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A thin moon swings like a scythe through the night-dark sky. The stars shine grim. It is late autumn, and the smell of dying grasses spreads across the river vales. The coming winter will be long and hard. Muskrats have built the mud walls of their lodges thick; most of the deer will flee south to warmer climes before the first snow falls. For those who remain, it will be a time of dearth.
Already, the drear skies betray the threat of snow.
Among the Wise it is whispered that the Necromancer of southern Mirkwood sends the bitter frosts. They sit in solemn council and shake ancient heads. Middle-earth has seen peace for a time, but the watchful hush nears its end, sure as the Anduin flows finally to the Sea.
A massive black bear sits atop the stony island known by some as the Carrock. The beast rests on its furred haunches and tastes the tidings carried on the wind, just as it has many nights before. Its small dark eyes glitter. Starry skies stretch back through the bear’s memories until they fade past all recollection. The bear knows the stars; they are friends of old. But no warmth is shared between them this night.
The bear’s thought is bent on the forest to the east. Mirkwood rises beyond the Vales of the Anduin like a specter. Foul mists rise from the treetops and slither across the sickle-mooned sky. The bear’s sharp nose smells rot and sorcery. A low growl gathers in its throat. For some time, it has watched deepening Shadows consume the southern half of Mirkwood until not even the sharpest eye can penetrate the gloomy hill where the Necromancer lurks.
And yet the Wise do nothing. While the bear keeps silent vigil atop the Carrock, the elders of this world watch and wait, safe in their Elven halls. The bear’s growl deepens.
This night, an added scent mingles with Mirkwood’s wicked odors. The bear lifts its long snout. Smoke. Death. The cries of voices raised in fear, quickly silenced.
The Shadows have been at work.
It is not difficult for the bear to determine which corner of the wood has been set ablaze. Even through the dark night, it can see the thick smoke that swirls over the forest, separate from the fell mists.
The bear shows its teeth to the observing stars. Even should the Necromancer himself lie in wait, the bear is not afraid. For countless years the bear has dwelled alone in the fertile plains alongside the River Anduin; before that, it trod along the narrow spine of the Misty Mountains. There are few evils that yet remain in Middle-earth the bear has not witnessed. The mute earth alone has borne witness to the long, untold years of the bear’s existence.
With a whoosh of breath, the bear rises to its feet. It lumbers down the jagged steps of the Carrock. For a beast so large, it moves with astonishing grace.
“Tell the horses where I have gone,” says a deep voice, seemingly from the bear itself.
No tongue replies, but a chaffinch rises from the brown grass and flies away.
The bear begins to run, loping toward Mirkwood.
Year 2911 of the Third Age, month of Hithui
The woodcutters’ encampment lies in smoldering ashes. Maida watches what used to be her father’s hall crumble like so much dust. She was born beneath that thatched roof; there, she had played and sang and wept. Not three summers ago, she drank from the silver chalice and pledged her heart and body to another. Now all is gone. When she closes her eyes, Maida sees her husband running back into the burning hall to save her parents.
They are all dead; only she remains through some cursed trick of the old gods.
Fully half of the settlement perished during the night’s attack. A pale yellow sun rises through the clouds. For the first time in her memory, the forest clearing does not ring with the sound of axes or the rasping of saws. Instead it is a mournful keening that fills the chill air. Maida glances about with horror-glazed eyes. Her village is reduced to rubble: the scant detritus of a once-prosperous people. Winter draws near, and she knows not where the fanged Shadows went—nor if they plan to return. She knows only that she would rather die felled by an enemy than succumb to slow starvation.
It is almost a comfort to know her husband’s untended grave will not lie lonely too long.
Some ten paces off, two brothers sift through the pile of burned logs that was once their family’s toolshed. Their infant sister sits in the muck nearby, red-faced and wailing. Maida knows she should go to them and offer what comfort she may. Instead she watched the children’s plight with incurious eyes. Her very soul feels frozen.
“Do not judge me too harshly, Cenric,” she whispers. Her dead husband cannot reply.
Blackened timbers creak and snap. A frightened squirrel chitters in the forest beyond the clearing. Maida whirls on unsteady legs; in her right hand she clutches her mother’s old butcher knife. It can do nothing against the Shadows, but it is better than facing the putrid darkness unarmed. A hulking shape moves in the uncertain dawn. She squints into the underbrush. The leaves have long since fallen, but the branches crowd close.
“Who goes there?” Maida calls. Her smoke-roughened voice wavers. “Show yourself, or get gone!”
A man emerges into the gray light.
Maida takes a step backward. As she moves, her foot catches on a half-buried stone; she feels herself begin to lose balance. The butchering knife is angled dangerously toward her ribs. She calls out in alarm, but her kin are too distant to assist.
Strong hands take hold of Maida’s waist, stopping her fall. The stranger’s body presses against hers. In the blue-gray morn, Maida peers at her unwelcome rescuer. Eyes of the blackest jet return her regard. The man’s face is stern, his skin brown as a beaver pelt. He is large and smells not unpleasantly of animal musk.
Maida thought her capacity for terror expended during the attack, but she feels fear now. “Who are you?”
Above his long black beard, the man’s red lips twitch in a half-smile. “You may call me Beorn—I come as a friend.” His voice is deep but gentle: a tone accustomed to soothing frightened animals. Maida realizes that to him, she must indeed appear little more than a skittish beast.
“I know nothing of you,” she says, “and as you see, now is not the time to trust foreigners skulking in the Mirkwood.”
Beorn’s glittering eyes scan the woodmen’s settlement. He takes in the burned buildings and blood-stained ground easily, as if such wreckage means nothing to him. Maida supposes it does not. Across the wide clearing, several of the surviving woodcutters stare at the newcomer with nervous interest. Nearer, the three children Maida remarked earlier gape open-mouthed at the tall, wild-haired man.
Maida mistrusts the stranger’s steady, indiscernible look. She is still half-held in his thick arms, and she breaks free to block Beorn’s view of the children. “They are mine,” she says. As soon as the words are uttered she knows she has made an irrevocable choice.
“They look hungry.”
Grief and exhaustion sharpen Maida’s response: “Of course they are hungry,” she bites out. “They’re hungry and cold and frightened beyond enduring. What do you suggest I do about it, Master Beorn?” She emphasizes this title in a manner that makes it clear she doubts it is his true name.
“Bring them to my home in the Vales. I have more than enough provisions laid in to see all of your kin through the winter. Come spring, I can help you rebuild.”
“Is it your custom to prepare for the cold months as if two dozen men, women, and children might one day beg for your charity?”
“Yes,” Beorn answers simply.
She does not know what to say to this. Digging her booted toe into the dirt, Maida squints dull eyes at the tall man. The murmuration of the woodmen whispering amongst themselves reaches her ears. “I do not trust you,” she says to Beorn.
The stranger inclines his head. “As you will, mistress.” His eyes skitter over her form to the others. “Who is thegn of this settlement? I would make my offer direct to him before I depart.”
A hysterical laugh rises in Maida’s throat; she suppresses it with effort. “There he lies.” She gestures with a dirty hand to the heap of rubble and soot that was once her father’s hall.
Pity softens Beorn’s expression, and Maida bristles in response. “I am sorry for that, mistress,” he says, “more sorry than I can say.” He looks again around the ruined gap. “What happened here?”
Maida presses her lips together. She feels deadly cold of a sudden, though the morning air is unchanged. “Shadows,” she says in a quiet voice. “Shadows with teeth and cold knives. It seemed that some rode on great beasts like wolves, but I cannot say for certain. They slew who they could and burned the rest in their beds. It was over in a matter of minutes.”
The stranger nods solemnly. His ruddy bare arms flex as he contemplates her tale. “I am grieved indeed to hear of all this,” he says at length. In spite of her misgivings, Maida suspects his words are genuine. Or mayhap he is an even more cunning foe than those who came in the night.
“Your sorrow will not mend our loss.”
“It will not,” he agrees, “but you must see the wisdom in what I propose. Your numbers are greatly depleted, your provisions and livestock lost. Worse: you know not if these Shadows mean to return. It is not safe for your people to remain in Mirkwood.”
He speaks sense. Maida knows it, yet she is wary. “Would it not be a crafty scheme for an enemy to flatten our village, only to lure those of us who survive with promises of safe haven spoken by a heroic stranger? We may have been beaten, Master Beorn, but some of us at least have not forsaken our wits. For long years have we toiled beneath the mists of the Necromancer.”
Beorn does not appear to take offense. He gives Maida a patient look. “You are right to be cautious, mistress. Perhaps you should debate amongst yourselves for a time—I trust you will convey my words to your kin.” He nods at the gathered woodmen. “But I warn you, the first snow quickly approaches. It is late in the season to journey beyond one’s door, and you must decide soon, ere the road to the Vales becomes impassable for all save birds.”
“Very well,” says Maida. One look at the wearied faces of those in the clearing tells her the debate will be short. Truly, their only hope for survival rests in the hands of this dark wildman who calls himself Beorn. “My kin and I will be in conference.”
The man inclines his head once more. “So be it, mistress. I will return once a decision has been made.”
Beorn turns and takes a single long-limbed stride toward the stand of trees he emerged from. His great boots shake the earth as he walks. Without a backward glance, he ducks under a low-hanging branch.
“Wait!” cries Maida. She takes a few half-steps toward his retreating form.
Beorn stops and looks over his broad right shoulder. He raises a black brow. “Yes, mistress?”
“How shall I leave word, once we have decided?”
A grin, startling in its contrast with their bleak surroundings, spreads over his brown face. “Do not worry, mistress. When you need me, I will come.” He swings around and lumbers into the wood, leaving no trace of his presence except for the strange, frantic beating of Maida’s heart.
She peers into the gloomy, leafless forest for the space of a few moments, but no more. There is work to be done. Beorn will return as he promised—or he will not. She is not a woman given to hand-wringing or to regret. In her heart, Maida wants to believe the stranger is what he claims. Yet only time can prove him true.
Maida moves toward the huddled knot of her kin. Their frightened voices buzz like a sawm of summer locusts. It sounds as if they are in disagreement. She sighs; to her will fall the task of soothing heightened emotion and voicing logic. Even in this place of death, she must be sensible.
Before she joins them, Maida stops before the three orphaned children she and Beorn spoke of earlier. They are pale and empty-eyed. The younger boy clutches a broken handaxe. Like a hazy memory from a distant Age, she recalls their names: Brun, Léofa, and Léofled—sons and daughter of Bada the woodman.
“Come,” she says to them. “I will care for you now.”
As one, the children leap up and run for her. Tiny arms twine about her waist. Their quiet weeping fills the death-scented morning.
“I like it not,” says Ethelred. He is a broad, red-haired man with a loud voice. “This Beorn is no friend of ours.”
“But how shall we survive otherwise? This stranger’s aid is our only hope of passing the winter.” This from Gram, who has been the woodcutters’ smith for longer than most have been alive. “Do not talk foolishness, Ethelred,” says the old man.
More voices join in until the argument fills the gap in the wood.
Maida sits on a charred stump some paces distant. She holds the infant Léofled in her arms; their heads are exposed, for the weak afternoon sun attempts to drive away the autumn chill. Nearby, the two boys doze on a makeshift bed of soot-stained straw. The children are exhausted, for waiting on the men to decide what is to be done has taken near a day and a half. Maida’s own head droops to her chest.
Ethelred shouts again; his voice is tight and fierce. His lank-haired wife nods at each of the big man’s pronouncements. It is the same quarrel that has filled the encampment since the stranger Beorn came. That was one day since, but still nothing is resolved. Maida guess the survivors are evenly divided: half wish to take their chances among the Mirkwood’s familiar dangers; the other half dare to risk Beorn’s hospitality.
She sighs. Those who side with Ethelred think with their grief only. They urge against abandoning the bodies of their dead and the hard work of generations, yet they do not see the dead are gone, and their homes will not resurrect themselves. There is nothing here to abandon except for old memories and nightmarish Shadows.
If her father yet lived, this would not be happening. Grimbold was a deliberate man who spoke softly but with reason. Others respected his opinion and came to him for advice. A half-dozen years ago, the woodmen had appointed him thegn and built him a wide wooden hall. Now he is no more, and all is confusion and discord.
Even Maida’s husband could better have kept order amongst their anxious kinfolk. Molten-hot grief pours over Maida at the thought of Cenric’s soft eyes and furrowed brow. How somberly he had always regarded her, even at times of great joy. She takes a shaky breath and puts her husband’s memory away.
Later. There will be time for mourning and remembrance of things lost later. Now she must think only of enduring to see a new springtide.
Though she is wearier than she can ever recall, Maida stands. Léofled’s solid weight slides from her arms; the child toddles to curl alongside her elder brothers. A strange, sweet agony pierces Maida when she looks at the children—her children. They are so young to have lost so much.
In two steps, Maida stands in the midst of the bickering throng.
“Stop this,” she cries. “Stop this at once!”
Silence falls over the crowd. Red-haired Ethelred puffs out his chest. He is a proud man and is doubtless affronted to be thus scolded by a woman before others—even if that woman is the daughter of the now-dead thegn.
“We have not the time for this squabbling,” Maida says to them. Nearly two dozen faces are turned in her direction. “Winter approaches within a sennight, and we are plagued by Shadows in the night.”
They all know of what she speaks. The night previous, they threw themselves onto the bare earth and tried to sleep past their misery. Except sleep did not come, for eldritch shrieks emerged from the deadened boughs, and ghostly eyes stared upon their exposed beds. Maida had clutched the children close to her side and pled to the old gods. She cannot die now that these orphans are in her care.
Then, just when she was certain the Shadows would return, Maida saw the silhouette of a great bear chasing their foes deeper into Mirkwood. She would account it a mere dream, but for the clawed pawprints sunken into the ground near her sleeping place. The bear had walked close enough for her to feel its breath on her face.
She shudders and returns her thoughts to the present.
“What do you suggest we do, lass?” asks Ethelred, sarcastic and sharp. “Shall we cast ourselves upon the ashes beside our ruined homes and wait for frost or foul creature to take us?”
It would be easy to die. Yesterday, Maida indeed considered death; now she has the children. She will not dishonor their slain parents’ sacrifice by forsaking them now. “I suggest we do what we must,” she says to the group. “Mayhap this Beorn is a foe, but accepting his help is the only means we have of surviving.” She holds up her hand when Ethelred and his friends make to interrupt. “If you wish to remain here and overwinter among the skeletons of our past life, none shall force you to flee. Each of us must decide their own path. But as for myself and the children, we go with Master Beorn.”
A great clamor arises after she finishes. Ethelred’s skinny wife weeps in a voice louder than her small frame; other women join in lamentation. Maida shakes her head and refuses to say more; she is tired. Though it seems longer, it is only two nights past that she witnessed her friends slain by fanged Shadows and her family felled beneath a wave of unquenched flame. She returns to the charred stump where she waited before. Léofled climbs onto her knees, whimpering. The baby is feverish with hunger.
Gram’s wife, Sorgifu, comes to kneel next to them. She is white-haired, bent with great age and long toil. She offers Léofled a flat cake made from water and a bit of flour. The infant nibbles on it, her soft yellow hair tickling Maida’s chin.
“Men like Ethelred are proud and slow to accept defeat,” the old woman says. She rests a gnarled hand upon Maida’s knee. “You are brave to trust this stranger.”
Maida turns her face away. “My husband was brave,” she says, “and I was the coward who tried to hold him back. I wish...oh, I wish—”
“Yes, child,” interrupts Sorgifu. Her light brown eyes are piercing. She takes in Maida’s gaunt features, the grief etched between her heavy brows. “I know what it is you wish, and I can only hope you will see the day when you wish for it no longer.”
“Why should a woman ever give her heart freely if this is the result?”
Sorgifu does not answer. With an expression of great tenderness, she squeezes Maida’s leg. “Ah, here comes Gram,” she says after some minutes’ quiet. “I believe the men have finally finished their talk.”
Maida looks up and sees the gray-bearded smith approach. His dirty face is thoughtful. “It has been decided,” he tells the two women. “We shall all journey wherever this Beorn takes us, if ever he should return. It is better to die in the company of friends than to be separated for all time.”
“This is good,” Sorgifu tells her husband. She pulls her old body upright. “I will see if any of the women need help preparing for this pilgrimage. Beorn hails from the Vales, did you say, Maida?”
The younger woman opens her mouth to reply, but her words are arrested as a familiar man strides into the ruined encampment. Beorn scans the woodmen’s colony quickly, then he finds Maida. Their eyes lock. Even from a distance of twenty paces, she feels bare beneath his black gaze. His dark-skinned face is flat and expressionless. She finds that she yearns to know his thoughts.
Maida scrambles awkwardly to her feet. Léofled squalls in protest, clutching the greasy hanks of Maida’s pale hair. Next to her, Gram sucks his teeth.
“Good morrow, mistress,” says Beorn. “And good morrow to you, little one.” He smiles at Léofled in a way that transforms his face—savagery tempered by mirth. The baby gurgles back.
To Gram, the man says nothing.
“You came,” Maida says stupidly.
Beorn frowns. “I promised I would come when you had need of me,” he says. “Did you doubt my word, mistress?”
She had done so, in truth, but it seems uncouth to say so aloud. Even in her fear-clouded state, Maida has not forgotten that this stranger is her kin’s only hope of survival. “We have decided to accept your aid,” she says instead.
“I know,” replies Beorn. “That is why I have come.”
It does not shock her that he knows, nor that he came only minutes after the woodmen themselves decided. She accepts his answer without protest. Gram tuts and steps on the hem of her ragged kirtle.
Maida is recalled to herself: “Master Beorn, this is Gram, a smith of some skill.”
Beorn’s glittering eyes shift to the old woodcutter. “A smith, you say? I have much work for one such as you at my home. Well met!” He reaches out, and the two men clasp hands.
“Well met,” says Gram. “My wife, Sorgifu, stands there among the other women. She has charged me to make a request of you, if I may be so bold.”
“I would not have you stand upon ceremony, Master Gram,” says the wildman. His manner remains upon, but his tone grows weighty. “Ask of me what you will.”
Maida awaits Gram’s response alongside Beorn, for this is the first she has heard of such entreaty.
“My kin and I gratefully accept what help you may give us, Master Born,” says Gram, “though we regret we have nothing to offer you in return. Still, we must ask you for one thing more: to help us bury our dead ere we leave the Mirkwood.”
Maida bites her lip and hugs Léofled close. Had she known Sorgifu asked her husband to make this request of Beorn, she would have cautioned against it. She feels certain it is a mistake. One does not fling oneself, starving, upon another’s feast and still ask for more food besides.
To her surprise, Beorn nods at Gram in the brisk way men have. “I will see it done,” he says. Then he turns his face to Maida once more. “When that duty is done, mistress, and all else is prepared, I shall carry your daughter upon my back. She is too heavy a burden for you to carry so far.”
“Thank you,” she says, overcome.
The stranger prompts: “And if it be no great secret, mistress, might I know by what name you are called?”
Maida blinks at him. Beorn still addresses her with the soft voice of one quieting a snared animal; she herself feels trapped, not least by the fierce glow in his eyes. He is a dangerous man, yet he smiled at Léofled so prettily. A man of unexpected contradictions, and perhaps an adversary.
Gram nudges her with his foot again.
“Oh!” she says. “I am Maida, daughter of Grimbold.”
Beorn takes her long fingers and bows over them, like a courtly knight-errant from a mummer’s tale. “Hail and well met, Mistress Maida,” he says.
The strange smile on his lips leaves her flushed, though her heart is cold.
The woodcutters bury their dead in a single grave dug by Beorn. Some of the men try to help, but they are weak and weary, while the stranger's thick body radiates good health. The wildman uses a shovelhead unearthed from the detritus of Gram's smithy, lashed to a branch stripped from a great oak. The work is slow, and by the time Beorn finishes the trench, his hands are blistered and bloody. The other women refuse to tend his wounds, so Maida fetches him water from the well, but there are no clean cloths to bind his palms. Beorn does not complain about either his hurts or the woodmen's mistrust. As she sluices icy water over his outstretched hands, Maida sees that the deep brown skin of his arms is crossed by a delicate lacework of scars.
The hole now dug, the survivors lay to rest the few bodies rescued from the inferno. Maida and her kin stand upon the grave's edge and look down into death. Fire and Shadow have mangled their dear ones beyond recognition. The air smells of putrefaction; both the living and the dead suffer wounds not even the old gods can mend.
Before springtide, another grave will be delved into the frost-hard earth.
Maida's stomach twists, as if she peers down from a great height. The bodies of her husband and parents were not recovered from the ruined timbers of Grimbold's hall. In memory of them, she drops a soot-stained moppet into the trench; many hours did she spend stitching its rough linen weave, with hopes of a child she and Cenric will never have. She helps Brun, Léofa, and Léofled offer a scrap of their parents' best woolen tunics. Dry-eyed, Maida watches the fabric flutter down into the dim grave.
Ethelred begins the traditional death chant of the Northmen in his big voice, and the rest join in. Maida's mouth forms the familiar words but she feels no peace. It is a thegn's duty to preside over the burial rite, but her father Grimbold is no more. Silently, Beorn begins the slow task of filling the pit.
Gelid earth smacks loudly on the bodies. Maida covers the children's eyes, but she does not look away. This is the last time she or any of her kin will see those who were slain by the Shadows. It will sully their memory to avert her gaze now. Mayhap her parents see her now from the halls of their forebears; mayhap they are honored by her grim stoicism. She does not think of Cenric—she cannot. The mere thought of her husband's steady touch will set her to weeping, unable to stop until she lies spent on the frost-bitten earth.
When the woodcutters' song is done, ominous silence falls across the forest clearing. Nothing stirs save the whistle of the north wind. Forest birds fled to southern climes early this autumn, and furred creatures are safe in their burrows. The air smells of snow and farewells. Come what may, Maida shall never stand at this gravesite again. The life she lived—the future she planned—is as fragile as the ash beneath her boots. Mutely, she takes her leave of the little clearing in the wood. But she does not linger too long.
Maida clasps Brun's small fingers in her right hand; in her left, Léofa's. The boys are bundled in every scrap of cloth she and Sorgifu salvaged from the still smoldering rubble. At daybreak, Maida fed the boys mealy flatbread and the last handfuls of bitter nuts. Maida has not eaten since she woke to wraithlike screams and hissing sparks in the night; she wears only her shift and a ragged wool kirtle, with a scarf tied round her tangled hair. Hunger and cold are keen-edged and relentless, two miseries battling for supremacy.
Some paces distant, the infant Léofled fusses beneath Beorn's furred mantle. She has lost the round cheeks of babyhood. Her yellow hair is matted and grimy, her eyes swollen nearly shut from crying in the night for her dead mother's breast. The wildman makes no attempt to soothe the babe, but Maida perceives his hands are gentle on Léofled's fragile body.
The children are Maida's future now: no substitute for what is lost, yet sufficient reason to forge ahead. Her heart may soon be buried in this clearing beneath dirt and ash and winter snows, but she will stand between these children and every foul spirit the Necromancer conjures until all breath is snatched from her. The familiar weight of her mother's butcher knife hangs from a leather thong at her waist.
"Do not forget me, Cenric," Maida whispers, "but I must tarry a while longer ere I follow Béma's summons." Her breath comes in foggy plumes from parted lips. Her husband's spirit makes no reply, but the harsh wind howls anew.
They cannot tarry. Maida grasps the boys' swaddled hands and takes purposeful steps away from the grave. She does not look back. Beorn stands beneath a baleful fir with Gram; their beards wag as they speak. Close by, Sorgifu huddles in a makeshift cloak that was once a fine coverlet from her niece's dower goods. The woman is dead now and has no need of it.
"We must leave soon," Maida says to the three. "I mistrust the look of the clouds."
"Aye," agrees Gram. "We must make haste—how long shall the journey take, Master Beorn?"
"My home in the Vales is three days' march hence," says the wildman. "We must drive a hard pace, for it is dangerous to be exposed on the open plain. I know not if the Shadows who attacked you will pursue us beyond the Mirkwood."
"Many of our kin have not slept or eaten since the attack," says Sorgifu. "There are some that are injured, perhaps even unto death. The children and infirm may stumble and fall long ere we reach journey's end."
"The strong must help the weak," Beorn says firmly. No sympathy softens the hard set of his mouth.
None have strength to help even ourselves, Maida thinks. She shares a bleak look with Sorgifu. Neither woman voices their worry; it is not time yet to challenge the stranger or his commands. With cruelty made necessary by desperation, Maida assesses the remaining woodcutters. The picture is bleak: Bledwyn, seven months gone with child; Dunsig, nursing an ensorcelled wound from a Shadow's bite; many are burned; some cough and gasp from a surfeit of smoke; all are frightened. Even tall, belligerent Ethelred, who grasps a heavy club in both hands, cannot hide his unease.
Maida squeezes the boys' hands. Brun and Léofa are sturdy boys and will not complain, yet suffering is etched on their gray faces and in their shoulders, slumped with the weight of knowledge no child should bear. Beorn's intelligent black eyes study them now with a near-softness that does not match his blunt features; he cups the back of Léofled's head in one massive palm. The wildman's heavy brows knit together.
He kneels so his head as at a level with the boys' own. "Can you walk through the night without stopping?" he asks them. "It is much to ask of ones so young, and you have been brave already. You must be hard as iron, for your sister and Mistress Maida must look to you for protection now your father hunts will the old gods."
Brun, the eldest at eleven years, puffs out his skinny chest. "I can walk for a week without rest," he says, though the crack in his voice betrays him.
"And I for three weeks!" Léofa hugs his arms round his stomach—part from cold, part from fear, Maida guesses. The tortuous gaze of an old man peers from his too-young face. It is unjust to charge him with the care and keeping of anyone. The small boy's lower lip trembles as he adds: "I shall carry my father's axe in case the night-beasts return." The eight-year-old can barely lift the splitting maul in his free hand, but Maida has not the heart to take it from him.
Beorn nods solemnly. He tilts his head back to make eye contact with Maida, and the raw pity in his face threatens to unravel her willpower. She viciously pushes emotion into a dark chasm where it cannot harm her. She presses her lips together. The wildman's face smoothens into hard-edged nothingness once more.
"You are brave boys," says Beorn to the children. "I will depend upon you."
"Yes, sir," they chorus. Brun stands straight as a new-sprouted sapling; Léofa raises his father's axe. Maida squeezes their fingers tight.
Ethelred calls across the clearing: "The funeral rite is over and the grave is covered—let us leave now ere night comes upon us."
So eagerly does the red-haired man rush into the void left by Grimbold. He acts as if already the woodmen have elected him thegn. But Ethelred is not like Maida's father; he leads by bullying and not through wisdom. He looks now upon the wildman as a cruel master looks upon an ox he intends to kill once it has outlived its usefulness. Mayhap Ethelred is right to mistrust their unproven savior, but sharp teeth in the night are not the only cause of tension amongst her surviving kin.
Beorn stands and settles Léofled more securely against his chest. The babe whimpers. On his back, the wildman carries a bundle of firewood and such other goods that could be scavenged; Ethelred and the halest of the men do the same. Once the snow begins to fall, cold will prove more dangerous even than Shadows. "Then let us depart," Beorn says. His strong voice carries across the encampment.
As one, the woodcutters file out of the ashy clearing and down the narrow track that wends its way to the western edge of the Mirkwood. Their faces are grim and harsh. They do not speak, nor do they look behind them. Maida falls into step behind the smith and his wife. Gram and Sorgifu are old but able-bodied and shrewd. They can watch out for each other on the road ahead.
Gray-brown trees envelop Maida. She knows she will never again return to the lonely gap in the forest—her home through so many seasons, the place where the bones of her parents and husband now slumber in the ruins of the past. Though her legs feel leaden, she walks onward, following the stranger Beorn's broad shoulders into an unknown future.
A fey voice shrieks in the distance, and the first snowflakes begin to fall.
It is a distance of near fifty miles from the woodcutter's settlement to Beorn's home in the Vales. He tells them his house stands near the east bank of the River Anduin, not far from the ford where the Old Forest Road begins is ascent into the Misty Mountains. There in the wide grasslands between the water and the wood, Beorn cultivates the earth for the benefit of any who prevail upon his hospitality, though he dwells alone. There is enough space in the Vales, Beorn says, for the displaced woodmen to build their lives anew.
It has been many generations since Maida's kin tilled the soil or husbanded livestock, but she holds her tongue. She does not wish to feed the woodcutters' uncertainty; already Ethelred grumbles and squints his misgivings. Her folk, descendants of Northmen tall and strong, were not foresters when they fled after defeat at the Battle of the Plains, yet had they not learned? Surely they can do so again.
Beorn leads the woodmen west on an uneven path which winds over root and under bough. Even this late in the autumn, the stench of ensorcelled foliage creeps from the Necromancer's dominions in the southern reaches of the forest. The woodcutters walk swift and silent, the quicker to escape the overhanging vines and mosses of foul Mirkwood. They march for hours without rest, until the trees thin and the bedraggled refugees stand upon the edge of a rolling brown prairie. Tiny snowflakes fall lazily from a gray-clouded sky and land on tired heads
Maida raises her face to feel the cold sting her dirty cheeks. She shivers, for she is not dressed for the weather. When the Shadows came, she had no time to do more than pull on her shoes and dash into the burning night. She sorely regrets the loss of her heavy mantle, stitched from the furs her husband so diligently trapped for her over two winters. Now it is ashes. At Maida's side, the boys' teeth chatter.
"Courage," she murmurs to them. "Take courage."
Brun and Léofa straighten their shoulders, but their trembling does not abate.
Some paces distant, red-haired Ethelred heaves the cord of firewood from his back. "We shall make our camp here for the night," he calls. He begins issuing orders, his deep voice carrying across the cluster of woodmen. Exhausted men and women scramble to obey.
A growl interrupts: "I have not called for a halt, Master Ethelred."
Maida risks a glance at Beorn, wreathed in the shadowed eves of the forest. The glimmer of humor she perceived in the wildman's face is gone. His features are tense and irate. Not even the infant bundle of Léofled at his chest dims the menace of his stance.
Ethelred picks up his war club. There is no mistaking the gesture or the belligerent grimace on his lips. "And who are you to gainsay me, stranger? I am thegn of these folk, not some wildman from parts unknown."
Maida inhales sharply at the big man's declaration. Ethelred is no more thegn of the woodcutters than she. Such a naming can be made only during the annual folkmoot with the lawspeaker and all free men of Mirkwood as witness. Dimly she remembers the sweet wine from the ceremonial horn when her father was appointed thegn. Yet as she searches the limp forms of her kin, Maida sees none will repudiate Ethelred's claim—not while they still bleed from Shadow bites and have no roof to call their own.
Beorn and Ethelred lock gazes. Pride is etched in both men's brows, in the flex of mighty fists. Though both are great men, fierce and tenacious, Maida has no uncertainty as to who would be the victor in a bout between them. Beorn's massive body is fueled by a savagery her kinsman lacks. She senses that once unleashed, the wildman's feral assault will stop only when all in his path lie bloodless in the dirt. Fear and half-melted snow slide down her weary neck.
It is Beorn who looks away first. Abruptly, he lets his cord of firewood fall, then unstraps Léofled from his chest. His long legs cross the distance to Maida so quickly that it seems he pounces. It takes every vestige of courage Maida has left to stand firm rather than cower. The wildman thrusts the mewling infant into Maida's arms. Fog curls from Beorn's flaring nostrils like smoke from an angry dragon; his grip is rough and merciless. Without a word, he stalks through the twilight and disappears in the gloom which creeps along the forest's edge.
Maida's pulse thunders in her ears like a river in spring flood.
Ethelred lowers his club. "Make camp," he barks. The band of displaced woodcutters moves to obey.
Alongside Sorgifu and pregnant Bledwyn, Maida drags felled branches together to raise a makeshift shelter. Snow descends in interimittent flurries without forming into drifts on the ground. The men build a fire large enough to bathe them in scanty warmth but small enough to escape an enemy's notice. Maida kneels before the yellow flame with the children gathered at her sides. There is no food to eat, and the waterskins must be rationed. Eerie chittering emerges from the wood at her back. The bare boughs of the trees groan as they rub together.
"Will Master Beorn return, Maida?" asks Léofa. He hugs his father's axe as another child would a beloved poppet. "Where has he gone?"
"I do not know," Maida answers.
"Is he a bad man?"
Maida has no answer to that question either. "Hush now and sleep," she tells Léofa and his older brother. "We must see what tidings the morn brings."
The boys obediently cast their weary bodies into the huddle of woodcutters inside the lean-to. Maida tucks their baby sister between them so she might share their heat. She does not join the children. Though she is bone-weary and footsore, Maida's thoughts race too swiftly for sleep. Heavily does she bear the knowledge that it was at her urging the woodmen followed Beorn to this place; mayhap even now Ethelred and those close to him begin to cast blame at her feet. In her dire need, she has no choice but to rely on the red-bearded man, and she can but ill afford his suspicions.
The dark tide of her thoughts halts at a rustle of dry grass beyond the circle of firelight. The sound is quiet, yet it echoes in the muted night. Men reach for whatever weapons they have. Visions of the Necromancer's malodorous Shadows filter through Maida's mind.
Beorn steps into the light. The carcass of a white-spotted fallow deer is slung about his shoulders. He lays the animal by the fire and begins to dress it with a long hunting knife. Maida inches closer to the wildman even as Ethelred and the others mutter and snarl. It is a good kill, and a difficult one. There are few creatures left in southern Mirkwood that have not yet been corrupted by the Necromancer's mists.
"You came back," she says foolishly.
Beorn does not look up from his task. "Did you imagine I abandoned you here on Mirkwood's doorstep, mistress? A tasty morsel for whatever beasts haunt your folk, doubtless. Yet if my intention is death, the wisest course was to leave you where I found you and return to my hall alone."
Not daring to risk the man's ire with honesty, Maida stares at the deer. Hunger sinks merciless claws into her belly. Though winter is not yet come, the doe is thin and mangy. But it is not the animal's diseased appearance which troubles Maida. It is the lack of any sign of a hunter's killing strike. The deer's hide is unmarred by either arrowhead or knife blade, and utterly smooth—save for the ring of gory bitemarks round its delicate throat. Maida has dressed many of her father and husband's kills, and she knows with cold certainty that no Man felled the deer. She swallows past the lump in her dry throat and raises her eyes.
Beorn stares back. The watchful expression in his black eyes is fiercely primitive. In that moment, she sees not a wildman but a crouching beast.
Maida gasps as if struck.
She scurries away from the fire and joins the children in the shelter. She gathers them close and wills sleep to come. Even with her eyes closed, Maida still sees Beorn's hulking shadow looming over the deer carcass, the doe's bloody necklace of tooth marks. Be he friend or foe, the dark stranger frightens her. He is not as other men are.
In time, the susurrus of infant breaths and crackle of the weak fire lull Maida into uneasy slumber. Outside the shelter, Beorn skewers hunks of meat to roast through the night. The scrape of knife through gristle and bone echoes in her sleeping ears. She dreams of a massive black-furred beast circling the encampment, unfurling its lips to reveal a bloody smile.
Note: Hello! It's been (*checks notes*) two years since I posted the first chapter of this story. I didn't abandon it! I've been writing/revising this sucker since 2012, and I'm far too invested. Hopefully chapter three will arrive before 2024...
The snow falls in earnest when the woodmen wake. Soft drifts curl over Maida's feet as stands by the dying fire in the gray light. The strongest men collect more firewood while the others devour the venison Beorn roasted through the night. The wildman makes a point of giving Maida and her boys the choicest bits of meat—an act that does not go unnoticed by Ethelred. The red-haired man's scrutiny is heavy on her back.
She does not know if it is Ethelred's glare or her own unease which causes her to snatch the food from Beorn's grasp with nary a thanks, yet it is apparent her discourtesy offends him. Beorn removes himself from the gathered woodmen and glowers into the fast-falling snow.
Maida chews bits of stringy venison before feeding them to Léofled. The babe's blue eyes are rheumy and feverish. Dark shadows and bruises mar Brun and Léofa's exposed faces, though the boys chatter freely as they devour the fresh meat. It is a half-hopeful sound, but it barely penetrates Maida's troubled thoughts.
With the storm begun in earnest, there is little time to waste. Once every scrap of meat is eaten, the woodcutters file out of the snow-blanketed encampment. Beorn and Ethelred march at the front of the line, for neither trusts the other to lead the refugees alone. Maida and the boys walk again with Gram and Sorgifu while Léofled rides against the wildman's chest. The older couple's grim determination strengthens Maida's steps.
Outside the ominous embrace of Mirkwood's trees, the air is bitter cold. Cruel winds scream across the open plains. Snow flies in the woodcutter's eyes and stings their coarse faces. Every step through the growing drifts is a struggle. Energy lent by a few mouthfuls of venison fades; the warmth of the campfire is all but forgotten. The blizzard grows in strength, and all the world fades to white except the dark line of refugees.
It is only midmorning when Ethelred calls the party to a halt. They stand upon a grassy plateau that stretches in every direction far as they eye can see. As soon as her feet cease movement, icy tendrils of cold wrap around Maida's limbs. The snow is past her ankles. Ill-content to wait, she leaves Brun and Léofa in Sorgifu's care and approaches the front of the line, where Beorn and Ethelred speak in quiet, terse voices. Fat snowflakes blur her vision, but she sees the bundle of cloth that must be Léofled nestled inside the wildman's woolen tunic.
"Why do we halt?" she asks the men. "Standing thus while the snow gathers up to our ears is ill-advised." Maida's tone is barbed, for she wearies of men debating fruitlessly while their women suffer in silence.
Ethelred gives her an irate look from beneath his bushy brows. "Peace, Maida," says the self-appointed thegn. "Be assured we stop only to choose the safest road. Return to your place in the line."
Maida props half-frozen hands on her hips and regards the red-bearded forester with curled lips. "You cannot put me off, Master Ethelred. Snow falls, but beyond the clouds the sun is still high, and I would know the reason we do not press on."
Through the falling flakes, she sees Ethelred's jaw working. Like all Northmen, he mislikes to be challenged by a woman. But with him it is more than prideful intolerance. Ethelred has never liked Maida and oft advised Grimbold to use a firmer hand where his daughter was concerned. Three years past, Maida spurned the big man's attentions and instead trothplighted herself to the soft-spoken Cenric. Now, the snowy air is afire with the strength of their antagonism.
"There are tracks, mistress." Beorn's unhurried voice fills the tense space between Maida and Ethelred. "Some creature has been here before us—mayhap more follow behind."
Maida follows the line of his outstretched hand to a depression in the carpet of snow. A line of pawprints is delicately etched into the shifting white. The tracks are four times as large as Maida's fists, and long claws protrude from the pads. Her stomach churns; none need tell her the import of these marks. She knows it well enough: death.
"What made these?" she asks.
Ethelred and Beorn study the prints but make no reply. Mayhap it is better not to name the creature.
Maida stamps her feet in an effort to dispel the curious tingling that creeps from her toes to her ankle. "Can we not go forward?" she asks the men. "If we do not find shelter, the children and elders shall soon freeze."
"This we know, Maida," says Ethelred impatiently. "Yet who can say whether an enemy waits along the road ahead. Without the cover of trees, we are exposed to attack. Few of our number have strength enough to wield a weapon."
Maida fingers her mother's knife, still strapped to her waist.
"My hope is to shelter for the night in a cavern I know of, where the river bluffs rise steep just south of the Old Ford," says Beorn. "It is perhaps two miles distant, but the road wends through shallow gorges where it would be easy for a foe to attack from above. I cannot be certain the way is safe."
"Are there no villages nearer than that?" Maida asks. Even two miles feels impossible.
"No, none," answers the wildman. "The Vales are only sparsely populated in these times, though the ruin of a great town stands on the escarpment south of the Dwarven bridge. I have laid in provisions and firewood inside the cave; all will be well if we reach it. This storm will not soon abate; I fear it will be many days before the sun shines again."
Hopelessness suffuses Maida's breast. Has she foolishly urged her kin to follow Beorn only to see them die a few hours' march beyond the Mirkwood? The descendants of Marhwini's folk are a hardy people, yet even the greatest endurance must reach its end. She fears the woodcutters are far past the limits of their strength. Only hope has carried them this far, but even hope must die, beset by snows and haunted by unknown beasts.
"What shall we do?" she whispers. The words are not meant for either man to hear, but Ethelred answers all the same.
"We go forward," he says roughly. "Return to your children, Maida, and do not speak of these tracks to anyone."
For a moment Maida gazes beseechingly into Beorn's dark face, though she knows not why. The wildman's features are stern. Remembering the cruel bite marks on the doe's neck, she lowers her eyes. Maida returns to where Brun and Léofa stand huddled together. Sorgifu hugs the boys close to her fail body.
"What news?" asks Gram.
Maida shakes her head. Ethelred's command means little to her, but the piteous cast of the boys' young faces teaches her circumspection. They are frightened enough already. "We will make for a cavern in the bluffs south of the Old Ford," she tells the gray-bearded smith. "Beorn believes we may reach it within the hour, and he tells of provisions stored there."
"That is good tidings," says Sorgifu. A false note of cheer laces the old woman's words. "These old bones are weary. It has been many years since I journey beyond the borders of the wood."
"I've never been outside the Mirkwood," pipes Léofa in a small voice. "Papa said when I was older, I could drive the oxcart to the East Bight when all the woodmen meet for the folkmoot."
Brun pushes his younger sibling. "Papa is dead, Léofa," he hisses furiously. "And we aren't woodcutters anymore, either."
"Well, what are we?" queries his brother.
"Homeless beggars," says Brun in a voice too old for his tender years.
Léofa's jaw trembles, and not only from cold.
"That is enough, Brun," Maida says. A sharp pain begins to build her eyes. "Your parents have gone to dine in the halls of the ancestors, it is true, and our home is no more. Yet we are not beggars, for are we not the proud descendants of the reeves of Vidugavia King?"
Brun nods sullenly.
"Now take hold of your brother's hand and stay close to me," Maida instructs. "If you stray from the line, you may be lost in the snows. Understand?"
She nods sharply, then swings round to face northwest. Beorn and Ethelred are barely visible at the head of the line. Maida offers Sorgifu her arm, and they trudge forward. Snow skims their ankles; the older woman wears no hose underneath her wooden clogs.
"Strength," murmurs Sorgifu above the howling wind. "We must believe this stranger Beorn will not lead us astray."
Maida does not answer, for there is nothing to be said.
The wretched band of survivors progresses down the dirt track at a pace that would befit a pleasure-party out for a picnic were it not for the weary slope of their shoulders and the bloodless cast of their faces. Some of the walkers have cloaks and winter boots. Many do not. All have had little to eat for three days. The refugees support their fear-wracked bodies only by the indomitable will which all Men have to survive, even through darkness. Not lightly do the woodmen of Mirkwood succumb to death.
A blister forms on the end of Maida's left toe. The boots she wears are not hers—they belonged to her mother. In the frantic fear of the Shadows' attack, she donned the first shows her searching hands could grasp. Now the blister is an aching reminder of her mother's absence. Maida's every step stings of loss and memories she cannot bear.
The march continues. It feels like decades since the woodcutters stood in the ashy clearing and buried their dead, yet Maida knows it has only been a short time since they resumed the journey. The ground has been rising steadily since they left Mirkwood's gruesome shade behind. The eastern bank of the River Anduin north of the Gladden fields is steep and rocky. The rubble of an ancient watchtower from the time of the kings of Rhovanion shimmers on the horizon, though snow-laden clouds cast shadowy veils over the ruin.
Never before has Maida traveled west. Cenric sold felled timber in the towns along the eastern edge of Mirkwod, near the empty place known as the East Bight. In her father's youth, Grimbold and other men traveled to far-flung Dale on the shores of the River Celduin to trade magnificent hardwoods for iron tools. It has been many years since such a journey was attempted. Times are dark, and the Necromancer's arm reaches every longer. Aside from the summer folkmoot, when the various colonies of woodmen come together to settle disputes and make merry, Maida has never spoken with anyone outside her own village circle.
How quickly things may change.
Though her pace is far from swift, Maida's throat burns. Each step seems an impossible task conquered through desperation alone.
Brun and Léofa take turns riding upon Gram's stooped back. Next to Maida, Sorgifu staggers. A boy barely older than Brun steadies the old woman, then loops his arm round her waist. Maida opens her mouth in thanks, but the words die on her tongue. It is Ortolf, who had been pinned beneath a burning beam inside his parents' cottage. Half the lad's face is burned away, revealing the bone and fat beneath the skin. Maida does not need a healer's ken to see that Ortolf cannot survive long before blood poisoning claims his life. Already his eyes are glassy with fever.
A numbness greater than winter's chill grows inside Maida. The night-dark of despair is more than her shoulders can bear. Far better to feel nothing, to sever emotion from thought in the same manner her husband was severed from life. She clutches Sorgifu's thin arm.
A piercing howl rends the air. Maida squints through the white haze; there is nothing except the empty plain and the limestone cliffs along the river. Mayhap the wail is naught but the wind as it screams through the rocks. Yet she pushes her feet faster along the path, and her kin do the same. There is malice in the air.
Maida does not notice it at first, the otherworldly warmth that steals into her body. Her teeth chease their chattering; the tingling in her fingers and toes dies away. Swirls of blackness glimmer at the edge of her vision. She is tired, so tired. Frost carpets the earth, and it sparkles in the grass where wind pushes the snow aside. The squalling clouds are soft overhead.
Maida stumbles, then she is falling falling falling.
The snow beneath her cheek is a gentle cradle for heavy limbs. How pleasant it is to rest in nature's bed. Snowflakes clump in her eyelashes. Maida blinks them away, yet her heavy lids refuse to open. Drowsiness embraces her in seductive arms. It is warm and quiet and safe in the dark.
Rough hands shake her sore body. An urgent voice calls her name: Maida! Maida! And then: Mama! Mama!
I am well, she reassures the voices. Her tongue is too thick, her thoughts too muddled. She wants only to sleep, here in the soft snowbank where she feels no pain. Let me rest, she tells them, I am weary of living.
Cruel hands tear Maida from the compassionate earth. Rough furs scratch her chilled face and hands. With effort, she opens her eyes. An angry brown face looms over her. Beorn the wildman, black eyes and sharp teeth. She was frightened of him before, but terror now seems too much effort.
Maida sinks back into the warm darkness.
"Do not fall asleep, damn you!"
The words drift to her ears as if spoken from a great height. Then a strong hand strikes her cheek—once, then twice. Pain cuts through the fog of delirious exhaustion. Maida snaps open her eyes to glare at Beorn. The edges of his beard are frozen stiff, and the icicles scrap her forehead.
"Do not fall asleep, mistress," he repeats, gentler now.
The Rough treatment rouses her anger, though she is too weak to struggle. "Raise a hand against me another time, and I shall see you boiled in a vat of your own piss, you slobbering cuntwhore." The threat is slurred and unsteady on her frozen lips.
Beorn does not smile, nor does he relax his grip. "Mistress Maida, I shall beat you as often as I deem necessary, and you will thank me for it. Your sons are young yet to fend for themselves in the Wilderland."
Through the blizzard's thick shroud, Maida sees Brun and Léofa huddled at Beorn's shoulder. The boys' dirty faces are bloodless blue and nakedly afraid. Just three nights past, they witnessed their parents slain by Shadows; now Maida succumbs to the Necromancer's ensorcelled snow before their eyes. She swallows thickly.
"Strike me again if you will, Master Beorn, but I cannot walk," she rasps. There is no sensation in her body below the navel.
The wildman accepts her words without argument. He rises to his full height, bringing Maida with him. She burrows against Léofled, still strapped to Beorn's massive chest. The babe is swaddled tight, with only the peep of her red nose exposed to the elements.
"Come with me, lads," Beorn barks into the roaring wind, then strides forward to the head of the line.
Maida does not see if Brun and Léofa follow. Unconsciousness claims her again. In vain she fights against the blackness, for she knows the fate that will befall her children if she does not. Forgive me, she pleads, though she does not know who can absolve her of this agony.
Maida wakes in a tomb.
Gray light filters into a rough-hewn chamber. Damp stone walls rise to an earthen ceiling threaded with frost. The air is dank and close, scented with decayed roots and lightless minerals. She hears the bawl of the storm without, but it is hushed and still where she lies.
She cannot move. Her limbs are encased in bands of invisible iron, and no sound emerges when she attempts to cry out. Panicked breath crowds her lungs even as cold sweat gathers in the hollows behind her knees. Silent tears slide down her temples.
The woodmen have interred Maida beneath a craggy hill like a king of old, but she is still alive. Alive, and sorry that she ever yearned for death. Wretched keening escapes her lips.
A dark shadow blots out the weak light.
"Do not be frightened, mistress," whispers a harsh voice. "There is no danger here."
As if released from a spell, Maida's taut muscles loosen. She cranes her neck. A huge man wearing matted animal pelts and a grave countenance rests on his haunches beside her. At his back lies a gap in the stone wall like a primitive doorway. He smells of sweat and woodsmoke. For a moment Maida's mind is vacant, then she remembers.
"You," she says.
"Me," agrees Beorn. "The slobbering cuntwhore."
The faintest twinkle of humor emerges in the wildman's black eyes. She did not imagine it, then. The woman Maida was before the Shadows devoured her future in a cascade of blood and sparks might have laughed—but that woman is gone. Now her thoughts race from one calamity to the next. "The children?" she asks, struggling to rise. "Where are my children?"
"Safe as well, mistress," promises Beorn.
"I must see them." His weathered brown hand on her shoulder prevents her feeble movements. Maida fights him, for she can trust none but her own sight. Her legs are unsteady as a bit of straw caught in a gale. Desperate sobs gather in her throat. "Please," she begs as his grip tightens.
"They are sleeping," says Beorn. "Sorgifu is with them, and Gram the old smith. I swear upon my life that no harm has befallen any of your kin since you saw them last."
In her weakened state, Maida has no choice but to accept the wildman's word. She sinks back into the furs spread beneath her. Now that her mind is lucid, she sees she rests not in a tomb but a narrow alcove within a larger cavern. Her body throbs with cold and exhaustion, but deadly languor no longer clings to her bones.
"The snows still fall?" she asks.
Beorn nods, grimacing. "It is early in the year for such a storm, yet who can say what to expect when the Necromancer's strength directs the weather? There is an evil smell to this blizzard."
Maida shivers. Dread grips her lungs like a vise. She recalls the howl in the wind, the claw-footed tracks in the snow, the eerie warmth that flooded her body. It is certain now that the fleeing woodcutters have been followed beyond the forest's edge.
"Think not on such things, Mistress Maida," says Beorn. "When she wakes, I will bring your babe for you to nurse." He removes his hands from her shoulders and stands; once gone, she finds herself craving his touch.
"Oh…" Maida presses her cracked lips together. "I have no milk."
Northmen are not bashful about such matters, nor did Grimbold raise his daughter to feign reticence before strangers. Still, Maida hesitates to confess the reason for her dry breasts—or her true relation to Léofled and the boys. She does not trust Beorn, though her reasons for it dwindle.
Unaware of Maida's mental unrest, the wildman retreats to the opening in the rock. "No matter," he murmurs, "your daughter shall not go hungry. Rest now, mistress, for as long as you wish. We shan't leave here until the storm abates.
He leaves her alone with her grief and fright. Maida cowers in the gray-blue dark and wishes wretchedly for her husband's solid arms about her.
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