If you are still reading this story after all this time, I am deeply impressed! Welcome back! I owe you the world's largest apology for my tardiness. Real life is stranger than fiction and often ten times as horrible, but I'm back.

If you are new to the story, welcome!

Chapter 21

3 months after having left the king's hall, Néela sat alone in her parent's empty house and pondered over the town's defences by the hearth. Gulfar had been the last place she ever thought she would return to, but having left Édoras in distress and without provisions, she had quickly faded into hunger and semi-conciosness after a few days ride, and Hálla had carried her home, faithful as ever.

Home, however, had changed. Gone were the children in the streets and the laundry on the lines. Gone were the fields of wheat and barley, the sound of laughter and the glowing lights of fire in the windows. In stead, the fields were burnt and the remaining crops were struggling to survive the after effects of repeated fires, palisades had been erected, motes had been dug and shutters had been sealed. Small herds of domesticated goats and sheep had once been commonly found grazing in the surrounding countryside. Now, Farmsteads had been abandoned for the relative safety of the village, and the livestock brought into stables and shacks. Gulfar was a village prepared for attacks.

The people of the town had learned hard lessons of self preservation during the great war. Multiple raids by wild men, Uruk-Hai and warg riders had decimated their numbers, depleted their storages and left the innocent traumatized. They now knew to always be ready for violence and danger.

This was what could be expected at times of war, but since the fall of Sauron, attacks on the village had not waned. No, they continued to rain down from the mountains. Unchecked by any master's leash, the minions of Isengard, as well as those who had chosen poorly in their allegiances during the war, sought to plunder and terrorize wherever they could, some to survive, some for revenge.

This would once have been prevented by Rohan's soldiers, but their numbers had been severely diminished on the plains of Pellénor when they attacked the black armies of Mordor to save Minás Tirith. They were not able to patrol the borders as they used to, and thus left the people of Rohan to fend for themselves.

This was what Néela had returned home to; Her parents killed and the villagers desperate for anyone with any fighting skill. Skill which she now had, thanks to their Lord King and her former lover.

She had been equipped with rough leather cuirass and breeches, all tailored to her female form, as well as a boiled leather helmet to protect her from the most basic attacks without encumbering her. The leather had been dyed red in her own and her enemies' blood by fierce use and gave her a barbaric appearance. Her hair was braided in tiny braids that were entwined from the top of her head and down her neck, making a warriors Mohawk and keeping stray locks out of her vision. The once soft curves of the young woman had been hardened by muscles and the fat burned away in the fires of battle, leaving a shield maiden, a true champion of the realm and a hero to those surrounding her, to exist in her place.

Her radiant green eyes stared into the flames and considered only the demise of her enemies. How they would crush themselves on the walls of her home and how they would burn in the sticky tar of the motes. She considered watch schedules, provisions for the men, information on enemy movement from the surrounding villages and scouts. Her face was carved in stone and had not seen a smile in many long months. This was her life now, and she had accepted the brutal hardship of it in glad preference to the soul crushing sickness of a broken heart. If it meant that she would never again feel such sorrow, she would happily forsake having one at all. No friends, no family and foremost, no love. It was alright by her.

In stead she was revered, admired, respected and even feared by some who had seen the sharp end of her blades and lived to tell of it. It had been strange at first, to see men bowing out of her way and children hiding behind their mothers' skirts as she passed them by. In retrospect she realized that they had all seen her laughing in blood rage as she slew the orcs who had attacked in the night, her blood stained face, sneering in the firelight of burning cottages and her white teeth glinting as she roared her defiance at the stars. By then it was a bit of an uphill battle to get the people of Gulfar to see her as a girl once more, and when the children had all been sent away for their own protection, her will to live as a member of the tight knit community had been all but drained out of her.

It was all she could do to not look forward to the next battle now, to not become that which she loathed the most; A monster who lived only to kill and destroy. With no laughter, no love or ties to those surrounding her, she had entered a strange dissosiative state where only the thrill of the fight could penetrate the fog in her mind. She tried to stay connected to the world by caring for the village's defences and thereby for the people inhabiting the place. In return, they clothed and fed her and made sure she had wood and kindle for her fire.

But the true bonds of friendship she never allowed to touch her heart. The risk was too great and besides, she had discovered that she was more effective on the battlefield if she wasn't distracted by her fellows getting hurt. This way she could push harder, move faster and kill mercilessly. This way, her men fell behind and only had to contend with what was left after she had torn through the enemy's ranks, and only half as many were injured. She was the first wave of attack all by herself, the commander of her troops and fury incarnate if any dared affront her home. None lived that she had decided should perish.

This was a lonely life, though, and in the black of night she sometimes wondered what could have been. She wondered about the child that had lived in her womb for a short time, and would forever live in her heart. The fantasy of an angelic creature with the combined features of Éomer and herself, smiling a toothless smile at her from beyond the mists haunted and soothed her in her half asleep state when rest eluded her. She dreamt of summer days where a proud father swung the child in the air to the sounds of elated squeals and deep rumbling laughter. And when she woke, her insides ached and her eyes wept for a future that was lost to her.

It was lost, and she had had to harden her soul and body against the bitter disappointment and hate that filled the world. It was no wonder that Sauron had succeeded as far as he had; The hate in men's hearts could easily lead to corruption, and in her's as well. She could fall to evil if she gave in and killed indiscriminatingly for her own benefit. Now that fighting was her sole pleasure, the line between valor and crime was hair thin and this was the very reason she had had to lead in stead of follow when it came to strategy.

The village elders had proposed going on raids against the men of the wild and the remaining orcs so that they would never again amass their forces to attack villages in Rohan. This was a wise decision from a tactical point of view – strike the enemy at home, that he may never again rise against you. But Néela knew that if she did this, innocents would be hurt. Perhaps not amongst the orcs, but certainly in the homes of the wild men. And even if no innocents were there, she would lose her one golden standard; That she fought to defend someone else, and not for her own gratification. It might have officially been for the benefit of Gulfar and other villages in Rohan, but in the heat of battle on enemy soil, it would be assault, and she would lose herself to it.

She would kill without discrimination, without mercy as she did under attack, but she would be without the justification of defence. This would make her no better than the monsters who attacked her own village, and it was a level she as of yet refused to stoop to, so she had gone against the elder counsel, against the remaining populace of Gulfar, and by doing so had alienated herself from them even further. Now, she was nothing more than a tool and a great symbol of strength for them. Appreciated and revered for her function, but not quite loved as a person.

A knock on her door ripped her from her musings.

"Yes?" Her voice broke with the lack of use. Perhaps she should practice more…

A familiar face appeared as the door opened. "Hello, Néela. I heard you came back to your home town, but I scarcely believed it. Had to see for myself!"

Shock spread on her face as she bolted up and threw her arms around the neck of her visitor.

"Oh my goodness! What are you doing here?" She almost yelled at the poor man. "I haven't seen you in ages! Come in, come in!"

Just trying to get started again. I think my muse died...