Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters, races, and creatures, as well as our beloved Middle Earth, belongs to JRR Tolkien.
A/N: To anyone reading this, whether you've read it previously or are a first-time reader, I am in the process of trying to edit A Simple Change of Heart. In so doing, I have messed up the chapter titles - they no longer correspond to the correct numbers. I'm trying to fix it, but I'm not sure how, so I may end up deleting it entirely and then uploading it again correctly. I've not found a simple way of changing the chapter numbers once you have messed them up. Sorry for any confusion - there are no new chapters, although there is some minor content change. (August 2010)
hey had come.
The moment Jeren had been hoping she would never experience was finally here.
She watched from behind the back corner of her small house, the only shelter afforded her, to see a band of six—no, seven—Orcs creep stealthily through her yard. She had been down to the brook below the house to fetch water for the day, and on her way back she suddenly caught sight of her dreaded and unwelcome visitors.
Keeping her wits about her, she was able to save her bucket full of water—her first instinct had been to drop it. That would have given her presence away surely. She ducked behind the house and prayed silently that they would go inside and not venture into the back yard. If only she had a weapon! She'd not thought to arm herself earlier, as she had made the trip down to the brook. She hadn't expected to be entertaining company today, at least company that she would need to defend herself against. She prayed that the Orcs wouldn't find her. She had no wish to entertain the likes of them today—or ever.
Her only hope was to run.
Jeren closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Exhaling slowly, she willed herself to calm. Her heart was beating so fast she was breathless. Nausea worked its way up her throat. She fought to keep both under control.
Thoughts of her father helped slow her panic. He had insisted she learn to defend herself. He worked long hours trying to teach her the bow, but she had thus far not been able to master it. She was passable with it, but inevitably her arm would falter, and her shot would go wild as a result. It wasn't nerve she lacked. She just did not have the strength in her arms to pull the string to its full extent, to send the arrow to its target. In desperation, he introduced her to a long knife. Not a sword, for again her arms had not the strength nor length to wield it properly. She was very proficient with her long knife. The only trouble now was that she was outside and it was inside—and she was grossly outnumbered.
She must calm down. She was frozen with fear.
Do not freeze up. How many times in her young sixteen years had her father pounded this lesson into her brain? Focus and calm were her only hope. Panic and fear only hastened one's death. As she thought about her father, she felt her heart slow and her breathing ease. She must keep her head. Her father would expect it of her. He brooked no nonsense, yet she knew he loved her. When he was leaving to scout with the rangers, he would call her to him, and while staring at her, appearing not to care, would still hug her fiercely before he left.
Before Jeren's mother died, he'd hold Jeren at arm's length, staring down at her—boring holes into her brain, it felt—and tell her gruffly to mind her mother. Look out for her, for she could no longer look after herself. Her father—Dunadain. Proud descendent of Numenor. Ranger of the North. A tear escaped one of her eyes as she thought about her father. Her father, whom she had not seen nor heard from in three months. Did he even still live?
She stole another look around the corner of the house. Valar, there were ten of them! She couldn't help the silent tears as they leaked from her eyes. She tried to remember all she had learned about Orcs and self-defense. When she was younger, she and her mother lived an almost nomadic life, settling briefly with other families, in various places within easy distance of where her father was patrolling. They had lived thusly until her mother had contracted a wasting disease, rendering her frailer with each passing month. Her mother had chafed at her weakness; she was used to doing for herself, and she was fast becoming an invalid. It was with a heavy heart that she—along with Jeren—settled here permanently, in the Angle, just within the northernmost edge, near another settlement of the rangers' families. Here she and Jeren stayed, living simply, longing for the infrequent stops the man of the house would make.
And it was here that Jeren's mother died in her arms, in her father's absence. When she knew her mother's death was imminent, Jeren fenced off a small section of the yard and began digging her mother's grave. She hoped her mother had not been aware enough to notice what she was doing. She didn't wish to burden her any more than she already was. The pain her mother endured was terribly hard for Jeren to witness. She would sit in her mother's bed, holding her as she wept with the pain. Not once did she complain or wish for death—at least not out loud. Jeren had buried her mother, reciting a made-up prayer to the Valar as she shoveled earth upon her mother's shrouded body.
That was three years ago. A month after Jeren's mother had died, her father finally returned home to find his wife dead. Jeren thought she would die from the heartbreak of seeing him weep. Her father, the steadfast and hard ranger, who never showed weakness of any kind no matter how desperate the circumstances, had slumped before her and sobbed. After that, when he would ride out on patrol, he took Jeren with him, not wishing to leave her alone. After all, he had failed his wife by not being here when she needed him most. He would not fail his daughter as well.
It was during that time that Jeren was taught most of what she knew of the Dunadain. She and her father would sit near their campfire at night, and he would tell her tales of their people—of her history and ancestors. Sometimes other rangers would be with them, but mostly, they were on their own. When he wasn't patrolling his area, he would teach her the proper care and use of weapons in defending herself.
She had seen Orcs before now, certainly, but she had never come face to face with one. The closest she ever got to them was during raids they would visit upon the rangers' makeshift settlements at times. She would hide as she had been taught to do, watching events transpire. There she saw first hand the savagery of these fiendish beasts, and the savagery they evoked in those who fought them.
As the times grew darker, and Middle Earth was fair teeming with other evil creatures as well as Orcs, Jeren's father came to the decision that she would be better off back at home. She had neighbors, though the nearest was at least two leagues away. He would have them check up on her from time to time. She would be safer.
Jeren gave a silent laugh. Safer. Certainly she was.
Jerking herself back to the present, Jeren gritted her teeth in determination. She would get away and she would do it now. She would get to the barn beside the house, and ride Jones, her mare, out of this deathtrap. She would make for the cover of the thicket behind the barn and be gone. It would not be easy guiding Jones through the brush and trees, but Jeren needed to escape, and she wanted to be quick about it. Jones had been her horse for six years, and Jeren was very attached to her. She would not consider leaving Jones to the cruelty of the Orcs. Valar knew what they would do to her.
Jones had quite a mean streak in her, so perhaps she would afford Jeren a measure of protection. She had seen Jones get beset by a wolf once, and instead of running, as any normal horse would do, Jones charged it. Of course this resulted in the wolf getting a hold on her throat, but her father had been quick enough with his bow that Jones didn't take much damage. Jeren didn't stop to think that taking the horse would involve using valuable time. Time she did not have.
Keeping her spine against the back wall of the house, she inched her way toward the barn. The door was almost adjacent with her position now. A few steps later, she came to the window. Crouching down, hoping to hide from fiendish eyes, she carefully inched her face up until she could just see over the windowsill. She could see them now. Filthy, stinking creatures rifling through her belongings, throwing and breaking things, and laughing while they did it. She frowned as she saw them gleefully tear open a sack of flour, and send its contents flying through the air in a miniature blizzard throughout the house. That flour was supposed to last her for months, yet. Curse their fiendish hides!
She inched back down. They seemed preoccupied enough for now. Continuing against the wall, she crouched and sidled past the window. As soon as she was clear of it she stood, and with her spine against the wall once again, continued her careful trek toward the barn. When she reached the far corner of the house, she stopped and took a quick look around to make sure there were no Orcs acting as sentries while the others ransacked the house. She knew there were none in the barn. She'd had her eye trained on it since she'd first spotted these animals, and Jones would have surely put up a fuss by now that could be heard for a league.
Throwing all caution to the wind, Jeren dashed to the barn, as quietly as she could, though her footsteps sounded as thunder to her ears. She opened the door and slid inside, closing it behind her in one motion. She slumped against the door, breathing hard, trying to stay calm. She was halfway there. All she had to do now was get a bridle on Jones and be away.
Wasting no time, she quickly retrieved a bridle from a nail on a wall of the barn. She shoved the bit into the mare's mouth, murmuring her apologies for being so rough and hurried. The horse was alert with ears pricked and forward, sensing and smelling the danger of creatures unfamiliar.
Jeren's fear increased suddenly at the realization of the choice she now faced: should she hop up on Jones and flee quickly, risking the noise the horse's hooves would make, or sneak out on foot, leading the horse quietly until they were far enough away that the noise would not be heard? In the first plan's favor was speed. However, arrows were swift to catch up with someone who was an easy target on horseback. The second plan's only asset was stealth. It would be easier to keep the sound of the mare's steps quieter were she to walk her out of the barn instead of dashing out. And she could use the horse to shield her from arrows. She felt a stab of shame as she thought of using Jones in such a fashion. What in Eru's name do I do?
She tried to remember if her father had ever mentioned to her before how to solve such a dilemma. She could not remember anything about retreat. Perhaps in her fear she was forgetting that particular lesson. I will probably remember what he said as I gaze down upon my dead body from the Halls of Mandos. With no experience to guide her, she decided to go on foot. She stopped and prayed to the Valar for protection.
Jeren looked around the barn for something—anything—she could use as a weapon. Her eyes lit on the pitchfork. Valar, it was so heavy. But there was nothing else, so she grabbed it up, and leading Jones by the reins, made for the door. She leaned her erstwhile weapon against the wall and stole a peek outside. It looked to be clear. Arming herself with the pitchfork once more, she left the barn, only opening the door far enough for her and Jones to sneak out.
Shamefully, she did use Jones as a shield against unwanted eyes. She tried to stay calm, but the horse was starting to prance and nicker nervously. Please be quiet. They will hear us. She was almost to the thicket behind the barn, starting to give praise to the Valar when she heard a whistle of an arrow in flight and a thud as it hit its mark. Jones dropped to the ground, thrashing and screaming wildly. Jones had been shot, an arrow piercing her neck. Startled, Jeren had dropped the pitchfork and it was now beneath the horse. She had to retrieve it—she was defenseless otherwise. Not thinking about the mare's thrashing hooves, she bent to grab the fork. In her pain and terror the mare struck out, and with one of her front feet, hit Jeren with full force just below her neck, on her right shoulder, raking her hoof down Jeren's chest. Jeren was thrown back a few feet and landed squarely on her rear, but with fear coursing through her veins, she didn't register any of the pain. She abandoned her quest for the pitchfork and began running toward the thicket.
Three of the Orcs from inside the house had wandered out the back door to see what they may find, when their eyes beheld horseflesh. One of them set an arrow to his bow and fired, hitting the horse squarely in the neck. He howled with delight in seeing his success and in watching the helpless creature thrash about. It was then that they spotted Jeren. Oh, a meal and games. What more could an Orc wish for in one raid?
Jeren had made her way about fifteen yards into the thicket when two of the Orcs caught up to her. They grabbed her roughly and began dragging her, kicking and cursing, back the way they had come. She fought so hard the Orcs finally grabbed her arms and legs, pinning them beneath their stinking arms. When they had finally reached the clearing of the yard, Jeren's fear rose to all out panic. In the open they would be able to do whatever they wanted to her. She began struggling harder and succeeded in working one of her feet loose, kicking the unfortunate Orc that was in its path directly in the groin. He dropped and yowled in pain, forcing the other one to tighten his arms around Jeren, holding her up high around the chest. Unfortunately for him, his hand was within easy reach of her mouth and she bit him—hard. He dropped her instantly, grabbing his bleeding hand and cursing her in his black language.
She scrambled to her feet, making another dash toward the thicket, but was tackled from behind, sending her face hard into the ground. She tasted her blood; she had smashed her lips against her teeth. She was still several feet from the edge of the thicket.
She was turned over by the third Orc of the party, but she was still not going to surrender. The other two joined him and they were very angry to say the least. They jeered in her face and began ripping her clothes. She kicked and screamed and clawed at them. She managed to dig a fingernail into the eye of one and he decided he'd had enough from her. He drew back his fist and cuffed Jeren, the blow glancing off her left cheekbone, just missing her eye. She was stunned, but not rendered unconscious. She was weakened and tired; besides fighting her attackers, she had been losing blood from a gash she'd taken in the chest from Jones' hoof.
Jeren's weak attempts were laughable to the Orcs and they began to run their tongues over her face and lips. She screamed again and when she opened her mouth, one of the animals thrust his tongue inside. She bit down as hard as she could—and tasted his blood. The putrid tang of it made her gag, so she spit it at him. She was now beyond sensible thought and the horror of what she had done didn't even faze her. The Orc rocked away, holding his face in his hands.
That, apparently, was the last straw. One of the Orcs that wasn't too badly injured stood and kicked her in the left side of her head. She didn't have time to feel the pain. There was no fear anymore. Just blackness. She was down and still. Out.
When she came to, it was to a horror too terrible to believe. Her arms and legs were pinned to the ground. She gradually became aware of weight on top of her, rocking and slamming into her. It hurt so much, she fought to open her eyes to see what in the Valar's name was happening to her. As soon as she opened her eyes she wished that she hadn't. Only inches from her face was the face of her attacker, the hatred for her and her kind etched in his features. She screamed and received a slap in the face from another Orc, one waiting for his turn at her. Combined with the other abuse she had endured from these animals, the slap was successful in rendering her helpless, even though she did not lose consciousness.
She lay there and endured what they did to her. Three of them forced themselves on her, as she lay there semiconscious, aware but not caring—just enduring. She had no strength with which to fight any more. She kept her eyes closed. She couldn't bear to see their faces, the twisted dirty visages that would haunt her from this day on. If only she hadn't opened her eyes. If only.
Jeren let her mind take her away from this nightmare. She saw her mother, as she was before she was sick. She actually spoke to her.
"Jeren, my baby, it is so wonderful to see you!" her mother exclaimed, holding her arms out for her daughter to run into their sheltering embrace. Jeren could feel her mother's warmth and feel her fingers gently running through her hair. She could smell the lavender scent her mother wore all the time.
Her mother kissed her on the cheek, then held her out from her. "You've grown so, my angel. You aren't a girl anymore. You're a woman. And I am so proud of you, too. You have fought and beaten these beasts like nothing I've ever seen! I am here with you, baby. Do not give up or give in. These nasty animals cannot take the most important part of you. They cannot take your heart, unless you allow them to. Please, baby, do not allow them to take it. You can handle this; I know you can." Her mother continued to stroke her hair and comfort her with her gentle words of encouragement.
"But Mother," Jeren began, "I don't think I can do what you are asking of me. This is too horrible. I will never be able to think of anything but this as long as I live. I cannot see past this moment right now. Will I be all right, Mother? Will you please stay here with me?"
"I will be right here for as long as you need me," her mother assured her. She then pulled Jeren down to sit with her and gathered her into her arms. She rocked her daughter, back and forth, loving her and holding her until she no longer would need her.
Jeren didn't believe she would ever stop needing her mother, and it felt so wonderful to be in her arms again—being in her strong embrace once more, not as she was right before her death, but as she was when she was healthy and strong.
It was with her mother's arms around her that she slipped into blissful slumber. Her mother was here. She would be all right.