whispered to Roswyn, “I have to die.”

Roswyn twisted around and angrily pushed her away. “Well, if you can’t take it anymore, don’t expect me to try and talk you out of it. Though I thought you were different. I guess ‘no matter what’ didn’t last very long.”

“No, it’s not that.” Elana was stung by the bitterness of Roswyn’s words. “I don’t want to leave you alone. It’s just I can’t let them use me to make another baby. I can’t let them have another child of mine.”

“They’ll just use others to breed instead, so it’s not like you’ll be saving the world or anything.”

“No, you don’t understand, I can’t let them take my baby!”

“Baby? You actually think of those things as babies? Why should you care for the nasty little bits of orc-filth? They belong with the rest of the orcs!”

Elana knew Roswyn could never understand. She shook her head and turned away. But her resolve grew.

After a long silence, Roswyn spoke. “It’s not so easy, dying. They don’t let us have anything sharp. You might be able to make a noose, if you tore your garment in strips, but the fabric is rotten and would probably break. They know well enough to keep anything dangerous away from us – do you think you’re the first? They cut all our hair after one girl strangled herself with her own braid. As soon as they figure out that’s what you’re trying, they’ll watch you day and night. So you only have one chance.”

Elana nodded, thankful that Roswyn would not interfere. She had a plan. One way of death was open to her, though it would take enormous willpower to follow through with it.

The next morning, Elana ate no breakfast. She didn’t drink any of the stale water from the jug. Roswyn looked at her, then without comment ate Elana’s portion in addition to her own.

By lunchtime, Elana was very hungry, but again left her food untouched. Roswyn forced down as much of the raw cabbage and peppers as she could, but some was left. The orc guard looked at the remains sharply, but did not comment.

By the end of exercise time, Elana’s mouth was parched and her legs were weak. Back at the cell, the wilted cabbage leaves seemed a fine feast, calling her to partake. But she lay on her pallet and faced the wall. The smell of the supper stew when it came was almost unbearable, and her belly hurt with a dull ache. The bowls were especially large and full, and Roswyn was unable to finish both portions. The orc guard took away the leftovers.

Elana slept restlessly, dreaming of clear flowing streams singing of deep, refreshing drinks. Her mother’s kitchen appeared, filled with the rich scents of Elana’s favorite meals. Soft, fresh bread baked in the oven, and a chicken roasted on a spit over the fire. Marbrona stirred together honey and blackberries, and poured them into a pie shell. Then she saw the pie baked, its sweet dark juices spilling out over the crispy, flaky crust. She could taste the tartness in her mouth.

“No!” the dream-Elana cried, and spat out the bite of pie. She ran, blindly, down endless stone corridors. Then she ran full-tilt into an enormous orc, who held aloft an infant by one leg, slapping it and laughing. She spun away, but everywhere were hundreds, thousands of orcs, striking the crying babies they dangled far out of reach. The cries and the hideous laughter rang in Elana’s ears as she sat up straight, awakening from the nightmare.

In the morning, the orc guard brought the usual breakfast of dry brown bread. He sat Elana’s portion in front of her, then stood and waited. Elana wondered if her would try to force feed her. If he did, she could make herself vomit it up again. She turned away.

The orc nodded sharply, then without a word turned and seized Roswyn. He threw her to the floor, pulled out his short whip, and methodically began lashing her back.

Elana stared in horror, uncomprehending, too shocked to move. Finally, Roswyn turned her face toward Elana. “Please, Elana, eat,” she grated between clenched teeth.

Several more blows struck before Elana understood. Then she snatched the bread and stuffed a piece into her mouth. The orc paused, whip upraised. He watched as Elana choked down the whole loaf. Then he gestured curtly toward the water jug, and watched until Elana had drunk deeply. Then, with a kick at the motionless Roswyn, he lowered his whip and left.

“Just remember, if you try that stunt again, I’ll be ready,” he told them, then slammed the gate.

Chapter 7 – Love Will Sustain Us

Elana continued to watch for an opportunity to end her life, but it seemed impossible now. She cursed herself for trying first a method so obvious to her captors, but she had been so sure they would have no way to force her to eat! Now she wondered, even if she did succeed, would Roswyn be punished in retaliation? Was it right to bring such suffering to her friend?

The orcs watched her day and night. Lost was any hope of secretly plaiting a cord from scraps of her clothing. She studied the ventilation shaft opening, but even if she could climb up and twist herself around fast enough not to be stopped, it wasn’t really high enough up. Even throwing herself headfirst down to the stone floor would probably only result in a bruised head, perhaps a concussion, but probably not enough to kill.

Why hadn’t she simply found a way to drown herself with the drinking water? The narrow mouth of the jug would prevent just sticking her face underwater, but she could have found a way. Now that route too was closed – the watching orcs would force any water out of her lungs in moments.

The days passed, then weeks. Elana’s body healed from the birth. Finally, the day she had dreaded arrived. One morning she was dragged off to the breeding room. It was a different orc this time, smaller, with black, cunning eyes. Day after day it continued. She sank deeper into despair, fearing she would never find a way to escape her fate. Perhaps at least this child would be the last. Many of the women taken away in labor never returned, presumably dead in childbirth. There were rumors among the women that if a labor went on too long, particularly if the woman was weak or had been a troublemaker, that the orcs would slice her open, taking the baby and allowing her to bleed to death. And some of the women who seemed healthy when they first returned, sickened and died after a few days, burning with fever. Elana suspected the dirty instruments of the orcs forced disease up inside the women’s bodies. Certainly at home, where only as an extreme last resort would a midwife consider putting her hands inside a woman’s body, such infections were far more rare than they were here. At least half of the women who’d been here when Elana arrived were dead now, replaced by new captives.

It took much longer this time for her to conceive. Though she supposed she should be glad no new child had yet come into existence, Elana’s emotions were too battered and numb to feel much of anything. One month dragged by, then another. She’d pretty much given up seeking a way to die, and the orcs’ watch over her let up slightly, though they still were alert.

Late one night, Elana was unable to sleep. She tossed and wiggled, trying to find some halfway comfortable position on the hard pallet. Roswyn slept oblivious beside her. Elana got up and paced. She paused by the ventilation shaft, and gazing upward, breathed deeply of the slightly fresher air. Finally she returned to bed and dropped into a restless doze.

She stood in a clearing in a forest. A shaft of golden sunlight fell through the green leaves, and illuminated a small girl. Perhaps three years old, the girl’s face was that of a half-orc, but transformed by the expression of radiant happiness she wore. She ran down a forest path ahead of Elana, laughing. Coming to a stream, she knelt on the bank and splashed the water with her hands, sending glittering droplets high in the air. Leaping up and turning, she rushed to Elana, who knelt to receive the warm body, vibrant and alive against hers. “Mama!” the girl cried excitedly. She gazed lovingly at Elana with huge, liquid brown eyes, eyes unlike any Elana had ever seen, on orc or human.

The scene changed. Now the eyes gazed at Elana from a face grown to young womanhood. She stood, armed with sword and bow, sorrow and excitement warring in her expression. She embraced Elana, her tears wetting Elana’s shoulder. “Good-bye, Mother,” she said. “I love you. And…thank you. Thank you for everything.” She turned and mounted her horse, riding off to join a group of companions, who set off with high hearts and earnest determination, on a quest that would surely save the world…

The dream shifted again. Now Elana gazed into a face old beyond measure, its orc features almost lost in the mass of wrinkles that seamed her skin. But the same eyes shone in the crone’s face, boring into Elana’s soul.

“Have faith,” she said. “Endure. The time is not yet, but it is coming. Your life will have purpose; your suffering will not be in vain. I am with you now. Love will sustain us against all the forces of evil. Sleep, and have peace.”

The dream ended, and Elana sank into a deep and restful slumber.

Chapter 8 – An Ancient Lament

The next morning, new and irrational hope filled Elana. Nothing in her situation had changed, yet her heart was lighter. She stopped looking for methods of suicide. She turned again in friendship to Roswyn and the other women. Hope had kindled within her like a new-struck spark, and not even the daily rapes could extinguish it completely. Jealously she tended it, guarding the tiny flame against the day when she’d have enough fuel to build it into a roaring fire.

Each night her dreams were visited again by the half-orc girl. She saw her at many ages, in many guises. By morning the dreams were vague and clouded, but always the sense of reassurance and hope was strong, and the image of those eyes.

It was with a sense of inevitability that two weeks later Elana felt the familiar nausea of morning sickness. Again she was examined and declared to be pregnant. Elana greeted the news that her breeding time was over with tears and joy. She knew, with a conviction that defied all logical argument, that she would never have to face that horror again.

Weeks passed, then months. The time drew near for Roswyn to give birth. Elana could see that, much as she tried to conceal it, the burden of this pregnancy weighed heavily on her. Elana knew that so many pregnancies, one right after another, without the natural break nursing a child provided, was wearing on a woman’s body. Roswyn seemed pale, and gaunt except for the roundness of her belly.

Roswyn’s labor began when her water suddenly broke one morning. The orcs quickly dragged her away, and Elana was left alone to worry. Her worry increased each of the three days she was gone. Then finally Roswyn was thrown back into the cell, exhausted, weak, and feverish. Elana sat by her pallet, holding her hand and bathing her forehead with cool water, but there was little she could do as Roswyn’s body battled with the fever. Elana thought surely she would die, but the will to live, amazingly, was still strong inside her. She fought to keep taking one breath after another, until at last the fever broke. After that, her recovery was sure, although agonizingly slow.

Elana’s own body ripened. Surprisingly, this time she felt no revulsion at all. The fact this child had been begotten upon her by an orc seemed somehow inconsequential, and she felt free to marvel at the miracle of developing life. She refused to consider that this child, too, would be taken away. Somehow she knew that was not its fate.

Late one night, a new dream gripped Elana. The orc-girl’s eyes blazed as she roughly shook Elana’s shoulders. “Wake up, Mother, wake up! It’s time!” Suddenly she was grabbed from behind by orc-hands, seized and carried away, struggling and crying out, “Mama, help me, please, Mama!” Orcs threw a sack over Elana’s head and dragged her off. She gasped for breath and fought against the smothering folds. Her thrashing woke her. Still feeling smothered, she panted desperately, but couldn’t seem to get enough air. She sat up on her pallet, then glimpsed a faint ray of moonlight coming from the ventilation shaft.

She went over to the opening, and with great effort hoisted herself up. She crept up the slanted shaft, barely able to squeeze her growing bulk though. Another week and she’d be too big. She reached the metal grate and lay, her faced pressed up against it, finally able to breathe the cool damp night air.

She looked out. The rocks and scrub were illuminated by silvery light, and by twisting her head around to an uncomfortable angle, she was able to glimpse a tiny patch of sky, where the full moon shone serene and peaceful, high above the cares of the world. Elana thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The sadness of her life, of a world where living creatures could do such things to others, where everything must fade in the end to despair and death, overwhelmed her, and she wept. Then, moved by a strange impulse, she lifted her voice in song, an ancient lament of her people:

Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.

(Tolkien, TTT, Chapter 6)

Elana’s voice broke in a sob, and the echoes of the last notes died away into silence. Then the silence was broken by a voice calling out.

“Who’s there? Speak! Where are you?”

Chapter 9 – We Will Be Ready

Theodred and his men rode across the plain, bathed in silvery radiance. The full moon cast a light almost as bright as day, but eerie and drained of all color. The men were tired, but in their haste to return to their homes they had ridden far into the night. Soon they should break and get a few hours sleep before starting off again at dawn. But the ethereal beauty of the night beckoned them to ride just a few more miles.

They had come too late to the last town to be of any help. Orcs had burned most of it to the ground and fled before they arrived. They had helped the refugees as best they could, and tried to track the orcs back to their lair, but had lost the traces on the rocky ground. The orcs were getting much bolder recently. The raids were more frequent and more severe. And more and more women were being carried off. For years there had been the occasional disappearance, the odd midnight raid, but in the past few years they had greatly increased. The eored was frustrated and angry they had not been able to find any orcs to battle. Somewhere, surely, was their stronghold, but so far no one had been able to locate it.

Perhaps, Theodred thought, after the men were safely back in Edoras, he should ride again to Isengard and request help from Saruman. Although the last time he had sought the wizard’s help to scry for the hidden orc stronghold he had been given many fair words, but only vague and contradictory hints as to where to search, which had led to much long and fruitless effort. What good was it having a wizard for a neighbor if he couldn’t even use his magic to spy out a nest of orcs?

The night was silent except for the beat of the horses’ hooves and the jingle of their tack. The men were lost in thought. Theodred’s own thoughts returned to his constant preoccupation of late. His father was declining. The king was not such an old man, but to see his stooped and feeble form, one would think he was ancient. Where once his hand had been firm on the reins of government, now he let the country drift, all but leaderless. Theodred had done what he could, but his father’s pride was as strong as ever, and he refused to listen to criticism. His ear was only given to his counselor Grima, known to everyone but the king as Wormtongue. Theodred despised the man, blaming him for his father’s failing health. But Theoden would hear nothing against his favorite. In the silence of the night, Theodred felt close to despair. Rohan seemed doomed to falter and weaken, becoming easy prey for the orcs who grew ever bolder.

As if to match his bleak mood, the strains of a lament floated on the air. Unsure at first whether he truly heard it, or it was only a creation of his mind, Theodred listened. Louder the voice grew as they rode forward. For a moment Theodred felt they had wandered into a dream world, where unseen singers roamed the earth in the silvery light. He signaled his men to stop, and they sat on their horses, listening to the song that seemed to emerge from almost directly under their horses’ hooves. The men of the eored looked at each other uneasily, but none dared break the otherworldly mood as the last notes faded into the night.

But Theodred heard a quiet sob as the song died, and he knew in that moment that no unnatural creature cried out its grief, but a human woman. He swung down from his horse, and called out, “Who’s there? Speak! Where are you?”

From the ground at his feet, he heard a gasp, then a voice desperate with hope. “Here, I’m here. Can you help me? Please, please, help me!”

Following the sound of the voice, Theodred pushed aside some brush, to find hidden among some rocks a metal grate. He could just glimpse the outline of a pale face within. “I will help you if I can. Who are you, and how did you get down there?”

“I am Elana, a woman of Rohan, and I’m being held prisoner by orcs.” In a hushed but urgent voice, Elana poured out her tale.

Theodred was gripped with horror by what he heard. More than fifty women? A huge underground city of orcs? Half-human, half-orc babies? How long had the creatures been being bred, and how many of them were there, he wondered. Elana had mentioned that crossbreeds were among her captors, so some at least must be grown to maturity. He pictured what an army of the creatures could do to Rohan, and fear ran like ice through his veins. Here was the answer to many riddles that had puzzled him – the missing women, the increasing boldness of the orcs, the location of their stronghold. Exultation replaced his fear. They had found what they had sought so long – now at last they could act!

He knelt by the grate. Placing his hand on his sword hilt, he addressed the half-seen woman behind the grate. “I am Theodred son of Theoden King, Second Marshall of the Riddermark. I swear I will free you and your fellow captives, or die in the attempt.”

His men, who had come up and encircled him, let out a cheer. He motioned them to be quiet, fearful lest the orcs be warned of their presence. He questioned Elana closely about the location of the entrance and the layout of the tunnels. Though she knew little, he was able to piece together what she told him with his knowledge of the surrounding land, and form a good idea of where to search. She told him of the routine of her days, and he discovered that a few hours after noon all the women would be together in a single large room.

“That’s when we’ll make our move,” he told her. “Be ready.”

“We will be ready,” she promised.

Suddenly he was moved by her courage, to suffer such horrors for so long, yet to hold on to hope, and to be ready at his word to fight for her freedom. He stood, loath to leave her alone again in darkness. He saluted her, then leaped onto his horse and called his men to follow. Then they rode away to prepare for battle.

Chapter 10 – Well Fought, My Lady

Elana lay, faced pressed to the grate, for long minutes after the horse hooves faded in the distance. The silence of the night and the pale moonlight hadn’t changed. Could it have been a dream? How preposterous to think that a band of warriors, led by the king’s own son, would just happen to ride by at the precise moment she chanced to cry out into the night. Yet… it had not been entirely by chance, Elana thought, and caressed the roundness of her belly.

She slithered backwards down the ventilation shaft, filled with determination and tension. The cell was dark and quiet, the only sound Roswyn’s quiet breath. She went to the gate and peered out. Remarkably, no orc guards seemed to have noticed her absence or heard the noises from above. Elana lay down on her pallet. Her mind swirled with plans and worries, but eventually she managed to snatch a little sleep.

The next morning seemed to drag by like an age of the world. Every little sound or motion sent adrenalin coursing through her veins, making her heart race and her breath quicken. She could tell Roswyn knew something was going on, but she didn’t dare speak yet. She choked down her food, barely able to chew and swallow, and yet knowing she’d need all her strength. The food lay like a lump in her stomach.

Finally the time came, and Elana’s feet flew down the corridors to the exercise room. She went from group to group of women in their pacing circle, whispering a warning to be ready to act. Gradually as the word spread, though the women tried to maintain their bowed heads, drooping shoulders, and plodding gait, the atmosphere in the room became electric with excitement. The overseer orc grew more and more suspicious, flicking his whip and turning suddenly, trying to catch them at something. But before he came to the point of taking any further action, Elana suddenly heard shouts, and the sound of running feet and clashing metal.

“Now!” she cried, and as one the women rushed the overseer. He lashed out with whip and knife. One woman was lashed across the eyes, and another took the knife deep in her side, but the orc was overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The women bore him to the ground. Roswyn grabbed his knife and sank it into his chest. The women continued the attack, taking out their rage and frustration on his inert body, and things might have gotten very ugly, but Elana called them away.

“Block the door! We must stay here where we have a defensible location, until the men fight their way here.” The room was mostly bare, but the overseer’s body and his high stool were quickly formed into a makeshift barricade across the narrow doorway. Roswyn with the knife and Elana with the whip stood on either side, and the rest of the women crowded close, except for a few who tended the wounded.

An interminable time of waiting followed, while the women strained their ears, trying to make out what was happening from the noises of battle that rang back and forth through the corridors. Then a band of orcs appeared, running as if pursued. They made for the door, and the first tried to scramble over the barricade. Elana lashed his face and he stumbled, falling forward. Roswyn’s eyes were blazing, and her teeth bared in a grin as the knife struck like a serpent’s fang, sinking deep into the back of his neck. His body added to the blockade, and the other orcs were more cautious. Arrows rained into the room, but the women pressed close to the walls on either side of the door.

More orcs backed into the space before the door, fighting, Elana could see with a joyful leap of her heart, with the men of Theodred’s eored. Burnruk was among them, along with other half-orcs Elana didn’t recognize. They fought fiercely, and several of Theodred’s men fell, but eventually they were pressed back, making their final stand in front of the door.

Suddenly, with amazing agility, Burnruk leapt over the barricade. He swept his sword around, clearly meaning to take out as many of the women as he could before he fell. But he had reckoned without Roswyn. With a wild cry, she leapt upon his back, seizing his hair and dragging his head back with one had, while with the other she sliced the knife across his throat.

As his body hit the floor, silence descended. All the orcs were dead. The men outside lowered their weapons, and breathed heavily for a moment, before the women, realizing they were free, dragged the barriers away from the door and rushed out with wild abandon, cheering and embracing any man they saw. The men returned the embraces, all heady with the joy of a battle won.

As the pandemonium died down, Theodred sought out Elana and Roswyn. Roswyn’s eyes were clear, and despite her ragged, skimpy garments she stood proud and tall, the bloody knife gripped firmly in her hand.

“That was well fought, my lady,” Theodred said to her, bowing low. Then he turned and bowed also to Elana. “And to you, my lady, we all owe a great debt.” Elana blushed and shook her head, her hand creeping to stroke the shape of the baby within her womb. She breathed a silent thanks to the presence that had guided her, and wept with tears of relief and joy.

Chapter 11 – Return Beyond All Hope

The rest of the day was spent dealing with the aftermath of battle. Seven of the soldiers of Rohan had died, and another dozen were wounded, along with the two wounded women. The men of the eored raised a mound over their fallen. They dragged the dead orcs into a pile and set them burning. One of Theodred’s men was trained as a battle surgeon, and he recruited several of the women to help tend the injuries. None of them were mortal, although it seemed the woman who’d been whipped would probably lose the sight in one eye.

By unspoken agreement, they made camp a fair distance from the entrance to the underground lair. Though the tunnels and rooms would have provided shelter, not one of the women could bear to spend one more night down there, even though the night was chilly and supplies were short, with the eored suddenly having to provide for half again its number. The orc tunnels were searched, but no trace of the belongings the women had arrived with was found, nor much else of value. The warren was deep and complex, and though no living orcs could be found anywhere the men searched, the number of dead didn’t seem to the women to be quite enough to account for all they knew to have inhabited the stronghold. And there was no clue where all the half-orc babies or their orc foster mothers might be. Theodred feared that secret tunnels must lead off to other sections they’d been unable to locate, and that some of the orcs must have escaped that way. He set a heavy guard that night, and planned to ride at first light, before a counterattack could be mustered against them.

Theodred briefly considered taking all the women back to Edoras, but discarded the idea. The women wanted nothing but to return to their homes, many of which were far closer than the capital city. The ride to Edoras was long and hard, and the women were ill equipped for a long journey. They had nothing but the skimpy shifts the orcs had clothed them in, though now the men of the eored had shared out what cloaks and extra garments could be found. And he certainly hadn’t brought enough provisions to feed an extra fifty bodies. So he set Grimbold, his second in command, to grouping the women by where their homes lay, deciding that he would send a dozen or so men with each group to convey the women swiftly to their homes.

The next morning Theodred chose to ride with the group heading south, toward Elana and Roswyn’s homes. He invited Elana to ride with him. Elana approached his magnificent steed with great appreciation. Surely this was a fit mount for the prince of Rohan! His burnished chestnut coat gleamed golden in the first rays of the dawn, four pure white socks and white blaze on his face almost seeming to sparkle. “Silverfoot,” Theodred introduced him. Elana mounted, and Theodred swung up behind her. Though riding double was awkward, it felt wonderful to be astride again, and on a horse finer than any she’d ever ridden.

As they rode away, Elana turned back for a last look. Even though she knew where to look, the entrance to the orc tunnels was barely visible. The vast, windy plain stretched to the horizon on every side, with only a bare hint of mountains far in the distance. Somewhere out there, probably deep under the earth, was a child who had been born from her body. What cruelty and torture would he endure? Was his very nature evil, as surely all orcs’ must be? Would Elana ever know of his fate? She tore her eyes away from the hazy distance, and turned resolutely forward. Were any of the other women troubled by such thoughts? None of them, to Elana’s knowledge, had ever indicated any emotion other than revulsion or resignation towards the infants they bore. Elana felt very alone. But she pushed her loneliness deep to the bottom of her heart, and breathed deep of the fresh morning air, laughing as Silverfoot surged forward and her hair whipped her face.

They set out on a meandering trail that would take them by each of the villages and towns the women called home. They reached the first village midmorning. There was much joy and commotion as the first woman’s family welcomed back the daughter they’d thought dead. The scene was repeated at each stop, and by the end of the day their voices were hoarse with repeating their story over and over. Elana felt tired and drained. Her body was reminding her that it was heavy with pregnancy, and that she hadn’t ridden for a year and a half. But at last only she and Roswyn were left, and her spirit leaped as she recognized her surroundings, realizing that they were drawing close to Grassymede.

Her brother Gareden was the first to recognize Elana. He was among the group of villagers who heard the horses and came out to gawk at the group of soldiers, seeming to have grown a foot since last she’d seen him. He was all gangly long arms and legs. The expression on his face when he recognized his lost sister riding at the head of the troupe was comical – mouth dropped open, eyes bugged out, utterly speechless. Then he was racing toward their cottage, bellowing in a voice far deeper than Elana remembered for the rest of the family.

Elana dismounted, her shaky legs reluctant to hold her up after the long day of riding. She turned, only to be swept up in a crushing hug by her father. She was passed to her mother, their tears mingling. Her siblings surrounded her, all so much older now. Could that lovely young woman be Renewyn? And Beona, hanging back shyly from the sister she barely remembered. And the baby – he’d not even been walking, and now he was a sturdy toddler, beginning to get very upset with all the noise and intense emotions he could sense but not understand. She sobbed, with equal parts grief for all she had lost, and joy and relief for the return beyond all hope.

Theodred was speaking with her father. Elana knew he was relating a brief version of events, as he had at each of their previous stops, and giving his personal pledge of aid if it was necessary to adjust to the unexpected return.

Elana broke away from her family for a minute, and dragged Roswyn over from where she had dismounted from her shared horse. “This is Roswyn, my dearest friend,” she told them all. “I couldn’t have survived without her.” She made the introductions all around. Her mother and father welcomed Roswyn graciously, and invited her to stay the night and journey on to Waymeet in the morning. But Elana could see that Roswyn was anxious to return to her own family, and wasn’t surprised when her friend refused, preferring to ride the extra hours that night.

She embraced Roswyn with tears, and they promised each other they’d visit often. She turned to Theodred, hugging him too, thanking him again for the rescue. Then she was watching them ride away, Roswyn’s back straight and proud, her eyes turned toward her own home.

For a while Elana was surrounded by people from the village, full of questions and excited chatter. She tried to answer them all. Soon her parents steered her firmly toward home, putting aside the neighbors with promises all would be answered later, after Elana had had a chance to get settled in. She was swept into the kitchen, where Marbrona had been in the middle of fixing supper. She breathed deeply the warm, rich smells of home. She started telling everyone all that had happened since the dreadful night of her abduction. She glossed over the most terrible parts for the sake of the young ones, but she described in full the heroics of Theodred and his company. She kept talking, only stopping occasionally to take a few more bites of the wonderful food, until she had told everything. Then it was her turn to question, eager for every little detail of the life of family and village while she’d been away.

They kept talking far into the night, as one by one the younger children dropped off to sleep and were transferred to beds. At last Elana could barely keep her eyes open. Marbrona fussed about finding her a place to sleep with some privacy, but Elana assured her that she wanted nothing better than to sleep in her own old bed she shared with her sisters. Marbrona looked doubtfully at her round form, but consented. True, the bed didn’t seem as roomy as before, but the sweet warm presence of her sisters on either side more than made up for that. Elana felt profoundly happy. She drifted off into the best sleep she’d had in years. All her dreams were pleasant.

Chapter 12 – I Will Take Care of Everything

Elana slept late into the morning. When she woke, she lay awhile, smiling and enjoying the feel of being home. She draped her hands over her belly and enjoyed the sensations of the babe turning and kicking in her womb. Eventually she got up, stretched, and found that someone had laid out clothes for her – she thought she recognized them as some of Marbrona’s old garments. She supposed her own clothes had long since been passed down, sold, or given away – while not poor, the family surely couldn’t afford to have all that good cloth going unused. She decided she would see if Marbrona had any fabric she could make herself some dresses from. If not, she could get out her spindle and set to work. She found her fingers were eager to take up their old skill. She had been known in the village for the fineness of her spinning.

She went into the kitchen. The rest of the family was long since up and out of the house, the older ones to work, the younger ones to play. Marbrona was kneading the day’s bread, her rhythmic motions singing to Elana of the very substance of home. She would have gone to help, but as soon as Marbrona saw her daughter she wiped off her floury hands and brought to the table a bowl of porridge that had been keeping warm on the back of the stove. As Elana ate, Marbrona fixed them each a cup of hot herbal tea. The bread dough was set aside to rise, and Marbrona joined Elana at the table, the two of them sipping their tea.

Finally Marbrona broke the silence. “Elana… I can still hardly believe you’re here, alive. When Gareden slammed those doors with you outside… I wanted to help you, but the babies needed me… I was torn in two.”

“It’s all right, Mother. That’s what I wanted – for the rest of you to be safe.”

“I know, and I knew that then. But when your father came and told us the orcs had been routed, and you were gone, not even your body to be found anywhere… I lay awake nights, hoping you’d been killed quickly, my mind filled with black imagining of what those orcs might do to you. And now to find out that it was even worse for you than my darkest dreams…

Elana could hardly speak for the lump in her throat, and her eyes stung with tears. “It’s over now, Mama. I’m here. I survived.”

“You survived.” Marbrona’s voice was rich with wonder. “My baby, my firstborn. We are so very glad to have you back. And I promise you, we will do everything in our power to make things right for you.

“Your father and I talked last night about the future. Of course, you are welcome in this house as long as you wish to stay. But you are no longer a child, and a woman will want to establish her own household at some point. I know there were a few young men in the village who took it particularly hard when we lost you. I don’t know if you had your eyes on any of them…” Elana blushed and shook her head. “Well, no matter. If at some point you wish to marry, your father and I will support you completely, and help you in whatever way we can.”

“I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that for awhile, Mother.” Elana wondered if any man would be interested in her, after what had happened, and her with a baby already, an only half-human baby at that. Could she even bear a man’s touch without being overwhelmed by hateful memories? “All I want now is to be here in my home, to be your daughter, to have you take care of me when I give birth.”

“Yes.” Marbrona put down her cup, and took Elana’s hands in hers. She looked deep into her daughter’s eyes. “I want you to know, that when your time comes, I will take care of everything. You won’t have to worry about a thing.”

Elana thought how different this birth would be. Her mother, wise in the ways of women’s bodies, at her side, surrounded by the loving support of family and friends, safe in her home.

“Of course,” Marbrona continued, “it would have been better if you weren’t so far along. There are herbs we could have used, but they are dangerous for the mother so late. But it’s just a few more months, and then we can put this whole tragedy behind us.”

Elana froze. Her heart thudded. She couldn’t quite believe what she heard her mother saying.

“I really do think you should consider looking for a husband right away. I know it’s hard on a woman to lose a pregnancy. But a man to love you and a babe of your own to cherish can heal many hurts.”

Elana unstuck her tongue from the roof of her mouth. Surely she was mistaken in what she thought Marbrona meant. “But mother, I have a baby. She’s healthy and strong. She’ll be born in about three months.”

Marbrona looked surprised. “And like I said, you won’t have to worry about anything. I’ll take care of it. You won’t even have to look at the monster. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be, to know your body harbors such an abomination, but I would never leave my daughter to deal with it alone.”

Elana stood up. She felt cold. Somehow, she had to make her mother understand. “Mama, she is not an abomination. She is not a monster. She is my baby. I’ve seen her - she came to me in dreams, and saved me, saved us all. I love her already.”

Marbrona looked at her daughter with shock and pity. Such trauma as she had endured could twist a mind’s perceptions. The instinct to nurture life was strong in a woman’s heart, and Elana seemed to have taken refuge in the fantasy of a perfect child. She might think she wanted the creature now, but Marbrona was sure when she faced the reality of the monstrosity she had born, she would feel the same revulsion that Marbrona and the rest of the people of the village felt now. Why, last night, overjoyed as she was at her daughter’s miraculous return from the dead, when she learned the origin of her pregnancy she could barely suppress her disgust enough to give Elana the welcome she deserved. But Marbrona was a practical woman, and had known at once what she would have to do. She wished she could spare her daughter the grief of losing her dream-child, but she couldn’t be allowed, in her state of delusion, to endanger the village. Marbrona shuddered to think of the orc-spawn growing to monstrous maturity. Would its own mother be the first to fall victim to its base appetites?

Rising, Marbrona reached out to Elana. She folded her in to her breast, remembering the days of her babyhood. She patted her back, murmuring. “Shh, shh, it’s all right. Everything will be fine. I will take care of you. I love you.”

Elana wrenched away. She stared at her mother in horror. The familiar house, which had seemed such a safe and comforting refuge, was suddenly threatening. Her baby would never be safe here! To all but Elana she would be a danger, a demon, a viper that must be killed with as much dispatch as any other vermin, before it could strike. Even if Elana managed to keep her safe through her birth, they would comfort and reassure her to her face, but some night while Elana slept her baby would be smothered in her cradle, or meet some other accident. Everyone would be kind and sympathetic, but secretly they would be glad someone had done away with the foul creature.

She fled into the bedroom. Marbrona watched her go, but refrained from going after her. Let her grieve, she thought. It will be hard on her, but it must be done. She will thank me someday.

Chapter 13 – Are You Out of Your Mind?

Elana knew she had to leave. She felt as trapped as she had back in the orc-cell, and longed to get away to safety, if anywhere in Middle Earth was safe for her now. But she had to bide her time. There were things she needed if she were to survive on her own. And for the moment her child was safe, as long as their two lives were inextricably bound together. So Elana dried her tears, and came out of the bedroom. By unspoken agreement neither Elana nor Marbrona spoke of the upcoming birth again.

The next days were filled with shared labor. The women of the family worked together to provide Elana with clothes. Beona and Renewyn carded wool, while Elana and Marbrona spun. Then when they had enough yarn, Marbrona warped the loom, and wove a soft sturdy cloth. Then they cut and sewed skirts and bodices that were ample enough to fit Elana’s expanding figure, but designed to be taken in after the birth. They visited the village cobbler, who measured Elana’s feet and within a few days had made her new shoes.

Elana knew she would need money to survive. Fearing any human community, she thought to take refuge in the wilderness. But she would need to buy supplies – a tinder box, a tent, cooking gear, hunting and fishing supplies, food until she learned to provide for herself from the land, clothes for the baby when she was born – none of which she could acquire here without raising troubling questions. So she formed a plan.

Waymeet, where Roswyn lived, was only a few hours away by horse, about a day’s journey on foot. Remembering Roswyn’s words about the half-orc babies, Elana had little hope of finding acceptance from her friend. But perhaps for the sake of their shared ordeal she would allow Elana to stay for a month or two while she worked and saved. Then she could buy what she needed and depart, in time to create some safe refuge before the birth.

Elana dreaded the thought of departure, but her steadily advancing pregnancy formed an unyielding deadline which forbade procrastination. So before sunrise one morning, after bidding goodnight to her family with special intensity the night before, she crept out of the warm nest between her sisters. She stuffed her meager belongings in a satchel, took some bread and dried fruit and meat from the kitchen, and slipped out of the house into the gray dawn.

She trudged along the wagon tracks that were the road to Waymeet, pausing only to hide among the tall waving grasses whenever she heard someone approaching. A few wagons creaked by, bound for commerce in the market, or returning home. Then at midmorning Elana peered between the green stems and saw Charamer riding intently from the village, searching for her, she knew. From then on she was doubly cautious, walking in the grass to the side of the road. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw him riding back, grim with disappointment and determination.

Finally, near nightfall, she approached Waymeet. In the distance beyond the town rose the foothills of the White Mountains. Hungry and weary, she nervously started down the main street of the town, so much larger than her own village. Confused and lost, she looked around, searching for a friendly face. Finally she stopped a passing woman and inquired about the location of the blacksmith’s home. She was directed to the far side of town, where a stream ran past the last few straggling buildings.

She could hear the blacksmith’s shop before she saw it, the steady ring of the hammer telling of work continuing in the last rays of the setting sun. Then she saw the open sided shed, a brawny man toiling at the anvil. A young boy, perhaps five or six, played by the door to the attached house. Elana’s heart jumped, with happiness or nervousness she wasn’t sure. This must be the place.

Just then the door of the cottage opened, and Roswyn stepped out. She was relaxed and smiling, turning to bid the man and boy to come in to supper. Then she spotted Elana, and her face lit up with surprise and happiness. The two women embraced. Elana could tell Roswyn noted her solitary and footsore condition, and knew all was not well with her friend, but she said nothing about that. Instead, she invited Elana in to share the evening meal. The man was introduced as her husband, Teolar, and the boy as her son, Arteo.

Over the meal Elana spoke little and listened much, to Roswyn’s account of the past weeks. “We arrived long after nightfall. Theodred pounded on the door, and Teolar came storming out, sure he’d been roused from his bed to shoe some impatient lordling’s horse.”

Teolar grinned. “Then I spotted you, coming up behind him, and you could have scraped my chin up off the floor. I shoved the poor man aside, king’s son though he was, to get my hands on you faster.”

“All the noise and commotion woke Arteo up, and he came out and stood on the doorstep, and asked ‘Papa, why are you hugging that woman?’” Roswyn told the anecdote humorously, but underneath her light manner Elana could sense her pain at the years of her son’s life lost to her.

“And I told him, ‘Better get used to it, son, there’s going to be a lot more hugging in this house from now on!” Teolar reached out to affectionately tousle the boy’s hair. The child ignored him and continued his single-minded attention to his meal. In a more serious tone, Teolar went on, “Of course, he didn’t remember her. He was only a toddler when she vanished. It will take a long time for them to get to know each other again. We won’t rush things. But we’ve made a start.”

“I was so surprised that you hadn’t remarried,” Roswyn remarked. “It would have been good for Arteo to have a mother.”

“Oh, you can’t get rid of me that easily,” Teolar replied. “How could either of us settle for another woman after having had you?” Behind his joking words it was easy to see his steadfast love for his wife, and Elana’s heart glowed with joy for her friend.

Later, after Arteo fell asleep, Roswyn shooed her husband off to bed, reminding him of the work that awaited him at dawn. Then she and Elana stayed up talking far into the night.

“So,” Roswyn said when they were alone. “I suppose there was some sort of problem with your family?”

“Yes.” Elana stared into the fire.

“What, they couldn’t bear the thought that their virgin daughter had been shamed and despoiled, so you were no longer fit for decent company?”

“No, it wasn’t that. Who could think such a thing?”

“Well, I’m willing to bet that the families of a couple of those girls we dropped off on the way were thinking it, behind their pretense of happiness. To some, there is more honor in death than in rape.”

Elana shook her head in disbelief and horror. “Well, my family certainly doesn’t feel that way. They truly were happy to have me home. But they couldn’t… they wanted… they were going to kill my baby!”

Roswyn was startled. “Your baby?”

“Yes! My mother told me she was sorry it was too late to use herbs to make me miscarry. So she planned to wait until she was born, and then kill her. So of course I had to leave, to keep her safe.”

Roswyn took a deep breath. She took Elana’s hands in hers, then burst out “Elana, are you out of your mind?”

Elana stared, dumbstruck.

Roswyn continued. “You have a family who loves you, who accept what happened to you and still want you back, and you are going to throw all that away? For an orc? Gotten on you by rape? Go home, let your mother get rid of it, and good riddance!”

“But she’s mine! My child, just as much as that orc’s.”

“Look Elana, all of us knew, those things that grew in us, they might look like babies, but they weren’t! They were… things, beasts. They weren’t any part of us. None of us would hesitate to get rid of one. I only regret that Theodred wasn’t able to find them and do away with all of them. Who knows how much evil they will do? I promise you, none of the others who were pregnant will even think twice about what to do – most of them would rejoice to have a mother as understanding as yours! I certainly would if I’d been unlucky enough to carry a monster away from that place!”

Elana shook her head and turned away, tears streaming down her face. Roswyn couldn’t, wouldn’t understand. Suddenly it occurred to Elana why her friend had to be so adamant. Five times she had given birth to orc-children, and five times had them stolen away. If ever, for even a moment, she allowed herself to believe the possibility they might be babies, her babies, surely the grief would destroy her. That grief weighed heavily enough on Elana, and she’d only been through it once.

“Maybe that’s true of the other ones, but this baby is different. Do you remember, right after she was conceived, how I was so happy? She had come to me, in a dream. I saw her face, it was a half-orc face, but the eyes were different, so rich and deep… I saw her as a child, as a young woman, as an old woman – she was happy, and loving, and wise. She told me to have faith, that our rescue would come. And it did! That night, I dreamed of her again, and that’s why I went up the ventilation shaft, and found Theodred. She saved us, Roswyn. Her spirit is special, it was sent to me. I am meant to be her mother and she is meant to be my child. I don’t ask that you believe me, just that you help me, for the sake of what we’ve been through together. I promise, I will be gone by the time I give birth, but just two months would make such a difference…”

Roswyn sighed in exasperation. “Of course I will help you, Elana. I can’t say I understand how you feel, but I certainly won’t turn you away. You are welcome here for as long as you wish, and I will do whatever is in my power to help you. But I won’t have an orc-child under my roof.”

Elana could tell that Roswyn privately shared her mother’s opinion that she was dangerously deluded, deceived by wishful fantasies. But she was willing to give what Elana needed, and for that Elana was immensely grateful.

“Roswyn, I know how impossible it is, what I’m asking of you, and I am so thankful you are willing to do so much for me. I think I can manage to get what I need in two months or so, and then I can leave well before the baby is born. Here’s my plan…”

She poured out her thoughts and schemes, and Roswyn listened, corrected mistaken notions, and contributed many of her own ideas. By the time they had hammered out what they both thought should be a workable plan of action, it was closer to dawn than sunset. Roswyn spread blankets for Elana on the floor by the fire, and retired to her own warm bed. Elana sank into exhausted sleep. As she closed her eyes, she thought she saw two warm brown eyes gazing at her with love from the afterimage of the fire on the backs of her eyelids. She smiled in her sleep, and dreamed no more until morning.

Chapter 14 – To Make a Life

Waymeet was a large town, and some of its residents were quite wealthy. Elana had first thought to hire herself out as a maid to one of the fine houses on the town’s west side. But Roswyn had discouraged this plan, pointing out that her advancing pregnancy would slow her, making her less desirable as a servant than the many others who sought such positions. They had brainstormed what other skills Elana might barter, and when Elana mentioned that she was skilled at spinning, especially the fine threads used for lace, Roswyn was excited. There was an active market for luxury goods, and lace always sold well. So in the morning they visited a shopkeeper who was happy to sell them a high quality fleece, from the breed of sheep with soft, fine fibers, and who promised to consider any lace Elana might bring him, and buy any he found satisfactory. Roswyn brushed aside Elana’s protests and laid down her coins to purchase the fleece, along with a carved wooden spindle and long metal knitting needles, since Elana had not thought to bring her own.

The next days were filled with labor and companionship. Elana bent willingly to the familiar tasks of washing and preparing the wool, carding the fibers, and spinning an even, delicate thread. Then she took up the needles and set about knitting a lace shawl. The technique was an ancient tradition among their people, but few in the present day had the skill to practice it. A well-made shawl was as light and airy as a cobweb, more than six feet square, but so fine it could be drawn through a woman’s wedding ring. Elana worked with practiced speed, desperation adding impetus to her spindle and needles, often working late into the night by the dim firelight. In only a week she’d finished her first shawl, which the shopkeeper bought with glee, paying her a generous sum, more than enough to reimburse Roswyn and invest in more fleece and still have plenty to put aside in her fund. More shawls followed, her little hoard of coins growing, until Elana felt she had enough.

The weather was advancing through summer into early autumn. One morning Roswyn and Elana set out, following the stream that ran by the smithy back towards its source in the foothills of the White Mountains. Elana wanted to find a safe haven, far from any habitation, but no more than an hour or two from the town so she could return to sell her shawls and purchase more supplies as often as she needed. As the ground rose and the stream became smaller and faster, trees began to appear. Soon they were making their way through a small forest, a mix of pines and hardwoods.

Elana stopped as they rounded a bend in the stream. A clearing opened up before her. The stream dropped over a tiny falls, no more than a few feet high, into a deep, rocky pool. A level, grassy meadow stretched a dozen yards from the pool to where the trees began. Elana dipped up a scoop of the icy water in her cupped hands and drank, tasting the snows of the mountains towering above. She knew this was the place she could make a home.

The days that followed were even busier, as Elana alternated days of furious spinning and knitting with shopping for her needs, and trips out to the mountain meadow to prepare her refuge. A hatchet was her first purchase, used to fell slender saplings to construct a simple lean-to shelter just within the trees. Thatched with leafy branches and meadow grasses, it should be waterproof enough. Though summer was quickly fading, the winters here were usually mild, and between a fire and plenty of warm clothes and blankets they should be able to stay warm – she hoped. Gradually Elana added to the amenities – a latrine trench back in the woods, a small garden plot where she sowed a few cold-hardy vegetable seeds, fishing gear, supplies of food carefully stowed beneath rock cairns to resist animal depredations, a hearth and a generous supply of firewood, pots and pans – so many things she needed to make a life.

Finally the day came Elana knew she could linger no longer. Her belly was huge. Labor could come at any time. Roswyn had not mentioned anything, but Elana knew she watched and waited, and her feelings had not changed. The warmth and safety of the house, and the cheerful company of the small family who had so quickly come to feel like kin, begged Elana to stay just a few more days, and the lonely little camp seemed a bleak and dreary contrast. But Elana knew that the price of security would be her child’s life. So she gathered together the rest of her belongings and prepared for the move out to the forest.

Roswyn shook her head as she watched the preparations. But she pressed a few more blankets on Elana over her protests. Finally all was ready. The two women embraced, and tears overflowed both their eyes. Then, hands clasped, Roswyn looked deep into Elana’s eyes. Seeing there that her resolve remained unchanged, Roswyn smiled wryly. “May good fortune go with you, and may you be blessed with the fruit of your labors. Remember, if you need anything, I am here to help you.”

“I’ll remember. Thank you for everything. You have been such a dear friend… I wish things could be different. Farewell.”

Elana picked up her pack, slung it across her back, and set off along the course of the stream.

Chapter 15 – You Must Kill It

Silverfoot cantered, his tireless stride devouring the miles between Edoras and Grassymede. Theodred still wasn’t sure why he was making this ride. He should have sent one of his men; he was far too busy to take the time to ride halfway across the country to aid in the search for a simple peasant girl. But ever since he’d returned from the successful battle with the orcs, the image of that peasant girl had stolen into his thoughts with surprising frequency. He played everything over in his mind. Her voice floating on the moonlight. The pale circle of her face behind the bars. Her heady joy at victory. The protective way her hands encircled the life within her womb. Her steadfast courage. Her gallantry in battle. The feel of her body pressed against his on their long day’s ride…. He firmly put aside such thoughts. As son and heir to the king, his duty overshadowed any fancy of his heart. The difference in their stations precluded any formal alliance between them, and he would not dishonor her with anything less. And he had absolutely no indication that the lady felt anything toward him other than gratitude for her rescue. Yet still he remembered her delight at riding Silverfoot, and her golden hair whipping in the wind…

And truly, a union between royalty and commoner was not entirely without precedent in Rohan’s history. The Rohirrim were a romantic folk at heart, and might come to accept, and even delight in, such a match. For a few brief moments he allowed himself the fantasy – the two of them, side by side, declaring their love to the world. But – there was the babe. A half-orc creature, testimony for all to see of her brutal violation. That, he feared, his people could never accept. So she was truly lost to him, no matter what her feelings or his might be. So his mind decided. But his heart knew no logic, and continued to trouble him with memories and dreams.

So when the messenger arrived from Charamer, begging his help in finding Elana, who had disappeared a scarce week after her return, Theodred himself rode out to investigate. He couldn’t help but be gripped by fear she’d been taken again into that foul captivity he’d freed her from. Though that seemed unlikely. Surely only some misunderstanding had caused her to flee her family, whose joy at her return couldn’t possibly have been anything but genuine.

A warm welcome greeted him when he arrived at the village. The common people of Rohan were an independent and self-sufficient folk, giving little thought in their daily lives to the royalty far away in the capital. But still the presence of the king’s son was an impressive event, let alone twice in so short a time. Charamer and Marbrona were acutely aware of the honor of hosting him in their home, and served him the evening meal with mingled delight and nervousness.

“She’s been gone nearly three months now,” Charamer told him. “We’ve searched everywhere we can think of. There was no indication that she was taken by force. We just woke up one morning and she had vanished. A few of her things were missing – clothes, some food. So we think she left on her own. But why?” Charamer’s frustration and grief drove him to his feet, and he paced the length of the room. “She’d only just come home, and she seemed happy to be here. We did everything we could to make her welcome.”

“Was there any quarrel, any disagreement between you?” Theodred asked.

“No!” Charamer insisted. “Nothing like that. I know what you think!” His anger flared. “True, there are some who would have rejected her for what was done to her. But that is not our way! She is my daughter and always will be. Nothing can change that. And I would have sworn she knew it.”

Theodred shook his head in puzzlement. His eyes happened to fall on Marbrona, and he glimpsed in her face a shadow of knowledge and guilt. He looked sharply at her, but she pressed a finger to her lips, with her eyes indicating her husband, who was oblivious to the exchange.

Later sleeping arrangements were made, Charamer and Marbrona insisting he take their bed, the rest of the family hastily redistributed. Charamer bid good night and retired. Marbrona lingered, ostensibly to see Theodred settled.

“You know why Elana left,” Theodred stated.

“Yes,” she admitted, staring into the fire. “I haven’t told anyone. But now – her time is near. I fear for her, alone. You must find her.”

“What happened?”

“I only did what any mother should. I told her I would dispose of the creature, when it was born, that she wouldn’t even have to look at it. She should have been grateful. But somehow she’d come to believe that it would be just a child, as if she could deny what had happened. I couldn’t let her go through that – raising it, loving it, only to have it turn on her in the end. I thought she’d accepted what had to be done. But I was wrong.” Marbrona turned to him, her eyes pleading. “Now she’s out there somewhere, alone, and she’ll give birth any time now. And that monster will devour her, as soon as it has the strength. Please, find her! Bring her back to me. Save her from her own folly!”

Theodred understood, now. Could Elana truly love the misbegotten creature, enough to abandon family and safety for its sake? He thought of the way her hand had caressed her belly, and he knew it was so.

Marbrona seized his hands, careless of any impropriety. “You are sworn to protect this land. For all our sakes, if it’s been born, you must kill it.”

Theodred was assailed by conflicting emotions. Could he kill a defenseless baby, even an orc-child? What if Elana were right, what if love and nurture could triumph over blood? Could he rip Elana’s child away from her, tearing her heart in two? (Destroying, a secret part of him whispered, any feelings she might have for him.) But could he leave her in danger, that the child she cherished might prove bound to its corrupt heritage? Even if the child itself were harmless, its presence would exile her from human contact. The fear and loathing most people would feel toward the child would surely also encompass the mother. (Cutting him off from her completely, his treacherous heart reminded him.)

But what if the child were dead? He pulled away from Marbrona, turning to stare out the window at the starlit night. If Elana never knew it was his hand that killed it? Would she turn to him for solace in her grief? They could conceal her past, and he could present her openly to all the people as his beloved. He could bring her to Edoras and make her his wife, and someday queen. She could be his.

He gripped the windowsill with sweating hands. How could he even think such a thing? He loved her; he knew it now. And she loved the babe. To kill it would wound her grievously. But here was her own mother begging him to do it. And truly it might be the best thing for her sake. How was he to decide rightly when he couldn’t trust his own heart, which urged him so seductively to take the action that would place her by his side? Yet, was his resistance to that temptation, and his love for Elana, blinding him to the very real potential for evil if the child should live?

He closed his eyes, his hands trembling. He, who had so often faced battle bravely, was deeply afraid. He feared he would not be equal to this challenge. That the tangles of conflicting emotions would wind around and ensnare him. That no matter what he chose, it would be wrong.

He turned back to Marbrona, gripping her hands and looking deep into her eyes. “I will find her,” he promised. “And… I will do what I must.”

Chapter 16 – Who Are You?

Elana drew closer to her fire. The night, though not particularly cold, chilled her heart with loneliness. Far from any other human being, she was filled with the primal fear of the darkness, the unknown. The fire helped, a bit. She sat and stared into the leaping flames. The tongues licked at the air like dragon’s breath. Their motion, never ceasing and never the same, mesmerized her. The glowing coals at the fire’s heart shone like a gateway into another world deep inside the earth. She could watch the fire for hours. And she did each night, until her eyes would no longer stay open, so she could sink quickly into sleep without troubling thoughts.

She rubbed her lower back. All evening she had been troubled by a backache. It had come and gone all the time she was cooking her meal of fish from the pool and fresh greens gathered in the woods. Now it strengthened again for a few moments, and then eased. She thought nothing of it, until a few minutes later it sharpened again, held for a few moments, then relaxed. Labor? she wondered. It felt completely different than the contractions of her last birth, but she knew that sometimes labor could be felt first in a woman’s back. Most often it happened when the babe was turned in the womb, so its face looked toward the woman’s front, instead of back as was more usual. Sometimes the babe turned around in mid-labor, and sometimes it was born still turned face-forward.

She stood up and began to pace around the fire. Yes, there it was again. There was no mistaking the rhythm now. And her hands on her belly felt it tighten. This was it, then. Everything was as ready as she could make it, and had been for days. She felt alone, so alone. She longed for her mother, or any other woman, to be there, supporting and calming her. Resolutely she put the desire aside. Labors that started in the back were often long and difficult. She would need all her strength to make it through.

She went into her shelter and removed all her restrictive clothing, dressing herself in a loose shift. Then she walked, back and forth along the path from the shelter down to the water. She paused and squatted during contractions, finding that that felt good. She enjoyed the freedom of movement, so different from her last birth. She was amazed at what a difference it made in her ability to cope with the pain. After a while she tired of walking, and spread a blanket by the fire to lie down. She wiggled around a bit and finally found a comfortable position, curled on her left side. She was deep into the pattern of labor now, her mind going into that timeless and focused state characteristic of laboring women, where everything outside was shut out, all attention fixed on what was happening within.

The night wore on. The contractions grew stronger and stronger. Elana lay, stood, walked, knelt, moving to the promptings of her instincts. The pains continued to stab her back, like daggers. Elana knew what she needed – she had seen it done, and helped do it herself. Another person, pressing the heels of their hands firmly into her lower back during contractions, could greatly reduce the pain of this type of contraction. But no one was here to perform that service for her, so she had no choice but to endure.

Near dawn, the contractions subsided, allowing her to snatch an hour of exhausted sleep. With the sunrise they began again, waking her. She drank thirstily from the cold mountain stream, and nibbled on a bit of bread. Her strength renewed, she settled again into the hard work of labor, contraction after contraction washing over her.

The sun was high and she was catching her breath after a strong contraction when she heard hoof beats. Startled, she turned to see who could be intruding on her private refuge. She immediately recognized Silverfoot as he entered the clearing. Even as tired as she was she rejoiced at the beauty of the magnificent animal. But what could Theodred be doing here? She saw him dismount, then turn to assist – Roswyn? So her friend must have betrayed her hiding place. Elana started towards them, and then sank to her knees as a powerful contraction seized her.

Immediately they were beside her, Roswyn supporting her on one side, Theodred on the other. When the contraction had passed, they steadied her as she walked back to the fireside. When she had caught her breath, she spoke quickly, before the pain came again. “Why are you here?”

Theodred answered her. “Your family asked me to help search for you. They are terribly worried – they will be delighted to know you are safe. I came to Roswyn and asked if she knew where you were. She was reluctant to reveal your secret, but I persuaded her. I promise, if you wish to remain here, I will tell your family only that you are…” Theodred trailed off. She had turned away, closing her eyes and breathing deeply and raggedly. He felt helpless and confused. What was he doing here, intruding on her privacy? The mysteries of bringing forth new life were the domain of women, far removed from his experience. A man might be allowed to be present when his wife gave birth, if she wanted him there, and young boys often accompanied their mothers in their labors, but otherwise men were gently but firmly excluded from the secret rituals of childbearing. Theodred’s own mother had died when he was very young, and since then he had been part of the male world, full of training as a warrior and preparation for the role of leader in battle that was his destiny. Here and now he felt dreadfully out of place. The fantasy of Elana he had built in his mind was shattered, now that he was faced with her reality.

Elana held her focus as the contraction faded, then turned back to Theodred. She was surprised at how glad she was to see him. She wouldn’t have dreamed she’d want a man present when she birthed, but somehow it seemed right for him to be there. Although it did seem odd that he himself, alone, would respond to her family’s request for aid. No matter; all that could be dealt with later. At this moment, she could concentrate on only one thing.

“Thank you,” she told Theodred. “Please, don’t tell my family where I am. Not unless things have changed. But we can talk about that later. Right now,” she turned, “Roswyn, I think the baby is posterior. I’m feeling everything in my back. I think maybe some counterpressure would help…” she broke off as the pain started to grow again.

“Of course,” Roswyn responded, then quickly moved to help Elana sit and lean forward, while Roswyn knelt behind her, pressing the heel of her hand hard into Elana’s lower back. Elana almost wept for the relief the pressure gave. When the contraction passed Roswyn helped Elana to lie down, then felt her belly with practiced hands. “Yes, I think you’re right. But the head is very low down; I doubt we’d have any luck trying to turn it. Best to keep going as you have been. I don’t think it will be too much longer.” She supported Elana as she moved back to a sitting position. “Here, Theodred, you come help.” Roswyn seized the arm of the startled Theodred and dragged him over to Elana. As the next contraction began, she showed him how to apply the counterpressure. Elana could tell that his strong hands were even more effective.

“I saw where there’s a raspberry bush, Elana,” Roswyn said. “ I’m going to go make you some tea. I’ll be right back.” Leaves from the red raspberry were well known to ease pregnancy and labor – they were even given to pregnant and laboring mares. Elana was thankful for Roswyn’s help. How could she have forgotten the raspberry leaf tea? She’d brewed it herself for her mother, whose labor had gone so quickly that the steeping leaves were forgotten, until later Elana had handed Marbrona the steaming cup over the contentedly nursing baby. Elana smiled at the memory, then stiffened. The intensity of labor, her need for help, and Roswyn’s calm efficiency had momentarily driven from her mind the goal of all this activity. The baby! Roswyn couldn’t be here when the baby came! And what about Theodred? Her family had sent him – was he too now her child’s enemy?

She twisted away from him. “You can’t have her!” she cried. “She’s mine! Get away from me! They sent you to kill her!” Elana tried to run, away, anywhere, she had to get away from these two who seemed to offer help and yet were threats. But after only a few steps she faltered, seized in the grip of the strongest contraction yet. She stumbled and nearly fell, then felt Theodred’s strong arms around her, holding her up. She tried to struggle, but the pain was intensified by the tension in her body, and she screamed in pain and rage and despair.

Theodred held her close, hurting with her. When the contraction left her, draining her body of tension and leaving her limp in his arms, he turned her and looked intently in her eyes. “Elana, listen to me. No one will harm your baby. I swear it.” He didn’t think about the rashness of his promise. All that mattered was that she trust him, in this moment when fighting and trying to flee could prove disastrous to both her and her child, and that she be safe and safely delivered.

Elana read the truth of his words in his eyes. She sagged in relief, collapsing into the warm embrace of his arms, registering somewhere deep in her mind how good it felt to be held so, supported and protected by his strength. For a timeless instant they stood there, then inevitably Elana felt the pain returning. But this time it was accompanied by an involuntary bearing down, as her body began to push her child forth.

Twisting around in Theodred’s arms, Elana bent her knees in a squat, with Theodred supporting her from behind. She moaned with the force gripping her body, though in a strange sort of way it felt good. The pain was still there, but the pushing impulse was far stronger and more important, overwhelming in its urgency. Then it faded, leaving her panting.

Returning from the woods with the raspberry leaves, Roswyn had heard the commotion, abandoned her preparations and come running. Now she reached them. Smiling, she said, “That sounded like pushing to me. Do you mind if I check?” Without waiting for an answer she knelt before Elana, pushing aside her shift and feeling for the baby’s position. “Crowning already! It must have turned after all, to progress so quickly. Theodred, that’s perfect; keep holding her like that; it’s a very good position for pushing.”

Elana nodded, swept up in Roswyn’s certainty. She had time for only a few deep breaths before she felt it coming again. She squatted and bore down mightily, helpless to resist the enormous squeezing pressure. For an eternity she pushed, a burning sensation growing, until finally with a pop all the pain was gone and the contraction subsided. “The head is out!” she heard Roswyn say, and relaxed back against Theodred, closing her eyes and gathering her strength for one last effort.

Theodred, standing behind Elana and grasping her under the arms to support her body, watched in rapt wonder as the head emerged. He had never imagined anything so amazing. He was filled with awe for the creative power held within a woman’s body. He held Elana gently and firmly, trying with his touch to pour his strength into her. He felt the first tightening as the final contraction built, and looked eagerly down to witness the miracle.

Elana’s eyes were closed as she pushed, so Theodred alone saw Roswyn’s mouth set in a grim line as she reached for the baby’s head and placed her hand over its scrunched bluish-gray face, covering its mouth and pinching the tiny nostrils closed. At first Theodred didn’t understand, but as the child’s body emerged Roswyn’s hand stayed in place, preventing the first life-giving breath.

Frantically Theodred eased Elana to the ground, not wanting to drop her but desperate to get to the baby. He leapt forward, knocking Roswyn’s hand away. Roswyn screamed and fought, reaching to strike or strangle the babe, but Theodred shoved her aside, reaching out his own hands to catch the child as it slid forth from its mother’s body.

For a moment the tableau held – Elana, exhausted from her final effort, lay back panting, barely aware of what had happened. Roswyn crouched, glaring at Theodred. And Theodred knelt with the wet limp form of the child unmoving in his arms.

Then the child shuddered, gasped, and let out a ragged, coughing cry. Elana opened her eyes and struggled to sit up, reaching for her baby. Theodred would have handed the child to her, but he was stopped by Roswyn, who thrust herself between them. A knife gleamed in her hand. Elana, with a sick feeling, saw it was the same blade Roswyn had used in the battle against the orcs.

“Give it to me,” Roswyn growled in a low, thick voice. “It’s an orc, a monster, an abomination. Look at it!”

Mesmerized by the force of her passion, Theodred looked down at the squirming, naked infant. A girl, he noticed in surprise. No one could mistake her orc blood. It was there in the claws tipping her fingers and toes, the asymmetric face, the distinctly inhuman features. He felt the weight of a lifetime of fear of the goblin race. How many times had he confronted a face like that, contorted with battle rage, sword seeking his life? But this one was so weak and helpless, eyes closed tight as it wailed, cord still connecting mother and child. Revulsion battled with compassion in his heart.

Elana had fought her way to her feet, ignoring the weakness left by her long, exhausting labor. Now with the strength of panic she grabbed at the knife in Roswyn’s hand. Roswyn held on and twisted around, and they struggled to gain control of the knife. Momentarily Roswyn’s strength overpowered Elana, and the knife inched toward Elana’s throat. Theodred crouched, unable to intervene for the slippery wet body struggling in his arms, unable to move away for the cord that passed from the baby to Elana. Closer and closer to Elana the knife crept. The two women locked eyes.

Then Roswyn broke, released the knife, and collapsed, sobbing. Elana stood, bewildered, knife in her hand. She looked at it in revulsion, and then cast it away towards the woods, where it fell into the bushes. She turned toward Theodred, on the edge of collapse herself, blood pooling around her feet where her exertion had caused her to bleed far more than normal. Her eyes pleaded, and her hands ached to reach out, but she waited, knowing he must still decide.

Theodred stood transfixed by the love in Elana’s eyes. How he wished a fraction of that love might be directed at him, as well as at the baby he held. He couldn’t possibly keep her child from her, the child they had both fought to save. But still fear filled him, fear of what the child might become. Fear that by granting her deepest desire, he might be placing her in deadly danger. He looked down at the crying babe, still wet and rapidly getting cold. He drew his cloak forward and wrapped it around the girl’s body, holding her close to warm her with his own heat. She quieted and relaxed in his arms. He searched her face, seeking answers. Tell me, little one, he thought. Who are you?

The baby’s eyes opened. Great liquid golden brown eyes met Theodred’s. He felt like he would drown in their endless depths. For a long moment he stood transfixed, reading the truth of this child’s soul.

Then wordlessly, he handed the babe to Elana. Elana’s heart sang. The weight of the child felt perfect in her arms, that had been empty it seemed for an eternity. She met the child’s eyes with a shock of recognition. “My dream,” she murmured. She looked up at Theodred. “I dreamed about her,” she told him. “I saw her eyes. They were the same.” Theodred nodded in understanding. He put his arms around Elana, neither of them noticing the intimacy of the gesture, and they both stood spellbound, eyes feasting on the wonder and wisdom of the child’s gaze.

Suddenly Elana swayed, and leaned against him heavily. He turned, concerned, and saw with mounting alarm that her face was chalky white. He eased her to the ground, baby still clutched tight in her arms. He cursed as he saw blood everywhere, soaking the lower half of Elana’s garment and the ground at their feet. Helpless, he wondered wildly what he should do. He looked around, as if the answer would be written in the air, and spotted Roswyn still huddled on the ground.

He went over and grabbed her, more roughly than he really intended, and shook her. “Elana is bleeding to death! What do we do?”

Roswyn hardly seemed to hear him. She turned eyes dark with despair on him. “What have I become?” she asked. “What have they made me? I was trying to kill Elana – I would have killed her, my own friend.”

“Well, you may have killed her! She’s bleeding, and I don’t know how to stop it. Save your soul-searching for later, right now we have to do something!”

Roswyn’s eyes focused, and she seemed to absorb the meaning of Theodred’s words. She knelt swiftly by Elana, assessing the situation with a glance. “Elana, put the babe to the breast. She must nurse right away.” Elana hurried with numb, clumsy fingers to undo the neck of her shift and move the baby into position. The baby rooted eagerly, then latched on to the nipple and began to suck. Within moments Elana felt renewed painful contractions in her womb.

“Now Elana, you’ll need to push out the afterbirth. Your womb can’t close and shut off the bleeding until it’s out.” Elana nodded obediently, and concentrated briefly inward. She gave a small push, and the afterbirth slid painlessly out. Roswyn placed her hands on Elana’s belly and began to firmly massage it. Elana gasped a bit, for it was painful, but her womb responded by contracting hard. The blood slowed dramatically, and color began to return to Elana’s face.

“Ah, I think that’s done it,” Roswyn said with satisfaction. She continued the massage, reluctant to meet Elana’s eyes. “I’m afraid the cord must have gotten jerked and the afterbirth torn away from the womb, when I…” Tears streamed down her face. “Elana, can you ever forgive me?”

Elana clutched her baby protectively close, but she was also weeping. “Roswyn, I just want her to be safe. I know why you feel the way you do, but please, can’t you just leave her alone?”

“I’m sorry, Elana. I thought I was being sensible… but then I was so angry, and I hated it so much, I was willing to kill you if that’s what it took. And then it was like I came to myself, and realized what I was doing… I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want them to have made me into this bitter, hating thing….” Her tumbling words failed her emotions, and she stopped, closing her eyes and breathing deeply to regain composure. After a moment, she opened her eyes, looked squarely at the child peacefully nursing. She spoke firmly. “Elana, she is your daughter. For your sake, I promise I will not try to harm her.”

The baby paused in its sucking and turned to look at Roswyn. Elana watched as Roswyn’s face mirrored the same shock and wonder that she and Theodred had experienced at seeing the child’s eyes. Then Roswyn was sobbing and embracing Elana, and with her free arm Elana hugged her back, their tears mingling in forgiveness and healing.

Theodred watched, his throat tight with emotion. When their sobs had died away, he cleared his throat roughly and said with forced lightness, “Aren’t we supposed to cut the cord or something?”

The two women dried their eyes and turned with relief to the business of dealing with a newborn. Elana directed them to a corner of her hut, where she’d prepared string to tie the cord, and a diaper and tiny gown for the child. The cord was carefully tied in two places about an inch apart and cut between. The afterbirth was bundled in a cloth and set aside to be buried later. The baby was gently dried and dressed, then wrapped in a soft wool blanket. Mother and baby were settled comfortably next to the fire, and Roswyn and Theodred set about preparing a meal for the three adults. Though all the excitement made it feel as if days had passed, it was only early afternoon.

As they sat down to eat, Theodred asked “So Elana, what are you going to name her?”

Elana smiled at him, as she finally spoke the name she’d treasured in her heart since that first dream-glimpse of the child now warm and real in her arms. “Deore.”

The word, in the ancient language of Rohan, meant “beloved.” As Theodred observed the love that almost tangibly enveloped the mother and orc-faced baby, and thought about all the pain and sacrifice Elana had suffered, and would continue to suffer, for this child’s sake, he had to agree that no name could be more appropriate.

Chapter 17 – Both the Joy and the Pain

Elana was much too weak with exhaustion and blood loss to be left alone, so Theodred and Roswyn decided to stay and take care of her. Theodred knew he should return to his responsibilities in the capital, and surely Elana’s family would want to know as soon as possible that she was safe, but he rationalized that he could delay at least a week. Not nearly long enough for Elana to recover, but it would have to do.

During the week that followed, Theodred and Roswyn worked to lay in supplies for Elana. Theodred hunted, and smoked the meat to preserve it. Roswyn gathered the autumn bounty of the forest. The three of them settled into a comfortable relationship. Roswyn avoided the baby, but true to her word made no effort to harm her. Theodred and Roswyn pampered Elana, making sure she had nothing to do but relax and tend Deore. Their evenings were spent around the fire, talking and laughing, singing and telling stories.

By the end of the week, Theodred knew he was completely and irrevocably in love with Elana.

The last day of their time together came much too soon. Theodred could no longer put off his return to Edoras, and Roswyn was eager to return to her family. Their belongings were packed. They planned to leave the next morning at first light, Theodred taking Roswyn back to Waymeet before riding on to Edoras. Theodred and Elana sat by the fire in the late afternoon. That morning Theodred’s arrow had found a deer, and he was working hard to smoke all the meat before nightfall. Roswyn was out in the forest, gathering a few more berries and roots.

Elana was troubled. She got up, paced around, and sat down again roughly. The motion woke Deore, who had been sleeping in Elana’s arms. Even before her eyes opened she burst into an angry squall. Elana absently shifted her over to her breast, and the cry was silenced as quickly as it had come, Deore settling immediately into contented nursing.

“Such a passionate little person she is,” commented Theodred.

“Yes, she feels everything so intensely, both the joy and the pain…. It’s amazing how much personality babies have, right from the beginning. She reminds me of my second brother; he is intense like that too, though not so much.” Elana was silent for a while, watching Deore as she drifted off to sleep again. When she was deep asleep, Elana gently detached her from the breast and eased her down on a blanket spread on the ground. Standing up, she walked a few steps from the fire and gazed out toward the pool.

“Theodred… I’m afraid.” The words came reluctantly, then more quickly, tumbling out in her desperation. “How am I going to do it, being alone? Deore is so completely dependent on me. What if something happens to me? How am I going to be able to gather food, wash, do the things that must be done, while taking care of her? It’s getting colder already – how will we make it through the winter? How will I be able to bear it, the long days, and especially at night, with nobody here?” Without you here, she wanted to say, but did not.

Theodred came to stand beside her. Her plea cut into his heart, and he knew he must speak. He could hardly bear to imagine her here in the wilderness, alone and vulnerable. “Elana – it’s not right that you should be alone! It’s too dangerous. Please, come back with me to Edoras. I will speak for you, and for Deore. Once people know you, and her, they will come to accept you.” He knew as he said it that it was not true. Orcs were too deeply ingrained in his people’s nightmares.

Elana turned to him. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “You know that would never work. Deore would be in far more danger there than here.”

Theodred took her hands, and gazed into her eyes. In a rush, he blurted out his secret hope. “I could stand as a father to her. I am the king’s son; no one would dare to harm her if I took her under my protection. Elana, if you would have me, I would wed you, and adopt Deore. I…I care for you, and her. I love you.” There it was, the truth of his heart laid bare between them. Now it was up to her to receive it, or to dash it to the ground.

Elana stood transfixed by his expression, so hopeful, yet so vulnerable. Could he really have meant what he said? In the past week she had felt love for him blooming in her heart, but she had never dared hope that he, heir to the throne of Rohan, son of the king, would ever return such feelings to her. Wonderingly, she reached up to touch his cheek. Though clean-shaven, it was rough with the day’s stubble.

“You would do that? For me, for us?” she whispered. “Oh, my love….” His arms encircled her waist and drew her close to him. He could hardly believe that this moment, that he’d dreamed of but never believed could be a reality, was here. He held her tight and bent his head to kiss her.

But suddenly the situation – his arms gripping her, his face looming over her – triggered a memory of terror in Elana. She stiffened and cried out, shrinking away from him.

Theodred sensed her sudden fear and let go, stepping back. He cursed himself for pushing her, for arousing in her memories of brutality. He felt helpless, filled with compassion for her suffering but baffled as to what he might do to help.

Elana breathed deep, recovering her composure. She opened her eyes and saw Theodred moving away, giving up, regretting that he’d spoken. “No!” she cried, to him and to herself. The orcs had taken so much from her; she would not let them take her beloved too. She stepped forward and threw her arms again around his neck, drawing his head down towards hers. The fear was still there, but she crushed it ruthlessly, pressing her lips to his.

Theodred, confused, did the only thing he could do – he put his arms back around her, and kissed her back. He felt the tension in her body melt, and the kiss caught fire, filling them both with a dizzying rush of delight and desire.

Neither wanted to stop, but eventually they drew a little away, still wrapped in each other’s arms. For a long time they just looked at each other, sharing the wonder of their new found love. Then they kissed again, slowly and tenderly, drinking in the joy of each other’s presence.

When the kiss ended, Theodred took her hand, and pulled her toward the hut. He couldn’t seem to stop grinning. “There’s so much to do. We’ll have to pack all your things. I wonder could Silverfoot carry all three of us as far as Waymeet, or should I take Roswyn there then come back for you?” Plans bubbled and fermented in his mind. Elana was quieter. She let him go off to start readying things, and went to sit by Deore, who was still peacefully sleeping, unaware of the momentous events taking place.

When Theodred came back, he found her gazing at her daughter, silently weeping. He sat down beside her, and stroked her hair. “What’s wrong?”

“It will never work. Look at her! I love her more than life, but even I can see she’s not human, not normal. People will never be able to accept her. Not even you can make them. They will revolt before they’ll accept their future king as father to a… a monster.”

Theodred looked down at the sleeping baby. Though he’d come to love Deore also, he had to admit that Elana might be right. Even in the best of circumstances it would be a near thing, and the court at Edoras was far from ideal right now. Wormtongue had poisoned the mind of more than just Theoden. He would probably see this as the perfect opportunity to get rid of Theodred altogether.

“Then I’ll leave,” he declared. “I’ll go into exile with you. Eomer will be just as good a king as I ever could.”

Elana searched his face. “No,” she said sadly. “You will never abandon your duty to Rohan.”

Theodred knew the truth of the words as she spoke them. Already she knew him better than he knew himself. “And you will never abandon your daughter.”

“It is hopeless, then.” Elana buried her face in his chest, her tears soaking through his shirt.

Theodred felt tears burning in his own eyes. Both of them had a prior claim on their hearts. He bent his head over hers, and his tears fell on her hair.

Something caused him to raise his head. His eyes fell on Deore, who had awakened, and now looked at him silently. Her eyes seemed to challenge him. Will you accept your fate without question? Or will you fight?

With sudden resolve, he seized Elana’s shoulders. She looked up at him, questioning.

“Perhaps it is hopeless. Perhaps it will not work. But by all that I hold dear, I intend to try!” He grinned at her. “Often has the house of Eorl faced impossible odds, and at the end of the day ridden home singing of victory. Perhaps the love of Theodred for the fair Elana will be worthy at least of a song!” Caught up in his certainty, Elana wiped her eyes on her sleeve and smiled tremblingly. Theodred scooped up Deore and placed her in her mother’s arms, then enveloped them both in an embrace.

Yes, thought Elana. Perhaps it will all end in ruin, and I will be alone after all. Probably that is what will happen. But we can try! She turned her face to meet Theodred’s kiss, and it was full of hope and promise. For a long moment she rested, safe within the circle of his arms.

Then suddenly, they heard hoofbeats in the distance, rapidly approaching.

Chapter 18 – In This World and the Next

Theodred tensed, and quickly rose, placing himself between Elana, Deore in her arms, and the path by the stream. His hand went to his sword hilt, and he squinted against the glare of the rapidly sinking sun to see who it was that approached. When he spotted the rider, his hand dropped away from his sword, but he frowned in puzzlement and worry. Striding to meet the horseman, he called out “Grimbold! What news?”

Theodred’s lieutenant dismounted, and briefly grasped Theodred’s arm in greeting. “Theodred! I’ve had quite a search, looking for you! The smith in Waymeet was finally able to tell me where you’d gone. You are urgently needed in Edoras!”

His heart seemed to freeze in Theodred’s chest. His father, Theoden…. But Grimbold dismissed that fear with a brief shake of his head, though his words were nearly as bad. “Ill news has come to Edoras. Saruman the wizard has betrayed us all, and has allied himself with Sauron. Gandalf came – borne by a great bird –“ and even in his urgency Grimbold’s voice was tinged with wonder, “and told how Saruman had held him captive. But the King refused to listen! He is utterly in the power of Wormtongue now.” He broke off, aware of the disloyalty of his words, but Theodred nodded with grim understanding.

“Eomer wished to ride to Isengard in strength immediately,” Grimbold continued “but Theoden would have none of it. But he did consent to send out scouts. Four days ago the first returned. Bands of orcs are issuing forth from Isengard. And among them, the scout said, are strange creatures, like orcs but larger and stronger, and unafraid of daylight. Almost like some foul mixture of orc and man.”

Elana had come to stand beside Theodred. At Grimbold’s words, the blood drained from her face, and her heart seemed to stop. The last puzzle piece dropped into place, and she understood. “Saruman,” she breathed. “Saruman was behind it all along.” She clutched Deore close to her as she was filled with rage against the author of her torment.

Theodred stared at Grimbold, unable for a moment to comprehend such enormity of evil from one he had thought an ally. Grimbold noticed Elana for the first time, and looked from the baby in her arms to Theodred with bewilderment. “Theodred, you are needed! You must persuade your father to respond to this threat. Or if you cannot….” He would not speak treasonous words, but the implication was clear. Theodred felt a great weariness and despair that it might at last have come to the hour he had dreaded, when he must act against his father for the sake of the country they both loved.

Grimly he nodded in answer to Grimbold’s unspoken words. He whistled for Silverfoot, then went to gather his belongings.

Elana watched him prepare to leave, knowing that he must, and that under these circumstances she could not go with him. She quailed at the thought of orcs coming again to her village, this time in daylight and in great numbers, bent not on a quick raid but on destruction and domination. Theodred must stand against them, and must not be hindered by the complications her presence, and Deore’s, would cause. She wept, silently, for all their bright dreams, dashed almost before they could be born.

His few belongings stuffed in his saddlebags and flung over Silverfoot’s back, Theodred turned to Grimbold. “Ride south into the forest. There is a woman there; bring her back here to get her things and then take her to Waymeet, to the smith’s house. I must ride directly to Edoras. Meet me there as soon as you can.” Grimbold nodded, and quickly mounted and rode away.

Theodred turned back to Elana. They had this final moment together. All he wanted to say to her rushed from his heart and choked together in his throat. He crushed her to him, careless of the baby pressed between them, who amazingly didn’t protest the rough treatment.

Elana clung to him. She kissed the soft skin of his neck. So vulnerable it seemed, his life’s blood pounding so close to the surface. Much as she tried to push them away, fell thoughts invaded her mind, thoughts of that tender skin sliced open, that lifeblood draining away. He rode now to war, and she was filled with despair that he would ever ride out alive.

Theodred stroked her hair. He gently tilted her head back until she could gaze into his eyes. He wiped the tears from her cheek, though tears lay sparkling on his own face.

“Elana, I love you. I will love you forever. I do not know what fate awaits me, or you. Our paths may lead us far from each other. But I swear, we will meet again, if not in this world, then in the Undying Lands beyond the sea.”

The tears continued to stream down Elana’s face, but her voice was clear. “My life is yours, Theodred, in this world and the next. I will wait for you, and look for your return, even unto a lifetime.”

Their eyes exchanged all their words could not say. Finally Theodred tore himself away. He bent to kiss Deore’s head, and tried to smile. “Deore, take care of your mother.”

Then he sprang to Silverfoot’s back. The horse pranced, eager to be off. Theodred reached out his hand toward Elana, as if seeking one final touch. “Farewell!” he cried, then wheeled Silverfoot around, and they raced down the path, away from Elana, toward their doom.

Elana stood, in shock, for a long time. Silverfoot’s hoof beats died away in the distance, and silence descended on the clearing. The wind rustled the branches of the trees, and a few birds twittered. The gentle babble of the stream carried on its endless music. The sun slowly sank into a blaze of orange clouds.

Elana felt drained and limp. The tumultuous emotions of the past hour had soared higher then she could have dreamed, and then crashed lower. Now she was left dazed, wondering if it could have been real, or all a dream. What was left for her now, with him gone? She longed to lie down and sink into the earth, to release the fear and worry and loneliness and be at peace.

Deore squirmed in her arms. Her face grew red and she strained. Then she started to wail, as a faint but unmistakable odor assailed Elana’s nose.

Elana took a deep breath. She shook the tears from her eyes and swiped at her face with her sleeve. Whatever her grief, a dirty diaper could not wait. The demands of a baby were insistent and immediate, full of life and vitality. Though her heart would long for Theodred forever, she had another love that bound her to life. So she would go on. She moved toward the place where she kept water and clean diapers. She hugged Deore and kissed her misshapen nose, and her steps grew stronger and more resolute.

She was a mother, and her baby needed her.

The End

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