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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.
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