Stories of Arda Home Page
About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search
swiss replica watches replica watches uk Replica Rolex DateJust Watches

Between the water and the wood  by Morcondil


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?"

"Yes, Maida."

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.

<< Back


Leave Review
Home     Search     Chapter List