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Between the water and the wood  by Morcondil


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...

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